Scott P. Charles
is director of Temple University Hospital's Cradle to Grave program and a past winner of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Community Health Leaders Award
It was a crisp February morning 10 years ago when the shots rang out. For all but the four who held the guns, it must have taken a moment to register what was happening. This, after all, wasn't the time for such things. It wasn't the place.
This was T.M. Peirce Elementary School, where 10-year-old Faheem Thomas-Childs found sanctuary from the violence that had become a fixture of his North Philadelphia neighborhood. Here at school, the A-plus student was free to dream. And laugh. And love. And transcend. He was free to be whatever he wanted to be.
If he could just make it inside the school.
That was something Faheem's mother never took for granted. When he left for school that day, she told him, "Watch out for cars, watch out for strangers, and, if somebody's shooting, duck." He didn't have time. The bullets came too fast.
For some time after the shooting - long after one of the gunmen's bullets claimed Faheem's life - there was outrage. So much outrage. Several weeks after his death, more than 8,000 people marched in Faheem's honor. Many wept. Many more carried signs. All of them vowed to "save the children."
As with any emotion, though, outrage is a difficult thing to sustain, its power inevitably blunted by time and familiarity.
During a recent eight-day span, three 11-year-olds were shot in Philadelphia. Like Faheem, two of the children were unintended victims injured in neighborhood conflicts. The third, a young girl, died after being shot by her 2-year-old brother in an accident as preventable as it was tragic.
Beyond being members of one heartbreaking fraternity, the three share one other fact: Each would have been a toddler on the day Faheem died.
Faheem would be 20 years old now. And I find myself thinking about him a lot, wondering how the young man - whose death once galvanized a city and inspired calls for more restrictive gun laws - would feel about our current state of affairs.
After the marching stopped and the signs came down, lawmakers found it difficult to advance the kind of commonsense gun legislation they had reflexively promised to enact in Faheem's name.
Today, in Philadelphia, as in the rest of Pennsylvania, there is still no required waiting period for purchasing a gun. There is still no restriction on the number or kinds of guns an individual can buy and no statewide law requiring gun owners to report "lost" or "stolen" weapons to authorities. As a result, it is nearly as easy today for straw purchasers to put guns in the hands of Philadelphia felons - such as those who waged war in front of Faheem's school - as it was a decade ago.
Since Faheem's death, more than 3,000 people have been murdered in the city. Many of them young. Most of them black. Nearly all of them male. And, over and over again, they have been killed by guns.
Today, gun violence represents the leading cause of death for young black men in the city. Today, we remain the deadliest big city in America. And, sadly, we have become so accustomed to gun violence that we celebrate when only 247 residents in a year are murdered, and when only 1,128 are shot.
Before Facebook and Twitter came to represent our notion of social networking, 8,000 Philadelphians organized to protest the shooting of a child and they did not care who "Liked" it. In stark contrast, a local organization that strives to mobilize communities in the wake of gun violence could get only about two dozen people to protest at the location where one of the 11-year-olds was shot. I would argue that 24 people is a dinner party, not an antiviolence rally.
I'm honestly not sure what it takes to get our backs up. It just saddens me to think there is a child - or a number of children - somewhere in the city right now waiting to die in a manner so extraordinary that we'll be forced to stop ignoring the epidemic at our doorstep.
A decade ago, Faheem was to be that child. We told him he would not die in vain. I don't know that we can look at ourselves and say we kept our promise.
To Faheem, and all the other children who have died - and who will continue to die - we owe you an apology. We have done a lot of things, but save you, we have not.