Russ Martin: "We Have a Gun Problem in Toronto No Matter Where the Shots Are Fired"

After the deadly mass shooting in Toronto, writer (and Danforth resident) Russ Martin unpacks how we talk about gun violence

A photo of Broadview Station on Toronto's Bloor-Danforth subway line with the words "Imagine a future without guns" superimposed on top

Writer Russ Martin posted this shot of Broadview Station on Instagram. (Photo: Courtesy of Russ Martin)

The thing I keep coming back to is the fireworks. From Canada Day through the Fourth of July, I heard them every night.

I live in the kind of neighbourhood where teenagers hang out in the park on idle summer nights and sneak into the community pool after hours to shoot Roman candles off into a quiet sky. Riverdale Park sits just across the Don Valley Parkway from Toronto’s downtown core, so when you light a firework, you can watch it dance across the cityscape.

When 29-year-old Faisal Hussain opened fire with a handgun on Danforth Ave. on Sunday night, that’s what people thought they heard. Fireworks. I heard that again and again on Monday, from everyone I talked to—the stranger in my local coffee shop, the colleague who lives nearby.

If you take a scroll through the #Danforth hashtag on Twitter, you’ll see people talking about how the neighbourhood is the kind of place they go for family dinners, or gelato strolls with their Tinder dates. Or how it was the first place they lived when they moved to Toronto. And yes, it’s all of those things. But it’s now the site of Toronto’s largest mass shooting in recent memory too.

It’s tempting to focus on the idyllic nature of the neighbourhood. Defined first by the Greek immigrants who moved here after World War I, the Danforth has a near-suburban feel despite being a bridge away from the city core. In recent years, it’s become an affluent real estate hotspot that becomes more monied—and less accessible—with each passing year. (I live in one of a handful of large, comparatively inexpensive apartment blocks.)

People write messages on a plywood memorial to the victims of the Danforth shooting, which has the words "We Are Danforth" in spray paint

At this memorial, the words “We Are Danforth” were spray painted on plywood. (Photo: Courtesy of Russ Martin)

This all amounts to an emerging narrative that feels like a set up from a Dateline episode. As the true crime cliché goes, it’s the kind of place you never thought something like this would happen. And on a personal level, that’s exactly how it feels. I’m lucky to have always felt very safe where I live and the fact something so terrible happened here is a shock to my system.

But despite how it feels personally, I’m resisting that narrative. Gun violence was dominating civic conversation in Toronto for weeks before Sunday’s shooting. And the type of neighbourhood gun violence happens in shouldn’t matter. We have a gun problem in Toronto no matter where the shots are fired. The fact we feel differently when gun violence happens in neighbourhoods like mine is classist and destructive. Much has been made of the “family” nature of the Danforth and in a way that’s true—many families do frequent the area—but as the journalism professor Asmaa Malik pointed out on Twitter, “families are everywhere in this city. Our compassion for victims of gun violence should not be geographically defined.”

In the coming weeks, much will also be made of Faisal Hussain’s identity, intent and struggles with mental illness. As a city, we need to resist attempts to twist his actions into fear and intolerance and be cautious of unproven theories about his objective. And, as Black community leaders wrote Tuesday in this must-read open letter, we must reject measures to curb gun violence that will negatively impact Black folks and other POC. It’s inevitable that Hussain’s actions will be politicized; a process that’s already begun. As a local, my hope is that this time it the politicization will lead to better gun control, not hate or fear.

It’s hard to know what to do in the aftermath of a shooting, but the most immediate thing we can do is treat each other well. That may sound trite, but one of the most heartening things I’ve seen online since Sunday is the number of people openly asking how they can do good in a trying time. The viral Reddit thread about how Torontonians can foster a sense of togetherness in this moment is the perfect example. The suggestions I’ve seen across social media have included everything from giving blood to learning CPR and attending local meetings held by politicians, plus simple things like getting to know your neighbours. There’s also the Danforth Strong victim’s fund, which will help fund funerals for the two people who have died, plus cover bills, lost wages and other costs for the survivors.

A wooden fence with a homemade sign that says "Sending [heart symbol] to our Danforth neighbours"

A memorial to the victims of the Danforth shooting. (Photo: Courtesy of Russ Martin)

When the city is vibrating with with fear and stress, the little things count—opening doors, holding the elevator, making eye contact and checking in on friends. Yesterday, I visited my local corner store and coffee shop and said hi to all my neighbours as I walked my dog past the police tape. Maybe it didn’t help much, but it felt good. In a moment that surely crossed the line of normally acceptable urban behaviour, I even stopped a stranger walking alone with welled up eyes and asked if she was OK. She said there was just dust in her eye, but as someone who was also walking around Greektown crying, I knew that wasn’t true.

I’ve lived in Toronto for 12 years, but it wasn’t until I moved to the Danforth four years ago that I felt any real sense of community. A day after the shooting, I walked through the neighbourhood and saw what I’ve long felt on the streets. People were bicycling by and walking their dogs. Kids were playing tennis and running around the splash pad in Withrow Park. I was scared, but no one else seemed to be. At the very least, they weren’t showing it. Whatever people felt inwardly, outwardly they were refusing to live in fear.

On Sunday as I watched, horrified, as news about the shooting unfolded on social media, I stumbled onto a video of the shooter that I’ll never scrub from my brain. But a day later I found another image to hold on to: the packed patio of Pan on the Danforth, just steps away from the boarded-up crime site, where my neighbours were eating dinner and defiantly enjoying a beautiful night.


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