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Kenney says Philly is ‘doing everything it can’ as probe into South Street mass shooting continues

The mayor continued to blame the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania legislature, which enacted a law in 1994 preventing the city from passing its own gun regulations.

A defiant Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney appeared publicly Tuesday for the first time since the deadly South Street mass shooting, meeting with frustrated business owners and saying the city is “doing everything it can” to fight ongoing gun violence.

But Kenney, who was at a conference in Reno, Nev., when the shooting took place late Saturday and returned Monday, stopped short of saying the city’s response to violence would change because of the gunfire that left three people dead and 11 wounded.

Instead, he continued to blame the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania legislature, which enacted a law in 1994 preventing the city from passing its own gun regulations. Kenney said Tuesday that, had the shooters on South Street been unarmed, the brawl and ensuing melee could have been “a fistfight.”

“There’s lots of social problems we’re dealing with,” he said. “But the issue is: Take the gun out of the equation, and we’re not having this conversation.”

The mayor’s comments came as the investigation into the shooting continues to make headway. Two men are in custody, and police released a photo of a third suspected shooter they believe may have shot at least one of two slain bystanders. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said that investigators are working with federal agents to comb through video evidence and that she’s “happy with the progress.”

Kenney said the number of gunmen made it almost impossible for the dozens of police officers already on scene to stop the bloodshed before it happened. “If people are hiding their guns and run into each other and want to be violent,” he said, “I don’t know what else a police officer could do.”

» READ MORE: What to know about the South Street shooting: The victims, investigation, and response

The mayor, who has generally lay low since Saturday, spoke to a gaggle of journalists who were waiting for him outside Reading Terminal Market ahead of an unrelated event. His office has declined interview requests by The Inquirer since the South Street shooting became the latest in a spate of mass killings that have renewed a national conversation about gun-violence prevention.

Kenney’s demeanor Tuesday was at times defensive, frustrated, and solemn.

After his remarks to reporters, he and Outlaw spoke at length with a half-dozen South Street business owners, in a display of public outreach that came amid some grumbling in City Hall that the mayor’s response to the shootings had been tepid.

That criticism isn’t new. Over the last two years, some elected officials have described Kenney as detached and said his administration’s response to gun violence — marked by last year’s highest homicide rate in generations — has lacked urgency.

“People don’t feel safe, and that’s not OK,” City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart said in an interview last week before the violence on South Street.

“We can do better,” added Rhynhart, a Kenney critic who is widely seen as a potential candidate to succeed him in the 2023 mayoral race. “There should be an all-hands-on-deck approach from the mayor and city leadership, where every single day this is treated with complete urgency.”

City Councilmember Cindy Bass, another Kenney critic and possible mayoral candidate who represents a Northwest Philadelphia district, said she and her constituents don’t feel there’s a coordinated approach to combating the issue. She said efforts like “Operation Sunrise” — a broad crime crackdown implemented in 1998 under then-Mayor Ed Rendell — showed residents the city was taking the issue seriously.

“We just really haven’t seen that from this mayor,” she said in an interview.

Kenney has defended his administration’s response to the explosion of gun crimes that began in 2020 amid the pandemic. The Police Department has been making arrests for illegal gun possession at a record pace, and the administration is proposing spending millions of dollars on antiviolence programs outside traditional policing.

It’s also challenging the state law that bans municipalities from passing gun-control measures that are stricter than the state’s, and the case will soon be heard by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, though previous such appeals have failed. Kenney has long said that without stronger gun regulations at the state and federal levels, the proliferation of firearms in the city will continue.

“I’m not passing the buck to the legislature or the U.S. Congress, but it really does make it more difficult,” he said.

City Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district includes the scene of the shooting, said he agrees it’s a problem that the city is blocked from passing its own gun laws. But Squilla said that “until that happens, we have a responsibility to work together, to do what we can do with city officials to make it safe.”

On Tuesday, Outlaw said that may start with a more “proactive” style of policing on commercial corridors that tackles quality-of-life issues and is less permissive of, for example, people who are double-parked or selling goods out of their trunks illegally.

Ultimately, she said, it will take police patrolling corridors in a way that prioritizes security without making the neighborhood feel “over-policed,” which some business owners told her could cause visitors to stay away.

“There’s always a knee-jerk when something tragic happens, like shut everything down right away, put more cops out,” she said. “But we also have to think about, strategically, the impact that has on the people actually in these neighborhoods.”

Outlaw and Kenney spoke to Young Ahn, who has owned the Ishkabibble’s cheesesteak joint on South Street for two decades. He told them that he and his employees fear leaving work at night.

“Every year it’s getting worse,” he said. “We used to be open until 3 a.m. for Friday and Saturday night. Now we’re closing at 12.”

Then Kenney and Outlaw ducked into Premiere Bande, a clothing store new to the block. It used to be located in West Philadelphia and was owned by Sircarr Johnson Jr., a 23-year-old fashion designer. Johnson’s family moved the store to South Street after he was fatally shot last summer in front of his own store.

They thought South Street would be safer.

Instead, Johnson’s father, Sircarr Johnson Sr., found himself once again talking about a shooting. He was in the store Saturday night and left 10 minutes before gunshots rang out. He said he told Kenney about his late son, whose killing remains unsolved, and about his concern that safe places for young people are few and far between.

“I was telling him that these kids are just trying to have fun,” Johnson Sr. said, “but they’re running out of places where they can.”

Staff writer Chris Palmer and video journalist Astrid Rodrigues contributed to this article.