On New Year’s Eve a month ago, 23-year-old Stephen Johnson, a Temple University senior, went to a party with several of his friends in North Philadelphia. Around 3:30 a.m., Johnson became involved in an argument with a man he didn’t know. As the argument escalated, the other man pulled out a gun and shot Johnson in the chest. Johnson was dead minutes later.
He was the third murder victim of 2013 in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia’s crime statistics are sobering: over the past decade, there have been 3,448 murders in the city. For several years, Philadelphia has had the highest homicide rate of any of the 10 largest cities in the United States.
“We have a high concentration of persistent poverty, we have a long history of hyper levels of violence and gun-carrying … which is particularly pernicious,” Criminology Department Chair John MacDonald said. He called Philadelphia “emblematic” of high-violence urban areas.
Illegal gun distribution
While overall violent crime in Philadelphia decreased from 2011 to 2012, the number of killings went up for the third straight year. Many experts agree that the steady stream of illegal guns enables the violence.
“The most serious problem facing the City of Philadelphia is the proliferation and availability of these illegal weapons,” Mayor Michael Nutter, a 1979 Wharton graduate, said in a statement earlier this month. His priorities in terms of law enforcement going forward, he added, will continue to be cracking down on illegal possession of guns.
However, stopping the proliferation of illegal weapons may be easier said than done.
“There’s a very highly developed, highly efficient distribution system,” said Bryan Miller, the executive director of Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based group that pressures gun shop owners not to sell to criminals.
Much of the illegal gun trade goes through so-called “straw purchasers” — people who buy guns legally and resell them to people who cannot pass background checks.
According to Philadelphia Police Department statistics, over 80 percent of 2011 murders were committed with a gun, and nearly 60 percent were committed by people who had previous arrests for violent crimes, and thus would not be able to pass a background check.
Under Pennsylvania law, any local restrictions on gun sales can be preempted by the state — which allowed the Commonwealth Court in 2009 to strike down a Philadelphia statute limiting buyers to one gun purchase per 30 days.
State laws do not require a license to buy guns, nor is there a registration process for weapons. Owners are also not required to report a lost or stolen weapon — which allows straw purchasers to claim their weapons were stolen if they are used in a crime.
“Basically what you get is below market rate for guns in Philly,” said anthropology professor Philippe Bourgois — who lives and does field work in an especially violent neighborhood of North Philadelphia.
He also attributed part of the problem of gun violence to drug trade.
“The biggest problem is pretty straightforwardly structural,” he said. “There are simply too many cheap and easily available guns, too big a drug market and too much poverty.”
MacDonald said the economics of gun trade make it favorable for criminals to carry guns. The penalty for illegally possessing a gun is usually just probation, he said.
“The cost of carrying guns for people who live at risk of violence is pretty low,” he added.
Inside the Penn bubble
Despite the rate of violent crime overall in Philadelphia, Penn has been mostly spared.
Over the past two years, there has been one homicide in the Penn Police Patrol Zone — which stretches from 30th to 43rd streets and from Baltimore Avenue to Market Street — according to the Division of Public Safety.
Although there were a total of over a dozen robberies and aggravated assaults with a gun in the Penn Patrol Zone in 2012, Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush said the number of gun crimes around Penn is significantly lower than in other parts of West Philadelphia.
She added Penn Police take a comprehensive strategy — which includes staying in close contact with local and federal law enforcement agencies — to prevent violence.
Oftentimes, Rush said, a focus on suspicious behavior can prevent more serious crimes.
“Nine times out of 10, these are not first time offenders,” she said of people who commit lower-level crimes.
Stopping people who are exhibiting suspicious behaviors allows cops to look into their backgrounds and see if they are carrying illegal weapons.
On campus, students, faculty, staff and visitors — including anyone on private walkways or in campus buildings — are prohibited from possessing guns. Rush said the policy is effective in ensuring people affiliated with the University do not possess firearms.
However, she added that it is difficult to enforce the no-guns policy for people who walk onto campus but are not affiliated with Penn.
