Monday, January 21, 2008




May, 2006

Synopsis Prepared by:

Rebecca Jesseman

Policy Analyst, Firearms and Operational Policing Policy

Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada

Based on the Full Report Authored by:

Dr. Patricia G. Erickson

Senior Scientist, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

Professor of Sociology and Criminology, University of Toronto

Dr. Jennifer E. Butters

Director of Research, Centre for Urban Health Initiatives, University of Toronto

The authors of the report wish to acknowledge the following collaborators: Dr. Edward Adlaf, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Dr. Serge Brochu, University of Montreal and Dr. Marie-Marthe Cousineau, University of Montreal.


Recently, attention by the media and public to the apparent increase in firearms related homicides in Toronto has tended to focus on "youth, guns, and gangs". The search for explanations and potentially effective interventions has also revealed how little research is available in Canada to address these issues. In contrast, the higher concern over guns, youth, and gang violence in the United States has prompted a spate of research over the past 20 years. Consequently, Canada is in a position to possibly over-draw from U.S. data and conclusions, lacking our own evidence on the scope and nature of the Canadian problem. In order to address this gap, the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada partnered with researchers from the University of Toronto to produce a report on "Youth, Weapons and Violence in Toronto and Montreal"[1]. This synopsis summarizes the research on which the report is based, highlights key findings, and discusses resulting conclusions and recommendations.


The research was conducted using survey information obtained through the Drugs, Alcohol, and Violence International (DAVI) study, a joint US-Canada project on youth, drugs and violence that began in 1999[2]. Although the focus of the study was drugs and violence, the survey included a series of items regarding weapon carrying, experience with gun violence[3], and participation in gang fighting. Although the research is based on self-report data, the focus of the survey on drugs increases confidence in the validity of responses to firearms items because respondents would not be expected to feel directed to over or under-emphasize involvement for the purpose of the study. The database consists of three samples of male[4] youth aged 14 to 17 years - students, dropouts and offenders in secure custody - recruited using the same questionnaires and data collection techniques in both Toronto and Montreal[5]. A comparative analysis of the two cities and the three separate samples was conducted in order to obtain both descriptive and multivariate findings.


The sample is broken down into three groups: students, selected through a two-stage stratified probability sample; dropouts, defined as those who had left school for at least 30 consecutive days during the past 12 months, and detainees, youth serving sentences in secure custodial facilities. Students were surveyed in the school using self-administered questionnaires, and dropouts and detainees were surveyed using personal interviews. The student sample consists of 904 9th- to 12th-graders from Toronto (8 schools; n=456 students) and Montreal (8 schools, n=448) surveyed between April 2001 and May 2003. The dropout sample consists of 218 respondents; 116 interviewed in Toronto between July 2000 and November 2002 and 102 interviewed in Montreal between January and June 2003. The sample was obtained through referrals from service agencies, youth centres, and outreach efforts, and respondents received $15 at the end of the interview. The detainee sample consisted of 278 youth, 132 in Southern Ontario secure custody facilities whose family home is in Toronto, and 146 from secure custody facilities serving the Montreal area.


This report does not address trend data, since no prior Canadian research contains comparable detail and depth of questions on youth and firearms for base line purposes. The focus on adolescents, 14-17 years old, reflects the period when serious interpersonal violence increases and peaks; however, the data cannot be generalized to older youth, or to those in other cities and parts of Canada.


Multivariate Logistic Regression:

The significant factors in predicting experience with gun violence varied according to city and sample group. In the student sample, involvement in gang fighting was the only significant predictor of experiencing gun violence, either as a victim or aggressor. Students in Toronto who had been involved in a gang fight were four times as likely to report experiencing gun-related violence than those who had not engaged in gang fighting, and students in Montreal were almost eleven times as likely. In the dropout sample, involvement in cocaine/crack selling increased the likelihood of experiencing gun violence as a victim in Montrealand as an aggressor in Toronto. In the detainee sample, involvement in gang fighting was the strongest predictor of all gun-related outcome measures. Involvement in drug sales predicted experience with gun violence in Toronto, but not in Montreal. Attitudes about guns also played a significant role in the detainee sample, with those in Toronto who believed that a weapon was the easiest way to hurt someone being significantly more likely to have experienced gun violence as a victim, and those in Montreal who believed that carrying a weapon gets you more respect actually being less likely to have experienced gun violence as a victim.

