Earlier this afternoon at City Hall, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson hosted a roundtable discussion on strategies to reduce gun violence and violent crime. The good news is that at this point, it’s a given that the city is viewing violence as a public health crisis that requires interdisciplinary solutions. The panel of presenters included representatives from politics, public health, criminology, emergency medicine and philanthropy. The big-picture problem at hand is figuring out how to efficiently connect the dots.
One hurdle everyone agrees on is that youth violence and gun violence in particular has become routine in Philadelphia. Today is Wednesday. Last night, four people were shot within four hours. At least 12 people were shot last 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.”
With 19 days left in the year, the year-to-date total of homicides is 316. Last year’s total was 324.
“How come as a city were not in an outrage?” asked Johnson. “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 Jacque 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 and gun violence—the two are practically inseparable—extends beyond the homicide count. “So 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 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 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 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 created a generation of sociopaths. To that end, it’s obvious that Philadelphia needs to implement short-term violence reduction strategies and longer-term violence prevention programs.
Rich says that the young people he talks to say they carry guns because they don’t feel safe. So until kids feel safe in their own neighborhood, no one else will. “We believe that Philadelphia will not be safe until these young people are safe because in many ways they are the most vulnerable and they reflect what happen in their communities,” he Rich. “So rather than blame them, it’s our responsibility to think about what we can do as public health professionals.”
The discussion needs to move into action. But until then, there will be yet more discussion. Next week, 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 Avenue, Maudeville Hall. To RSVP: 215.686.3416.