“If this doesn’t happen to us, we’re not going to be having this conversation,” said Price. “We’d be just like another family in Canada that thinks guns are more of an American issue.
“You watch the Parkland documentary or other things and think, ‘Thank God that’s not our country,’ and you’re not aware of the fact that gun culture is growing, the number of so-called restricted weapons is growing. The risk with that is something that Claire and I are going to stay active in, in trying to raise awareness for that fact and influence policy-makers to change things.”
Unlike in New Zealand, where lawmakers rushed to tighten gun controls in the aftermath of the March Christchurch mosque shooting that left 51 dead — making it illegal to possess most types of semi-automatic and military-style firearms — and despite a lot of talk, actual reforms come slowly in Canada.
As today’s first anniversary of the Danforth shooting approached, Price and his family said they were disappointed with the slow pace of gun control reform. They were among several impacted by the violence who gathered for a press conference in early July to call out the lack of change after an initial outpouring of support and promises from politicians, falling into a pattern already familiar to survivors of many mass shootings in the United States.
The man who shot Samantha and the others had a long history of mental health issues, and yet he was able to get his hands on a handgun and walk into a sporting goods store and legally buy seven magazines for that gun, no questions asked.
Toronto police, in a report released in June, revealed that the Smith & Wesson .40 calibre handgun used in the shooting was once legally acquired by a Saskatchewan gun shop and then stolen. How it got into the killer’s hands remains unknown. Yet, the route of a legal gun becoming a crime gun is familiar.
Price hadn’t expected much from the report, but in hearing about the shooter’s back story — “an unremarkable person who just wasn’t fitting into society,” he said, “and was filling his head full of hate, not particularly ideological, and had access to a handgun” — it fit the description of “a lot of people.”
“It was a troubling story,” said Price. “We felt a little bit badly for the family, quite frankly, I’m sure it was a struggle for them, and we felt that the person involved, who did this heinous thing, is a person that we see everyday on the street, and that was the nervous part.”
Curtailing access to handguns has been a major push in the wake of the Danforth shooting, but it’s a goal Canadian politicians have been aiming for more than a century. Soon after handguns started being mass-produced in the 1870s, parliamentarians began expressing concerns about the weapons’ ability to be both concealed and destructive.
“And legislators ever since have been trying to deal with it,” said Blake Brown, a professor of history at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, who researches gun control in Canada.
But while politicians all too often make an initial call for change in the aftermath of an incident, then “completely drop it,” he’s observed a sustained push this time around by politicians, including Mayor John Tory.
“That’s actually fairly unusual,” Brown said.
Price has hopes the coming federal election will result in change. From what he’s heard so far, he pins that hope on the Liberals.
“I appreciate all of the effort they put into it,” said Price. “But I would say we are still hoping, and I think some of the language has left the doors slightly open. I’m hoping that they’ll be braver and take a harder stand in the interest of public safety.”
The Liberals recently passed Bill C-71, which expanded background checks for gun owners, strengthened record-keeping requirements for sales and required purchasers to present valid firearms licences.
Federal Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Bill Blair said in June the Liberals will make empowering cities and towns to put additional restrictions on handguns part of their fall election campaign. They’ll stop short of a full national handgun ban, as it would be too expensive — given buyback costs — and not significantly improve public safety.
Blair also said at the time the government will propose banning “assault-style” firearms. But didn’t say when.
In an emailed statement in response to questions from the Star, Blair thanked first responders and said his thoughts are with the families of the victims.
“All Canadians deserve to feel safe in their communities. Our government will continue to take effective measures to protect our communities from gun violence and keep guns out of the hands of criminals. We are working with all orders of government to achieve this goal,” he added.
The Liberals have been criticized for lack of action on the firearms front. Earlier this month, Nathalie Provost, a survivor of the 1989 Montreal École Polytechnique shooting, quit a government firearms panel over its failure to crack down on assault-style weapons.
Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has vowed to repeal Bill C-71 if elected this fall. His plan to combat gun crime centres around targeting criminals, not legal gun owners. It proposes lifetime firearms bans for serious personal injury offences and gang crimes, and that anyone found with a smuggled gun goes to prison.
Last summer, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called for the prime minister to immediately allow cities to ban handguns.
Toronto city council asked the federal government to ban sales of handguns after the violence on the Danforth, and then again last month after a shooting during the Raptors’ victory parade that left four people wounded.
Amid pressure to do something about rising gun deaths last year, Toronto police and Mayor Tory announced a “gun violence strategic plan” with $3 million to send 200 additional officers throughout the city at times when shootings are most likely to occur.
But the city doesn’t have the mandate to ban handguns.
On the night of the Danforth shooting, Samantha Price was one of eight friends, including Reese Fallon, out celebrating a birthday. Samantha was fortunate that the bullet that struck her did as little damage as it did, her father said.
“I hate to call it lucky, but she was shot through the hip and it missed everything that could have caused greater damage, as it did in cases for other people,” he said.
On that warm night last summer, as Samantha was rushed to hospital, Dr. Najma Ahmed, a trauma surgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital, received a text at home from a colleague.
