ON AUG. 1, just before 10 p.m. on Etting Street near Dickinson, in Grays Ferry, neighbors filled the street enjoying the mild summer evening. Three-year-old Tynirah Borum sat on a porch getting her hair braided. Two young men from the neighborhood arrived on a bicycle, began arguing and with complete disregard for life, fired off several rounds from a handgun. Tragically, they shot four people, one of whom was Tynirah. Shot through the left side of her chest, she died not long after.
The two men charged in the shooting had each previously been convicted of carrying a gun without a license. Douglas Woods had been sentenced to 9 1/2 to 23 months in jail and was released in June 2013. Brandon Ruffin had been sentenced to 11 1/2 to 23 months in jail, and was paroled on July 5 of this year. Less than a month after being released from jail, Ruffin managed to obtain a firearm, shoot three people and senselessly murder little Tynirah, authorities say.
This is not a unique story. For too long, those convicted of illegal possession or trafficking would expect light sentences with minimal - if any - jail time. For many of these people, the risk of possible punishment for illegal carrying was outweighed by what they perceived as the benefit of having the gun.
To make our communities safer, to keep guns off our streets, this must change.
This change requires vigilant enforcement and prosecution, and also tough sentencing. Carrying an illegal gun must bring serious consequences. A common thread is the role of the community. This is what CeaseFirePA's Courtwatch program is all about:making sure the community's voice is heard in the courtroom.
When judges impose sentences, they are required to consider the impact of the crime on the community. But, for too long, the only folks present in the courtroom to testify were there to support defendants. Without the countervailing weight of the community affected by illegal guns, the balance was tilted against the community.
Courtwatch brings community members into court for sentencing hearings after defendants have been convicted of or plead guilty to charges of illegal gun possession or trafficking in firearms. They provide evidence of the impact of these crimes on the community and communicate to the judges that no gun crimes are victimless. Even when a gun is not fired, having illegal guns in our neighborhoods affects our ability to live freely and safely.
Community-impact testimony better informs the sentencing calculus and gives the community a voice in the courtroom. It demonstrates to judges that the communities are also victims of gun crimes. And, it sends a message to defendants that the community will not tolerate illegal guns and gun violence.
To be effective, Courtwatch depends on the communities most affected by gun violence. Showing up at court, waiting for a hearing, standing up to testify - it is not easy. It takes up precious time, and demands strength and resolve. But it works. We have been doing it in Philadelphia for three years, and this year we implemented the program in Allegheny County. CeaseFirePA is committed to helping any community that wants to be part of this program to feel prepared, supported and empowered.
We came to Grays Ferry after Tynirah was shot to support the community. That night, and the next day, when we marched with the community, we heard the fear, anger and frustration. Speakers shared how they were tired of doing these marches, and implored the community to work with police to help put an end to senseless violence.
There is much work to be done. We need to know how these convicted felons obtained the gun, and we must do more to combat the loss, theft and improper transfers that flood our neighborhoods with illegal guns. We must keep guns out of the wrong hands and keep legal guns from becoming crime guns. We must use the power afforded to judges to impose tough punishments on those who violate the law. This depends on a combination of a strong regulatory system, tough enforcement and dedicated community members showing up in court for sentencing hearings.
Standing up in court and demonstrating to police, prosecutors, judges and defendants that we will not be silent in the face of the gun violence terrorizing our neighborhoods is a critical step forward in taking back our communities. We cannot afford more tragic losses like 3-year-old Tynirah, who was simply sitting on the porch.