Permissive Pa. gun laws contribute to uptick of deadly violence in Philly, Temple prof says

Philadelphia skyline

Philadelphia skyline (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia is one of more than 30 cities around the country that have experienced a recent spike in the murder rate after years of decline.

Though Philadelphia’s uptick is relatively small, and the city’s murder rate is still historically low, the pattern has stirred debate among criminologists.

So far this year, nearly 180 people have been slain in Philadelphia. That’s up slightly from last year, but still down significantly form 2006 when the city was in the middle of an intense crime wave.

The surge in homicides this year has been more pronounced in Milwaukee, St. Louis and Baltimore, cities where the rate is up more than 50 percent from last year.

One theory gaining traction is the “Ferguson effect,” which holds that police are overcorrecting from months of protests over aggressive tactics. In practice, this means they’re disengaging, arresting fewer people and taking a hands-off approach, especially in some of the poorest and most neglected neighborhoods. In turn, bad guys are feeling emboldened and committing more violent crimes, some argue. It’s a highly disputed position.

Temple criminologist Jerry Ratcliffe is among the critics, saying the term and its proponents point to a handful of anecdotes rather than hard numbers. But data does support another element that he said is driving the ongoing violence.

“Pennsylvania has particularly permissive firearm regulations. So most of the firearms that are used illegally, and used for homicides here in Philadelphia, and the state of Pennsylvania, come from our own state,” Ratcliffe said.

“What are often minor disputes in most other places become lethal interactions,” he said.

The homicide rate could be addressed by passing stricter gun regulations, he said, though finding the political will to enact them is an uphill battle.

And while changes in the laws wouldn’t yield results over night, Ratcliffe said, tighter regulation of hand guns, for instance, would help shift the calculus over time.

“Having easy access to firearms turn what would otherwise be perhaps a fight or an argument into a homicide,” Ratcliffe said. “And that’s the reason why, out of all the developed countries, we have by far the highest homicide rate compared to anywhere else.”

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

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal