in Philadelphia are an endangered
species, murdered at an alarming rate by gun violence.
murder rate is the highest of America's
ten largest urban centers. Although Philadelphia has
only one-sixth the population of New
York City, it has more murders. In 2006,
406 people were murdered in Philadelphia,
a trend that shows no sign of relenting through 2007. So
far, as of September 4, there have been 279 murders this year.
In fact, the
situation is so alarming that Philadelphia City Council members
Darrel Clarke and Donna Reed Miller have sued the Pennsylvania legislature,
accusing it of placing a stranglehold on the city's ability
to enact tougher gun laws.
York City, Philadelphia cannot
pass its own gun laws. The City Council would like to
pass legislation limiting gun purchases to one a month, and
strikes at purchasers who buy multiple guns for those who
cannot do so because of a criminal record. But the Pennsylvania legislature
will not give any municipality that authority. With
no waiting period to purchase a gun other than a background
check, and police unable to restrict who can carry a concealed
weapon, Pennsylvania has one of the country's most lax gun
laws. In fact, the Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence
gave the state a D+ on laws shielding families from gun violence.
suggest that the Philadelphia murder
crisis is being ignored for the same reason that the U.S. and
the West ignored the cries for help in Rwanda,
and continue to do so today, amidst the genocide in the Darfur
region of Sudan.
who are dying are black.
here today as an outraged black man," said Michael Nutter,
who is poised to become the city's next mayor. "And
I'm outraged that more people of more races are not outraged." Nutter
noted that of the 406 people murdered in Philadelphia last
year, 296 were black adult men.
Chief John Timoney seems to agree. "There's also some inherent
racism. I can guarantee you ... that if 85 percent of the people
in big cities getting killed were white, there'd be a different
approach to this whole thing. ... They'd be screaming for more
federal legislation. They'd be demanding it, and to hell with
the NRA," he recently told CBS News.
The NRA is
one of the nation's most powerful lobbyists, and its grip on Pennsylvania is apparent. It seems
to have more clout than the families in North and Southwest
Philly who are being strangled by gun violence. "This
legislature, for too long, has been in the control of the NRA," Pennsylvania
Governor Ed Rendell said, noting that criminal penalties for
receiving a stolen television are harsher than for a stolen
gun. "This legislature, for too long, has done things
favored by lobbyists, not things favored by people."
The NRA and
the power it wields have little to do with freedom, liberty,
or constitutional rights, and everything to do with profiting
on a myth about the Second Amendment. The amendment says "A
well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of
a free State,
the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be
infringed." Somehow, the gun lobby has ignored
the first part of the amendment, and uses the second part of
the amendment as a justification for a limitless gun supply. Common
sense should dictate that the proliferation of such weapons — now
numbering about one for every American — is incompatible with
a stable democracy.
In 1991, former
Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger called the Second
Amendment "the subject of one of the greatest pieces of
fraud, I repeat the word 'fraud,' on the American public by
special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime...[the
NRA] ha(s) misled the American people and they, I regret to
say, they have had far too much influence on the Congress of
the United States than as a citizen I would like to see - and
I am a gun man." Burger also noted, "The very
language of the Second Amendment refutes any argument that
it was intended to guarantee every citizen an unfettered right
to any kind of weapon...[S]urely the
Second Amendment does not remotely guarantee every person the
constitutional right to have a 'Saturday Night Special' or
a machine gun without any regulation whatever. There
is no support in the Constitution for the argument that federal
and state governments are powerless to regulate the purchase
of such firearms..."
The only gun
control law to be struck down on Second Amendment grounds was
that of the District of Columbia, which was overturned
this year by a federal appeals court. One can only hope that
this misguided decision, which D.C. will appeal in the Supreme
Court, is only an aberration.
And the U.S. must come to terms with the
historical role of gun violence in American society. Whether
it was the massacre of native populations, the maintenance
of slavery, the reign of terror during Jim Crow segregation,
or the suppression of free speech and labor unions, the gun
was there. It has been a bloody history, not one to be
romanticized. And even today, the use of state-sponsored
gun violence in a senseless war in Iraq has
cost thousands of lives, and only worsened America's reputation in the international
At the same
time, for Philly and other urban centers, guns are not the
only problem, although they are part of a vicious cycle. Philadelphia is
mired in poverty — about 30 percent — in spite of the conspicuous
signs of prosperity downtown. Many poor, uneducated and
unemployed men with lots of spare time and little or no hope
make a perfect recipe for disaster. And communities of
color often refuse to cooperate with law enforcement, and understandably
so, because of a long history of police brutality and shooting
first and asking questions later.
such as Philadelphia cannot fight
this battle alone, blocked every step of the way by suburban
and rural legislators whose constituents love their guns. Gun
violence touches every part of society, big city and small
town alike. And suburbanites, who believe their responsibility
to the cities ended with the onset of white flight, must realize
that we will rise or fall based on our cities. For example,
if Philadelphia is
consumed by gun violence and unable to attract new residents
and business, the entire region will suffer.
the Pennsylvania state legislature
recently passed a bill that would compel police departments
to trace illegal guns confiscated from minors and report them
to a state police registry, and expand the definition of firearms
to include rifles and shotguns. Gun control advocates
say the legislation, which was backed by the NRA, is not enough.
Ultimately, Philadelphia must be freed
from the grip of the state legislature and the gun lobby so
that it is can develop solutions to stop this bloodletting. The
lives of these black men and their families must take priority
over the profiteering of arms manufacturers and high-priced
lobbyists in Harrisburg.
David A. Love is an attorney based in Philadelphia,
and a contributor to the Progressive Media Project and McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
He contributed to the book, States
of Confinement: Policing, Detention and Prisons (St. Martin's Press, 2000). Love is
a former spokesperson for the Amnesty International UK National Speakers Tour, and organized
the first national police brutality conference as a staff
member with the New York-based Center for Constitutional
Rights. He served as a law clerk to two Black federal judges. Click
here to contact Mr. Love.