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Philly’s South Street massacre demands action on guns, but GOP isn’t having it

The popular Philly nightlife scene is the latest site terrorized by rapid gunfire, with no sign that the GOP in Harrisburg or D.C. will do anything.

Philadelphia police tape off an area at Third and South Streets near the scene of a mass shooting late Saturday.
Philadelphia police tape off an area at Third and South Streets near the scene of a mass shooting late Saturday.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

My new life as a Philadelphian began, in essence, at the corner of Third and South Streets. It was a spring night in 1989 — I’d just turned 30 — and my future wife, who’d just moved back to her Philly roots, hustled this New York City chauvinist directly from 30th Street Station to the liveliest intersection she knew. Her idea was that a couple of margaritas from Copabanana and the blues coming from Bacchanal down the street would sell me on the notion that the City of Brotherly Love wasn’t the boring place of those W.C. Fields jokes I’d learned growing up.

I guess her scheme worked, because not only am I still around, but we have a 29-year-old daughter who now lives about 1.5 miles from that corner. I can’t express my relief waking up this morning knowing she was out of town for the weekend — and thus 300 miles away from the carnage that cascaded across that very same stretch of South Street on a warm and crowded Saturday night in June, leaving dazed bystanders splattered in blood and three young dead bodies on the asphalt.

Any personal relief was small consolation, though, amid the sickening feeling that gun violence is now tearing apart the very fabric of life here in the city where American democracy was founded — and that American democracy seems incapable of doing a damned thing to stop it. To a lot of folks around the country, waking up to the news that a Wild West-style scene of semiautomatic gunfire from multiple shooters not only killed those three people but wounded at least 11 others on South Street merely added Philadelphia to America’s fast-growing 2022 dishonor roll of mass shooting locations, from Uvalde, Texas, to Buffalo, N.Y., to Tulsa, Okla. The backstories vary, but the throughline remains constant — too much firepower, in the world’s only nation with more guns than people.

But people need to understand — it’s even worse than that. Just the Memorial Day weekend before, Philadelphia experienced — without much fanfare — a kind of mini-Uvalde with a whopping 14 people killed by bullets, including a 37-year-old dad and his 9-year-old son sprayed by bullets in a car after coming home from a cookout, and a 1 a.m. shootout at an East Tioga Street party that left two women dead and wounded two others, including a 14-year-old girl. That the bloodshed wasn’t all in one place by one gunman apparently makes it less newsworthy, but arguably 16 shootings in one weekend in one city are more terrifying than one big one.

Because that’s what gun violence in America has become in 2022 — a vast, all-encompassing form of terrorism. Despite murder rates in Philadelphia and other locales rising to unacceptable levels, and despite the slew of mass shootings with AR-15-style killing machines, the odds that you personally will be shot remain small. But both the rising fear of violence — especially in cities that have spent decades climbing back from late-20th-century despair — and the demoralizing stories of helpless children cut down by bullets have created a wider sense of hopelessness about the American Experiment and whether it can be saved.

We know what the problems are. The violence occurs at the intersection of damaged people and their access to devices that allow them to kill people with such ease. I’ve written extensively about the people aspect — especially the crisis of our young men like the shooters in Buffalo and Uvalde and presumably on South Street, and I’ve also written a book that’s, in part, about how our broken education system makes this worse.

But what’s really unique about America is the guns. That’s partly a factor of the staggering number of firearms — more than 400 million, in a nation of 331 million, double the rate of the next-closest nation, which is war-ravaged Yemen. But what’s also unique is the warped American mindset — that when 19 fourth graders and their two teachers are slaughtered in a Texas classroom, our neighbors in Canada enact gun control laws while here in the United States, sales of the AR-15 used by the murderer have reportedly skyrocketed.

The shootings on South Street and in Uvalde and Buffalo are a summons to our fundamental humanity. What’s frustrating is that we can think back to other times and other issues when America — despite its poisoned roots in white supremacy and patriarchy — could summon its better angels. In my lifetime, the images of police siccing dogs and spraying water cannons at Black people marching for their civil rights caused the majority to successfully end legal segregation, for example. Today, millions of Americans want both empathy and real action toward ending gun violence, yet we can name the irresistible object that stands in the way.