Several relationships emerged that, although not statistically significant, merit mention. Once other factors are controlled, these relationships do not have a significant impact, however they may indicate other related factors not examined in this study that play a role, and are therefore worth further inquiry. Across all three samples, black youth were more likely than white youth to have experienced gun related violence. Involvement in drug sales also demonstrated a positive relationship with gun related violence, particularly in the Montrealsample. Conversely, family structure emerged as a potential protective factor, with respondents who reported living with both parents being less likely to report involvement in gun violence.

Descriptive Findings:

Student Sample:

The student sample, as the most normative group, reported lower rates of involvement in gun, gang, and drug issues. Students in the Toronto sample were more likely than those in Montreal to report problems with weapons in the school environment, with 77% (vs. 56% in Montreal) reporting that "some" or "a few" students carried weapons in school, 22% (vs. 7% in Montreal) reporting knowing someone who had brought a gun to school, and 33% (vs. 18% in Montreal) perceiving guns to be a "very or somewhat serious" problem in their schools. Interestingly, students in Montrealwere slightly more likely to self-report carrying a gun into the school environment (0.8% in Torontovs. 2.2% in Montreal). Knives were the most commonly identified weapon among those who carry weapons, by 20.4% in Torontoand 17.5% in Montreal. A higher proportion of the Torontosample than the Montrealsample (31% vs. 15%) agreed that carrying a weapon gets you more respect. The percentage of students who reported experience with gun violence was low in both Torontoand Montreal, both as victims (7.1% vs. 4.7%) and as aggressors (3.0% vs. 2.5%).

Dropout Sample:

Overall, the dropout sample scored higher than the student sample on items such as weapons carrying, gang fighting, and drugs, most likely reflecting a generally higher level of involvement in delinquent activity. As seen in the student sample, more dropouts in Torontothan in Montrealreported weapons-related behaviour in school, with 50% in Torontoreporting that "most" or "some" students carry weapons to school versus 25% in Montreal. A higher number of Torontothan Montrealdropouts also reported having personally carried a weapon to school (46% vs. 22%), as well as, more specifically, a gun (15% vs. 8%). Despite these variations in rates, perceptions of the seriousness of the problem of guns in school were consistent in both cities.

A greater proportion of the dropouts in Toronto reported weapon carrying among their friends and personal weapon carrying. Over three-quarters of the dropouts in Toronto indicated that their friends carried weapons, while 63% reported the same in Montreal, and in Toronto 76% indicated having carried a weapon when they were not in school (in comparison to 38% in Montreal). In both cities, as with the student sample, knives emerged as the most frequently reported weapon ever carried (70% in Toronto and 34% in Montreal). Dropouts in the Toronto sample (33%) were also more likely to report carrying a gun than those in Montreal (18%). A relationship between carrying a weapon and participation in gang fighting was evident in the dropout sample in both cities, and was particularly strong in the Montreal sample where gang fighting was more frequently reported.

Compared to the student sample in which Montreal was only at 15%, a higher proportion of dropouts in Montreal than in Toronto (30% vs. 24%) agreed that carrying a weapon gets you more respect. The lifetime experience of gun related violence was greater among Toronto dropouts than those in Montreal. In Toronto, 44% reported experiencing gun violence as a victim, and 25% as an aggressor. In Montreal, 28% reported experiencing gun violence as a victim, and 12% as an aggressor. Despite lower rates of lifetime victimization, Montreal dropouts reported a greater amount of victimization in the past 12 months (i.e. three or more incidences, 21%) than those in Toronto (i.e. three or more incidences, 16%). Conversely, Toronto dropouts reported being the aggressor of this type of violence more frequently than Montreal dropouts. In questions regarding the context of the most violent incident experienced, respondents in Montreal identified gang involvement more frequently than those in Toronto. More Montreal than Toronto respondents also identified that the incident was drug related (27% vs. 7%), however virtually all of the dropouts in both cities reported the use of some type of psychoactive substance[6] on the day of the event.

