One in an occasional series, “Under Fire,” about Philadelphia’s unchecked gun violence.

As Philadelphia’s gun violence has surged to unprecedented heights, two troubling trends have quietly kept building:

Thousands more people are being arrested for carrying guns illegally. But their chances of being convicted in court have fallen by nearly a quarter.

That conundrum now drives a debate between the Philadelphia Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office about how to stem the flow of illegal guns on city streets — and ultimately, how to slow possible violence by those who wield them.

In 2021, police are making arrests for carrying an illegal gun on a pace nearly three times that of 2017, according to an Inquirer analysis of police data and eight years of court dockets.

If the current pace continues, police will make more than 3,000 arrests this year for illegal gun possession — by far the most on record.

Meanwhile, people accused of illegally carrying guns have seen their chances of getting convicted in court plunge from 63% in 2017 to 49% two years later.

Put plainly, people accused of carrying illegal guns in recent years have had better than a coin flip’s chance of beating their case in court.

The Inquirer analysis looked at cases where the most serious crime was a Violation of the Uniform Firearms Act (VUFA), nonviolent offenses that can range from carrying an unlicensed weapon, a misdemeanor, to being barred from possessing a firearm due to a previous conviction, a felony that can lead to years in prison.

Police have long considered VUFA arrests essential to reducing crime because they take weapons out of the hands of people who later might use them.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said Philadelphia’s criminal justice system has become a “revolving door” for repeat gun offenders — leaving more of them on the street with their weapons, with little reason to fear the consequences of being caught.

Although she declined to single out District Attorney Larry Krasner, her top partner in Philadelphia law enforcement, Outlaw echoed a point that the Inquirer analysis revealed — that conviction rates for being caught with an illegal gun dropped after Krasner was sworn into office in January 2018.

“If there’s nothing to deter folks, if there’s no consequence where people believe, ‘If I do this, this is going to happen,’ [then] there’s no incentive to not carry a gun illegally, quite frankly,” the commissioner said.

Krasner attributes the drop in convictions in part to police submitting weaker evidence or more cases being tossed out by judges because witnesses didn’t show up in court.

In the years since the Philadelphia Police Department settled a civil rights lawsuit over unconstitutional pedestrian stop-and-frisks, officers have also been presenting more cases of guns they found during car stops, Krasner said. Those cases can be difficult to prosecute if multiple people were in the car and each disclaims ownership of the weapon, he said.

Despite the drop in convictions for the nonviolent VUFA charges, most people arrested solely for gun possession have not been rearrested for new gun crimes, he contended. He is more concerned with swiftly and fairly convicting the people who actually use those guns to kill or wound others.

Amid the record rise in shootings, the vast majority of them unsolved, “we are dealing essentially with a form of triage, and we have to be sensible about what we prioritize,” he said.

Krasner, in the midst of a contested reelection race, said the city’s focus instead should be on other issues — the long-standing structural problems that drive people toward picking up a gun, such as underfunded schools, government neglect of impoverished neighborhoods, and a bloated justice system that has targeted poor and Black and brown residents.

“If we’re all going to focus on the questionable notion that everybody who possesses a gun is spending their time looking at data on what conviction rates are, then we’re going to miss any solution that’s actually going to be real and effective,” the district attorney said. “Yes, enforcement is a small part of the story. The big part of the story is not that. The big part of the story is this city’s chronic failure to invest in prevention that the community is crying out for. That is where we have to go.”

The existence of such a public debate is striking in a city awash in guns. And it’s the latest example of persistent tensions between Krasner, swept into office as a reformer, and other criminal justice stakeholders — including the mayor, his former managing director, two of his police commissioners, and many rank-and-file officers, some of whom have recently become more vocal on the issue.

While the district attorney and the police commissioner agree that drastic, coordinated efforts must take place to check Philadelphia’s soaring gun violence, they have publicly aired their fundamental differences over how to deal with nonviolent gun-possession violations.

(At a hearing Tuesday soon after this article was published online, city councilmembers questioned Krasner about its findings. The DA defended his office’s handling of homicide and shooting cases but acknowledged: “We are not happy with the conviction rate for possession of guns.” In response to a question, he promised to provide gun crime data to councilmembers who wanted to better understand the issue.)

» READ MORE: Philly’s gun violence-prevention community needs a reckoning of its own | Helen Ubiñas

Mayor Jim Kenney’s views are in sharp contrast to Krasner’s. Kenney said the plunging conviction rate for gun possession is making Philadelphia less safe — and fuels violence that overwhelmingly claims the lives of young people of color.

“My frustration is the loss of the energy and the promise of almost an entire generation of young Black men,” Kenney said in a recent interview. “I get up every morning, I reach into my side table and I pull up my phone and I see the [shooting] numbers for the day, it’s heart-wrenching.”

‘I’d rather throw a bullet than catch a bullet’

The Inquirer’s data analysis, which focused solely on cases in which illegal gun possession was the most serious charge, showed that most people arrested for gun possession have not been rearrested for new crimes so far.

Of the 1,400 people accused of illegally carrying a firearm in 2018, for instance, 19% have been arrested since for another crime, according to the analysis of court data, through mid-March. And only 2.5% were later charged in a murder, attempted murder, or aggravated assault.

Still, that conclusion tells only part of the story. Because four out of five shootings in Philadelphia do not result in charges, Inquirer data show, it’s impossible to know with certainty who committed the crimes, their backgrounds, and whether they had a previous nonviolent gun offense. This makes it difficult to determine how much violence could have been prevented by more successful prosecutions of nonviolent gun possession.

Krasner’s office said it has seen little evidence that those accused of carrying guns illegally are responsible for driving the violence, as the huge uptick in gun arrests since last year has done nothing to slow the current torrent of gun violence.

He agrees with many antiviolence activists who say any plan to stem the illegal use of guns by young people must center on providing resources and support to those who may be tempted to do so.

Advocates like Reuben Jones, executive director of Frontline Dads, a mentoring organization, see reasons behind the rise: As shootings surge in neighborhoods where residents have long felt targeted — not protected — by police, young people don’t feel safe, and would rather risk getting caught with an unlicensed or illegal gun than getting shot or killed.

Jones said: “When young people don’t feel valued, respected, trusted, or connected to the city’s mainstream, they create their own struggle, their own path to survival.”

Kevin Gold, 35, founder of the All the Kings Men mentoring program for males at the district’s Building 21 high school, said he believes many of those who arm themselves on city streets do so as “a response to what they have been presented in life.”

“I refuse to believe that people involved in that lifestyle actually want to be,” said Gold, director of student support at the West Oak Lane public school.

Of the nearly 200 young men he has mentored since 2009, just one has been shot (and survived), and none has been arrested for carrying a gun, he said. “But I will say, all of them are exposed to opportunities to have access to guns and access to that lifestyle.”

Stefan Shaw, 19, who graduated in 2019 from Building 21 and is still being mentored by Gold, echoed his sentiment.

“It’s really hard to grow up in Philadelphia, especially a boy, and not experience some type of gun violence,” said Shaw, who left Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and is now a car salesman in Frankford.

“You can gather a room full of 100 boys my age and I’d bet they’d all raise their hands if you asked if they’ve been around a gun or seen gun violence, or somebody they know died from gun violence,” Shaw said.

Gold said many Black and brown young men in Philadelphia believe the police are not able to protect them, or not interested in doing so. As a result, these young men — including those who are otherwise law-abiding — are arming themselves.

Shaw and his friend Shyheem Boyd, 20, who is also a mentee of Gold’s, each said they plan to buy a gun legally when they are 21. (In Philadelphia, adults 21 or older can get a license to carry a concealed weapon outside their home if they pass a criminal background check and meet other requirements.)

“I’ll say it like this: I’d rather throw a bullet than catch a bullet,” Shaw said.

Upon reflection, Boyd said: “I’m not gonna lie. I’ll probably get one before I turn 21. There’s a lot of stuff that can happen in a year.”

Outlaw and her team strongly support mentoring, intervention, and more community resources. But she contended that the “vast majority” of the people police have been catching with firearms are either linked to the city’s gun violence or are at risk of becoming ensnared in it — especially as trivial conflicts, such as Instagram feuds, have been leading to violence.

“We’re not talking about somebody that made a mistake, somebody that was carrying for protection and they didn’t have their license,” Outlaw said. “We’re talking about people who know full well you’re not supposed to have it.”

West Philly cops grow frustrated

Police are encountering these illegal guns on the street every night.

So far this year, the department has recorded 32 days of 10 or more gun arrests, compared with just two days over the same time last year.

In the Southwest Philadelphia police division, the radio crackles with reports of gun arrests at a dizzying clip. Officers there have arrested more illegal gun suspects than anywhere else in the city: 638 people last year, and on pace to double that in 2021.

Shootings there have doubled since 2017.

Inspector Derrick Wood, commanding officer of Southwest Division, attributes some of the spike in VUFA arrests to what he describes as a growing lack of fear among people carrying guns due to dropping conviction rates and lower bails set by bail commissioners.

“What I see is that the city and the criminal justice system do not take illegally carrying firearms seriously,” Wood said. “There’s been an explosion of gun violence in the last three years, and there’s more than one reason — but I think one reason is we don’t take it seriously.”

