As homicide totals fall in many cities, Philadelphia’s toll has already reached 352, higher than last year’s 330, says USA Today. Except for 2002, when a police campaign against open-air drug dealing cut gun violence significantly, Philadelphia has recorded more than 300 murders annually since 2000. One-third of the city’s murder victims are younger than 24. “It’s a public health epidemic,” says state Rep. Dwight Evans. “I just don’t think as a city we have mobilized and had a sustained no-tolerance attitude about the issue of violence.” Nationally, murder rates have fallen from a peak of 9.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 1991 to 5.5 last year. Philadelphia’s murder total has declined since 1990, but the drop is nowhere near so sharp as it is in other cities.
The reasons for Philadelphia’s sustained death rate remain unclear. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson says it s fundamentally a problem of too many illegal guns. Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles have local gun laws that are more restrictive than state laws. Pennsylvania, like 25 other states, bars its cities from passing gun laws tougher than statewide statutes. Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, a gun-rights group, says gun restrictions would do nothing to reduce violence in Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, more than 80 percent of murders are shooting deaths, vs. 70 percent nationally. More than half started with an argument, sometimes trivial. In New York, police say getting guns off the street has helped reduce murders. A main tactic was “stop and frisk,” officers stopping and patting down people suspected of carrying guns. Johnson says more aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics in Philadelphia would ruin police-community relations and potentially violate civil rights. In 1985, the city lost a lawsuit and paid $500,000 to 1,444 residents after a stop-and-frisk anti-drug sweep.