Sarah Palin shooting meese from a helicopter? That’s cruel. Heather LaCroix blowing up televisions with a 10 gauge? That’s hilarious.
You might wonder if I’ve gone off the deep end with this post, but I hope you’ll bear with me and read the whole thing, because I think you will learn something about me.
There will be no jump in this article today–I’m gonna make this fill the whole website. Enjoy the scrolling.
Where I Come From On This
I hear both sides of the gun debate constantly. I argue with ardent believers in the 1st Amendment who flatly deny that the 2nd Amendment even exists. I argue with gun enthusiasts, card-carrying NRA members about the aspects and damage that gun violence poses (yours truly is an NRA member and also the little-known GOA, Gun Owners of America).
Both sides say a lot of shit that is just absolutely flat wrong. And both sides, especially those on the farthest reaches of the gun control spectrum, have deep criticisms of the police and the justice system. Some gun owners accuse all pro-gun control advocates of being lovers of criminality. Some pro-gun control activists accuse all gun owners of being criminals, including all those who go hunting and fishing and to the gun range on the weekends. Both sides slap each other with stereotypes and both sides then do the same to law enforcement who is charged to protect them.
I find myself caught between the two sides as a person who has owned guns practically my entire life. I do not believe guns are a substitute for safety. They can certainly change the stakes when your life is threatened, but they have never been proven to be a deterrence against home invasions or burglaries. Sure, THAT burglar that got into your house and was shot now knows better, but it’s not like your bullet-riddled burglar will text every other burglar in the tri-state area to let them know to stay away from 1618 Chrysanthemum Drive.
There is a reason why Pennsylvania’s Constitution goes directly to this statement: The right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State shall not be questioned. This isn’t a right that’s been obsoleted simply because humankind is suddenly a whole helluva-lot nicer than it was in the 18th century.
The Gun Debate
In the last few weeks, the age-old gun debate has resurfaced with a vengeance. There was Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher familycide and later during the Eagles/Cowboys game Bob Costas tried to insert the debate into a 50 second segment during half-time, which the Washington Post considered half-assed.
Closer to home, there were 6 casualties in Bethlehem resulting from an altercation at a night club. I’d bore my fingers to the bone going into all the shootings in Philly over just the past week.
The knee-jerk response would be “lets ban guns”. Really? I see the War on Drugs going nowhere. It’s gone nowhere for so long, that 18 states plus D.C. have medipot or personal pot limits on the lawbooks. There is consensus forming that it was a mistake to place marijuana in the same locked cabinet as heroin and meth.
I live just a 10 minute walk from the hottest heroin marketplace on the Eastern Seaboard. Junkies pass in front of my house on a daily basis, throwing street detritus in their wake. I’ve witnessed a few who just can’t wait to shove the needle up the arm, they shoot up in their car because they can’t bear to wait to drive home. With this shit right up in front of my face, it’s obvious: Government prohibition laws are notorious historic failures. We did the constitutional amendment-thing on alcohol and what did it bring us? Powerful mafia families taking control over the streets of America’s largest cities. Utah was the state that helped end Prohibition. Utah. Of all places. It has the highest online porn consumption per capita in the United States. When the Mormon Church has to throw up its hands and vote to let America drink again, you know you’ve failed.
Further, we have Camden to look to in order to see that tightening and loosing gun control laws doesn’t affect real life for citizens plagued by gun violence. Camden, NJ is under a very tight umbrella of gun control contrasted with its neighbors across the Delaware. Off-duty Philadelphia Police officers have been detained in New Jersey in the past for forgetting to leave their weapons in Pennsylvania. There are no licenses to carry anything in New Jersey. In New Jersey, you have to register a license to purchase a firearm with the state. Once you do that and own a firearm, your trips to the gun range have to be as direct as possible with no stops, and you must carefully separate your ammunition from your firearm in your vehicle. No rest stops to go pump gas or to pee. Go directly to the range, and then back home, or you will be in trouble with New Jersey state police.
Gun Laws are Liberal in PA. Is That Causing Gun Violence?