An Inquirer review of 2019 gun arrests from the 18th Police District, in Wood’s Southwest Division, showed that of the 82 people whose cases were resolved as of January 2021, more than half, 53%, had their charges withdrawn or dismissed.

Wood and some of his officers contend that amid this reality, they are encountering the same suspects over and over again. Fed up, they began posting photos on social media of confiscated firearms and calling for stricter consequences for carrying them.

“They know there’s no consequences for carrying a gun in Philly. It’s zero to none,” he said. “I don’t care what kind of programs you come up with, what kind of money you put in prevention — if people are not held accountable, then people are going to keep carrying guns.”

He added: “I’m not worried about hurting people’s feelings anymore,” without specifying names. “We’ve got to do something different. We can’t keep doing the same thing.”

While not responding directly to Wood, Krasner said he believed that some cops, frustrated by the increasing violence — anger he shares — may be focusing on the surge in gun-possession cases to shift the narrative away from the department’s low clearance rate for shootings and homicides.

“What I hear more and more is ‘Let me tell you how many guns we got off the street this week, let me redefine the issue,’” Krasner said.

He credited officers with doing their best to follow orders, seize illegal firearms when they find them, and collect evidence they think is strong enough to sustain a prosecution.

Still, he added: “I think it’s always a good thing to get guns off the street. But it is not the primary job of police to harvest guns. It is the primary job of police to arrest people with solid evidence that can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”

‘He didn’t deserve to go out like that’

Sometimes those accused of gun possession go on to become suspects in violent crimes.

The Inquirer found 17 instances in which someone charged with a VUFA case in 2018 was later charged with homicide, murder, or attempted murder.

One of them was Sabir Bunch, who has been charged with fatally shooting Sean Gunther, an expectant father, outside a barbershop in Tioga in December 2019.

Bunch had beaten a gun-possession case in court the year before, according to 2018 court records. The reasons were not clear because court documents in the case are no longer public.

Gunther’s relatives are now left to wonder why that prosecution failed, and whether anything more could have been done to prevent Bunch — who has several other gun charges on his record — from allegedly squeezing the trigger.

Bunch “should not have been on the street,” said Gunther’s cousin, Gloria Easley, 41, who said many residents do not feel that public officials are doing enough to help neighborhoods suffering from crime or violence.

Gunther’s sister, Rayna Gunther, said that her brother had lived a life on the street and served time but that he remained committed to his family and had provided hospice care for their father.

“He had been through a lot,” she said, “but he didn’t deserve to go out like that.”

Seeking solutions

Why has the rate of convictions for gun possession fallen during Krasner’s first term?

Besides blaming the difficulty of proving gun possession in car-stop cases with multiple occupants, his office offered the findings of a study of 221 VUFA cases that failed in court, both before and after Krasner took office.

One in 10 dismissed under Krasner failed because the police witness didn’t show up at initial hearings, they said, and about one in three were dismissed because civilian witnesses failed to appear in court, requiring the judge to throw out those cases or prosecutors to withdraw them. Together, these two reasons account for close to half of his office’s losing gun-possession cases.

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These problems existed long before Krasner took office, and yet none seemed to prohibit his predecessors from securing a higher conviction rate.

Krasner did not say what might have changed. But he added that it would be a “logical consequence” to have a lower conviction rate “if the context is: You used to have a smaller number of cases with stronger evidence, and now you have a bigger number of cases with weaker evidence.”

Krasner has built his administration on the idea that fewer people belong in jail — that he was sworn in to help unravel decades of misguided policy devastating communities of color and fueling more crime.

» READ MORE: What do you know about the Philadelphians killed by guns in the past year? At least know their names.

But the explosion of gun arrests presents a new test for the reform-driven DA. Due to the court system’s slowdown during the pandemic, The Inquirer’s analysis shows that as many as 3,500 gun cases remain pending in court, even as dozens of new arrests are being recorded each week.

If his office were to convict 49% of those 3,500 people — its current rate — Krasner would face the possibility of significantly swelling the city’s jail population.

“This is an issue someone in my office raised with me,” Krasner said. “Are we going to replace a war on drugs with a war on guns, and are we going to use that as an excuse for mass incarceration?”

For her part, Outlaw said it’s time to move past philosophical disagreements — and toward consistent, fair consequences for carrying or using a gun.

She and Krasner say their offices have been collaborating more in recent months to review gun cases shortly after arrest and ensure they can stand up in court.

The need could not be more apparent. Even in the midst of a pandemic, Outlaw and the mayor said slowing the pace of gunfire is the city’s most urgent challenge.

“The numbers,” Outlaw said, “speak for themselves.”

Staff reporter Chris A. Williams contributed to this article.