‘We are losing the village’: Philadelphia officials blame GOP legislature for inaction on gun violence

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw speaks at Olney Transportation Center, where a mass shooting occurred on Feb. 17, 2021. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw speaks at Olney Transportation Center, where a mass shooting occurred on Feb. 17, 2021. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia officials and state lawmakers who represent the city joined local activists outside the Olney Transportation Center Friday to give an update on the Feb. 17 mass shooting there  and demand tighter gun laws.

“The mass shooting at this very location in broad daylight is yet another tragic example of the vicious and unacceptable gun violence epidemic that is devastating our communities,” Mayor Jim Kenney said.

Shortly before 3 p.m. Feb. 17, eight people ages 17 to 70 were shot at the major SEPTA transit hub in North Philadelphia.

“Eight people were shot. Eight. One can only imagine what this terminal would have looked like if these were normal times — children coming home from school, hundreds of additional Philadelphians going to and coming from work. As horrible as this tragedy was, we are grateful that it was not worse,” Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw confer during a press event at Olney Transportation Center, where a mass shooting occurred on Feb. 17, 2021. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Now in possession of surveillance footage, law enforcement officials are hoping to identify three men they believe are responsible for the shooting.

“Suspect One — thin build, green mask, wearing a dark colored jacket with white stripes down the arms of the jacket and an emblem on the chest, dark pants with dark shoes. Suspect Number Two — tall, thin build. All dark clothing with white or light color shoes. Suspect Number Three — medium build wearing all dark clothing,” Outlaw said. The men are said to have driven an older-model blue Ford Explorer, she said.

“At this time, it is unknown if any of the victims were the intended target, and the motive remains unknown,” Outlaw said.

City officials want anyone with information regarding the suspects to say something. “There’s a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction for the person or persons responsible for this shooting,” Outlaw said.

The mass shooting occurred in a period of increased gun violence in Philadelphia. Because of that, local government leaders hoped Friday’s news conference at the transportation center would be a springboard to rally support for tougher gun laws.

“We may not all share the same philosophies when it comes to battling gun violence. But I do know that we all agree that we must stop the unabated flow of guns into our city and pass common-sense gun laws to keep our residents safe,” Kenney said.

According to the mayor, roughly 800 guns have been taken off of the streets since the start of the year.

“At this rate, we are on pace to remove almost 6,000 crime guns from our streets,” Outlaw said. Though he applauded the effort, Kenney said it would not make a large enough dent to decrease the number of weapons.

“And they’re all replaced almost immediately. While we need our state and federal partners to help us with that, we also need the authority to pass our own laws that reduce violence. The Pennsylvania General Assembly has not only refused to enact sensible gun regulations at the state level, but it also continues to block cities from enacting their own local gun laws,” Kenney said.

Republicans at the state level were the subject of most of the calls for action Friday.

“Philadelphia is like many other cities across this commonwealth, where it is a blue dot in a red state. And these blue dots in red states are being treated the same in state after state after state — restricting their ability to save the lives in their own towns,” said State Sen. Art Haywood said.

Pennsylvania state Sen. Art Haywood speaks at Olney Transportation Center, where a mass shooting occurred on Feb. 17, 2021. He joined local and state officials calling for legislative and executive action to stop gun violence. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Kenney took aim at state preemption statutes that keep Philadelphia from enacting its own gun laws. “But for preemption, Philadelphia would be able to enforce these laws and save lives of many Philadelphians.

State Sen. Sharif Street’s life is intertwined with the Olney Transportation Center, even beyond the fact of the area being part of his district.

“I’ve never felt grateful for anything in this pandemic except for the moment when I realized that, but for schools being closed with the pandemic, my daughter would have been standing there when the bullets flew,” Street said.

Pennsylvania Sen. Sharif Street speaks at Olney Transportation Center, where a mass shooting occurred on Feb. 17, 2021. He joined local and state officials in calling for legislative and executive action to stop gun violence. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

He and several of his colleagues have tried to push gun laws in the General Assembly, Street said. And, he said, each of those bills — extreme-risk protection bills, gun violence research bills, assault weapon ban bills, bills to mandate the reporting of lost or stolen handguns — have not seen the light of day because of Republicans.

Street said it was once believed that if gun violence were to take place in white communities, the legislature would take action. Recent mass shooting events in white neighborhoods and the active shooter drills that have become commonplace to suburban schools have turned him off to that idea.

“This seems to be that they don’t care if they’re Black children that die or white children that die, if they’re middle-class children, or poor children, or rich children. It doesn’t matter, because they’re more concerned about the gun lobby than they are about saving lives,” Street said.

Along with District Attorney Larry Krasner, Street is particularly worried about the lack of laws on the books that would make failure to report firearms that are lost or stolen illegal. They also are worried about ghost guns and have collaborated on new legislation that will go after the growing phenomenon.

“And for those of you who do not know what they are, these are guns that are about 80% plastic. They are made with no serial number whatsoever. They have removable and interchangeable barrels, and a few metal parts that can be put together easily by almost anyone in the basement,” Krasner said.

The display of unity against the state’s majority Republican legislature was accompanied by a display of unity against a conservative court system.

Philadelphia is currently a party in two lawsuits, with one of those challenging the jurisdiction of Pennsylvania’s preemption status. Kenney said this won’t be the only action the city takes.

“In fact, we will be releasing an updated roadmap next month. We’re also going to begin providing more regular public updates. Because as I said last week, residents deserve more transparency and accountability on what’s working and what is not. I’ll have more to share on that in the next few weeks,” Kenney said.

To the activists at the press conference, the gun violence epidemic is not an abstract idea, nor is it intangible.

Chantay Love Mason, of EMIR (Every Murder Is Real) Healing Center, speaks at Olney Transportation Center, where a mass shooting occurred on Feb. 17, 2021. She joined local and state officials in calling for legislative and executive action to stop gun violence. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Chantay Love Mason represented the group EMIR, which stands for Every Murder Is Real. Her brother was murdered about 20 years ago.

She had a message for lawmakers who are refusing to act against gun violence in the city. “When they write your legacy, will your legacy say that ‘I had the opportunity to make a difference, but I allowed the bloodshed to go through a city rampant that it almost erased a race?’ Or will it say, ‘I made a difference?’”

Dawud Bey represented Put It Down, another local organization seeking to end gun violence. As he walked to the news conference Friday, he said, community members were vocal about their thoughts.

Dawud Bey, of the crime prevention organization Put It Down, speaks at Olney Transportation Center, where a mass shooting occurred on Feb. 17, 2021. He joined local and state officials calling for legislative and executive action to stop gun violence. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“The pulse of the community is that we always a day late and $1 short,” Bey said.

To defeat this gun violence, Bey said, all boots need to be on the ground. “We do have to address this gun violence as a public health emergency. We need street credibility. We need science.”

Renee McDonald spoke for Mothers in Charge. At the end of the day, she said, mothers aren’t just losing their sons. It’s much bigger than that.

“We are losing the village,” McDonald said.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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