Philadelphia officials are about to get an information download from teens affected by gun violence on how they think leaders should address the problem.
City Council recently passed a resolution to hear ideas from a new teen gun violence survey conducted by the Enough is Enough Students Against Violence Steering Committee. The group formed earlier this year, with support from Councilmember Isaiah Thomas’s office, to foster youth-driven conversations about the issue. It’s made up of students from nine high schools, including schools that have lost students to shootings such as Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia and Overbrook High School.
The committee surveyed 1,300 middle and high school students, mostly from North and West Philadelphia.
Key findings include:
- 64% of students said they were worried about the safety of their friends and family regarding gun violence.
- 79% of students selected gang involvement as a reason for gun violence
- 63% cited “the desire to be seen as tough or cool” as a driving factor
- When asked to propose solutions to gun violence, 71% said “better gun laws,” while only 48% said youth programming.
Many of the survey respondents were affected by gun violence — 46% had a loved one who’d been shot, 36% had witnessed gun violence and nearly 11% had been victimized.
Cayla Waddington, a 10th-grade student at Mathematics Civics and Sciences Charter School, said she isn’t allowed to ride her bike in her West Philadelphia neighborhood anymore because of the threat of gunfire.
She recalled a recent afternoon porch gathering with her neighbors that was interrupted by the sound of bullets down the street.
“And everybody just ran in the house ‘cause everybody was so confused,” she said. “Gun violence is really impactful and it’s everywhere.”
Philadelphia saw record-high rates of gun violence last year. There have been 158 fatal shootings and 627 nonfatal shootings so far in 2022. Half of the victims are between ages 18 and 30 and 8% are under 18, according to data from the Office of the Controller.
Residents in neighborhoods affected by violence say they’re noticing a shift in the demographics.
“You’re seeing younger and younger and younger and younger kids,” said Tone Barr, funeral director of Garriest Crawley Funeral Home and community liaison director of the Philadelphia Masjid. “There used to be a time when women and children were off limits. You can forget about that now.”
Erika Asikoye, a consultant and former educator who coordinates the steering committee, said she was struck by the level of fear the survey brought up, and by how many students couldn’t name someone who makes decisions in their neighborhood.
“They are completely unaware of where to go for support,” she said. “We’re in danger when young people are worried, but they don’t know where to turn, and many people are not involving them in the conversation.”
She said she’s hopeful that the survey release will inspire the city to integrate youth perspectives better as they navigate the gun violence crisis.
The survey asked students to identify reasons for gun violence and allowed them to choose multiple answers. Gang involvement was the number one driver, chosen by 79% of students, and “the desire to be seen as tough or cool” garnered 63% approval.
About half of students think “weak gun laws” are to blame. Other reasons that came in at over 40% include unaddressed mental health needs, unemployed parents, weak leadership in the city, poverty, and a lack of self-love.
“We all know how bad things are,” Waddington said. “And if it’s just getting swept under the rug … That’s just going to perpetuate this feeling of hopelessness.”
The City of Philadelphia has made some efforts to listen to teens on the gun violence issue, through the creation of a Next Gen Taskforce, which involves young people working to combat violence in their neighborhoods. They also hosted a youth-focused event in late April as part of the “Philadelphia Roadmap to Safer Communities” listening tour.
One of the biggest issues for teens, according to the survey, is firearm policies. When asked to identify solutions, 71% of survey-takers said “better gun laws.”
In April, a statewide gun violence prevention organization called CeasefirePA brought a group of young people, including Waddington, to Harrisburg to advocate for legislation that would require reporting of lost or stolen firearms and create Extreme Risk Protection Orders to temporarily remove firearms from people in crisis.
“But I only talked to the people who are representatives of Philadelphia … who are all knowing about gun violence already,” she said. “And they kept telling me, ‘yeah, we know, we’re sorry. We’re trying’. But that was the gist of it.”
Philadelphia has had little success moving the bar on firearm restrictions. The city has been in gridlock with Harrisburg over gun legislation for the past several years and is currently suing the state for the right to pass stronger measures locally.
The city’s “Roadmap to Safer Communities” includes a promise “to work with local, state, and federal partners to reduce the availability of firearms and close loopholes that enable guns to fall into the hands of those likely to engage in violence.”
When asked for solutions, only 48% of students surveyed called for an increase in funding for youth programs.
The city has put special focus on grant funding for nonprofit organizations in the last two years, many of which support youth programming. The Anti-Violence Community Expansion Grant program sets aside grants up to $1 million dollars to groups that provide healing and mentorship. The mayor has already proposed an additional $12 million in the upcoming 2023 budget for the fund.
Several nonprofits are trying to gather youth input on solutions to gun violence. The Beloved Care Project hosts listening sessions for teens, and Frontline Dads, YEAH Philly, and other nonprofits are conducting their own youth surveys about the crisis.
If you or someone you know has been affected by gun violence in Philadelphia, you can find grief support and resources here.