Pennsylvania has liberal gun laws. In aggregate, Philadelphia has many more incidents than Camden, but Camden remains the Most Dangerous City in America. The most dangerous large city in America in 2012 is Detroit.
With that dim news, you’d think there would be no hope. But lately, Philadelphia is not dangerous enough to deter new residents from moving here, or new cafes, restaurants pubs and the occasional new business opening. We even stole the Barnes Museum away from the oh-so-safe leafy suburbs. Tourists are visiting what Lower Merion residents now consider stolen art, with the risk of whizzing bullets over their heads.
So what gives? It’s easy to buy a gun in Philly. Pass the PICS computer checks, and you’re done. You don’t need a license to carry (although in Philadelphia you should always get a license to carry if you’re going to frequently visit gun ranges in Philly). In Pennsylvania, some counties process LTCFs (License to Carry a Firearm) while you wait. Philadelphia Police Department’s Gun Permit Unit takes the maximum legal time of 45 calendar days, which is the only county in PA that does this.
Why is Camden absolutely filled to the brim with gun violence on every single corner yet Philadelphia is, by comparison, safer? Could the answer be real estate?
Real Estate and Gun Violence
This is from 2005/2006 when Philly’s homicide rate was a bit higher than it is now, but I think Bill Wolf has an interesting composite map he put together showing homicides for one year compared to real estate averages broken down by zip code areas:
While individual homicides have much more personal factors, like an argument that resulted in a shooting death, many more shooting deaths in lower real estate neighborhoods in total trend towards the “value” of the neighborhood.
The price of a house indicates more about desirability of where the house is, not what features the house has. Gentrification pushes real estate values higher and indirectly, violent crime and shooting deaths immediately trend lower because desirability of the neighborhood picked up. Others see the change in desirability and before you know it, violent gun crime starts to slowly creep downwards.
New Philadelphians Aren’t Afraid of High Crime
“New Philadelphians”, to use the term Patrick Kerkstra coined when writing about the more affluent newcomers to the city, is the key driver of the change. The new entrants to the City do have a preponderance to commit less crime, but the ones who aren’t doctors and lawyers making the big dollars to cram into areas where real estate values are high are selecting the fringe neighborhoods to rent or purchase housing. This has resulted in a “radial belt” orbiting Center City that has grown outwards over time.
The “radial belt” gentrification is reinforced by real estate agents pandering to New Philadelphians moving into the City, and a portion of those take the leap and decide to risk it in Philly’s more “fringe” areas. These are the people, most say are hipsters, that are willing to take the offer on the remodeled apartment or to rent a whole house instead of just a room, with a small island of other like-minded souls. The price is too ridiculously cheap to ignore, and close enough distance to where the nicer areas are that it’s worth the trade-off.
The appearance of a coffee shop, the staple of the life of a New Philadelphian, was enough to set off a shitstorm of epic proportions in the Point Breeze section of Philadelphia, where most of the homicides in South Philadelphia occur. Residents who have grown up so used to bullets flying at night around their street corners mobilized into action when they feared the worst thing possible: real estate values might increase. In fact, Point Breeze’s newest civic association, Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, was created specifically to attack new residents who have been buying homes in the neighborhood.
In the last 12 years I have lived in the City I have not seen evidence that one City program has dented violent crime rates significantly. Countless amounts of cash have been dumped on Point Breeze in programs without having any remarkable effect on crime. The only thing the City has not done in that neighborhood is put a police officer on every corner, which it can’t afford to. Former Mayor Street tried Operation Safe Streets with an all-hands-on-deck approach to a selected list of targeted areas in neighborhoods to crack down on violent crime, simulating a cop-on-the-corner strategy. CrimeSolutions.gov has concluded in its evaluation of the program that it ultimately failed.
While City Hall and the PPD have failed, the real estate market has shifted the crime stat maps with amazing speed and effectiveness. Kensington is the latest neighborhood to see shifting crime patterns.
Earlier this week it was learned that a factory loft conversion may be coming to the epicenter of Kensington. The Brooklyn-based developer is sure enough of his project that his Craigslist leasing ad chooses to use the building address itself to sell his idea.
