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‘Everybody is armed’: As shootings soar, Philadelphia is awash in guns

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 8/11/2022 Campbell Robertson
A demonstration drawing attention to gun violence on April 14, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pa. For every illegal gun seized by the police in Philadelphia between 1999 and 2019, about three more guns were bought or sold legally — and that was before a recent boom in gun ownership. The number of firearm licenses issued in the city jumped to more than 52,000 in 2021, from around 7,400 in 2020. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) © Spencer Platt A demonstration drawing attention to gun violence on April 14, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pa. For every illegal gun seized by the police in Philadelphia between 1999 and 2019, about three more guns were bought or sold legally — and that was before a recent boom in gun ownership. The number of firearm licenses issued in the city jumped to more than 52,000 in 2021, from around 7,400 in 2020. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — The 300th killing of the year in Philadelphia took the life of Lameer Boyd, an 18-year-old father-to-be who was gunned down one July night on a sidewalk. Over the weeks that followed, a grandmother was shot in the neck, a popular singer was killed in front of his house and a woman was killed at a front-porch cookout.

With her death, the 322nd of the year, the number of homicides in Philadelphia was on track toward becoming the highest in police records, passing the bleak milestone set just last year. So far this year, more than 1,400 people in the city have been shot, hundreds of them fatally, a higher toll than in the much larger cities of New York or Los Angeles. Alarms have sounded about gun violence across the country over the past two years, but Philadelphia is one of the few major American cities where it truly is as bad as it has ever been.

The crisis is all the more harrowing for having been so concentrated in certain neighborhoods in North and West Philadelphia, places that were left behind decades ago by redlining and other forms of discrimination and are now among the poorest parts of what is often called the country’s poorest big city. Violence has erupted at times in other areas of Philadelphia, including a mass shooting in June on a street packed with bar and restaurant traffic. But much of the gunfire has rung out on blocks of blighted rowhouses, vacant lots and iron-caged front porches.

The city government has rolled out an array of efforts to address the crisis, including grants for community groups, violence intervention programs and earlier curfews. But on one crucial matter, there seem to be no ready answers: what to do about all the guns.

In a recent news conference, Mayor Jim Kenney lamented that the authorities “keep taking guns off the street, and they’re simultaneously replaced almost immediately.” In fact, the problem is more drastic than that, according to a city report earlier this year. For every illegal gun seized by the police in Philadelphia between 1999 and 2019, about three more guns were bought or sold legally — and that was before a recent boom in gun ownership.

In Philadelphia over the past two years, as all around the country, the pace of legal gun sales surged, roughly doubling during the pandemic years. The number of firearm licenses issued in the city jumped to more than 52,000 in 2021, from around 7,400 in 2020.


Video: A look at how police handle gun violence crisis in Philadelphia (NBC News)

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None of these figures include the apparently flourishing market in illegal guns. Over the past two years, reports of stolen guns have spiked, major gun-trafficking pipelines have been uncovered and, according to police, many more guns have been found that were illegally converted into fully automatic weapons.

The city has sued the gun-friendly state legislature for preempting its authority to enact stronger local gun laws, such as reporting requirements for lost or stolen guns. And officials in Philadelphia have publicly quarreled among themselves about enforcement of the laws on the books. In July, after two police officers were shot at a Fourth of July celebration, some City Council leaders even suggested returning to a police tactic that many people had come to see as the shame of an earlier era: stop-and-frisk.

“There are a lot of citizens in the streets of the city of Philadelphia that talk about, ‘When are we going to look at stop-and-frisk in a constitutional and active way?’” Darrell L. Clarke, the council president, said at a news conference. “Those are conversations that people have to have.”

Given a consent decree that requires the monitoring of police stops, as well as opposition from other city leaders and a dearth of evidence that the practice ever worked, the old days of stop-and-frisk, when the police conducted thousands of street searches that overwhelmingly targeted Black Philadelphians, are unlikely to return. But broaching the subject at all revealed the depths of official exasperation.

Some of the frustration has been directed at the district attorney, Larry Krasner, whose approach to criminal justice has drawn criticism from the mayor, ire from the police union and a threat of impeachment from Republican state lawmakers.

Krasner, one of the most prominent progressive prosecutors in the country, has long argued that putting a major focus on the arrest and incarceration of people caught carrying firearms without a permit is not only ineffectual but counterproductive, because it diverts police energy and resources from solving violent crime and alienates people whom investigators need as sources and witnesses.

“You can make massive numbers of gun arrests, and you do not see significant reductions in shooting,” he said.

There were no arrests in three-quarters of last year’s fatal shootings, according to statistics provided by Krasner’s office, even as arrests for illegal guns soared to record levels.

Only a small fraction of the people who are arrested for carrying guns without permits are the ones actually driving the violence, Krasner said. He insisted that the city needed to focus instead on people who had already proven themselves to be dangerous, and to invest in advanced forensic technology to clear the hundreds of unsolved shootings.

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