In the first 21 days of this year, 31 people were killed in Philadelphia — a dramatic increase compared with 17 in the same time period last year — and about 90 people were shot. And while data from only three weeks is far too small to make predictions for the entire year, this cluster of gun violence is unacceptable.
Of the 710 homicides in the past two years, at least 591 were committed by a handgun (the weapon in seven homicides is unknown or not reported by the police). According to data from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, about 86% of the 33,250 guns recovered by law enforcement in Philadelphia between 2001 and 2018 were handguns.
It is rare for people who commit gun offenses to buy the firearm directly from the legal markets. Where do the majority of the guns come from, then? Some are passed among acquaintances, some are stolen, and some are bought via straw purchases: When a legitimate gun purchaser sells their firearm illegally. When these guns end up used in a crime, a common defense of the original owner is that the gun was lost or stolen. And yet, according to AOG’s data, less than 3% of crime firearms recovered in Philadelphia have been reported as lost or stolen.
Since 2008, Philadelphia has a city ordinance on the books requiring gun owners to report a lost or stolen gun to the police within 24 hours from the moment they noticed the gun went missing. The failure to do so is supposed to bring heavy fines and potential jail sentences for repeat offenders. The ordinance was never enforced because of threat of litigation by groups like the National Rifle Association that allege that it violates state preemption — a fight the city is now welcoming.
The ordinance was enforced for the first time ever in November. The city contends that Rashad Armstrong, a Philadelphia man, knew that his gun was lost or stolen in 2018 but didn’t report it. The gun ended up at a crime scene in Lancaster a month later. The city is seeking a $2,000 fine. Armstrong has asked the judge to dismiss the case and block the city from ever enforcing it again. The Public Interest Law Center wants to become involved in the case on the side of the city in the name of two mothers who lost their sons to gun violence — one of them in Lancaster, who was shot using a gun from Philadelphia.
Like laws that require gun owners to store their firearms safely, reporting of lost and stolen firearms to prevent straw purchases would save lives without infringing on anyone’s Second Amendment rights.