Illegal guns? City wants to come in and retrieve them

In Phila.'s latest attack on violence, this offer was put on the table: Allow police searches and no one gets charged.

Posted: June 29, 2007

On a day when the city's homicide rate reached 200, another appeal went out yesterday to stop the violence.

It came from the police commissioner and the district attorney and it was directed at residents who know of illegal guns in homes.

They pitched this deal: Allow police searches and no one will be charged with illegal possession of any firearms found.

"This gives . . . a mom, a dad, a grandfather, a homeowner who wants to get an illegal gun out of their house, a simple and easy way to get rid of it," District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham shouted over the rumble of the Market-Frankford El at 52d and Market Streets.

At that West Philadelphia intersection in the middle of a busy shopping district, a daytime shoot-out had left one man dead and three others wounded just seven weeks earlier. Passersby, in fact, suspected similar carnage when they caught sight of police cruisers and uniformed officers gathered for the 5 p.m. news conference.

Instead, they heard from city officials desperate to, as Abraham put it, "stem this endless flow of bloodshed on our streets."

Nearly 90 percent of the city homicides this year - 16 more than last year at this time - were by handgun, said Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson.

This latest gun-removal initiative, which follows a buy-back program started last year that Johnson said has resulted in the recovery of 1,200 firearms, is evidence that "everything we can do . . . we're going to try to do."

Public cooperation is another matter. What's the incentive for people to pick up the phone and invite police into their home to search for a gun?

Their action, Abraham answered, could "save a life. That's its own reward."

The program, modeled after one in St. Louis, Mo., requires police to get consent from a homeowner or renter who is at least 21 to search a home, Abraham said.

Exemption from all prosecution is not assured. For instance, if the recovered gun is linked to a murder, prosecution for that murder would follow, Abraham said. Those inviting police into their homes to search for illegal guns also should not expect officers to look the other way if evidence of illegal activity - including drugs - is present, she said.

Outreach is being coordinated by Philadelphia Weed and Seed, a nonprofit crime-prevention program. Volunteers went door-to-door in West Philadelphia after the news conference to distribute post cards urging those who want to report an illegal gun to call a DA hotline. That number is 215-686-9585. Posters, billboards and ads on buses are planned.

Tysha Hillman, among those who first suspected the worst when she saw all the police gathered, signaled thumbs-up when told about the initiative.

The 36-year-old West Philadelphia mother of three teenage girls said she would report any illegal guns "in a hot minute." It's time, she said, to "stop the violence."

Oran Betha, 31, a lifelong resident of West Philadelphia, said that he agreed, but that he isn't optimistic the hotline will be deluged. The reason: "People are scared."


Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 610-313-8095 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.

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