Interfaith group memorializes Philadelphians killed by guns in 2012

A collection of colorful T-shirts – 292 to be exact – is currently filling the front yard of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill to remind passersby of the number of Philadelphia lives claimed by gun-violence in 2012 and 2013.

The temporary display was erected on Saturday by members of Heeding God’s Call, an interfaith grassroots organization which works to reduce gun violence. In 2012, more than 80 percent of all homicide victims – 278 out of 331 – in the city died as a result of gunshot wounds.

As of the Saturday, 14 Philadelphians had been killed by guns.

The memorial was also held as an act of service to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was shot to death in 1968.

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“Visually it will make an impact, because when you see the T-shirts you realize this is not a number. This should have been a living, breathing person wearing a t-shirt,” said Rev. Dr. Katie Day, chairperson for Heeding God’s Call.

The T-shirts, which hang on crosses and each feature a victim’s name, will travel from congregation to congregation down Germantown Avenue, spending about two weeks in each location. The next stop will be Chestnut Hill United Methodist Church.

Day said she expects the list of churches that wish to take part in hosting the memorial will grow.

“It’s probably going to take on a life of its own,” she said. “A lot of people have expressed interest,” said Day, noting that the display may eventually wind up on Independence Mall in Center City.

Raising awareness, pushing for change

Around 40 volunteers took part in creating the display. Some hand printed victim names on the T-shirts, while others positioned the shirts on the PVC piping crosses and planted them in the church yard.

Afterwards, participants gathered in front of the church to say a prayer for the victims, their families and a city plagued by gun violence.

“The object is to raise awareness of the costs of our current inadequate gun laws,” said W. Jarrett Kerbel, rector at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Chestnut Hill.

He added that people often don’t get a sense of the magnitude of suffering because the deaths are spread out over an entire year.

Day said the group hopes the display will challenge Mayor Michael Nutter to do more to quell gun violence in the city. In 2011, 265 out of 324 murder victims – 82 percent – were killed by guns. In 2012 that percentage rose by seven percentage points.

A spokesman for Nutter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last week, Nutter announced the Sandy Hook Principals, a code of conduct comprised of 20 measures that gun and ammunition manufacturers, distributors and retailers must support or else face economic divestment actions.

Day said she is concerned about how effectively those principals will be promoted and whether they will truly be enforced.

“If we can get our city to divest, that’s one good thing,” she said.

The organization would also like to see Nutter, as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, to persuade other cities to divest. This week, a resolution will be introduced at a City of Philadelphia Pension Board meeting to adopt the principals. If adopted, the city’s pension fund portfolio will undergo examination, which could lead to divestment.

A recent New York Times article noted that the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System has invested $400 million in the Cerberus Institutional Partners Series IV fund, which owns several firearm companies under the holding company Freedom Group. This includes Bushmaster Firearms, which manufactured the assault rifled used in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting.

Bowing to public pressure in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, Cerberus Capital Management issued a press release announcing that it will sell its investment in Freedom Group.

Day said the organization also wants to hear a comprehensive plan from Nutter which will prevent straw purchases, in which someone legally purchases a gun that’s re-sold on the black market. 

One of Nutter’s Sandy Hook Principals calls for the development of an early-warning system to detect patterns of potential straw purchasers.

For Heeding God’s Call, the traveling memorial is just one of several different strategies they will employ to keep sustained pressure and public awareness about an increasing problem.

“I hope people will drive by, look at it and think more about this issue than they ever had before,”said Kerbel.

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