A Q&A on the factors related to the rising gun violence and murder rate in Philadelphia

DECEMBER 20, 2006

The spike in gun violence in Philadelphia and the related homicide rate (as most of murders have been committed with handguns) have been well publicized for several months. As of December 3rd, 370 people had been killed in the city since the beginning of the year, as compared to 344 at the same time last year, outpacing 2005's homicide rate by 7%. A total of 380 homicides were committed in Philadelphia in 2005. That figure represents a 15% increase in the number of people murdered in the City of Brotherly Love in 2004. Most of the gun violence has occurred in North Philadelphia, Southwest Philadelphia, and parts of South Philadelphia, but many other sections and neighborhoods have been affected.

In our feature article, we have asked Charles Branas, PhD, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Senior Scholar in the CCEB and Lead Epidemiologist in the Firearm and Injury Center at Penn (FICAP), Division of Trauma and Surgical Critical Care, and Douglas Wiebe, PhD, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Senior Scholar in the CCEB, Epidemiologist/Social Ecologist with FICAP, to provide some insight on this very troubling trend in Philadelphia.

Q: What factors have contributed to the escalation of gun violence and homicide in the city during the last couple of years?

CB: It's always difficult to pinpoint specific factors that carry the lion's share of the blame for gun violence in Philadelphia, but a few generally seem to rise to the top. These include open-air, illicit drug markets, alcohol outlets, and availability of illegal firearms. Illegal drugs likely relate to violence brought about by trafficking and, to some degree, actual usage of illegal drugs. Trafficking of "Philly heroin," a very potent brand of heroin that is also an unfortunate source of pride for some in the city, has seen a recent resurgence and may be part of the trend in gun violence. Alcohol is also possibly related to the trend in gun violence and some think that "stop-and-go" outlets where alcohol is purchased but consumed illegally off premises, like in a nearby park or vacant lot, may be important. Illegal guns and the way these guns get into criminal hands is also likely important. Although the vast majority of owners of legally purchased guns are law abiding, a small but not insignificant percentage of "straw purchasers" redistribute legally obtained firearms, sometimes in large numbers, to otherwise proscribed individuals who then may go on to commit crimes with these guns.

Q: Will your current research shed some light on the recent spate of gun violence in Philadelphia?

CB: It will and, in fact, is specifically designed to test the competing effects of many of the environmental factors I just mentioned: illicit drugs, alcohol outlets, and gun availability. Stay tuned for our first research papers and reports to the City of Philadelphia in the next several months.

Q: Can you elaborate on the "open air" drug market concept?

CB: The idea of illicit drug markets being "open air," that is, outside, is key to the violence they may generate. Being illegal, drug markets don't function in buildings with store fronts and signs the way legitimate businesses do. Marketing and sales are forced largely out of doors. They also don't benefit from legal mechanisms (i.e., courts and police) to settle disputes so businessmen in these illegal markets are forced to deal with things on their own, arm themselves with guns and, hence, it is thought contribute to more shootings in their vicinity. It is interesting to note that they are, nonetheless, businesses like any other and, as such, deal in profit margins, employee management, and, have business leaders who are not, for the most part, the users of their product. In this way, we hypothesize that it's the existence of the markets themselves that largely generates the violence and not the personal use and abuse of illicit drugs a hypothesis that our current research intends to directly address.

DW: You asked about a gun violence increase, but in fact our studies are designed to learn why gun violence happens at all. If we do find that drug markets are a risk factor for gun violence, this does help us learn about the increase after all. This is because we can take that finding and assess whether the number of drug markets operating in Philadelphia has increased during recent times. If that number has in fact increased, I would say that is reason to suspect that the drug markets had something to do with the increase.

Q: Do you think organizations such as Men United can have a significant impact in stemming the flow of guns in the city and reducing gun violence?

CB: A great many efforts are now underway in Philadelphia to reduce gun violence. We are overdue for these and, truth be told, we are far behind other cities in having such programs in place. Some of the larger violence reduction efforts that are currently underway include the Blueprint for a Safer Philadelphia, a state-funded program, and the Philadelphia Collaborative Violence Prevention Center, a federally-funded program whose partners include members of the Philadelphia community, and individuals from Children's Hospital, Penn, Temple, and Drexel.

Q: What other actions, e.g., legislative, governmental, civic, do you think might lower the level of gun usage and reduce the murder rate?

CB: First, I would rephrase your question to say "illegal gun usage" our work is not intended to take guns out of the hands of legal owners and I wouldn't want to give that impression. With that said, I'll wait to give an answer until we have completed our first analyses from the current NIH studies of gun violence in Philadelphia. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

DW: With those analyses and the focus on environmental factors, the hope is to identify locations or characteristics of locations, possibly those mentioned above, that in some way "allow for" shootings to occur. What could follow are opportunities to make changes (e.g., to streets, structures, or business practices) that could have a preventive effect, and in this way the potential does exist for legislative action to play a role in curbing gun violence. We shall see. But our approach -- identifying locations that are conducive to shootings -- can be seen as one of many strategies that can contribute to a larger public health effort, which ultimately may be what is required to reconcile root problems that lead to these situations that prompt people to resort to gun violence.





[Editor's note: As of December 18th, the homicide total had risen to 393, eclipsing last year's murder total.]

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