PHILADELPHIA - For all the years he spent as a criminal and a drug user, Jose Rojas never saw the kinds of things now taking place in working-class neighborhoods like his in north Philadelphia.
"And it's going from bad to worse," Rojas, 47, said recently, sitting in the New Creation Church in Kensington, a high-crime neighborhood where he works as a lay evangelist. "During the time I was out there as a teen-ager, then in my 20s, it was relatively difficult to get weapons. Now? Kids 11, 12, 13 years old - they're packing .45-caliber semi-automatics, Uzis, Magnums, you name it."
And they are not afraid to use them.
While the rates of homicide and violent crime are declining in many of the country's largest cities, they are holding firm in Philadelphia. Although a slight dip over the first four months of this year has given officials some hope, the number of homicides has hovered steadily around 400 a year for nearly a decade. A majority of the deaths were caused by high-powered handguns, and a majority of the weapons were wielded by people under 23.
The gun czar
The problem has become so intolerable that Mayor Edward Rendell has appointed a deputy mayor - dubbed the gun czar - to coordinate local and federal efforts to stem the flow of weapons in the city. And in a move modeled after the actions against tobacco companies, he has threatened to sue gun manufacturers to recoup some of the money spent by the city's hospitals to treat gunshot victims.
Officials say they think one of the biggest factors in the high homicide rate is a 1995 gun law that has removed some of the discretion the police department had to deny permits for carrying concealed weapons.
The new law, they say, has contributed to a boom in gun buying here that has given Pennsylvania the distinction of having more licensed carriers of concealed weapons than any other state.
The legal age for buying a gun in Pennsylvania is 18, and most permit holders are legitimate gun owners. But law-enforcement experts here say that the state measure opened the door to a vibrant black market in handgun sales, in which buyers for whom routine background checks pose no problem can act as straw-man buyers and resell the guns on the street for handsome profits.
Furthermore, officials say, the sheer number of guns on the street in Philadelphia means more weapons are finding their way into the hands of young people.
Before the Uniform Firearms Action of 1995 was passed, state lawmakers recognized Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's largest city, as a special case on gun issues because of its persistently high crime rates. The police department had the right to turn down a request for a concealed weapons permit if the applicant could not demonstrate "a reasonable need." In 1994, just 1,500 permits were issued.
Overall, the new law strengthened the application process by requiring deeper background checks. But after the exception for Philadelphia was eliminated, the number of permits issued soared, to about 11,500 in 1996, said Richard Zapille, the deputy mayor appointed to lead the gun control efforts.
'A real blow to our efforts'
"That was a real blow to our efforts here," Rendell said of the gun law. "We weren't doing great before, but after the law passed, the number of permits issued to carry a concealed weapon was unbelievable."
Rendell appointed a handgun violence task force four years ago when it became evident that his city was failing to keep pace with the rest of the nation in reducing violent crime. But efforts to slow the mayhem have not made any appreciable difference in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, despite the slight dip in the homicide rate for the first four months of this year. Guns continue to flow in, and landscapes of abandoned factories, rotting houses and trash-strewn streets only make the life of a gun-toting drug dealer seem that much more glamorous to impressionable youngsters.
"Young children walking to school see these guys all in gold, wearing rings on their fingers and $150 sneakers," said Rojas, who spent 13 months in prison on drug charges. "They are influenced just by the way they look. They think, 'I want to be like him.' They have money. They have expensive sneakers and they have guns."
A study conducted by the task force found that of 273 people charged with murder in a 40-month period through March 1997, 171 of them - more than 62 percent - were 22 or younger.
That is far above the national average. In 1995, the last full year for which federal data are available, the Department of Justice found that among the 16,701 people across the country arrested for murder or non-negligent manslaughter, just 6,556 of them - 39.2 percent - were 22 years old or younger.
In the same year, Philadelphia's homicide rate of 30.7 per 100,000 residents was nearly twice as high as New York City's 16.1 per 100,000.