This past Fourth of July holiday saw unforgettable trauma throughout the city. In one incident, more than 100 shots rang out at a barbecue in a span of a few seconds.
Advocates, elected officials, and even labor unions have worked to address the issue — yet we are well on track to breach 500 homicides by the end of the year.
People are pouring money and energy into the issue. City Council announced $155 million in funding to decrease gun violence, with some support from the state. President Joe Biden has advocated for $900 million to address urban gun violence, and the Obama administration lifted the yearslong ban on federal funding for gun violence research.
Advocates have asked for the media to do a better job on gun violence reporting, and many journalists and TV news reporters have done so. Trauma surgeons and nurses are relentlessly advocating on behalf of the issue. Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson of South Philadelphia is rallying regularly to draw attention to the problem, alongside community members like Jamal Johnson, a veteran who went on a hunger strike against gun violence and hosts awareness rallies. Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, the city’s fiscal watchdog, has even stepped in with research and data to assist with the crisis, contributing to a valiant effort to address gun violence as a public health epidemic. Locals even launched the Truce app this spring for folks to anonymously report conflicts that might spill into violence.
The problem is there are just too many guns. The FBI estimates that nearly 40 million guns were purchased in 2020, by the number of National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) background checks conducted. Pennsylvania ranks in the top 10 states, with guns purchased at 1.4 million averaging more than 100,000 guns sold per month. And now ghost guns — firearms made DIY from existing or 3D-printed parts and so are completely untraceable — are much more prevalent than we may imagine. State Rep. Amen Brown negotiated a deal this year getting Pennsylvania’s largest gun show promoter, Eagle Arms Productions, to stop certain sales in order to reduce ghost guns. Meanwhile, Philadelphia recording artist Kur has rapped about the prevalence of ghost guns and switches, which are illegal devices that turn handguns into mini machine guns.
This year alone from January to June, FBI records indicate more than 760,000 firearms purchased in Pennsylvania, putting us in the top seven with Texas, Kentucky, Florida, California, Indiana, and, at No. 1, Illinois. Nationwide there have been more than 22 million background checks initiated through NICS already this year, signaling that gun sales are in fact increasing from last year.
The kicker is, there are still hundreds of thousands of background checks left incomplete, due in part to the “Charleston loophole,” in which the check is null and void if results aren’t returned in three days. Pennsylvania does have a second layer of protection from bad gun buyers via the Pennsylvania Instant Check System (PICS). Even so, Philadelphia remains one of the worst major U.S. cities in gun homicides. Efforts to eliminate the state’s instant background check system could make our gun violence even more daunting. A bigger problem is a large number of firearms sold are already hard to account for when lost and stolen, or flat-out straw purchased, meaning bought by one person for someone who is not allowed to own one or doesn’t want their name associated with the transaction.
It is far past time that gun violence prevention groups, legislators, and anti-gun lobbyists stop playing nice with gun owners and manufacturers. A potential answer is to go big and push for a blockade on the production and import of firearms for at least the next 20 years. This action will take courage, creative thinking, and relentless advocacy over a short window of time. But given the stakes, it feels necessary.
Michael Cogbill is an organizer for the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO and political action chair for the Pennsylvania NAACP. A version of this piece first appeared in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.