PHILADELPHIA - For all the years he spent as a criminal and a drug user, Jose Rojas never saw the kinds of things now taking place in working-class neighborhoods like his in north Philadelphia.
"And it's going from bad to worse," Rojas, 47, said recently, sitting in the New Creation Church in Kensington, a high-crime neighborhood where he works as a lay evangelist. "During the time I was out there as a teen-ager, then in my 20s, it was relatively difficult to get weapons. Now? Kids 11, 12, 13 years old - they're packing .45-caliber semi-automatics, Uzis, Magnums, you name it."
And they are not afraid to use them.
While the rates of homicide and violent crime are declining in many of the country's largest cities, they are holding firm in Philadelphia. Although a slight dip over the first four months of this year has given officials some hope, the number of homicides has hovered steadily around 400 a year for nearly a decade. A majority of the deaths were caused by high-powered handguns, and a majority of the weapons were wielded by people under 23.
The gun czar
The problem has become so intolerable that Mayor Edward Rendell has appointed a deputy mayor - dubbed the gun czar - to coordinate local and federal efforts to stem the flow of weapons in the city. And in a move modeled after the actions against tobacco companies, he has threatened to sue gun manufacturers to recoup some of the money spent by the city's hospitals to treat gunshot victims.
Officials say they think one of the biggest factors in the high homicide rate is a 1995 gun law that has removed some of the discretion the police department had to deny permits for carrying concealed weapons.
The new law, they say, has contributed to a boom in gun buying here that has given Pennsylvania the distinction of having more licensed carriers of concealed weapons than any other state.
The legal age for buying a gun in Pennsylvania is 18, and most permit holders are legitimate gun owners. But law-enforcement experts here say that the state measure opened the door to a vibrant black market in handgun sales, in which buyers for whom routine background checks pose no problem can act as straw-man buyers and resell the guns on the street for handsome profits.
Furthermore, officials say, the sheer number of guns on the street in Philadelphia means more weapons are finding their way into the hands of young people.
Before the Uniform Firearms Action of 1995 was passed, state lawmakers recognized Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's largest city, as a special case on gun issues because of its persistently high crime rates. The police department had the right to turn down a request for a concealed weapons permit if the applicant could not demonstrate "a reasonable need." In 1994, just 1,500 permits were issued.
Overall, the new law strengthened the application process by requiring deeper background checks. But after the exception for Philadelphia was eliminated, the number of permits issued soared, to about 11,500 in 1996, said Richard Zapille, the deputy mayor appointed to lead the gun control efforts.
'A real blow to our efforts'
"That was a real blow to our efforts here," Rendell said of the gun law. "We weren't doing great before, but after the law passed, the number of permits issued to carry a concealed weapon was unbelievable."
Rendell appointed a handgun violence task force four years ago when it became evident that his city was failing to keep pace with the rest of the nation in reducing violent crime. But efforts to slow the mayhem have not made any appreciable difference in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, despite the slight dip in the homicide rate for the first four months of this year. Guns continue to flow in, and landscapes of abandoned factories, rotting houses and trash-strewn streets only make the life of a gun-toting drug dealer seem that much more glamorous to impressionable youngsters.
"Young children walking to school see these guys all in gold, wearing rings on their fingers and $150 sneakers," said Rojas, who spent 13 months in prison on drug charges. "They are influenced just by the way they look. They think, 'I want to be like him.' They have money. They have expensive sneakers and they have guns."
A study conducted by the task force found that of 273 people charged with murder in a 40-month period through March 1997, 171 of them - more than 62 percent - were 22 or younger.
That is far above the national average. In 1995, the last full year for which federal data are available, the Department of Justice found that among the 16,701 people across the country arrested for murder or non-negligent manslaughter, just 6,556 of them - 39.2 percent - were 22 years old or younger.
In the same year, Philadelphia's homicide rate of 30.7 per 100,000 residents was nearly twice as high as New York City's 16.1 per 100,000.
Members of the mayor's task force, as well as community leaders like Rojas who work with them, agree that much of the reason for the pervasiveness of handguns is the same as in other cities - drugs.
"The drugs begot guns, and they're both so entrenched now that good people feel the need to carry guns," Zapille said in a recent drive through Kensington and other low-income neighborhoods.
But Philadelphia has labored under additional burdens: The city was slow to coordinate crime-fighting with community outreach programs. Deep losses in its manufacturing base made Philadelphia's economic recovery less rapid than that of other cities, and poverty is deeply entrenched in many neighborhoods. Tougher gun laws in surrounding states have made purchases here easier by comparison.
Among the six states that border Pennsylvania, four - New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland - give local law-enforcement officials the discretion Philadelphia once had to deny permits to carry a concealed weapon to anyone they think does not have a legitimate reason. In West Virginia, the police have no such discretion. Ohio does not permit carrying a concealed weapon.
To quantify the magnitude of the problem in Philadelphia, the police department and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms conducted an intensive study of trafficking in all type of guns last year. The results included these findings:
In almost half of the legitimate sales, involving 38,338 guns, two or more were bought at the same time. Almost 8 percent of the guns, 3,046, were bought in purchases of 10 or more.
The police traced 2,865 guns recovered in arrests and found that 69 percent were bought in Pennsylvania, the highest percentage ever recorded, and a 10 percent increase over 1996. They also found that 53 percent were bought in Philadelphia, an 11 percent increase over 1996.
Firepower on the street is rising among the youngest offenders. Of 342 guns recovered from juveniles at the time of arrest, 65 percent were semi-automatic weapons, a 13 percent increase over the relative number of comparable weapons recovered in 1996. Twenty-six percent were revolvers, a 12 percent decrease.
Defenders of the state law, which was strongly supported by state Sen. Vincent Fumo, a Democrat from Philadelphia, argue that problems in Philadelphia stem not from the law itself but from lax enforcement of its provisions, some of which are unique among the states that allow residents to carry concealed weapons. In addition to denying a permit to anyone with a felony conviction or mental health problem, the norm for most states, Pennsylvania is now alone in banning the sale of guns to anyone who had a police record as a juvenile and to anyone classified as a "habitual drunken driver."
Starting in July, the law requires any private sale of a gun to be conducted before a licensed dealer or local law-enforcement officer.
"We chose to focus on the potential gun owner," said Christopher Craig, legal counsel to Fumo. "When the law is aggressively enforced, it will have a dramatic impact in the state."
But Rendell and others scoff at the notion that those involved in illegal street sales will suddenly comply with the state gun law.
"All I know is what we're facing on the street," said Thomas Stankiewicz, an agent with the federal firearms agency in Philadelphia. "We've had some success. But guns are always in demand, and the supply is readily accessible."
Philadelphia police officials said that more aggressive strategies in arresting people for illegal gun possession helped bring down the homicide rate for the first third of the year, to a projected year-end total of 321. And officials in other city agencies say new programs of community outreach and intervention are also disrupting cycles of violence.
But in Rojas' neighborhood, progress is slow. Children walking to school fear walking the blocks where gun sellers operate, he said, and on many nights, gunfire punctuates the silence.
"Sometimes it sounds like Vietnam around my house," Rojas said. "The other night, I heard two different-caliber guns go off. I didn't know what was going on, but I turned to my wife and said: 'Maybe we'll read about it in the papers tomorrow.' "
Pub Date: 5/31/98