Walking through Southwest Philadelphia, one commonly sees buildings whose walls are illuminated by brilliant murals. While some depict historic figures such as Paul Robeson or Marcus Garvey, others have simpler subjects. They may contain a portrait of an urban youth, with alarmingly close dates of birth and death noted below.
Residents of the area know that this young man was killed on that very corner.
In many parts of the city, gun violence is a normal state of affairs. According to Business Insider, Philadelphia is ranked the twelfth most dangerous city in the U.S.A. as of 2013.
From 2003 to 2010, there were 3,076 deaths by firearm in Philadelphia; 2,477 of those were homicides.
In 2013, there were 247 gun deaths, according to CeaseFirePA. This number was actually lower than previous years, when the annual average was closer to 300.
The Gun Crisis Reporting Project states that over a period of 25 years, at least one homicide has occurred every day in Philadelphia. More than 75% of the victims of these incidents were killed with a gun.
The Struggle to Stop It
While Philadelphia has a serious gun violence situation to deal with, it also has some of the best weaponry with which to combat it.
Cease Fire PA was established after the Million Mom March in 2002. It is Pennsylvania's state-wide gun violence prevention group, with an active presence here in Philadelphia.
"We started... when a group of Philadelphia area moms came back from Washington and said they wanted a Pennsylvania-focused organization, looking at Pennsylvania laws," says Shira Goodman, CeaseFirePA's Executive Director. One of these concerned mothers was the organization's current President, Nancy Gordon.
CeaseFire focuses on education and advocacy "in the legislature, in the courts, in the communities, empowering people to take a stand against gun violence," Ms. Goodman explains. Pennsylvanians can do this by holding a vigil, appearing in court, or by talking to mayors, town councils, or legislators.
One goal that Ceasefire is committed to is the expansion of mandatory background checks from the purchase of handguns to all gun purchases. "Those things reduce crime," asserts Ms. Goodman. "They reduce the amount of illegal guns on the street; they reduce the amount of women being killed by their partners... It works in other states that have it." Ceasefire believes that this measure would prevent criminals from having a legal avenue to avoid a background check.
Another solution Ceasefire has proposed is the mandatory reporting of lost or stolen guns. "We know - the police tell us - that when people report their guns lost or stolen, first of all they might get them back before they're used in a crime. But second of all, if they are used in a crime, the police can get them back, look at the serial number, and if it was reported lost or stolen, they already know."
This bill was brought before the state in 2008, but did not pass. Since then CeaseFire has been taking their campaign for the reporting of lost firearms from county to county.
J.B. Wogan of "Governing" reports that in June of 2013, the bill for statewide mandatory reporting of missing guns was once again introduced to lawmakers in Harrisburg.
Making Our Voices Heard
Another aspect of CeaseFire's mission is the effort to educate the public on what they can do to make their community safer.
This involves an attempt to teach the people how they can be "citizen activists," and to "demystify the process" of talking with policy makers and media representatives. CeaseFire works with Churches, Synagogues, and community groups to this end, in order, in Ms. Goodman's words, to "take back the community."
As part of this effort to empower citizens against gun violence, CeaseFire has created Courtwatch, a campaign to bring affected community members to sentencing hearings to present testimony, revealing first-hand accounts of the impact of illegal guns and gun crime. CeaseFire states that "as a result, in those hearings, the judge has direct evidence of community impact to weigh in the sentencing calculation."
This campaign has brought together concerned community members from across Philadelphia, and recently, Pittsburgh and surrounding areas. Citizens are given a direct means of becoming active against the negative forces in their community, and law-keepers are given the advantage of these citizens' personal experiences to aid them as they decide pertinent cases.
Although there is still much work to be done, and the fight is particularly slow, CeaseFire points to recent significant victories and urges the people to take heart. "Although we did not pass the senate bill last year," Ms. Goodman notes, "[Senators] Casey and Toomey were both on it. That was a shock. We had two senators who had never voted for gun control legislation, who were willing to come out and say this is not gun control, this is common sense."
Committed activists hasten to remind the people that it is their hard work and resilience that will continue to push the struggle forward.
"I think it's when somebody is willing to take the next step," says Ms. Goodman, "whether that's talking to a neighbor, writing a letter, sending an email, making a phone call, or making a donation, [we're] moving people up that ladder. It's labor intensive, it's time intensive, it's a lot of that one-on-one, but it does pay off. [We] try to keep people motivated and energized, because people get discouraged, which is what the other side counts on. But I think we're seeing a big change here."
By Bessam Idani
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