In the last few months, everything about our lives has changed. We greet our friends and neighbors with masks on, from a distance of six feet, for their safety as well as our own. This experience has taught us that when our neighbor survives and thrives, so do we. We are in the midst of one of the most significant pandemics in recent history, which has disrupted our lives and threatened our health. Since COVID-19 came to our city, tragically, many have lost their lives. But remarkably, not one child has died of the virus.
However, in 2020 so far, 10 children have died of gun violence.
This year in Philadelphia, more than 100 children have been shot. In total, over 1,200 individuals have been victims of gun violence. This public health crisis has continued, unabated, disrupting the safety and health of families and communities. The time is now to implement evidence-based, effective policies — such as a permit-to-purchase or licensing law — in the state of Pennsylvania.
Across Pennsylvania, we’ve seen heartbreaking incidents of gun violence. In Philadelphia, the names of those who have died of gun violence highlight not only the individual lives lost, but the families, friends, and communities who are left to carry on. In southern Pennsylvania, a tragic event involving two siblings led to the death of a 9-year-old boy. In the northern part of the state, an intimate partner homicide left a community grieving. As tragic as these stories are, they highlight a larger problem. An average of four people will lose their lives to gun violence in our state each day. And many more will suffer injuries from a gun.
In Philadelphia, the number of shooting victims is up 40% in 2020. We’ve seen as many as 40 shootings take place in a single weekend. In 2019, nearly four times as many as were killed sustained injuries, both physical and emotional, that they carry with them for the rest of their lives.
We cannot fail to acknowledge the role that structural racism, and the lack of community trust that it produces, plays in violence throughout Pennsylvania. Now, we have an obligation to name our enemy with clarity. Though people of every race are deeply affected by gun violence, like many health conditions, it is fraught with racial disparities. If we claim to be committed to ending this legacy, we cannot ignore its effect on this public health crisis.
And without a doubt, this is a public health crisis. In some crises, it’s hard to know what to do. But solutions to gun violence exist. There are policies that have shown promise around the country for reducing gun deaths and restoring safe communities that we can enact to help to put an end to the tragedy.
However, much of the work of regulating firearms has been left to state or local legislators. As a result, states end up with a wide variance in laws governing firearms ownership and usage, as well as in oversight on sales and permitting.
Pennsylvania does not require a license or permit for firearm purchases. In contrast, New York and New Jersey both require such a permit, to help to ensure firearms do not end up in the wrong hands. These same states have some of the lowest firearm death rates in the country. Pennsylvania’s rate is more than twice as high. Though many factors contribute, effective permitting is one critical piece of an effective strategy to save lives.
The loss of life due to guns is unacceptable to everyone. Gun owners and non-gun owners throughout the commonwealth share many unifying values, one being that the lives of our families and neighbors are worth protecting. Time and again, law-abiding gun owners across the country have demonstrated responsible citizenship by supporting efforts that reduce unnecessary death and injury due to guns. But these priorities have not been matched by action in Harrisburg.
That has to change, and it must change now.
Though we are in the midst of a pandemic, other public health crises, like that of gun violence, do not take a day off. If anything, the social disruption our communities have been experiencing only heightens the urgency.
We wear our masks to protect the lives of our neighbors. We change our practices and undergo minor inconveniences to invest in the long-term health of our communities. These are our values, and they must also apply to gun violence. We must be willing to share responsibility. We can protect the rights of Pennsylvanians, beginning with the fundamental right to life.
Ruth Abaya is the injury prevention program manager for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. She is also an emergency medicine pediatrician at CHOP, a clinical scholar of the CHOP Violence Prevention Initiative, and a Stoneleigh fellow.