“Multiple gunshot wounds, are you close?” it said.
A few minutes later, a second text, with the words “Code Orange” — mass casualty event — told her to get to the downtown hospital fast.
“So I came straight there and saw all the ambulances and the police cars. Many more than we would ordinarily see,” she remembers.
The scene that night was one of “extreme professionalism” as the team of doctors and nurses worked to “save as many lives and as many organs” as they possibly could.
It wasn’t until days and weeks later that the impact it had on the city sunk in.
“It was a little bit of perhaps a watershed moment,” she said.
As a long-term trauma surgeon, Ahmed sees the “catastrophic” effects of gun violence, both crime and suicide, every day, and has seen a rise over the last five years. Last year was a record for 96 killings in the city, the highest since 1991, according to Toronto Police statistics, with 51 fatal shootings.
“But I think this was really shocking for the city, because we’re all witnessing what’s happening in the U.S.,” said Ahmed.
“It really woke the city up and woke the country up to the idea that we’re not that different than the U.S., it’s just a matter of degrees and shades. We can’t say that we’re immune from gun violence or mass shootings.”
In a nearly year-long investigation into the shooting, police didn’t find a clear motive or association with terrorist or hate groups, though they uncovered an interest in conspiracy theories — the killer, Faisal Hussain, owned 9/11 conspiracy videos — and a possible interest in “incel” culture, a term used to refer to involuntarily celibate people upset at their lack of romantic partners.
But investigators located evidence raising urgent questions about how the shooter amassed his collection of ammunition, magazines and the Smith & Wesson .40 calibre handgun.
In a search of his apartment, police found two loaded magazines for an AK-47 assault rifle, though no guns were recovered. They also found a stockpile of ammunition under his bed, some loosely collected in a black sock, an empty handgun box and a soft rifle case and trigger guard, according to police documents released earlier this year.
How the 29-year-old obtained the ammunition is unclear — he did not have a firearms licence, required to purchase ammunition — but the magazines that hold ammunition can be purchased without a permit. Police found a credit card record from a Toronto-area sports store and determined he purchased seven handgun magazines.
Whether a ban on handguns — or further restrictions on access to ammunition — would accomplish a reduction in violent crime is the subject of heated debate. Gun rights activists say targeting legal gun owners would do little to keep the city safe, while gun control proponents believe that fewer guns simply means fewer deaths.
Brown, the gun control researcher, acknowledged the current discussions around gun control can be divisive, noting among the reasons that the gun lobby has been putting up a stronger fight in recent years and has “taken the position that they need to essentially oppose any new regulations.”
But while the issue may be fraught, Canada has had success at, if not banning handguns altogether, curbing the number of weapons through regulation.
“The ban is a hard hill to climb. What we’re probably more likely to see is incremental legislative steps to try to tighten things up a little bit.”
Ahmed, the trauma surgeon, has always been an advocate for preventing injuries, whether that involves bike helmets or gun control. But the Danforth shooting “catalyzed” her to speak out.
She is now the co-chair of an advocacy group called Canadian Doctors for Protection from Guns. The group of physicians came together in February to argue that guns are a public health issue, and to push for the passage of Bill C-71.
The group was happy to see the gun control reform bill passed, she says, calling it a “step in the right direction.” But it’s not enough.
“We feel really frustrated that the Liberal government didn’t choose to more forcefully ban assault weapons and have more restrictions on handguns,” she said.
At the very least, Ahmed would like to see tougher measures on storage of handguns, like not letting people take them out of shooting ranges.
As they wait for change, she continues to see patients ripped apart by guns. People who, even if they survive, are often never the same again.
“It’s really devastating to witness that, week after week, month after month, and know that it’s preventable,” she says. “That’s what’s fatiguing.”
People like Samantha, the daughter of Price and Smith, are still dealing with the aftermath.
“She got good care and there’s still some lingering effects but if you didn’t know that about my daughter, you wouldn’t think that she was a gunshot victim,” said Price.
“But the rest of it is really what I think we’ll be dealing with for a long time, which is the memories of a lost friend, the incident itself and triggers in the city that kind of bring that all back.”
In June, came a serious jolt. Samantha rose early on the morning of the Toronto Raptors championship parade, and took up a spot at Nathan Phillips Square. Shots rang out nearby. Samantha was safe where she was and learned that it was happening via the emcee, who urged calm.
And then the texts came in from friends, asking if she was all right.
“I think it was actually that that caused more anxiety for her and some of her friends who were involved with the Danforth,” said Price. “And I think that was really unfortunate, and also another indication of how brazen things have become. Not only have we seen an escalation, but it seems to me that more and more of these shootings are public, and in places where kids are.”
Samantha is “a positive young woman, and one that’s moving forward, and I’m really thankful for that,” said Price. She is preparing for her second year of university, and for that, Price and Smith are also thankful.
To mark the anniversary of the shooting, the family planned to attend a vigil and a celebration of the Danforth community. From there, Price and Smith are “continuing to publicly press for the changes we think are necessary and based on our experience. I think it took us a while to get there,” said Price. “I hope for more.”
May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11
Jim Rankin is a reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @Jleerankin
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis