ON THE DOOR into the Uceta Mini Market in North Philadelphia, a sign warns shoppers, "No Weapons Allowed."
Inside, the message on a sign sandwiched between cigarette ads is even more blunt: "Stop. Shooting. People."
The market sits at Stillman and Somerset streets, just steps from the scenes of two recent gun slayings that remain unsolved. But in the store, where you can buy everything from milk to motor oil, the signs are an ignored, endured part of everyday existence - just like the homicides themselves.
This is among the city's most dangerous neighborhoods, where violence is as ingrained as the futility many feel that it will ever abate.
"I know a lot of people who got killed, maybe 10, I don't know how many," Marcus Henry, 29, said yesterday as he got his morning coffee.
Murders are up again this year in Philadelphia, and the city still has the highest homicide rate of the nation's 10 most populous cities, according to stats provided by each city's police department. At the same time, fewer murders are getting solved.
With a few days left in the year, the city's homicide tally stood at 324 Wednesday, including the eight victims allegedly killed in previous years by West Philly abortionist Kermit Gosnell. Last year, 306 people were killed, and the year before, 302.
But despite the jump in homicides this year, city officials prefer to focus on the past. When they compare numbers, they go back to 2007, when murders in Philly were at the five-year high of 392. Looking at it that way, they get a 17 percent decrease in the murder rate from 2007 to 2011.
Police spokesman Lt. Raymond Evers said the department compares this year's tally with 2007's to see long-range trends. "It's hard to get a trend between two years," he said.
But John Coleman, shopping at the Uceta market yesterday, wasn't buying the spin.
"They lyin'," said Coleman, 25.
Mayor Nutter, at a debate during his 2007 campaign, pledged that he wouldn't seek re-election if the 2010 homicide tally was more than the 288 killed in 2002. Then at his inauguration in January 2008, he set what turned out to be an overly ambitious goal of slashing the city's murder rate by 30 to 50 percent in three to five years. He won re-election this year.
So, number nitpicking is de rigueur at City Hall.
"We've been pretty much flat for about two years, if you take the Gosnell numbers out," said Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety, who spoke for the Nutter administration.
Gillison said the city had been making progress, but when the economy tanked, the mayor was unable to implement some of his plans for reducing crime.
"We've had to make some adjustments to our plan," he said, "but we're committed to extending our commitment" to reducing homicides.
Comparing murder rates with the rest of the 10 most populous cities, Philly comes out on top, with 20.7 homicides per 100,000 residents. The next closest are Chicago, 15.7, and Dallas, 10.9.
New York's rate is 6.1, and even notorious Los Angeles' is only 7.8, though rates for some smaller cities - like Detroit, New Orleans and St. Louis - are much worse than Philly.
Numbers aside, officials have no unexpected explanations for what's driving the trends. Some observers point to demographics.
Black citizens comprised 84 percent of homicide victims from January to June 2011, according to police statistics. Evers said he expects that trend will remain consistent once numbers are crunched through December.
"Responsibility has to be taken by members of the African-American community to address the issues that deal with this particular problem," Gillison said. "African-American males killed by other African-American males is literally the elephant in the room."
Chad Dion Lassiter, president of the Black Men at Penn School of Social Work, agreed: "Some of the black politicians in Philadelphia sit quiet on institutional racism and the black homicide rate. If I was giving them a grade, they'd all be in summer school."
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey laments the state's lack of strong gun control. Firearms were used in nearly 82 percent of the city's murders this year. Although shootings dropped more than 3 percent, more injuries ended in death, Ramsey said.
Retaliation also continues to be a problem, he said. Argument was the most common motive for murder, followed by what are categorized as unknown reasons, highway robbery and retaliation, according to police data from January to June.
Lassiter partly attributes the violence to the economy.
"People who have jobs don't commit crimes usually," he said. "Someone might drive [drunk], but working people for the most part don't pull guns on one another."
As for the falling murder-clearance rate, Evers said the department has made 221 murder arrests this year, down from 271 last year. "Our clearance rate was definitely better last year," he said. "Unfortunately, when you have more homicides, there's more jobs to go around to the same number of detectives."