The number of shootings in the Halifax region skyrocketed last year, but the reasons for the escalating gun violence aren’t clear and some say the repercussions are complex and far-reaching.
Police responded to 62 shootings in 2021 — more than double any other year since 2015. At least seven people were killed in shootings last year, including an eight-year-old child who was shot during rush hour.
MLA Angela Simmonds, the Liberal justice critic, wants the province to dig into why gun violence has increased and conduct a review that would look at systemic issues and the factors that contributed to the recent spike.
“We can all speculate why, but there’s actually been no analysis. We just have numbers,” she said.
She said intergenerational trauma, mental health and economically depressed communities — perhaps even the financial strain of the pandemic — could be contributing. So too could Halifax’s position as a port if more illegal weapons are entering the city.
Any review, Simmonds said, should also take into account how these things might play out in different parts of Nova Scotia.
“If we have the same broad strokes for every community and every person, then we’re not actually thinking about what this correlation of gun violence is and the increase in violence.”
The growing frequency of gun violence is not limited to the Halifax area. Statistics Canada data shows that in 2020 — the most recent year available — the number of firearms-related homicides increased by six per cent nationally.
Across Canada, shootings are the most common form of homicides, according to Public Safety Canada, though the proportion of homicides caused by guns decreased slightly in 2020.
The 62 shooting calls in the Halifax area last year do not include situations that involved imitation or self-inflicted gunshots.
In some shootings, officers found only shell casings or evidence that vehicles were struck. In others, people were injured, though it’s not clear how many as neither the Halifax Regional Police nor the RCMP were able to provide that information.
Both police forces declined requests for an interview with CBC News.
Investigators with the Halifax Regional Police responded to three-quarters of the incidents and believe the majority of the shootings were not random, which means people were targeted. An emailed statement to CBC News from the force said there were many factors that contributed to the spike, but it did not elaborate on what they were.
“We have specialized units that continue to act both reactively and proactively. We have made a number seizures of drugs and guns,” the HRP statement said.
Some of the gun-related homicides from 2021 remain under investigation, while charges are pending in others. Four happened in the final weeks of the year.
‘Reverberates through the community’
Like Simmonds, Matthew Thomas, a pastor at Deep Water Church in Dartmouth, was part of a vigil for Lee’Marion Cain, the eight-year-old boy who died after being shot in a vehicle a few days before Christmas.
Thomas told CBC News the death of an innocent child has left people reeling.
“I’m still very much trying to process and make sense of it, still feeling a lot of grief and anger and frustration as to why this is happening in our community,” he said.
Thomas said in his experience, gun violence always has far-reaching impacts, particularly in close-knit African Nova Scotia communities where people know each other’s families and their circles of friends.
“It’s not just an isolated incident that people move on from the next day. It reverberates through the community in many different ways. And I think that’s what creates even some of the complexity in trying to find solutions to these problems,” he said.
“There’s so many different elements as to why people choose to involve themselves in gun violence and why the worst-case scenario in that lifestyle where innocent life is taken, how it escalates to that.”
Making things more challenging, he said, is that violent incidents are the result of a handful of individuals, but entire communities are often stigmatized. The harm extends far beyond the people immediately involved, said Thomas.
“Maybe if [people outside the community] consider those things, they’ll be more understanding and we can work more collectively together to try to solve it,” he said.
“When life is lost, we should have a posture of compassion and empathy.”
Though he admits there are no easy solutions, he said it’s imperative that when people are ready, the response and ideas for how to combat violence come from communities. Thomas said though the government and other organizations may be allies or partners in those efforts, they can’t dictate them.
“The best way to have positive outcomes that are sustainable and last is when people have a sense of ownership and responsibility,” he said.
“I believe that it’s only possible to have real change and a real shift in dealing with this issue if the community is initiating and driving and discussing and really taking ownership of what that solution looks like.”
Minister calls for people to report guns
Brad Johns, the province’s justice minister, said he plans to talk to community members who’ve requested meetings and explore whether there are any gaps in existing programs that aim to curb violence. He noted there are several years of funding left in a federal program that aims to reduce violence associated with guns and gangs.
Johns did not commit to a review, but he said the Justice Department is in continuous discussions with federal and municipal police organizations and is open to considering any suggestions. The province hasn’t received any specific requests for assistance.
“Although concerning that the number of calls are up significantly, I think that they’re not random to the police provides some security, some confidence, to the general public,” he said.
Johns said he thinks Halifax is safer overall than it was two decades ago, and gun crime often comes down to people having illegal firearms.
“There is some onus on us as individuals to ensure that we report those things to local authorities, through CrimeStoppers. We have to make sure if you know, you tell somebody,” he said.
Halifax police have also asked anyone with information about criminal activity involving guns to contact them or the anonymous service.
Both Thomas and Simmonds said it’s not always simple for someone to report a gun.
“There’s this tension and pressure. I want to do the right thing and co-operate with police, but at the same time, am I betraying my family?” Thomas said, adding a historical distrust of police can also play a role.
Simmonds said work needs to be done first to ensure there is more collaboration with communities.
“We need to build the relationship so that the person calling doesn’t feel like there’s a jeopardy when they do call,” she said.
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