Five Hundred. That’s the tragic number of people who have been murdered this year in our City of Philadelphia. More than 400 of those murders came from gun violence.
Five. Hundred. Lives.
For too long, a combination of numbness and a hopeless acceptance of this crisis as inevitable has stopped us from truly reflecting on this growing death toll.
It isn’t just a number. These were real people who died. They were brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives that never returned to their families. Children woke up without a parent, and in over 27 cases, parents woke up to learn that their child would never be coming home again.
The statistics are grim. A person dies in Philadelphia every sixteen hours. A day after you’ve read this article, another person will be gone. This year, more than two thousand people have been shot in this city – that’s six shootings a day. Shootings happen even in broad daylight. People are being killed sitting in a parked car, playing arcade video games at a convenience store, or even an expecting mother bringing in presents into a house after her baby shower.
Despite the upward trend in murders, there is a growing movement to politicize gun violence, turning a human issue into a political one.
Violent crime and murder should be a universal wrong.
Once, it was not controversial or unusual for one to call for accountability after a crime was committed. Commonly, the elected officials conducting press conferences at crime scenes promised to prosecute the responsible to the fullest extent of the law.
Political factions over the course of the last four years have changed that, however. A war has been declared on accountability.
Now, when activists or community members call for accountability after a murder, they get painted as supporters of “bad cops,” are reminded of unrelated police brutality incidents, or are maligned as contributing to mass incarceration simply because they believe it’s unacceptable that another person died in their community.
Blame an elected official currently in office for gun violence in Philadelphia and you’ll be barraged by a million and one reasons why someone else, or a greater “system,” is more responsible. Even if the official has a direct role to play in solving murders or prosecuting crimes, that person will try to remain seen as hobbled by outside forces. This allows them to continue tiptoeing around obvious actions that could reduce violence as they shift the blame.
More black and brown residents are allowed to become victims due to their inattention.
Consequently, out of fear from being attacked, labeled, or protested, most elected officials following gun violence tragedies have the same formulaic response: Issue a carefully worded statement designed to offer short-term comfort to victims without any concrete promises of change or accountability.
During the summer this strategy was in full effect when I attended an hour-long grandstanding press conference following a shooting in a West Philadelphia store. It was, in my opinion, the lowest moment for our city this year.
In all the speeches that day, not one elected official called for accountability or pledged to catch and prosecute those responsible. There was no concern for the owner of the store or the employees that had to pass bullet-ridden glass on their way back to work the next day. Instead, it was a parade of media-grabbing catchphrases that meant nothing to victims or survivors.
I would be remiss not to mention that there are some elected officials who have remained committed, and have broken through the noise by introducing calls for real legislative solutions. A few have even acted outside of the legislative process to reduce gun violence.
But most others continue to play defensive politics with an issue in which lives are at stake, debating things that shouldn’t be debatable.
For example, our district attorney doesn’t believe in prioritizing the prosecution of illegal firearm possession cases, even when an individual has multiple prior illegal weapons arrests. His office spokesperson even called carrying an illegal gun a “non-violent offense” and refuses to recognize a correlation between the possession of illegal guns and the city’s rising homicide rate.
In a city that’s lost five hundred lives — 80 percent of those being gun homicides — it’s unacceptable to allow illegal firearm possessions to go unchecked. There is no reasonable argument that in the wake of our city’s shocking homicide numbers that we shouldn’t be prioritizing cracking down on individuals who legally shouldn’t be walking around with guns.
Our city has defunded efforts to catch criminals and then is shocked by the response of low arrest rates and even lower conviction rates. Stories come out almost weekly about individuals that have been arrested for a heinous crime while this is their second, third, or fourth offense.
It’s time to put away the failed politics and turn gun violence back to a human issue. We need our city to be led by common-sense strategies, like: directing dollars to catch people that have committed murder; eliminating bail for alleged murderers and other serious offenders; prosecuting illegal firearm cases seriously, especially when committed by repeat offenders; and admiting that you can have criminal justice reform while prosecuting people with appropriate sentences for crimes.
We must stop the politicization of gun violence.
Jabari K. Jones is the President of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative, the largest business association in West Philadelphia.