How Two Photojournalists Are Taking on the City's Gun Crisis

A new-media project, GunCrisis.org, uses old-school journalism tactics to study Philly's homicides.

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 8 | Posted Apr. 25, 2012

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They rush to the address but there’s not much to see when they arrive, just a few cops waiting for the crime scene unit to show up. No victim or shooter yet.

It the stillness of the evening, the street looks idyllic behind the fence of yellow crime-scene tape. Red, white and blue fringe zigzags between the houses; a hopscotch board is painted on the asphalt. But even with cops right here, neighbors who live across the street from one another shout at each other from their respective stoops, as if the street is a moat.

Joe snaps stills while MacMillan sets up his tripod to film video. Then, a call comes through: Police believe they just arrested the shooter skulking around outside a known crack house just a few blocks away. They pack up and head over.

The dilapidated building is a rowhouse chiseled out from the rest of the block flanked by empty lots strewn with debris. Down the street, neighbors slide open windows, watch and listen in the dark.

The suspect, a young black man, sits in the backseat of a cruiser in handcuffs.

Police are looking for the gun. The front door is riddled with bullet holes. Casings—all different kinds—litter the sidewalk.

Police officers donning bulletproof vests and gloves slowly open the door and disappear inside. It smells like weed. Inside, police find a disposable cell phone, a gun and an American flag folded into a triangle and wrapped in plastic. The officer removing the flag from the house carries it in his fingertips, holding it far away from his body, as if it’s a dead animal.

MacMillan takes photographs and tweets updates to GunCrisis followers.

Inspired by the film The Interrupters—a story of three street-savvy “violence interrupters” working for a program called CeaseFire in Chicago who reduce gun violence by mediating beefs between groups and talking kids out of retaliation—MacMillan hopes to ultimately parlay the footage and reporting into a full-length documentary about gunfire in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, MacMillan has been spending more time chasing funding than gunfire. Though he’s been carving hours out of his sleep to go out on rides with Kaz and to do research, he’s also networking, researching, checking into crowd-sourcing and looking for partnerships.

“I need to buy some gear for the documentary and polish up some old skills. At the same time, I need to reignite some old relationships with anti-violence groups—and launch new ones,” MacMillan says.

To do it, he just cleared his schedule to dedicate his entire summer to building up the project. Until then, the partnership is mostly him and Kaz, driving around, paying for gas out of pocket.

On a different night, the guys are driving past crumbling castles of Germantown when Kaz spins the car around and races toward the Frankford section of the city.

Police just shot a 20-year-old suspect in the head after fleeing from the scene of an armed robbery.

According to police, the man flashed a gun in his waistband at the clerk in 7-Eleven. The cashier ran and hit the panic button. The suspect left with nothing, then robbed a convenience store across the street. Police, already responding to the call from 7-Eleven, arrived on the scene and spotted the suspect running down a residential street. They say the suspect pointed his gun at an officer, who shot him.

Except for the police presence, the street is quiet and still. A thick fog has drifted in, coating everything in a thin screen of what looks like blue smoke. One neighbor comes out onto his porch and watches from across the street, but all other doors stay shut and windows stay dark. A gun lies next to a puddle of blood on the sidewalk marking where the suspect went down. A cell phone and what looks like eight small bags of marijuana lie a few inches away.

The cell phone rings, then rings again, then chimes, indicating a voice message. The phone rings every few minutes for at least an hour. MacMillan stares at it from behind the crime-scene tape. He mentions that survivors of disasters like the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 have reported being haunted by the endless ringing of victims’ phones.

Chief Inspector Scott Small and Internal Affairs arrive on the scene. A freelance videographer for network news, an old buddy, shows up. He’s the only other reporter at the scene. While awaiting official word on the shooting, the threesome catch up on old cohorts from the newsroom, about people who left for new jobs and reporters who are still hanging there.

The video camera shines a bright light on Small, and the three reporters huddle in front of him as he makes his statement. The suspect is in critical condition.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 8 of 8
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1. teaguem2005 said... on Apr 25, 2012 at 12:29PM

“Wow. Once again Tara, you really hit the mark with this timely story. The suspect in my nephew's murder is now on the Most Wanted list but since I see no one has claimed any of the 20K offered in any of the City's murders I guess we shouldn't get our hopes up too high. It just sickens and saddens me that people still don't realize the value of a human life.”

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2. Amanda said... on Apr 25, 2012 at 09:39PM

“Outstanding story and very powerful. It's terrific to see two dedicated people trying something different.

One comment -- the reporter's contention that Philadelphia's gun violence problems would change substantially if Harrisburg allowed tighter gun control seems pretty implausible to me. Just over the bridge is Camden -- and just down the road is Wilmington. Why on earth would we assume that guns would not stay cheap and plentiful in NJ and DE even if PA passed a radical law?”

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3. Anonymous said... on Apr 26, 2012 at 09:11AM

“If all of the guns used in last year's homicides were illegally owned, what sort of gun control law could possibly work?”

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4. nick said... on Apr 26, 2012 at 03:10PM

“”

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5. nick said... on Apr 26, 2012 at 03:12PM

“Murtha notes that 85 percent of the city's homicides last year were the
result of a gun, ALL OF WHICH WERE ILLEGALLY OWNED. (Emphasis added.) The
author then decries the fact that Philly cannot pass additional gun laws
of its own because of Pennsylvania's preemption laws. How, pray tell, can
more laws prevent behaviors that are ALREADY ILLEGAL. Oh, and let's not
forget Washington, DC. DC has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the
country. Yet, it is still the murder capital of the USA.

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6. nick said... on Apr 26, 2012 at 03:14PM

“Murtha notes that 85 percent of the city's homicides last year were the
result of a gun, ALL OF WHICH WERE ILLEGALLY OWNED. (Emphasis added.) The
author then decries the fact that Philly cannot pass additional gun laws
of its own because of Pennsylvania's preemption laws. How, pray tell, can
more laws prevent behaviors that are ALREADY ILLEGAL. Oh, and let's not
forget Washington, DC. DC has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the
country. Yet, it is still the murder capital of the USA.

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7. Joel Benjamin said... on Apr 28, 2012 at 07:29AM

“There should be federal gun laws. The influence of the NRA should be resisted by dedicated politicians with integrity.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Apr 30, 2012 at 12:26AM

““There should be federal gun laws. The influence of the NRA should be resisted by dedicated politicians with integrity.”

????? Are you an ignoramus that actually thinks there are no federal gun laws?”

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