Gun violence takes lives one by one, tearing apart Philly neighborhoods

 Family members walk ahead of the viewing of slain Philadelphia Police Officer Robert Wilson III on March 13 in Philadelphia.  Wilson was shot and killed after he and his partner exchanged gunfire with two suspects trying to rob a video game store. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Family members walk ahead of the viewing of slain Philadelphia Police Officer Robert Wilson III on March 13 in Philadelphia. Wilson was shot and killed after he and his partner exchanged gunfire with two suspects trying to rob a video game store. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

The recent tragedy in San Bernardino was the deadliest mass shooting in the U.S. this year. But more than 350 other mass shootings occurred across the country before the incident, according to some estimates.

With national attention drawn to the California episode, a type of post-tragedy media frenzy that feels far too regular, some anti-violence advocates in Philadelphia are pausing.

To them, the intense focus on mass shootings could distract the public from the everyday violence that besets many city neighborhoods.

So far this year,  254 people have been killed in Philly, mostly from gun violence.

Gabrielle Clark with the group Families of Murder Victims goes to preliminary hearings in homicide cases at the Criminal Justice Center twice a week. 

“Maybe 90 percent of them are dealing with gun violence,” Clark said. “I do think if more people knew actually what was taking place in court rooms, and seeing how this is affecting others, I think they’d think twice before engaging in some of the activity they engage in.”

Too much emphasis is placed on whether the murder rate ticks up or scales down year over year, she said, and stories and talking points about statistical change risk obscuring what she sees as a more important reality: the gun violence plaguing many Philadelphia neighborhoods is not abating. 

“A lot of people get away from what’s actually taking place here with gun violence,” Clark said. “It starts in neighborhoods. We need to start looking at how young people are getting these weapons.”

Grief-stricken families she works with sometimes emerge from tragedy feeling “hopeless” about their communities, Clark said, with mothers, fathers and siblings of victims telling her that the prevalence of guns seems like an unsolvable dilemma.

“To know that it’s something that’s so accessible, and that people can get very easily can leave them scared,” Clark said.

Jonathan Metzl, a Vanderbilt University sociology and psychiatry professor, told WBUR’s Here and Now on Thursday that mass shootings are the only times that the public is forced to pay attention to the country’s gun crime problem.

“But what happens when we ask the question, ‘How can we stop the mass shooting?’ is that it makes it harder for us to see that a much bigger problem in the United States based on trauma, deaths and lives lost, is everyday violence in the United States.”

Clark agrees. She wishes daily gun violence attracted as much hype as mass shootings, which usually involve four or more victims, though there’s debate about the precise definition.

Some are renewing calls to curb gun crimes through tougher government oversight. The editorial board of the Patriot News in Harrisburg called on lawmakers and the governor to enact stricter gun regulations.

Furthermore, it wrote that things like making school districts require conflict resolution classes, enacting partnerships among police and social service agencies to rehabilitate troubled youth and making more safe spaces for city youth might ease neighborhood violence.

“In our streets and schools, it will require a cultural sea change and the willingness to do the hard work to see it through to its completion,” the editors wrote. “But it is work that must be done if we are to stem the tide of violence.”

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