City Launches ‘Smart War’ on Gun Violence

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After 50 years of excessive gun violence in its poor neighborhoods, Philadelphia has decided to study the problem. That’s good.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke appointed Councilman Kenyatta Johnson (D-2nd), Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis and Darrell G. O’Connor, a career FTI expert, the co-chairs of the Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention.

The formation of the special committee, authorized by Council last month, shows collaboration between the Kenney administration, City Council, law enforcement, and community advocates with the goal of achieving meaningful and sustainable reductions in incidents of gun violence in Philadelphia.

Members of the Special Committee include Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. (D-4th), chair of the Committee on Public Safety, Shondell Revell, executive director of the newly authorized Office of Violence Prevention; along with 17 other lights in the anti-crime movement, from government officials and agency leaders to street activists.

That’s why this committee matters, argues Johnson. Gun violence sounds simple but it is complicated. Therefore the response to it must be complicated as well. We need many heads at the table, listening to each other and working together.

“There is no silver bullet,” said Johnson. “We must be diligent and comprehensive; we must make a longterm commitment, over many council and mayoral cycles, to focus on this topic. We have to make it the number-one priority in Philadelphia.”

“It” is the gun-violence toll in Philadelphia, which hasn’t been good for a couple of generations now. If the city wants to taste true success, it must drive these numbers down.

And the city may have to bear most of this effort. Expect no great relief from Harrisburg or Washington, say the committee’s leaders.

“Guns are too easy to get, and we haven’t made much progress nationwide in controlling them, said DiBerardinis.

“There are no Uzis made in Point Breeze,” sighed Johnson.

DiBerardinis argued, however, that other cities have shown progress against violence as a result of concerted partnerships between City agencies and community members. In Philadelphia, a pilot project in parts of South Philadelphia in Johnson’s district called Focussed Deterrence has been able to move the numbers, providing a model for action.

The committee’s first step will be to go to communities in all 10 councilmanic districts and hold town-hall meetings. Its initial mission will be to listen and to learn.

“You have to know the social structure of these loosely organized groups in each neighborhood, know who’s connected to whom,” DiBerardinis explained. It’s as important to learn who’s likely to be involved in crime as it is to learn who will help combat it.

The next step is to offer a carrot as well as a stick – a path out of the culture of violence. “There must be a set of opportunities and services one could receive if these young men decide to cooperate within the bounds of the program,” DiBerardinis said. “If you want to make a shot of moving out of that world, we’ll help you.”

It may take six or seven agencies working together to provide these pathways: police, courts, prisons, human services, behavioral health, education and employment assistance. Some will be public, some private nonprofits. Even addressing urban blight may become a component of an action plan.

And then there are the guns. A former director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives is on the team.

The Committee has several subcommittees focusing respectively on illegal guns, public health, social services and opportunities, intervention and outreach, victim advocates and program review.

There must be follow-through to see which programs work where, and to adapt to changing situations.

“This is the forever plan,” insisted Johnson, who has made gun violence his cause since he founded Peace Not Guns as a young activist in 1998.

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