Philadelphia Metropolis


More Than Tears

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When I heard about the slaughter of the innocents in Connecticut, I headed to my basement to look through my archival collections of various reports, studies, task-force reports and other miscellany dealing with Philadelphia.

I was looking for a study done about 10 years ago by the Philadelphia Police about guns used in homicides.  It was revealing. Using data from the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms uni of the federal government (ATF, for short), it enumerated the most popular guns used in crimes, and it traced the origins of firearms used in shootings in the city.

With its powerful databases, the ATF is the central repository of information about gun trafficking in America, not only in the macro sense of that word, but also gun by gun. Reporters would routinely call the ATFor information about, say, a Glock used in shooting a child during a duel among drug dealers. Often you could trace its path from its original sale into the hands of the shooter. Often the pathway led to a legit gun shop that specialized in selling under the table to bad guys.  A large number of crime guns comes from a relatively small number of gun shops.

At the time, one of my sons was a tween reading a book by Gary Paulson called The Rifle, which told the history of a musket crafted in the 18th century through its long life.  As a book for young readers, it was a downer. It ends in an act of violence, with another innocent killed.

As a reporter, I always wanted to tell the same tale: to trace a gun from its initial owner to its final one, to tell the tale of how it went from hand to hand until it gunned down a 10-year-old sitting on the steps of his house in Point Breeze. 

It would be a small story that told a larger one.  And that larger tale would be one of the vast, Mississippi of guns produced each year in America that flow in reverse of natural law. In nature, small streams feed large rivers.  In the gun culture, large rivers feed small streams.

In America, gun manufacturers pour their product forth, and, like blood flowing from a first-grader's body, it seeps out, staining the nation.  In this country, guns are God: all present and all powerful.

It will take anthropologists and historians of the 22nd century to give some perspective to America's love affair with guns. And they may be critical of those of us, for whatever reason, who did not make it our mission to end it.

History tells us that many white Americans in the 19th century found slavery abhorrent, but only a sliver of them -- many of them Quakers, most of them considered oddball quacks -- stood up to the peculiar institution.

The same is true of guns and gun violence.  We abhor it, we tsk when it happens -- but it happens everyday, in every town across the country.  When it happens at Christmastime, in a small town in Connecticut, we hold our hands to our hearts and mourn the tragedy.  Like the President, we wonder: What if this were my child? What if this happened at my school?

Yet, we do not take the next step.  We do not engage.  We do not move to advocate for and create the political change necessary to stop the flow of this Mississippi.  For those who say it cannot be done, I will remind you there are was time in the history of the United States when the freedom of slaves could not be done, when the vote for women could not be done, when intermarriage of races was illegal, when black people could not vote, when homosexuality was criminalized.  

It cannot change and it will not change until a sufficient number of people say, "No more. We have had enough," and make change happen.  Hopefully, this time it will come from the top.  The President will give us more than tears.  He will give us a course of action.  He will seek to lead on this issue.  And, if he does, we should follow.

I offer a postscript to the report I mentioned in the first paragraph:

Though the ATF has the capacity and computer power to trace guns and even bullets used in crimes, it is forbidden by law to release this information to the public. It used to be you could call the local ATF office and get that data.

But, knowing that information is power and aware that these stories about where crime guns came from was bad press, the National Rifle Association decided to stop the flow.

It got Congress to pass a law which specifically forbade the ATF to release a gun's history -- except to police departments.

In issuing its report, the Philly police evaded that restriction by using gun data it got from the ATF of a few guns used in homicides.  It was in technical violation of federal law. The ATF was in the weird position of saying the police had abused their relationship with the agency by making the data public.

This is a tribute to the power of the gun lobby, which rules in Washington and Harrisburg. For the gun lobby, the messy killings of innocents provide a disturbance in the field.  But they know it will pass.

They have a powerful lobby and an army of gun lovers behind them. We are somewhat comic figures to them, as we stand on the sidelines, wringing our hands and looking pained. But we do nothing.

-- Tom Ferrick


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