Detainee Sample:

Toronto respondents again reported higher levels of weapons-related behaviour in schools than Montreal respondents, with 26% reporting most students carried a weapon to school (vs. 11% in Montreal), 77% reporting that they know someone who has carried a weapon to school (vs. 61% in Montreal), and 60% reporting that they had personally carried a weapon to school (vs. 42% in Montreal). Toronto detainees were also more likely to see guns in school as a problem than Montreal detainees (i.e. 24% vs. 12% identifying this item as "very serious").

Knives were again the most commonly reported weapons carried by detainees (73% in Toronto and 54% Montreal), followed by guns. Detainees in Toronto (60%) were more likely to report carrying guns than those in Montreal (49%). As found in the dropout sample, reported involvement in gang fighting was associated with carrying weapons for both Toronto and Montreal detainee samples. Approximately one-quarter of detainees in both Toronto and Montreal felt that carrying a weapon gets you respect.

Levels of experience for gun-related violence were considerable in both detainee samples, with Toronto respondents reporting higher levels than those in Montreal. In Toronto, 61% of the sample reported lifetime experience with gun violence as a victim, compared to 49% in Montreal. The Toronto sample also reported more frequent experience in the past year, with 37% reporting being threatened three or more times compared to 15% in Montreal. The trend was similar in experience as an aggressor in gun violence, with 46% of the Toronto sample reporting lifetime experience (vs. 41% in Montreal) and 38% in Toronto reporting three or more times in the past year compared to 24% in Montreal. Participation in gang fights was again associated with experiencing gun violence, with the strongest relationship found in the Montreal sample. For example, 84% of detainees in Montreal who reported involvement in firearm violence as an aggressor also reported involvement in gang related violence in the past year (vs. 75% in Toronto).

When asked about the most violent incident experienced in the past year, 35% of the Montreal sample compared to 28% in Toronto reported that gang members were involved, although only approximately 13% in both cities reported that the "main cause" of the event was gang related. In addition, 29% of Montreal detainees reported that a gun was used to threaten or try to hurt someone during the incident, compared to 24% in Toronto. Again, virtually all respondents reported the use of a psychoactive substance on the day of the incident. Montreal detainees were more likely to report that the incident was drug-related, though, than Toronto detainees (41% vs. 13%).

Gun Acquisition:

Little information is available in Canada on how youth obtain illegal firearms. This survey asked dropout and detainee samples where they would obtain a gun if they wanted one, and how long it would take to obtain a gun. Although the questions are based on perceptions that have not necessarily been acted upon, responses provide a useful indication of potential sources of illegal guns and the ease with which they might be obtained. The fact that a small percentage of respondents did in fact identify that they would legally buy a gun from a store indicates a lack of knowledge and direct experience among at least a portion of the sample (as the sample was under 18, none of the respondents could legally have purchased a firearm in Canada).

Among dropouts in both Toronto and Montreal, purchase from a friend or relative was the most commonly reported source, at approximately 1/3. Only slightly behind at 26% among Toronto dropouts was obtaining a gun from a friend or relative without having to pay for it. Approximately 20% of dropouts in both Toronto and Montreal reported that they would obtain a gun "on the streets". Dropouts in Montreal (18%) were more likely than those in Toronto (7%) to identify that they would obtain a gun from a drug dealer. Dropouts in Toronto were more likely to report being able to obtain a gun in a very short period of time, with 55% reporting less than one day versus 38% in Montreal.

