Here’s what passes for “the good news”: At this point, the city of Philadelphia is finally, unequivocally, view-ing gun violence as a public health crisis that requires interdisciplinary solutions. The problem at hand? Figuring out how to efficiently connect the dots.
Councilman Kenyatta Johnson hosted a City Hall roundtable discussion last week on strategies to reduce gun violence and violent crime. The panel of presenters included representatives from politics, public health, criminology, emergency medicine and philanthropy. The fundamental issue they all agreed on: Youth violence, and gun violence in particular, has become routine in Philadelphia.
Case in point: The roundtable took place Wed., Dec. 12. The previous night, four people were shot within four hours. At least 12 people were shot the previous weekend; ten of them were wounded critically, and two were killed. Victims were all between 14 and 29 years old.
“Obviously,” said Johnson, “we have to do a better job of addressing this issue of youth gun violence.” Indeed: With two weeks left in the year, the year-to-date total of homicides is 322. Last year’s total was 324. Of those victims, 154 were 25 years old or younger. “How come as a city we’re not in an outrage?” Johnson asked. “How come we’re not approaching this from a crisis standpoint?”
Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. had a colorful, if awkward, metaphor: “If over 300 whales washed up on New Jersey’s shores … every scientist [including] Jacques Cousteau himself would come from the grave to try to figure out why this phenomenon has happened. But 300 young people … die [here] every year, and no one seems to be visibly shaking,” said Jones. “If you take it in context, the number of African-Americans that have killed African-Americans in the past 10 years … is more than all of the Ku Klux Klan mentions in the history of the organization.”
Dr. John Rich of Drexel University’s School of Public Health pointed out that the impact of youth violence and gun violence—the two are inseparable—extends beyond the homicide count. “In 2010, there were 306 homicides, but over 1,600 shootings, and over 9,000 aggravated assaults, and lots of violence not reported to police,” said Rich. “What is especially not counted, though, is [the trauma suffered by] the grandmother who is sitting on her porch who saw this happen, or the child that has to walk past a pool of blood to go to school.”
Studies show that childhood trauma has serious, negative effects on a person’s health throughout his or her life. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, is a game-changing investigation into the links between childhood trauma and subsequent manifestations of illness and causes of death. The bottom line is that early childhood trauma impacts brain development.
We already know that far too many of Philadelphia’s children experience systematic trauma by way of violence, stress, poverty, racism and hunger. What we’re just realizing is, that neglect is washing back as illness and violence. In 2010, during a lecture on the topic in Philadelphia, Dr. Robert Anda, one of the primary ACE study investigators, told a local audience that by accepting these conditions for children, and given what we know about trauma’s impact on brain development, we have essentially, neurobiologically speaking, created a generation of sociopaths. To that end, it’s obvious that Philadelphia needs to implement short-term violence reduction initiatives and think hard about longer-term efforts to prevent our kids from experiencing so much trauma in the first place.
Rich says that the young people he talks to say they carry guns because they don’t feel safe. “We believe that Philadelphia will not be safe until these young people are safe,” he says, “because in many ways they are the most vulnerable, and they reflect what happens in their communities. So rather than blame them, it’s our responsibility to think about what we can do as public health professionals.”
Philly has been discussing the need to treat youth violence as a public health issue at least since 2010; the talk needs to move into action. But until then, there will be yet more discussion. This Wednesday and Thursday, Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. is sponsoring “The Crime Summit,” a two-day program co-sponsored by GunCrisis.org and St. Joseph’s University.
Wed., Dec. 19 and Thurs., Dec. 20. 54th Street and City Line Ave., Maudeville Hall. To RSVP: 215.686.3416