TORONTO (Reuters) - The gunman chose a busy downtown Toronto shopping mall to carry out the 21st murder of the year in Canada’s largest city.
While the reckless shooting shocked a city that prides itself on its civility, visitors to the Eaton Centre mall on Monday insisted that Saturday’s incident was most unCanadian, tied to foreign guns, immigrants and gangs.
“It’s got to have been imported. The guns are imported from the United States and the violence is imported too,” Jim Torrens, 82, a retired engineer, said at the Toronto mall, where a gunman killed one person and wounded six on Saturday, “Guns are the problem and it is a U.S. problem.”
But a criminologist suggested that Canada is not as exceptional as many Canadians might imagine, plagued by many of the same social conditions that give rise to gangs and drug-related violence in other Western countries.
Police said Christopher Husbands, 23, already under house arrest, turned himself in on Monday and has been charged with first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder. Local media said he was born in Guyana and immigrated to Toronto in 2000.
While Toronto officials and residents often tout the city’s multiculturalism, the shooting quickly revived a debate about immigration and violence in a country that typically celebrates the former and abhors the latter.
Husbands and two of the victims, including the man who died, had ties to gangs. But police said the shooting was sparked by a personal disagreement rather than being directly gang-related.
The fact that the shooting happened in such a public place - one of Toronto’s best-known tourist attractions - and at a date and time when tourists were out, meant the violence reaped far more attention than the typical Toronto gangland killing.
“If it had not involved bystanders and a shopping mall, I don’t think we’d be talking about it,” said Sandra Bucerius, a criminology professor at the University of Toronto.
“The homicide rate in Toronto is very low compared to cities in the U.S. I don’t think on average we are any less safe than we used to be,” Bucerius said.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford described it as an isolated incident in “the safest city in the world.”
“I’ve traveled around other cities, I’ve seen the stats,” Ford told reporters. “The crime is going down every year in this city, that’s what people have to know.”
Canada’s national homicide rate is about 1.62 per 100,000, about a third of the U.S. rate of 4.8 per 100,000. Toronto has had 21 murders so far in 2012 - 12 by shooting, while Chicago, with a similar population of about 2.6 million, has had more than 200 homicides in the same period.
The shooting, in the mall’s big underground food court, drove families, tourists and restaurant workers under tables and into nearby stores and left a pregnant woman in early labor.
It revived memories of a gang-related shooting near the Eaton Centre on December 26, 2005, when a 15-year-old girl was killed and several other people were wounded.
A gang war in early 2009 in Vancouver pitted multi-ethnic groups against rivals over illegal drugs, with more than 20 people killed and 40 wounded in a three-month period.
At the Eaton Centre, shoppers chalked Saturday’s incident up to drugs and immigration.
“A friend told me he was a drug addict,” said tourist Asya Amir, 37, who arrived from Dubai the day of the shooting.
Though initially worried about the violence, Amir brought her 8-year-old son to the mall - a regular stop on their nearly annual trips to Canada - and shrugged off the incident as a one-time event in what she believes to be a very safe country.
“It is a very peaceful place,” said Amir, who said she feels far less safe in the United States, where she also visits regularly.
“I have family in America - I prefer it here,” she said. “There is perhaps too much immigration in Canada. You have to be careful who you are allowing in.”
Eight-year-old Khizar Amir split his focus between the shooting and shopping. “I‘m really sad that a man got killed,” he said. “Canada is a really cool place. I can do lots of shopping - I like Wal-Mart the best.”
At the Toronto Sun, a right-leaning newspaper, one columnist called for “immediate deportation of all convicted gangsters who don’t have proper status” and another invited gang members to kill each other off to “(save) the rest of us a lot of trouble” - but to do it in their own backyard, not a public place.
But University of Ottawa criminologist Irvin Waller said the gang problem in Toronto is no different than that in Glasgow or Boston, driven by a demand for illegal drugs and by disaffected young men who don’t feel welcomed by society.
He doesn’t buy the argument that it is a culture made outside of Canada, pointing out that Canadians buy the drugs the gangs supply, and boys born in Canada end up in the gangs.
“Their parents were typically immigrants. That’s Toronto. It’s been a city of immigrants forever,” said Waller. Some 50 percent of Toronto’s population was born outside of Canada.
The guns, however, do come from abroad.
“There is no doubt the guns come from the U.S. - we don’t manufacture guns in Canada,” Waller said. “We have a relatively porous border ... if you want to bring in illegal handguns, it is relatively easy to do it.”
Shopper Dianne Davies said she hopes Canada won’t go the way of the United States by installing metal detectors and encouraging more gun ownership.
“Canadians are the peacekeepers of the world, and we’re perceived as a different breed,” said Davies, 71. “We have a different view than America. They live by the right to bear arms. We don’t have such a thing here. We’re different.”
(Reporting By Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Frank McGurty; and Peter Galloway)
The story has been refiled to fix the spelling of 21st in the first paragraph, remove the extraneous “the” in the fourth paragraph)