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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In a telling example, more than 300 weapons were traced to a group of roughly 25 such buyers from Germantown last summer. Sometimes it's not as easy, like in the recent case of three men sentenced for making their own machine guns in a West Philly home.

"They're often friends with people involved in the drug trade--or they're involved in it themselves," says Mark Chait, assistant special agent in charge with the local ATF. "Someone will pay them $100 or give them drugs in exchange for buying the guns."

Those are often among the weapons that Philadelphia's 7,000-member police force later turn over to the ATF for tracing. They send a suspect weapon to the National Tracing Center in West Virginia where investigators then pinpoint its manufacturer, dealer and any listed purchasers.

From there, they try to determine how the gun got from the legitimate buyer to the alleged shooter. If they're lucky, they can pin a charge on someone for an illegal firearm sale. But that's not always easy to prove.

"Whatever you can think of, we've heard," says ATF spokesman, Special Agent Darrell O'Connor, of straw purchasers' excuses for not possessing the guns they're listed as having purchased. "I don't know if we've ever gotten someone claiming their dog ate it like their homework, but we've heard they just threw it in the trash. We've heard it all."

Since the agency is responsible for issuing licenses to firearms dealers, the ATF also takes keen interest in which guns come from which stores, and how long it takes them to wind up at crime scenes.

Of the weapons traced in 1999, the city's quickest time-to-crime gun shop was South Philly Archery on the 800 block of Ellsworth Street, where the average time for 77 weapons was just 16 months. Not far behind was Lou's Loans in Upper Darby, where it took an additional four months, according to ATF records.

"It reminds me of being in New York when the drinking age was 18," Commissioner Timoney deadpans. "When we were 17, we could pay someone to go in and get us six cans of beer. But then it turns into a case of someone else wants something too and someone else wants something else."

"People on the street know where they can go to get a gun," the ATF's Chait says. "The common public wouldn't know it, but it's common knowledge out there."

It doesn't take much street smarts to learn that drugs and guns are easy to procure in the city's Kensington and Fairhill sections. That's why, two years before similar efforts in Baltimore, Timoney flooded those neighborhoods with cops and other city agency personnel in the highly publicized "Operation Sunrise."

Police coordinated with other city and federal agencies to physically clean up those areas while helping addicts get treatment. In 1998, the operation's first year, the Narcotics Unit arrested 4,500 people while seizing $4 million worth of drugs and 139 guns. In the months since, Temple University Hospital has reported a downward trend in the number of gunshot-wound victims they've treated.

"It was trench warfare over there, but in our first year we got our bang for the buck," says Timoney, adding that the local COMSTAT efforts have enabled police leaders to more effectively track and attack problem areas in the city. "Everyone was involved in it. It was a neighborhood abandoned by police and politicians for more than 20 years. Drug dealers didn't just take over corners, they took over whole blocks."

Promising not to leave a neighborhood until it's been stabilized, the operation wound its way through two other neighborhoods before landing in the area near 9th and Indiana in November.

Already, the operation has decreased the area's homicide rate by 42 percent. But despite that success, the total number of people killed in Philly didn't drop as dramatically as it did in Baltimore. Which further bolsters the argument that it's harder to improve Philadelphia's gun violence statistics.

One tricky side effect of both cities' crime-fighting initia-tives are logjams in the courts. The problem leads prosecutors to dismiss many cases early in their progress through the legal system.

In Baltimore, the district attorney's office assigns a prosecutor at the city's central-booking headquarters to decide whether to pursue a case before the suspect even enters a cell.

When the results of a comprehensive study of Philadelphia homicides is released next month, city police plan to stress the effects of quick dismissals. Probing each Philadelphia slaying that occurred in the past four years, the study will break down profiles of suspects and killers, and look at both the deadliest neighborhoods and the weapons used in crimes.

Most of the information gleaned so far comes as no surprise to police, but it could eventually raise public awareness about who's killing whom and why.

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