178 West Huntingdon is in the area of Kensington most neighbors call “the badlands”. The only retail nearby is the heroin market that’s so hot, needles swap faster than stocks on the New York Stock Exchange. Zoning will be interesting for this project too because there are no civic associations there, unless there’s a drug cartel that hasn’t yet registered yet as a Registered Community Organization with the Planning Commission. If this project actually builds, how long will it be before Temple students fill it up, investors notice it, and then the area takes off?
In the 24th and 25th police districts, considered to be the hottest narcotics areas in Philly, developments like this should make everyone take notice. Something is happening here, and it’s a good thing. Market rate development has squashed more violent crime and at a faster clip than any short term policing strategy dreamt up by a politician.
Are granite countertops and roofdecks the true solution to gun violence? From my perspective, it could certainly turn out that way. But there’s more to it than that which is affecting gun violence. Rising real estate values are merely pushing a group of folks that are more prone to gun violence out of Philadelphia. The ones who are still committing the gun violence are doing so because, well… they’re still around and they can.
Our Existing Gun Laws Might Be the Cure
The real tool we have against gun crime already exists, the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act, which I lovingly call PUFA (poo-fah). The reason why you have gun stores and gun ranges in Philadelphia is the “U” in PUFA. Harrisburg is the only place where gun laws are set across the entire state. Without the uniformity clause in PUFA, Philadelphia would mimic Camden and mirror all the gun restrictions that New Jersey has, short of a total firearms ban… which it can’t do because those types of bans, like the one in D.C., were thrown out by the Supreme Court. Michael Nutter’s first 5 months of office featured a number of City code changes meant to send a message to Harrisburg that it wanted to be exempted from PUFA. All but a few of those measures failed.
In actuality, PUFA already gives Philadelphia special and unique powers that no other county in the Commonwealth has. The biggest tool that PUFA has is the License to Carry a Firearm clause. You cannot carry a gun, concealed or otherwise, anywhere around Philadelphia without this license unless it’s been made safe and you’re transporting it to your home or to a range, which means it goes in the trunk of your car and it’s unloaded. Everywhere else in Pennsylvania, you do not need a license to carry a firearm, although most gun enthusiasts strongly suggest you obtain one anyway, in case you run into law enforcement who know nothing about this law.
Gun owners outside Philadelphia lament this rule, because it’s not “uniform” with the rest of Pennsylvania. But this rule is the key to snatching repeat gun-offenders easily and locking them up. If you don’t have this card on you, and you are caught carrying on public streets, to the jail cell you go.
To get a LTCF, you must be clear of felonies. If you’re ex-military, you must have a discharge that shows you are free of mental defect. Law enforcement conducts an extensive computerized check on you, fingerprints you, takes your photograph, and registers you in a database that they keep around forever. As in the case with the City accidentally publishing the list of LTCF applicants who have had their permits denied, those who are not supposed to have a license to carry a firearm do not obtain this license.
Your local heroin dealer could never be able to obtain this license. Yet, most homicides in Philadelphia happen with firearms. Most homicides in Camden also occur with firearms. Yet, if you ever visit the Criminal Justice Center, like I have done, to watch defendants sentencing hearings, you’ll witness something astonishing: criminals in cuffs, with a blank stare, sorry they messed up, are in court for their second and third and fourth round of violating PUFA. When listening to the assistant DAs and judges in the high-speed sentencing hearings, the term “VUFA” comes up repeatedly. Violating the Uniform Firearms Act.
CeaseFirePA, a gun-violence awareness group launched CourtWatch, an effort they describe as this:
CeaseFirePA is building a network of activists who are tired of seeing gun criminals walk free on their streets. By teaming up with Police and Prosecutors we’re helping to give those people eyes and ears – and a voice – in the courtroom to make sure that judges know that we are counting them to enforce the law and to make sure that people who threaten our communities with illegal guns wind up where they belong – behind bars.
I joined up with CeaseFirePA this year after speaking with a CeaseFirePA organizer at my local police district. Weeks later and after paying a little more attention to what CeaseFirePA was talking about, I realized what was happening: judges all too often don’t pay attention to the gun charges that criminals have on their rap sheets.
