They met in Philadelphia with the homicide tally in double digits yesterday, averaging more than a slaying a day since the start of the year.

Privately, they held their breath that the body count would stay below 100 before the end of a public-safety summit convened by Mayor Street.

But the disturbing truth, these 17 invited mayors from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware said, is that Philadelphia's 100th homicide would be inevitable because the violence infecting city neighborhoods is a pox for which Philadelphia and the region desperately need to find a vaccine.

When the summit broke up yesterday afternoon, the tally stood at 98. Late last night, a 99th victim died in a shooting in the 2800 block of North Ringgold Street in North Philadelphia in which two other people were wounded, one critically. With another earlier shooting death yesterday under investigation, the city's total could actually be 100.

For any anticrime prescription to work in Philadelphia, the attendees agreed, it must take aim at illegal guns: Of the 96 people slain through March 27, police department figures released yesterday show, 88 percent were cut down by gunfire.

"Major cities all over America and small towns as well are dealing with the problem of too many guns," Street said in opening the session at the National Constitution Center.

Said Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed: "If you discuss Philadelphia's crime problems" compared with other cities, "statistics might vary . . . but the issues are the same."

Harrisburg, population 49,000, had 14 homicides last year. Philadelphia, population 1.4 million, had 406. Allentown, population 110,000 and represented by Mayor Ed Pawlowski, had 15 homicides last year. This year it has had one.

"Allentown is not seeing the same uptick as Philadelphia, thank God, but we are feeling the same decrease" in resources available for law enforcement, Pawlowski said.

Reed said he was heartened two weeks ago when the Senate restored money in the federal budget for the Community Oriented Policing Services program, which helped put 140,000 more local police officers on the streets of America in the 1990s. The COPS program was drastically cut back beginning five years ago.

Several of the summit's attendees, including Street, are members of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition spurred by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

Their group's goal is to share best practices for dealing with a law-enforcement problem that is almost always compounded by economic, educational and socio-cultural factors.

New York, which sent a representative of Bloomberg's, is the shining example of a city in control, posting its lowest murder rate since the 1960s. And the picture just keeps getting rosier: New York slayings are down 30 percent compared with the first quarter of last year.

Philadelphia is the polar opposite. Its murder rate is outpacing last year's by 18 percent. The stinging reality is that more people have been killed in Philadelphia this year than in New York City, which had 84 murders as of Sunday among a population six times greater than Philadelphia's.

Criminologists and police say Philadelphia's problems include the fact that a large part of its African American population lives in isolated pockets of poverty. Philadelphia's unemployment rate, at 12 percent, is 4 percentage points higher than New York's. Its high school dropout rate for certain categories of minority students can exceed 50 percent.

The result is a growing population of largely poor, dangerously idle youth with no stake in peaceful prosperity, criminologists say. Add the easy availability of semiautomatic weapons and lethality is a forgone conclusion, they say.

A running gun battle Sunday afternoon in Southwest Philadelphia in which a 28-year-old mother of four was killed by an apparently errant gunshot is just one recent example. Among the evidence gathered at the scene, where four people also were wounded, were shell casings, live rounds and bullet fragments from .45 caliber, 9mm, .40 caliber and .357 Magnum handguns.

Street's strategy of reaching out to elected officials throughout the region is an attempt to boost the city's clout - in Harrisburg and Washington - by joining with other mayors in seeking grants and fighting for legislation that includes stronger restrictions on "stop-and-go" beer outlets in residential neighborhoods and provisions for large cities like Philadelphia to enact tougher gun laws than the rest of the state.

Widening the scope to include crime throughout the region also decreases some of the scrutiny on Philadelphia alone as a killing field. "What the press has to do is stop making this a body-count deal," said Wilmington Mayor James Baker. "It's happening in every jurisdiction. This increase in guns and drugs is driving everybody nuts."

To read continuing coverage of violence in Philadelphia, go to http://go.philly.com/violence.

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