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As gun violence drops sharply in Pa., focus is on what’s working

Semi-automatic handguns are displayed at shop in New Castle, Pa., March 25.
Keith Srakocic
Semi-automatic handguns are displayed at shop in New Castle, Pa., March 25.

The first four months of 2024 saw a 23% decrease in Pennsylvania gun homicides compared to last year, according to the Center for American Progress. Pennsylvania saw the second-largest decline in the country last year.

Philadelphia experienced the largest gun violence decline of major American cities in the same period.

State officials and community members gathered at a roundtable recently hosted by Lieutenant Governor Austin Davis celebrating the wins and considering future gun violence prevention strategies.

“As I travel around the state, I think some people think that this is just a Harrisburg issue or a Philadelphia issue or a Pittsburgh issue,” Davis said. “I want to be clear that this is a Pennsylvania issue.”

Success stories in fight against gun violence

The group discussed the successes contributing to the decrease in gun violence rates. In 2022, Philadelphia formed the 100 Shooting Review Committee to analyze gun violence in the city and make recommendations for reform.

Community-based changes, like free electrical and plumbing repairs for low-income homeowners, have been credited with decreasingcrime rates. Higher poverty levels and economic stress are correlated with higher rates of firearm homicides and suicides, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Harrisburg Police hosted a gun buy-back event last month, which allowed residents to exchange guns for $100 gift cards without investigation. The police collected more than 100 guns and continued to receive firearms even after the promise of a gift card had passed.

“Anybody that wants to come down to turn their gun in, you know, the amnesty program is still going,” Harrisburg Police Commissioner Thomas Carter said.

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget, now awaiting approval past its June 30 deadline, would invest $100 million to reduce gun violence.

Continuing problems

Even as gun violence rates decline, gun reform advocates say there is much more work to be done.

Gun deaths and injuries cost Pennsylvanians$1,692 on average per person in 2019, according to data from EveryTown. More than 1,900 Pennsylvanians died by gun violence in 2021, with 181 being children and teenagers.

State Rep. Patty Kim (D-Dauphin/Cumberland) said lawmakers should have acted on gun reform a long time ago.

“We cannot see another life go away because we can’t get it together,” she said.

Gun reform bills have stalled in the State Legislature this session. A Senate bill introduced by Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery) that would create a state research center for gun violence has awaited movement since January 2023.

A House bill establishing a gun violence task force in counties that surpass a firearm-related death threshold has not moved since March 2023. The ACLU opposes the task force bill due to the potential for Pennsylvania to prosecute more gun violence cases, even though more firearm deaths in the state are a result of suicide than homicide.

Two House bills, one aiming totrack firearms sales and the other banning multi-burst gun modifiers, failed to pass by one vote in May.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery) said as the State Legislature keeps gun reform “bottled up,” the state must fund organizations doing work locally.

“With the resources that this Commonwealth has, we need to be investing in organizations like yours and all the others that are around here that are doing the hard work but are doing it for nothing,” he said to Mariah Lewis, a gun violence survivor.

Lewis, now a med tech at a personal care facility in Palmyra, was shot in the face by her son’s father in 2021. She lost her left eye and now uses a prosthetic. Her attacker was spiraling after experiencing difficulty finding employment with a felony.

Kia Hansard, co-founder of nonprofit Concerned About the Children of Harrisburg, said that her organization helps provide immediate employment to people coming home from state correctional institutions regardless of conviction. Since opening in 2017, CATCH has found 544 people permanent employment.

Lewis founded Eye Choose Me, a nonprofit focused on domestic violence and gun reform, in 2022. Two years after its first meeting, she is still helping to fund the organization from her own pockets.

Money is not the only thing that can buy safe communities, according to Lewis. She emphasized the importance of outreach strategies and speaking to vulnerable people on the ground.

“Conversations are free,” Lewis said. “You going out into the community is free.”

CATCH co-founder Charla Plains said funding social services, including counseling services in schools, is integral to steering children away from gun violence.

Shapiro’s budget would put $11.5 million toward after-school learning opportunities for children and $11 million toward building parks and improving shared spaces.

Carter acknowledged the importance of local organizations pushing for community connection because the Harrisburg police “just don’t have that trust.”

Philadelphia’s Citizens Police Oversight Commission reports 3 people killed by police from January to May 2024.

“When we are talking about gun violence, we cannot ignore the fact that gun violence also includes law enforcement violence,” Kia Hansard said.

Shapiro’s budget would invest $16 million to create four new Pennsylvania State Police cadet classes in an effort to aid understaffed local police departments.

Former Gov. Tom Wolf approved the Gun Violence Investigation and Prosecution Grant Program, which funds the investigation and prosecution of firearm-related violence. The program was funded by $50 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money.

Sarah Nicell | WITF