Simply sitting your butt in a chair and watching the judge hand out a sentence can have a huge difference in the outcome of a VUFA case: the judge will pay more attention to the fact that the defendant continues to keep carrying a gun.
You have to ask yourself: why would someone walk around with an illegal gun, go to jail, come back out, and then walk around with an illegal gun again? It’s because illegal gun possession doesn’t matter to criminals who have low chances of employment and aren’t that worried about criminal background checks. Further, Common Pleas judges consider VUFA to be a secondary charge and pay more attention to the primary crime the defendant committed. If you were caught with a very small amount of pot and also have VUFA, a judge is more inclined to focus on why you were carrying pot, and the gun less-so.
The Common Ground
CeaseFirePA and I, as well as many gun-owners statewide, have seem to found some very solid common ground.
It makes no sense to chase after NRA hunters and weekend gun range enthusiasts who are paranoid about their gun rights–they have huge motivations to not commit felonies or violate PUFA. It kills our prospects of employment greatly, as well as it surrenders the right to keep and bear arms.
The law established in PA means that guns are nearly-impossible to purchase by convicted felons and those under a court order not to possess a firearm. But since guns are easy to buy in Pennsylvania for those who don’t have that issue, nothing is simpler than a felon asking a friend to buy one at a firearms dealer or a gun show (called a straw purchase). Outside of licensed dealers of firearms, there is also a secondary market on the street which is totally supplied by straw purchasers and felons selling to each other.
A straw purchaser by-definition has no criminal history at all. So judges look at that and reach directly for the most lenient punishment to give. At least, until now. Straw purchasers being sent away for 5-to-10 will start to chip away at the supply of illegal firearms.
CourtWatch is dealing with the other matter: the repeat-VUFA violators. For repeat criminals to fear gun charges, the gun charges themselves have to carry more weight in sentencing. If the difference between selling heroin out of your house without a gun and with a gun is 5 years, how would you prefer to run your heroin business? If defense attorneys are telling their clients “look, you are so fucking lucky you didn’t have a gun on you when you were picked up. If they had one, that’s an extra 5″, how long do you think it will take before wind of the sentencing guideline change will sweep across Philadelphia’s dark and dangerous street corners?
Put Up or Shut Up
So frankly, I’m fucking sick and tired of the gun debate. I hear people pontificating, all sorts of folk who just can’t wait to tell you how they feel about this issue, many who don’t know shit about this problem and don’t live close to anywhere that affects them.
It comes from the rural gun owners who are borderline contestants to win cash prizes on Doomsday Preppers, when they’re not terrified of the apocalypse, it’s Obama coming personally to raid their house of firearms.
It also comes from luxe-apartment and Main Line living suburbanite gun-control advocates who have never seen a dead body from a gunfire-homicide being processed on-scene while making the morning trek to work; and the only drug problems they know of around the neighborhood are Andy Reid’s kids who impersonate North Philly drug dealers.
If you want to help gun violence in Philly and actually demonstrate that this issue matters to you, then get off your ass and help out CeaseFirePA. They don’t want you to donate dollars, they want you physically sitting your butt in that bench at the Criminal Justice Center, ready to show your presence to the judge who is about to fix the sentence for the next defendant waiting to walk into the courtroom.
I’m doing it, and I’ve seen it work with my own eyes. And yes, if you want, you can also talk to the judge and tell him why you are there while the defendant is sitting there, turned around in his chair, worried that what you’re saying is going to add on some extra years.
So whether it’s gentrification or putting on real sentences that make illegal gun carriers wake up–these are the concrete things that I see that can see with my own eyes that are actually working on the street. These type of programs is what actually puts a real dent in gun violence. The circuitous solvers, those terse answers like “more jobs” and “educations” that I’ve heard from politicians my entire life as the solutions to gun violence? Meh. I’ve been waiting for those solutions for a really long time and why should we wait 9 more generations for education to be fixed? The higher property values go in aggregate, the more tax you can collect from it and get the money you need for more police and more schools and other stuff that affects crime marginally.
When there’s more places to buy a latte than a baggie in what used to be a bad neighborhood, that’s when you know you’re going places.