Due to the fact that a higher proportion of the detainee sample reported experience with guns (40% having threatened or tried to hurt someone with a gun, and 80% of these having done so in the past year), information on how these weapons were obtained is quite relevant. In Toronto, 40% reported that they would purchase a gun from a friend or relative, 20% reported they would get one from the streets, and 14% from a drug dealer. In Montreal, 28% reported that they would get a gun from a drug dealer, 26% would buy from a friend or relative, and 19% would get one on the streets. Again, the drug trade and associated connections appear to play a stronger role in the Montreal sample than in Toronto. In both cities, the majority of respondents believed that they could obtain a gun in less than one day (66% in Toronto and 59% in Montreal), with 37% of the Toronto sample indicating that they could, in fact get a gun in less than an hour (compared to 21% in Montreal).


As expected, the highest rates of weapons involvement and gun violence are found in detainees, followed by dropouts, and the lowest rates are among students. This suggests that different forms of intervention should be targeted to the different groups. For students, the most high-risk members appear to be those with histories of gang fighting, with no other factors of comparably strong impact. Thus, preventive efforts aimed at providing alternatives to youth before they seek gang liaisons should be a high priority. For those who have dropped out, it is vital to attract them back to classes or provide other alternative schooling. The data suggest that dropout youth who get involved in selling cocaine/crack are at higher risk of being involved in gun related violence of various sorts. This suggests that providing economic, not just recreational, options, are important for youth who may be at the brink of greater criminal involvement. For only the detainees were the attitudinal items towards weapons significant, suggesting that they may have developed ways to 'neutralize' their more violent behaviors, compared to the other two less delinquent groups of youth. Such techniques to justify violent or predatory behaviour that is at odds with conventional societal values has been documented in several studies as a common feature of delinquent youth.[7] Little is known specifically about how this process might be related to firearms.

There are many variables that have not been shown to have a significant effect on the gun violence outcomes, despite popular views and expectations. For example, drug use itself, and lack of an intact family, as well as racial background, were generally not important once all the variables of interest were controlled. Race is often raised as an issue in gun violence and should not be ignored, but more attention needs to be given to what other factors associated with being a member of a particular racial or ethnic group affect gun related violence outcomes, as these outcomes appear also to vary by group and city.

As well, though the measure of gang fighting was a very powerful predictor in many of the models, the variation between Torontoand Montrealrequires further examination. The descriptive data show that Montrealhas an overall higher gang fighting prevalence while Torontodisplays generally higher gun exposure. Indeed, most descriptive indicators converge in showing more gun carrying, threat, use and concern about guns among Torontoyouth in all three samples. This convergence is particularly important among students as the most representative sample of youth in general, providing the best reflection of the potential for gun violence in the adolescent population. Detainees and dropouts in Torontoalso indicated that they could acquire a gun more quickly, on average, than those in Montreal. Since the multivariate analysis showed a stronger association of guns with gangs in Montreal, and a stronger association of guns with drug dealing in Toronto, it would follow that the "gun culture" of cities varies for youth, and appropriate interventions must be considered separately.

More research is needed about the context of gun related violent events. Funding for studies that tap into why youth feel the 'need' to arm themselves, the relationship between this need and gang involvement (and how youth in general see gang involvement), involvement in drug selling, and detailed questions about gun acquisition, would all provide valuable additional data to guide intervention efforts.

[1] Additional information regarding the full report can be obtained by contacting the Firearms and Operational Policing Policy Unit, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada.

[2] Drugs, Alcohol and Violence International [DAVI] was funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse [NIDA] through grant # RO1-DA11691-01A1, under the guidance of principal investigator Dr. Lana Harrison.

[3] Experience with gun violence was defined as being subject to or issuing threats or attempted harm using a gun, therefore is not limited to cases of physical injury/weapon discharge.

[4] A discussion of the female portion of the sample is scheduled for publication as follows:

Erickson P., Butters, J., et al. (in press) Girls and Weapons: An International Study of the Perpetration of Violence. Journal of Urban Health.2006.

[5] Funded by the Centre National de Prevention du Crime grant #3150-U4 and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada grant #410-2002-1154

[6] Psychoactive substances include both legal (alcohol) and illegal (marijuana, cocaine, etc.) intoxicants.

[7] Copes, H. Societal attachments, offending frequency, and techniques of neutralization. Deviant Behavior. 2003; 24:535-550

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