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Credit: Chase Sutton

In response to Philadelphia’s historic increase in gun violence last year, Councilmember and Penn alumna Jamie Gauthier introduced a bill calling on Mayor Jim Kenney to take actionable steps to address the issue and declare a citywide emergency on gun violence. Kenney, however, has yet to act on the resolution — prompting members of the Philadelphia community to act in solidarity for its adoption. 

The bill, Resolution No. 200447, which was introduced on Sept. 10, 2020, calls on Kenney to implement specific measures such as the Roadmap to Safer Communities, a five-year plan to address gun violence, and the creation of an intervention program for youth involved in or near gun violence. The resolution hopes to allow the City Council to continue to collaborate with the mayor, the criminal justice community, city agencies, and non-governmental partners to reduce this problem.

Vice President for Public Safety and Superintendent of the Penn Police Department Maureen Rush said 499 people died from homicide in 2020, which is the first time homicide rates neared 500 since 1990. The Philadelphia Police Department recorded 50 homicides in January 2021 — the deadliest amount in three decades and a 32% increase from last year. The majority of those who were killed were young, Black men. 

Although the resolution was co-sponsored by 14 other councilmembers and adopted one week after its introduction, Kenney has yet to act on the resolution, leading members of the Philadelphia community to petition and protest for its approval. One local resident has been on a hunger strike since Jan. 18 to support the cause.

Gauthier said in a phone interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian that she was fueled to introduce the resolution after the death of Walter Wallace Jr. — who she said died in Philadelphia's third district which she represents — and discussions with her constituents about how they did not feel safe leaving their residences.

“I speak to people who are living in these neighborhoods and feel like they are living in a war zone,” Gauthier said. "People are scared to go to work and let their kids play outside and enjoy a normal quality of life.”

After such events and the clear spike in gun violence, Gauthier said she is unsure why the mayor has yet to take action on her resolution, which was adopted over four months ago.

“The silence around the issue speaks volumes to folks living in Black and brown neighborhoods, viewing this issue everyday," Gauthier said.

Despite silence on this particular resolution, Kenney has addressed the city's gun violence issue in this past. 

In 2017, he created the Office of Violence Prevention in order to coordinate the city's anti-violence efforts with other departments. In 2018, he issued a call to action on violence prevention, which took a new approach in looking at crime through a public health lens, and in 2019, he unveiled the Roadmap to Safer Communities. Although the program effectively reduced the number of homicides in 2019 according to the resolution, these rates were overshadowed by the highest homicide rates seen that year in Philadelphia for a decade.

“We are all steadfast about reducing gun violence in our city, and this continues to be an absolute priority for the mayor and his administration," a city spokesperson wrote on behalf of Kenney in a Feb. 2 emailed statement to the DP. "As we have stated previously, the mayor put forth a call to action in fall 2018, citing that gun violence is a public health emergency, and we have been working unrelentingly to save lives in the midst of a global pandemic. Instead of arguing over semantics, the City is interested in working together with all stakeholders to address our gun violence epidemic.“ 

By giving the Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives a role for criminal justice and public safety efforts, the mayor’s office wrote that the City is aligned with the violence prevention work that will lead to a reduction in gun violence.

In response to the upward trend in citywide violence, Philadelphia residents Jessica Craft and Michael O’Bryan created a petition in Dec. 2020 calling on Kenney to address gun violence through Resolution No. 200447. The petition has since garnered over 1,100 signatures — largely from members of the local community.

Craft, founder and CEO of Rock to the Future, a youth services organization that provides free music programs, said that she sees that petition as the first of many steps towards building community pressure against the mayor to address the resolution, adding that she may pioneer future initiatives such as organizing a campaign around the issue and writing letters to the mayor.

“It has been every day getting notifications on my phone from the Citizen App that there are more shootings and seeing things online and knowing that the students that we work with throughout Philadelphia are personally affected,” she said. 

Craft said she learned about the resolution to end gun violence through Gauthier's social media when it was first introduced last year, and was shocked to learn that Kenney did nothing months after its approval from other councilmembers. 

Craft, who said she has known Gauthier for a long time through their involvement in local nonprofits, was motivated to spread awareness about the resolution after Gauthier told her that she was limited in advocating for her own resolutions.

“A lot of the people who are affected by gun violence are teens,” Craft said. “This is urgent.” 

In order to draw more attention towards the resolution, some residents are also protesting in addition to supporting the petition.

Jamal Johnson, a lifelong Philadelphian, said that he has lived with gun violence his whole life — and has lost some of his family members to gun violence. He has been leading a hunger strike for Kenney to address gun violence since Jan 18., and said he will not eat until the resolution is addressed. 

As a protester, Johnson said, he felt this issue to be "paramount" and took upon a hunger strike as a last attempt of reaching the mayor's attention.

“I look at this [issue of gun violence] and I just feel that, at this point, people have almost become hostages in their own communities because they think there is no law,” Johnson said.

Johnson has since been in support of the petition and joined the petition's planning team, which is comprised of local community members.

"I felt compelled to join organizations and other people who are trying to address this issue on different levels, and, as a result, I think that for there to be some possibility for something to be thrown into the tool box and to not even have it addressed is unconscionable," Johnson said.

All of the residents emphasized that the city's issue of gun violence is one that needs to be addressed, whether though the resolution's demands or through other actions.

Jim MacMillan, a Philadelphia journalist and director of the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting, is neither in favor nor against Gauthier’s resolution. He agrees with the resolution’s goal of viewing gun violence in Philadelphia primarily as a public health problem, rather than a law enforcement and criminal issue.

“Violence is a disease,” MacMillan said, adding that exposure to violence can come in many forms such as witnessing violence, living with violence, and being victimized. “Not a metaphor for disease, but an actual contagious disease where the violent acts are the point of contagion.”

MacMillan stated that this lens of seeing gun violence as a public health issue is not new, referencing examples such as a 1992 issue by The Journal of the American Medical Association that was dedicated towards addressing gun violence as a public health issue. Thus, he stated, the problem is not that people are unaware of gun violence being a public health problem, but rather that this viewpoint has not been implemented.

Mary Stricker, a Sociology professor at Temple University, expressed confidence in her support of the resolution and the petition as well.

“I don't think the bill is perfect — it still involves cops, and I think, at this point, if we don't realize the cops do way more harm than good then we're choosing to ignore reality, but simply naming the horrific violence as a citywide emergency, I think is really important,” Stricker said, adding that she would not have advocated for the resolution if not for the many councilmembers she supports co-sponsoring it. 

Stricker said she is not confident that Kenney will address the bill after this petition, given his pattern of silence with controversial issues, adding that the protesting may be the only way he will respond to the resolution. The city must focus on funding multiple community organizations to successfully address the problem of gun violence, she said, as one or a few organizations cannot eradicate the problem on their own.

“It is not just about squashing the conflict. It is big," Stricker said.

Through the petition and other forms of protest, residents hope that Kenney will soon address the resolution in order to save Black communities and other communities of color who are bearing the brunt of gun violence acts.

"I believe the mayor has an obligation to us to help us to be safe in this city," Johnson said. "I think that he has shown a true lack of leadership in not addressing me, but also in ignoring the will of people on his City Council. And I hope that other people see that the same way, and that they do what they can to have the mayor address this resolution as soon as possible."

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