Ex-offenders counsel youths, call to strengthen gun-control laws to curb urban violence

 X-Offenders for Community Empowerment held its annual anti-gun rally Saturday in North Philadelphia. (Amanda Staller/for NewsWorks)

X-Offenders for Community Empowerment held its annual anti-gun rally Saturday in North Philadelphia. (Amanda Staller/for NewsWorks)

Community activists who were formerly convicted of crimes urged North Philadelphia teenagers to stay out of trouble and support anti-gun legislation at a Saturday rally.

“Don’t let your future look like our past,” said Wayne Jacobs, co-founder and executive director of X-Offenders for Community Empowerment.

Jacobs, who spent 30 years in and out of prison for drug-related crimes, spoke at the group’s annual rally to stop illegal guns at the Cecil B. Moore Recreation Center.

The event drew about two dozen teenagers, many of whom were dropped off at the center by parents.

Been there, done time

Tyrone Werts, who served 36 years in prison following a second-degree murder conviction, urged the youths to get an education and obey the law.

“You stand at the cusp of the road,” Werts said. “You can take this road and end up like me, or take the other road and have a bright future.”

Werts, who earned a bachelor’s degree while he was in the State Correctional Facility at Graterford, was convicted in a 1975 robbery at a Philadelphia speakeasy. One of his four accomplices shot and killed a man.

His life sentence was commuted by former Gov. Ed Rendell.

Both men have called for more stringent gun laws.

The ex-offender group maintains that current laws do little to prevent the transport of illegal guns. They favor a new law that would require mandatory reporting of lost or stolen guns.

“We look at it this way: If you come home to find your basement flooded, what do you do? You cut off the flow of water. Then, you can do assessments and cleanup,” Jacobs said. “That’s how we look at gun violence. We need to stop the flow. We need to stop the guns from getting into the hands of unauthorized people.”

Less than 24 hours after the rally, gun violence erupted in three city neighborhoods — East Germantown, Manayunk and North Philadelphia, where a man was killed outside a speakeasy.

The East Germantown shooting, which occurred shortly after midnight at a Chinese restaurant in the 5600 block of Blakemore St., left a 16-year-old boy wounded in the back, abdomen and right leg.

Pending legislation

Under a bill introduced in Harrisburg last April, anyone convicted of illegal gun possession in Pennsylvania would serve a minimum of two years in jail.

The bipartisan measure is sponsored by two Philadelphia-area legislators: State Sen. Larry Farnese, a Democrat, and Republican State Rep. John Taylor.

However, the ex-offender group says the bill doesn’t go far enough.

“They [the legislators] only want to address the issue after the fact,  after the gun was used and after it was transferred,” Jacobs said.

During the rally, Shaka Johnson, a criminal defense attorney, encouraged the youths in attendance to stay on top of changes in the law.

“The rules are changing all around you, so you have to know what they are,” he said.

Amanda Staller is a La Salle University student who writea for GermantownBeat, a local student-produced news site. NewsWorks features articles from GermantownBeat on its Northwest Philadelphia community sites and contributes multimedia journalism training to the program.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.