It is the Republican Party and those who enable its sick culture.

The column that I went to bed Saturday night thinking I was going to write today was actually about gun violence — but with a focus on the story of a Republican congressman from the Buffalo area, Rep. Chris Jacobs. Last month, Jacobs witnessed the nightmare in his own backyard — an 18-year-old addled by white supremacist propaganda, scoping out a predominantly Black supermarket on Buffalo’s East Side and killing 10 people there — and reacted not as a politician but as a human being. He said it was time to ban the sale of AR-15s and raise the age for gun ownership from 18 to 21. “I can’t in good conscience sit back and say I didn’t try to do something,” Jacobs said initially.

Having a conscience and trying to do something meant the end of Chris Jacobs’ career as a member of the Republican Party. Within hours of his statement, he was savaged by Donald Trump Jr., who wrote that Jacobs had “caved to the gun-grabbers,” and Jacobs suddenly saw 2022 GOP primary challengers crawling out of the woodwork. For supporting gun control, in one of the nation’s supposedly more liberal states, Jacobs was forced in little more than a week to end his reelection campaign and his short-lived career in Congress.

» READ MORE: Don’t be ‘horrified and heartbroken’ at Uvalde. Get mad as hell and do something.

Apparently, Jacobs hadn’t noticed that his own GOP no longer just supports expansive gun rights as a matter of differing policy but now embraces heavy firepower as a lifestyle that’s wrapped in a cloth of Christian nationalism that barely hides its true nature as a beacon of white supremacy, in an ever-escalating culture war.

In the days between the shootings in Uvalde and on South Street, the Washington Post chronicled how firing an assault rifle has become a powerful and provocative image for Republican candidates in the 2022 midterms, including Pennsylvania GOP Senate nominee Mehmet Oz and the candidate he narrowly defeated, David McCormick, both of whom shot off weapons in their ads to prove their alleged manhood to base voters. Meanwhile, a new piece by Thomas Lecaque in the Bulwark outlines ties between Pennsylvania’s Republican gubernatorial nominee, Doug Mastriano, and a sect that literally worships guns, known as Rod of Iron Ministries.

This results in uncompromising policy. Here in Pennsylvania, conservatives are quick to blame any violence in Philadelphia on the city’s liberal Democratic leaders, including reform-minded District Attorney Larry Krasner. They don’t want to talk about the guns, they don’t really want to talk about the cops (who were out in full force on South Street Saturday night, yet powerless to stop the carnage). And they definitely don’t want people to ponder how the NRA-funded, GOP-led legislature has thwarted the city’s efforts to enact local gun control.

That is tragic because gun laws work. The neighboring states of New York and New Jersey, where progressive lawmakers and governors have enacted some gun control measures, have notably lower murder rates than Pennsylvania. An eye-opening report this weekend in the New York Times found that commonsense gun laws — such as uniformly raising the purchase age for assault rifles to 21 — could have saved 446 lives by stopping 35 separate incidents that had occurred since 1999′s Columbine school massacre.

But that’s not going to happen. Mitch McConnell and other Senate Republicans — desperately seeking to change the subject beyond “thoughts and prayers” — simply pay lip service to some incremental reforms after the worst mass shootings, hoping to run out the clock. Even the fiercest advocate for gun control on Capitol Hill, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, admitted Sunday that any post-Uvalde legislation will be small-bore, that “[w]e’re not going to put a piece of legislation on the table that will ban assault weapons or pass comprehensive background checks.”

So the best-case scenario is a two-America strategy — a union of blue states with some commonsense gun laws that won’t be free from the contagion, or the steady stream of heartbreaking news, from a confederacy of red states with unlimited gun rights ... and unlimited guns. I’m using Civil War nomenclature on purpose because the last time that an immovable, large minority embraced a culture so fundamentally immoral was when the Southern states fashioned their identity around clinging to the power to enslave others.

America reached a point in 1861 where compromise was impossible, and amazingly, we are again reaching that point today. The true moral majority of Americans must, with nonviolence, do whatever they can — at the ballot box in November, in our communities, and in the streets, if necessary — to marginalize the indefensible, as happened in the 1960s with segregation. The alternatives are increasingly unthinkable.

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