Rise in gun violence grips Philadelphians

City had 406 homicides in 2006, the most in 9 years, but firearm control bills don't pass

April 15, 2007|By New York Times News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- In a hospital emergency room, a young man winces as doctors try to determine how badly he has been injured.

His name is Karim Williams, he is 27, and he is this city's latest shooting victim. He says he was hit about 12:30 a.m. by a shot fired while he was walking from his girlfriend's car into a bar.

Williams was fortunate. The bullet went through his leg without hitting bone or major blood vessels, and after a shot of morphine and a few hours' observation, he will be discharged from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania back into the West Philadelphia night.

In some ways, Williams is a typical patient at the trauma unit: young, mildly intoxicated and apparently with no idea why he was shot. What makes his case less common, doctors here say, is that he is neither seriously injured nor dead, since Philadelphia is in the midst of an epidemic of gun violence that has left the police struggling to preserve public safety and government officials renewing efforts to tighten the state's gun control laws.

Last year, there were 406 homicides in Philadelphia, most of them by gunshot, the highest number in nine years, according to the Police Department. From 2004 to 2006, the number of homicides in the city rose 22 percent, more than twice as much as the aggregate increase recorded by 56 cities surveyed by the Police Executive Research Forum, a national law enforcement group.

This year, the pace of the killings has worsened; as of Friday, the death toll stood at 110, or 16 percent higher than at the same time last year. By comparison, in New York City, with six times the population, there were 102 homicides from Jan. 1 to April 8.

The trauma unit at the University of Pennsylvania treated 479 gunshot victims last year, a 15 percent increase over 2005. Some 18 percent of the attacks were fatal, and 16 percent of the victims will suffer permanent disabilities.

What sets Philadelphia apart from other cities, say the police, politicians and academic experts, is the combination of high poverty - 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to census data - a youth culture that increasingly settles minor disputes through violence and the easy availability of guns.

Pennsylvania's cities are forbidden by state law from making their own gun laws and so must conform to the political will of a largely rural state that, according to the National Rifle Association, has about a quarter of a million gun owners.

With about 85 percent of Philadelphia's homicides involving guns, gun control advocates are urging state lawmakers to limit handgun purchases to one per person per month.

Supporters - including Gov. Edward G. Rendell and Philadelphia's police chief, Sylvester Johnson - say it would not curtail gun owners' rights but would significantly reduce the number of illegal guns on the street.

But many state lawmakers oppose the plan, which was introduced in February as part of a package of gun control measures, as an attempt to curb the Second Amendment right to bear arms. A similar measure was defeated in the legislature last October, the day after a Lancaster County gunman carrying a mostly legal arsenal shot 10 Amish schoolgirls in their classroom, killing five of them.

For Williams, the explanation for Philadelphia's carnage is a lack of jobs.

"You've got to have jobs for the people that need them," he said from his gurney. "... Without jobs, all you can do is resort to violence."

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