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. “Everybody is armed,” said Jonathan Wilson, director of the Fathership Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Southwest Philadelphia that has been helping to conduct a multicity survey of young people’s attitudes about gun culture. “Nobody’s without a gun in these ZIP codes, because they’ve always been dangerous.”
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.
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.
“What is their theory — that rather than go vigorously after the people who actually shoot the gun,” Krasner asked, “that we should take 100 people and put them in jail, because one of them might shoot somebody?”
Some city officials, including the police chief, see things differently.
“I think there are some philosophical differences between us,” Police Commissioner Danielle M. Outlaw said. She said she advocated “a both-and, not an either-or” approach. This year, the police created a special unit dedicated to investigating nonfatal shootings, with four dozen detectives and other officers working on cases across the city. But the commissioner insisted that the police were just as committed to cracking down on illegal gun possession as well.
“There have to be consequences for those who are carrying and using these guns illegally,” Outlaw said. “If I go out and get this gun, knowing nothing’s going to happen to me, why would that preclude me from doing anything else illegally with a gun?” For those who live in the crisis every day, these questions are visceral.
Marguerite Ruff is a special education classroom assistant at an elementary school in Philadelphia. On a Saturday morning seven years ago, her youngest son, Justin, 23, was shot to death in the street.
There should be stiffer penalties for carrying guns illegally, Ruff said recently. But she added that it probably would not make any difference. “They think they can get away with it, because they’re young,” she said.
Some years ago, “a thinking person” would not carry a gun on the streets of Philadelphia, Ruff said, “but now you can’t even step out of your house, can’t go to your car, you can’t drive to the corner.” She did not like that so many people carried guns, she said, but “in a way, I can understand it.”
At the North Philadelphia headquarters of NOMO, a nonprofit for at-risk youth in the city, a few dozen young people — boys and girls, 11 to 17 — had gathered on a sweltering summer afternoon. Rickey Duncan, the organization’s CEO, asked for a show of hands: How many felt endangered on a daily basis? A large majority raised a hand. How many would feel safer with a gun? The response was about the same.
How many knew how to get a gun with a single phone call? The response was nearly unanimous.
One young man explained it this way: If you were arrested, you could still see your family in jail. Not so if you were dead.
Duncan had called this man, a 21-year-old participant in the program who did not want his name published for his own safety, and asked him to tell his story.
Several years ago, the young man said, he bought a 9 mm pistol from an acquaintance for several hundred dollars, only to have another friend take it, fire it at him and leave with it. That friend was later charged with shooting two people to death. This is how it is these days, he said.
“We still want to do better,” he said. “But there’s a lot of things in the way.”