Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Profiling the city's gun violence

More than 100 murders so far this year, more than 80 percent of them involving handguns. More than 400 shootings, an average of five a day. A 40 percent increase in homicides since 2002. Almost 85 percent of shooters and victims have criminal records. More than $100 million in hospital charges for assault-related medical care. Not enough jobs or social services, and way too many guns.
The litany yesterday became as depressingly numbing - almost - as the sirens outside an urban emergency room on a Saturday night.

For three hours, police, hospital administrators, criminologists, and emergency room surgeons tried to convey to a panel of 10 state legislators the effect that gun violence has on the citizens of Philadelphia.

"I think you have to throw politics out the window and everyone needs to agree there is a problem, and it needs to be fixed in a timely fashion," said Amy Goldberg, chief of trauma at Temple University Hospital, which hosted the hearing of the House Health and Human Services Committee.

"This is a long-term problem, which will take a multitude of solutions and many, many people," said Goldberg, a veteran of 20 years of treating the victims of shootings, stabbings and other life-threatening injuries.

Anne-Marie K. Podgorski, trauma room manager at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia's Logan section, described the fear permeating her hospital: "We fear being shot as we walk from our cars. . . . We fear that somebody will come into our trauma bay to finish off a patient we're trying to save."

Scott Charles, outreach coordinator of Temple's "Cradle to Grave" program, which provides counseling to gunshot victims and their families to try to break the chain of violence and retaliation, cited the quick official response in September when three people died after eating spinach contaminated by the E. coli bacterium.

"We have more than 300 dead in Philadelphia," Charles said. "If this doesn't suggest we're in the middle of a public-health crisis, then I'm not sure what does."

Patrick Carr, a sociologist studying Philadelphia at St. Joseph University's Institution for Violence Research and Prevention, testified that Chicago had dramatically reduced its homicide rate and shootings by implementing community policing and beat cops.

Philadelphia "tried this before and it was very effective," Carr said, referring to a practice that began under Commissioner Kevin Tucker in the late 1980s. "But it requires a sustained commitment. You have to be willing to be in this for the long haul."

Carr also warned that Philadelphia's experience with violence is not unique and that drive-by shootings are occurring in Lancaster and other Pennsylvania cities: "This is something that can spread."

None of the members of the committee chaired by Rep. Frank L. Oliver, a West Philadelphia Democrat, questioned that the problem was real or even that the main cause was the abundance of firearms available in Philadelphia.

Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson acknowledged that the epidemic of homicides and shootings could not be solved by just adding police or controlling firearms.

"At what point does a young man care so little for his own life that he shoots someone for disrespecting him?" Johnson said.

At another point, referring to the 2004 shooting death of Faheem Thomas-Childs, Johnson said, "Any time we can have a 9-year-old boy shot in front of his school with his schoolbooks in his hands and no one comes forward, there's something wrong with that mindset."

Nevertheless, Johnson urged the legislators to pass a law that would limit people to one firearm purchase a month.

Johnson said other states that had enacted such a law found it dramatically reduced illegal trafficking in guns acquired through "straw" purchases - bought by people with no criminal record and resold to criminals.

Diane Edbril, executive director of Ceasefire Pennsylvania, argued that the one-gun-a-month law was "cost-effective" and would not inconvenience any legitimate gun owner.

Edbril said the problem in Philadelphia and every other urban area was angry young men with easy access to guns: "There are no drive-by stabbings and our children are not being caught in the cross fire of a fist-fight."

But the proposed law got a cool reception from some panel members.

Rep. Tim Seip (D., Schuylkill) said he believed there were enough gun-control laws in Pennsylvania and that "we should enforce the laws we already have."

Rep. Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) agreed and suggested that before limiting gun purchases to one a month, the legislature should enact a "three-strikes law."

Despite the dissent among panel members, Oliver said after the hearing that he believed a consensus was building to do something about the level of violence in Philadelphia.

"We want to take this all back and present it to the House, and see what we can do," Oliver said.