The first time John Solomon picked up a gun, he was 11 years old.
Pennsylvania’s soon-to-be state Attorney General Josh Shapiro asked him if he felt it might be the wrong thing to do.
“It was common,” Solomon said. “I grew up watching people exposing me to guns.”
Today, Solomon is 24 and on probation after serving nearly five years in prison for assault with a firearm.
“My family members suffered because of the actions I committed, but I didn’t know that at the time when I was in the streets,” he said. “I was young and I was misguided. I didn’t have any empathy.”
Now, Solomon works with his uncle Darryl Shuler as a volunteer hoping to quell violence in North Philadelphia, trying to convince young people not to shoot each other.
Solomon and Shuler were among the more than 20 people who spoke at a community forum hosted by Shapiro Tuesday morning. As he prepares to be sworn in as Pennsylvania’s highest law enforcement officer next month, Shapiro, a Democrat, is touring cities from Allentown to Pittsburgh to collect feedback on major issues, such as the opioid epidemic.
In Philadelphia, the conversation centered on gun violence. It’s a city where 1,206 people have been shot — but survived — and 258 have been killed so far this year.
Shapiro presided over a conference table at a health clinic in North Philadelphia. Seated closest to him were some of the city’s bold-faced names, including Police Commissioner Richard Ross, District Attorney Seth Williams and Council President Darrell Clarke. Elsewhere around the table were leaders of various organizations, such as Mothers In Charge, CeaseFirePA, and Father’s Day Rally Committee, who have been working on this issue for years.
A common theme was a lack of funding for the patchwork of small groups such as Shuler’s that work on the ground in violent neighborhoods and know the victims and the criminals personally.
“It’s kids that don’t have clothes,” he said after the forum ended. “They don’t have places to live. I’m telling you — they taking boarded houses up, un-boarding them up and living in them.”
Many of these kids, Shuler said, turn to drug dealing to make money.
“A gun is the tool of the drug trade,” said Malik Aziz, a longtime activist and former gang leader and drug dealer who served time in prison. “You got to have a gun to be in the drug trade because you don’t want people to rob you … so you can protect yourself.
“And the guns is easy to get. I can go right now — me — right down the street and get a gun if I want one,” he said.
Several participants in the forum made the case that the state attorney general’s office and local law enforcement need to partner with activists Shuler, Aziz and others who understand these issues — and the people affected by them — on a grass-roots level and often do their work on a shoestring.
An infestation of guns
Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, said many times, these organizations do not effectively partner with each other. And there is another issue:
“Where are these guns coming from? We need to know,” Goodman said. “That data exists. It is hidden behind some walls. We have the power to work with police jurisdictions across the state to get it.”
Shapiro could not guarantee more funding for these groups, but he said he would like the state attorney general’s office to work more closely with them and “get them rowing in the same direction.” He also wants to collect the missing data on how illegal guns used in crimes are trafficked in the state.
Shapiro said he recently met with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman whose office recently released an online tool to monitor gun-trafficking data.
“I was stunned at the number of guns that are coming from Pennsylvania that were on that chart,” Shapiro said. “I think it’s important that we gather that data in Pennsylvania as well.”
Shapiro also said he wants to expand the Philadelphia gun violence task force and push for a statewide requirement to report lost and stolen guns.