“The University rule does pertain to our private walkways, but it’s going to be very difficult to know [if someone has a gun] unless we have metal detectors as you walk in off the streets,” she said.
However, Rush emphasized that DPS’ presence creates a low-risk situation.
“Our show of uniforms [makes] the people who are doing illegal things [realize] this is not a good place to be doing them,” she said.
‘The worst of the worst’
Despite calls for gun control measures proposed after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, proposals could have little effect on violence in Philadelphia.
“The assault weapons ban would have no effect on homicide patterns in Philadelphia,” MacDonald said. “Overall, homicides with guns occur because of small handguns.”
Police statistics back his claim: from 2007-2011, over 98 percent of murders committed with guns in Philadelphia involved handguns.
In response, the city is beefing up law enforcement. Last winter, it unveiled a new program called GunStat, which uses crime statistics to target the highest-crime areas.
“A small portion of criminals in Philadelphia are responsible for much of the gun crimes,” Lieutenant John Stanford, a spokesperson for PPD, said. GunStat has targeted two especially dangerous areas in North Philadelphia, where police focus on “the worst of the worst,” Stanford said.
In 2012, these “hotspot” areas saw a 55 percent reduction in the number of shooting victims, he added, and police data shows that over 2,200 arrests were made in the hotspots in 2012.
Stanford said that when police spend more time on the ground, it is easier to “know who the people are [who] are committing these crimes.”
While Stanford said the community response has been positive, Bourgois, the anthropology professor, disagreed.
“[Routine stops] heighten distrust between the most vulnerable sectors of the community … and the police,” he said.
He added that although the increased police presence has made people carry guns less frequently, it created a new “ritual” in which people in an argument would storm off to get their gun.
At the state level, Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomeryville) has introduced legislation requiring a mandatory minimum sentencing for illegal possessors of firearms. He said harsher penalties would create more cooperation amongst criminals in giving up information about purchasing supply systems.
“You need to have a big hammer over someone’s head before they’re willing to cooperate,” he said.
The bill passed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives last year, but failed to pass the Senate before the session ended. Stephens — a former prosecutor of gun crimes — said he plans to reintroduce the bill.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that there are an awful lot of people in Philadelphia on a street corner with a gun who are killing people,” he said.
The community responds
While legislative action has been difficult, grassroots activism to reduce gun violence hasn’t.
“We believe in good and evil in the faith community, so we name gun violence what it is,” Miller, of Heeding God’s Call, said.
The group, founded in 2009, leads demonstrations in front of gun shops that it says are large suppliers of weapons used in crimes. It attempts to persuade the owners to change their practices by appealing to their moral sense.
The group claims a part in the closure of Colosimo’s — a gun shop in the Spring Garden section of Philadelphia — which was the source of a significant portion of illegal guns recovered every year. Eventually, Colosimo’s lost its license because of violations of federal firearms laws.
“I feel confident that we saved some lives,” Miller said.
Jim MacMillan, editor of the GunCrisis Reporting Project, has taken a different approach.
GunCrisis is an “open source journalism” project that documents gun violence in Philadelphia. It aims to “fill the gaps in reporting” on gun violence and advocate for solutions.
MacMillan is particularly interested in public health approaches to curbing gun violence, which looks at gun violence as a “disease,” he said.
The strategy involves looking at the factors that contribute to gun violence and attempting to address them holistically, he added.
GunCrisis has become a community-based tool for disseminating information about violence in Philadelphia. However, MacMillan added that “we’re not going to celebrate until we see less killing.”
While Penn students are mostly sheltered from violence, a large portion of the city they live in is not. While last month’s mass shooting has spurred dialogue, Therese Richmond, the research director at the Firearm and Injury Center at Penn, said everyday murders should create a dialogue as well.
“We’re killing our youth and young adults in Philadelphia, one a day,” she said. “Somehow we seem to find that not as horrific, but it’s equally horrific. I encourage us to have the same reactions to what happens in Philadelphia every single day.”