After every shooting, Philadelphia’s public officials are often quick to point a finger at the state legislature’s inaction on gun control. While it’s true that the state needs to act, either by regulating guns more tightly or allowing cities like Philadelphia to enact regulations of its own, the critiques ring hollow when the city isn’t enforcing the few gun control laws it has.
Last year, the General Assembly in Harrisburg passed a bill that requires people who have been convicted of domestic violence crimes to surrender their firearms within 24 hours. The bill further requires that people who are subject to a final protection order to surrender their gun as well. This editorial board celebrated the bipartisan legislation that is aimed at protecting women.
But according to reporting by The Inquirer’s Claudia Vargas, since the law took effect in April, the vast majority of domestic abusers in Philadelphia who were ordered to surrender their firearms did not comply: So far, only 62 out of 574 gun owners have complied.
Recovering more firearms is possible. While Philadelphia’s recovery rate is 11%, nearby counties’ rates are at about 50%.
The reasons for the low recovery rate are absurd. According to The Inquirer report, they include sheriff’s deputies’ refusal to serve the order because the five to seven page document is too much paperwork, the office not being notified of protective orders that warrant investigations because a printer was turned off to save money, and a glitch in the state’s reporting system that prevented law enforcement from being notified when firearms weren’t surrendered, creating a 100-case backlog.
It is sad but unsurprising that among the last acts of Sheriff Jewell Williams, who was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, was not following up on court orders to ensure the safety of, mostly, women.
Sheriff-elect Rochelle Bilal said that confiscating weapons from domestic abusers would be a top priority for her.
The Sheriff’s Office is not the only one to blame. When a protective order is issued by the court, it is the job of the Philadelphia Police Department to serve the order and inform defendants that they have to turn in any firearm they may have. Those orders haven’t always been served.
After a shooting involving children in October, Mayor Jim Kenney said: “The city will do as much as we can do, but we can’t do this alone.” Kenney went on to talk both about the importance of community members providing information to the police and on Harrisburg preempting Philadelphia from enacting its own gun laws.
In reality, the city is far from doing all it can alone. For example, the details of a potential relaunch of focused deterrence — a gun violence prevention effort that was credited with reducing shootings in South Philly by 35% in 2013-14 — that has been discussed since the summer are still not finalized.