When 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down on a Chicago Street near her high school last month, her death became not only that city’s 42nd homicide, but it brought into the harsh light an aspect of the gun control debate that some feel has been forgotten — or at the very least mostly ignored in the public’s mind.
As tragic as the shootings in Newtown, Conn. and Aurora, Colo. and at Virginia Tech and Columbine are, young Black men and women are being cut down on the streets of America’s cities every day. Some of these victims are members of violent drug gangs, but all too often, like Pendleton, they are innocent bystanders. They are not murdered by killers armed with assault rifles loaded with high capacity magazines. Their killers more often than not used illegally purchased handguns, as Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson recently pointed out.
“Philadelphia is among the top three [cities in the nation] in terms of African-American young men being murdered,” he said during a session of City Council, discussing upcoming hearings on gun violence. “So, I’m looking forward to this discussion, but the majority of shootings in the city of Philadelphia are by handguns.”
In Philadelphia, 331 people were killed in 2012, and most of the victims were young Black males. As of Tribune press time, 22 people have been murdered this year, and again most of the victims are young Black males. It’s a similar situation in Chicago, where 41 murders have occurred this year, and 351 people were killed last year.
Can the president’s proposals on gun control have a meaningful impact on America’s street crime?
“I believe they will make a difference over time,” said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who sat on the presidential committee drafting the Obama Administration’s gun law reform proposals. “The most significant point is the background checks. You have to have a way to track firearms from person to person, whether it’s a gun bought in a store or a private transfer. Background checks will also help to deny gun purchases to people with mental illnesses or who are under a protection order. The bottom line is that the status quo is not acceptable. Should there be stiffer penalties for straw purchasers? No question, absolutely — and stiffer penalties for anyone caught with an illegal gun. There are laws on the books of course, but they’re not enforced consistently.”
Right now in Pennsylvania there is a mandatory five-year sentence for defendants convicted of multiple straw purchases — that is, buying a gun legally then selling it to a person unable to obtain one by legal means. That statute was signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett in 2012 but criminals continue to find people without a record to purchase firearms for them..
On Jan. 29, Pendleton, an honor student and drum majorette, was shot to death by a still unknown gunman. She had been part of a group of teens from Chicago who had performed during President Barack Obama’s 2013 Inauguration parade only a week before. Pendleton died near a park about a mile from Obama’s Chicago residence, and a $40,000 reward is being offered for the arrest and conviction of the murderer who killed her with a handgun.
This week in Philadelphia, a deli owner in the city’s Tacony section returned fire on a would-be robber, hitting him in the chest and killing him.
On Tuesday, just after 6 p.m. the alleged 19-year old robber entered Anna’s Deli, on the corner of Princeton Avenue and Jackson Street. Investigators say he pointed a handgun at Anna Jukic and demanded cash. She screamed and her husband, John Jukic came out from the rear of the store. The robber fired his gun and Jukic shot back. Responding medics pronounced the man, whose name still hasn’t been released by authorities, dead at the scene. Jukic was unharmed and the incident remains under investigation to determine if the shooting was in self defense.
Former Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Renee Cardwell-Hughes said she doesn’t believe that owning firearms make law abiding people safer. She also said that even though the Obama administration’s gun law proposals won’t have an immediate impact on the street violence, they are a step in the right direction.
“The reality we have to confront is that America isn’t ready for sweeping stronger gun control laws — but we have to start someplace, we have to begin staging this. I would love to say America is ready, but the truth is we’re not and there are people who tend to demonize the issue,” she said. “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time — and that’s the best way to approach the issue of stronger gun laws, one step at a time. It would not be appropriate to say that banning assault weapons will stop the street violence, but it is a step in the right direction. I’ve often stated that my position is that owning guns don’t make us safer, and in my mind firearms are best held in the hands of law enforcement and the military. That isn’t to say we should outlaw gun ownership for sportsmen and hunting. But unfettered access to firearms isn’t going to make us safer.”
-- Tribune Staff Writer Eric Mayes contributed to this report.