Philadelphia officials should identify rogue gun sellers

The scene of a shooting at a block party is investigated in the city's Allegheny West section last weekend. JOSEPH KACZMAREK / For the Daily News
The scene of a shooting at a block party is investigated in the city's Allegheny West section last weekend. JOSEPH KACZMAREK / For the Daily News
Posted: June 28, 2012

A Kensington 18-year-old accidentally took his own life earlier this month, according to news reports, when he put a handgun that he did not know was loaded to his head and fired it on a dare during an online video chat. The media coverage of the shooting focused on the most unusual aspect of the story — the online dare — but the more important issue is how the gun got into the teenager's hand.

According to one report, the weapon was an illegal handgun obtained by the youth's 22-year-old brother, who was asleep in the same room when the shooting took place. (Police have not filed charges in the shooting.) If that's the case, it was likely purchased on the street through the city's extensive illicit firearms network, and the dead teen would be alive if not for an illegal gun. That's the real tragedy in this case, and it's a tragedy that is repeated endlessly in Philadelphia, where the availability of illegal guns and the carnage they reap are devastating families and neighborhoods.

Mayor Nutter has loudly and repeatedly expressed outrage at the daily death and destruction visited on the city by illegal guns, warning of the toll taken particularly on a generation of African American men. We at Heeding God's Call, a faith-based movement to prevent gun violence, share his sentiments. The highly efficient illegal gun trade — which depends on gun retailers who sell to straw buyers and gun traffickers, who then resell them to people on the street who do not have to undergo background checks — deserves our disgust, anger, and efforts to eliminate it.

To the mostly white gun dealers who sell to the people who resell guns on the street, this is all about sales and profits. But to the communities of color where these guns are used, it's about injury, death, and devastation.

The chief guilt lies with the Philadelphia area gun retailers who are the first link in the chain of illicit gun sales. Philadelphia police recover almost 5,000 illegal guns each year. Where do they come from? Right here in the city and its environs.

Data from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives show that the bulk of guns recovered by Philadelphia law enforcement officers were originally purchased within 10 miles of where they were recovered. Three years ago, a top seller of guns recovered in the aftermath of crimes in Philadelphia, Colosimo's on Spring Garden Street, was shuttered by federal authorities on charges that it was selling to straw purchasers.

After high-profile shootings such as the one in Kensington this month, city officials should let the public know the exact origins of any illegal guns recovered. Which stores are the starting point in the movement of guns to the streets where they are used to threaten, wound, maim, and kill people? Shouldn't a damaged community learn from whence the damage comes? It must if it is to find ways to ameliorate the damage.

So we ask, in the tragedy that played out in that bedroom of a Philadelphia home last week, and in all the other shootings in the city: Was the gun illegal? If so, was it originally sold by a gun retailer in Pennsylvania? If so, which? And, if so, who made the original purchase?

As public knowledge and awareness grow, so will the demand for change — change that blocks the movement of illegal guns to the street; change that holds irresponsible or corrupt gun dealers accountable to the community; change that requires the city to regulate gun retailers' practices; changes that could save untold lives.

The Rev. James F. McIntire is the chairman of the board of directors of Heeding God's Call.

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