Philadelphia set a record in 2021 with 562 murders. 2022 will most likely be worse. As of August 9 at midnight, we had suffered 337 homicides, nine more or a three percent increase over 2021, the deadliest year in city history.
On August 1, the murder count this year exceeded last year’s pace by a single killing. Among the murders that pushed this year ahead of last was the death of a 29-year-old woman in Frankford from a stray bullet; she had been sitting on her front porch barbecuing with friends. A short time later, a van full of gunmen sprayed the entrance to SEPTA’s Arrott Transportation Center with dozens of bullets. The contagion of violence has exploded well beyond the confines of historically violent neighborhoods and groups.
Crime at major transportation centers like Arrott has become endemic. There have been multiple shootings, including at least one homicide, at the Clothespin at 15th and Market in Center City. There was a shooting in the 1700 block of JFK Boulevard. There was a mass shooting on South Street in the heart of the tourist and entertainment district. Gun violence is everywhere and is fast becoming our city’s brand. And, with all too regular occurrences, young Black and Brown men are executing each other on our streets with five to 20 shots fired into each other’s heads and bodies.
The first step in every shooting is picking up a gun. What if in Philadelphia there were always significant legal and social consequences for carrying a gun?
People and businesses outside our city have no reason to come here, and those that are here have no reason to stay. It is hard to persuade remote workers to return to Center City when they see on the news that there are shootings in the stations where they catch the train and on the sidewalks where they walk to lunch. Suburban parents are not likely to send their children into our city for concerts and other events if they might be killed in transit. If the city is to survive and thrive, we need to change what we are doing. We need a bold response that matches the gravity of the moment.
The first step in every shooting is picking up a gun. What if in Philadelphia there were always significant legal and social consequences for carrying a gun? We should apply a consistent three-step process to gun possession; punish, shame, and rehabilitate.
Step One: Make guns like kryptonite
For most of the past 50 years, illegally carrying a gun in Philadelphia has resulted in little or no legal consequences. From the 1970s through 1996, illegal gun possession in Philadelphia was a misdemeanor prosecuted in the city’s equivalent to small claims court, Municipal Court. As young assistant district attorneys, my colleagues and I engaged in a futile battle in Municipal Court to get jail sentences for gun possession, only to have those rare sentences appealed to the Court of Common Pleas, where they were promptly vacated and adjusted to probation.
When I was elected DA, illegal gun possession had already been upgraded to a felony. My work with Mayor Nutter and Commissioner Ramsey to get more consistent bail and punishment for gun possession had a dramatic effect on gun violence, ushering in two consecutive years with record lows. But even during that period when we put an intense focus on illegal gun possession cases, jail time was never close to a universal outcome.
What if we could credibly say to the young men carrying the guns, “If you carry a gun, you will go to jail?” We don’t have to speculate about the impact from that new reality. We know from years of research that the certainty of punishment has more impact on behavior than the severity of punishment.
Of course, the converse is true: The certainty of no punishment has the opposite effect on behavior. There are individuals walking Philly streets today who have not one, not two, but as many as five or 10 prior arrests for illegal gun possession.
And they never went to jail.
This is not a new phenomenon — and not one that started with Larry Krasner. Krasner has made it exponentially worse by withdrawing, losing, or giving away a high percentage of gun cases and refusing to pursue probation violations for offenders on probation for gun offenses. But the City has never had a consistent policy of punishing gun possession.
What if we dramatically altered this dynamic?
The experience in New York City beginning in the mid-1990’s and up through Michael Bloomberg’s administration proved that aggressively enforcing gun laws will reduce gun violence. Does anyone remember Plaxico Burress? He was the pro football player caught with an illegal gun in New York City (he accidentally shot himself in a nightclub). Despite his money and celebrity, he went to jail for two years because the culture in New York City at that time did not tolerate people who illegally carried guns.
That lack of tolerance for illegal guns led to one of the steepest declines in homicides and shootings in the history of any city. New York City went from over 2,000 murders annually to less than 500. A city of 8 million with fewer murders than Philadelphia, a city of 1.6 million! In recent years, the gun violence in New York has ticked back up as the City has stopped enforcing the two-year mandatory sentence that sent Burress to jail.
Does Philadelphia have the will to do what New York City did? To adopt a policy and culture that does not tolerate illegal guns? One way to get there is mandatory sentencing.
State law contains a Philadelphia-only statute that could easily be made into a mandatory sentence. Section 6108 applies to cities of the First Class only. Philadelphia is the only city of the First Class in Pennsylvania. By making Section 6108 a mandatory minimum of two years, or even one, the state legislature would ensure that illegally carrying a gun in Philadelphia — the city with the worst murder and violence problems — would carry certain and severe consequences.
