Way of the Gun

Once a homicide hotbed, Baltimore dramatically reduced its murder rate last year. Unfortunately for us, Philadelphia can't follow suit until the state changes its outmoded gun laws. (Don't hold your breath.)

By Brian Hickey
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 31, 2001

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"All I said during the campaign was that we can dramatically reduce crime," the mayor says in his office adorned with Irish bric-a-brac. "Now we have better management, better coordination and higher expectations. We're solving more violent cases and locking up more violent offenders. That's what we're doing better."

Hospitals in Baltimore are also noticing the reduced crime rate. Dr. Edward Cornwell, who runs the trauma unit at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital, says the number of people treated for gunshot wounds at his hospital dropped from 387 to 270 last year--though, he adds, "the difference between dead and alive is dumb luck really." Cornwell says the drop is noteworthy considering the hospital treated an average of 366 gunshot victims each year since 1995.

Baltimore made national headlines early this month when the police department announced that the 262 murders it recorded last year marked the first time in a decade the annual tally had dropped below 300. Yet few stories mentioned the even more important news: The Homicide Unit's clearance (solved) rate jumped from 54 percent to 78 percent. The news could increase property values at a time when Mayor O'Malley is attempting to persuade businesses to return to a city losing population as rapidly as Philadelphia.

And O'Malley plans to make good on another campaign promise: that the city's homicide rate will drop to 175 by 2004.

"I believe we can do it--I've seen this work before," says Norris.

If the pattern of nine homicides through Jan. 18 continues at this rate, just 182 people will die at the hands of another in Baltimore this year.

His name was Timon Hagelin, but history will record him merely as No. 319.

Where Demitrius Smith may be a handy metaphor for drug-related slayings in East Baltimore, the New Year's Eve killing of this 31-year-old man from Parkdale Road in the Far Northeast after an argument outside his home helps illustrate Philadelphia's ills.

Here, though, the problem is not solely about the narcotics trade. It's about access to guns.

While Baltimore is recording a substantial drop in homicides, Philadelphia's murder rate has increased 8 percent from 1999's decade-low tally of 295. And Police Commissioner Timoney still sees fundamental problems that will keep the city's homicide rate steady even as other cities' rates continue to drop.

Referring to the easy access of Philadelphians to firearms, Timoney says, "Psychologically, it's a lot easier to shoot someone than to beat them to death, or strangle them, or plunge a knife into their chest. It takes a lot more guts to do those things."

With Pennsylvania's gun laws as relaxed as those of Southern states--Maryland not included--illegal access to guns on Philadelphia's streets is easier than in most other big cities.

More than 80 percent of all Philadelphia homicides are shootings, a figure much higher than in other cities. (Coincidentally, Baltimore isn't far behind at 78 percent, while New York comes in at about 60 percent).

With his own law-enforcement roots in New York, Timoney draws parallels to that city often. One of his analogies puts the gun-access dilemma in perspective.

In 1990, a year when New York recorded record-high homicide levels--some 2,300 slayings--police seized 18,000 guns.

In 1999, the year Philly recorded its fewest homicides in a decade, police got about 5,000 guns off the streets--a figure that would translate to about 25,000 in New York.

Timoney says that in the age group with the highest murder rate--16-to-24-year-olds--roughly 90 percent of the killings involve firearms.

"In our best year, there were more guns here than in New York City's worst year," Timoney says. Ninety to 95 percent of the guns in New York City come from Southern states with weaker laws. Eighty to 85 percent of the guns in Philadelphia are from Pennsylvania. "We have nobody to blame but ourselves. This is a homegrown problem. It's just easy to get guns here."

Gun-control advocates cite the well-known gun-show loophole, saying those who buy weapons from dealers' "private collections" often face weaker, if any, background checks. And agents with the federal ATF field office here say they've also found that guns purchased legally in city gun stores can quickly make their way into the wrong hands. People with clean records, known in ATF lingo as "straw purchasers," can buy a gun legally and sell it on the black market for a quick, easy profit.

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