In May, a South Philadelphia man stepped out of his house for a smoke when police said a gun-wielding man rode up on a bicycle and demanded money. The homeowner dropped his cigarette, pulled out his licensed gun, and fatally shot the would-be robber in the head.
In March, an assistant manager at a Dollar General store in North Philadelphia used his legal gun to shoot a man who police said burst into the store in a ski mask, demanded money, and threatened to kill the cashier. “I’m opening up the register for you, sir,” said the manager, who instead pulled his own handgun and shot the robber in the head, killing him.
The same month, a customer with a carry permit inside Max Food Market in the Yorktown section fatally shot a gunman who tried to rob him while he was playing a video poker machine. “You have to defend yourself,” said Maximo Torres Rodriquez, the store’s owner. “You have to do it.”
The three would-be assailants died from their injuries and in all three cases authorities brought no charges against the shooters. These sorts of deadly clashes in which the intended victims survive and assailants die are rare in Philadelphia, but are becoming more common as a growing number of people have legally armed themselves amid rising numbers of carjackings, shootings, and homicides.
Justified homicides jumped 67% from 2020 to 2021 ― from 12 to 20 according to the Philadelphia Police Department. An additional six have been ruled justified by the department but are awaiting the District Attorney’s Office to sign off. In 2019, there were 10 justified killings, six in 2018 and eight in 2017, the department said.
So far in 2022, victims have shot at least eight armed assailants to death, with more than seven months remaining in the year.
“The total number of shootings and the climate of gun violence has gotten more severe,” said District Attorney Larry Krasner. “So I would expect that there would be more situations involving self-defense.”
As Krasner said, the surge in justified shootings reflects the general rise in gun violence in the city. With unjustified homicides hitting a record total last year, with 562 victims, self-defense killings climbed too, though only slightly as a percentage of all homicides.
The trend worries some analysts and gun-control advocates, who say civilians who buy guns for protection may be putting themselves and others at more risk, not less. They cite studies showing that legally purchased guns are more likely to be fired in accidental shootings, during domestic disputes, and in suicides than in self-defense.
In the case of the Dollar General shooting, prosecutors and police concluded that the assistant manager, Junwan Perkins-Owens, 22, acted in self-defense in shooting the robber who burst into the store at Ninth Street and Girard Avenue. Perkins-Owens said he feared for his life as the intruder brandished what turned out to be a fake gun.
While he was not criminally charged, Perkins-Owens said he was fired for having a gun on company property. Asked for comment, Dollar General provided a number for a media-relations firm. That number turned out to be nonworking.
It was not the first time a would-be thief had threatened violence while Perkins-Owens was working at the store, which does not have a security guard, he said. In an earlier robbery attempt, a man threatened to stick him with a hypodermic needle while exiting the store without paying for merchandise.
Off the job, Perkins-Owens said he had been shot in the leg and grazed in the hand during a hail of stray bullets outside a Germantown convenience store in 2019. He bought a gun after that. He said he didn’t hesitate to reach for his weapon when the man in the ski mask arrived at his store.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened, but victims are tired of being victims,” he said in an interview at his home in the Ogontz section. “People are actually standing up for themselves and are making robbers think twice about taking hard-earned money from everybody else.”
‘Quick with the gun now’
Amid gun violence that keeps claiming more and more victims, a growing number of Philadelphians are buying guns, statistics from the State Police show.
The number of handguns purchased in the city more than doubled to nearly 50,000 in the two-year period ending in 2021. Just 22,000 were bought during the years 2018 and 2019. Permits to carry guns on the streets have grown even faster, soaring to 52,000 last year, up from 7,500 in 2020, according to State police figures.
With more crimes and more people buying guns, there are more situations that lead to gun owners using them in defense. This has fueled the uptick in homicides ruled to be justified, Krasner and other law enforcement officials said.
“It’s not a secret that the proliferation of guns everywhere across the country, especially in the city, means that there’s more guns on the streets,” said Deputy Police Commissioner Benjamin Naish. “We have seen an increase in the number of people that have been applying for and receiving a permit to carry. I think that they are concerned about their safety, and they’re carrying it legally, which is the big difference.”
Stanley Crawford, who in 2020 cofounded the grassroots activist organization Families of Unsolved Murder Victims Project after the slaying of his son, said while the growing trend of people legally arming themselves was troubling in many ways, it could nonetheless deter criminals.
“For these younger brothers running around here catching weak, unarmed people, the message is they aren’t going to be able to run up on everybody and maim and shoot and kill,” he said.
Jamal Johnson, an antiviolence activist who since 2017 has marched to Washington to lobby for stronger gun-control laws, said flatly he sees little good in the boom. “Whether they have permits or not, everyone is quick with the gun now,” he said, noting that two men with gun permits touched off the June 4 South Street mass shooting that left three dead and 11 injured.
“Guns are becoming too prevalent, whether they’re in the hands of licensed or unlicensed people,” Johnson said. “We’re becoming the Wild, Wild West, and soon everyone is going to have a gun, killing people ― justified or not.”
In the chaotic shooting on South Street, Gregory E. Jackson, 34, opened fire on Micah Towns, 23, wounding him. Towns fired back, killing Jackson. While Krasner said Towns had fired in self-defense, Mayor Jim Kenney said Towns should have faced criminal charges.
As it happened, both Jackson and Towns had carry permits. However, as The Inquirer has reported, authorities in Delaware County gave Jackson his permit in error, losing track of a previous gun-possession arrest that likely should have led to a denial of a permit.
Numerous studies have found that guns legally purchased are used far less for self defense and are more likely to be used in unintentional and criminal shootings and in suicides. In 2019, there were nearly two and a half times as many suicides (47,511) as there were criminal homicides (19,141), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2015, David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, and Sara Solnick, an economist at the University of Vermont, analyzed national government surveys involving more than 14,000 people and found that people were more likely to be injured after threatening attackers with guns than they were if they had called the police or ran away.
In a landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993, researchers found that having a gun in the home was linked with nearly three times higher odds that someone would be killed at home by a family member or intimate acquaintance.
Still, Kathy Onn said she was grateful that her 24-year-old son had his gun with him and thwarted an armed robber outside their South Philadelphia home on May 11.
“I heard the gunfire. I was right here,” Onn, 52, said in a recent interview at her home, where she is recovering from a stroke and sleeps in a hospital bed by the front door, near where the shooting occurred.
Her son, who works as her home health-care aide, declined to be interviewed. “He’s a good kid,” Onn said of her son. “I’m handicapped and he takes good care of me.”
Onn said she knows well the former stepfather of the man her son killed in self-defense that day. “I feel very, very sad,” she said. “The world is very small.”
That man, Nat Keo, said he was grieving both the 24-year-old who was fatally shot and for Onn’s son. As for her son, Keo said, “I hope he finds peace in himself. I know he’s going through a lot. It’s not easy. I’m sure it’s stressful for him, and I hope he’s OK.”