This change would only impact our city so theoretically other county legislators would have no reason to oppose it. Yes, I am advocating mandatory jail time for Philadelphians who illegally carry guns because I know that it is not the severity of punishment that prevents crime it is the certainty, and mandatory sentences provide a level of certainty. I changed office policies and “demandatorized” many drug cases. But if you are willing to carry a gun illegally, we need to send you to jail before you kill. “Gotta go, gotta go!”
Of course, Krasner and the courts do not need to wait for Harrisburg to act to change the culture around guns. City Council, the police commissioner and Mayor Kenney could advocate immediately for jail sentences in illegal gun cases as both a broad policy through their public rhetoric and in individual cases by going to court and asking to speak about the impact of guns on our communities at sentencing hearings.
Mayor Rendell did this in the ’90s, having representatives go to courts to talk about the impact of car thefts. The 2023 mayoral candidates could all adopt policy positions seeking to impose harsh penalties for the mere possession of an illegal firearm.
When I publish these opinions, I always expect to be vilified by the far left as well as the far right because I call out how morally bankrupt both of their political orthodoxies are. The right wing will likely object to a mandatory sentence for gun possession because it violates their policy of creating zero obstructions to flooding the streets with guns.
The far left, which reflexively opposes any law enforcement focused efforts, will argue against “mass incarceration” or as Larry Krasner says, “replacing the war on drugs with a war on guns,” and “prosecuting illegal gun possession criminalizes poverty.” No doubt poverty and hopelessness contribute to crime and violence, but even Larry can separate the “I am poor and hopeless” group from the “I can do whatever the f*#k I want” group. I have to believe the individuals throwing bullets down a residential block in Frankford and killing an innocent woman on her front porch fall into the latter category.
Regardless of whether those shooters are poor and desperate or depraved and malevolent, the consequences for their actions will be the same; they will spend the rest of their natural lives in prison for murder. Isn’t two years in prison for gun possession better than life in prison for a murder? Wouldn’t putting more people in jail for a few years for gun possession result in less people going to jail for life for murder?
Krasner brags about the 28,000 fewer years of incarceration imposed in Philadelphia since he became district attorney. But under his regime, Philadelphia still has the highest number of citizens in the state who are eligible for long prison sentences or life in prison because we have the highest number of citizens carrying and using illegal guns. Since Krasner took office, there have been over 2,000 murders. Each of those murders has the potential to result in a life sentence.
Likewise, shootings have increased dramatically under Krasner, creating another category for a large number of long prison sentences. So looked at more broadly, consistent harsh punishment for gun possession may actually reduce incarceration levels. In New York City when they cracked down on gun possession, they actually saw their prison population at Rikers Island decline because there was less serious crime occurring.
Did Plaxico Burress have to go to jail? Yes, he did, in order to maintain a community standard. Don’t carry illegal guns. If you do, you will go to jail. Make guns like kryptonite and see what happens to our city’s gun violence. We have nothing to lose if we have the courage to take this bold step.
Step Two: Shame gun possessors in their community
What if in addition to punishing gun possession, we shamed those that are guilty of that crime? Many communities publicize the arrest of drunk drivers, child predators, and “johns” who patronize prostitutes. What if we did the same with guns? Put their pictures online with captions like, “Afraid to fight so he hides behind a gun” or “Coward who hurts his community by carrying a gun.” Use social media to embarrass the same young men who currently wear their arrest records and association with violence as a badge of honor.
I know the power of public shame. I saw my face and name in the media and continue to face condemnation and scorn as a result of the past (this article will likely ignite a storm of Seth Williams-shaming on Twitter — it happens every time). I don’t care who you are, shaming has an impact. We could enlist celebrities in the effort. Maybe hearing that guns are for punks from the Eagles’ Brandon Graham will have more of an impact than likes for violent videos on Instagram.
We already condemn people arrested for gun violence and abhor the guns themselves, but we do little to condemn the people carrying the guns before they use them. We have it exactly backwards. We put millions of dollars in resources toward investigating, prosecuting, and housing murderers for life — but we do nothing when they show the first sign of being a murderer by carrying a gun.
Step Three: Rehabilitate
Rehabilitation is likely to have more success early in the criminal career if punishment is certain and society sends a clear message that the culture of the gun is unacceptable. People are more likely to leave a culture that is scorned than one that is glorified. Within the community, there is a collective agreement that using guns to hurt others is unacceptable, but we are not having an argument directly with the folks carrying the guns.
Let’s start an argument about whether people who carry guns are tough and glamorous or weak and selfish. As a society, we should be able to win that argument but we have to start it first.
R. SETH WILLIAMS is the former district attorney for Philadelphia, and was the first African American elected as a district attorney anywhere in the Commonwealth. He pleaded guilty to bribery in 2017 and subsequently resigned. Follow him on Twitter at @newsethwilliams. The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.
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