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Black men in Philadelphia are an endangered species, murdered at an alarming rate by gun violence. 

The city's 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.   

Unlike New 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.  

Many would 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. 

The people who are dying are black. 

"I stand 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.  

Miami Police 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 community. 

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.  

Great cities 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. 

Meanwhile, 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. Columnist 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.


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September 6, 2007
Issue 243

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