Eye-opening visit to city’s Gun Room reveals scope of problem

So many guns get confiscated that City Hall's evidence room can't hold them all; three other locations also store guns. (David Miailetti/Daily News)
So many guns get confiscated that City Hall's evidence room can't hold them all; three other locations also store guns. (David Miailetti/Daily News)
Posted: September 05, 2012

IN MY 20-plus years in this city, there are few places in Philadelphia I haven’t been. Some locations have been beautiful, some depressing, some frightening and some a mix of all three. But I recently found one place in this city that may have changed me forever: the Gun Room in City Hall.

As the seat of government, City Hall has plenty of grand vaulted ceilings and gold leaf, but it also houses ancient courtrooms, dumpy municipal offices - and on an upper floor, a peeling-walled warren of offices housing the police evidence department.

Within the evidence department is a 50-by-70 room that resembles a stockroom of Home Depot, if Home Depot sold weapons: Row upon row of steel shelves, bins and cabinets are stuffed with thousands and thousands of guns. The room is a dense, overgrown forest of rifles, AK-47s, AR15s, Uzis, Mossberg 12-gauge pump rifles and even a few rocket-launchers. The long guns sit on green, metal file cabinets that line the walls. The file cabinets' 300 drawers are stuffed with all makes and models of pistols and handguns. On any given day, the room holds 7,000 to 10,000 guns - all confiscated in crimes commited in the city.

I am not exactly a gun virgin - I have been to a shooting range, and I have a brother who hunts. I've never gone hunting with him, though I've politely inspected his three guns and his crossbow. That's about it for my exposure to actual guns. I am well-versed, however, in the concept of guns. I've written for years about the corrosive, violent gun crime that plagues the city.

The concept of guns - the arguments, the fretting, the hand-wringing over the havoc they cause, the arguments over the Second Amendment - has nothing to do with confronting real guns, especially in the Gun Room. The volume is shocking. In a room with this many guns - dull, ugly man-made objects that exist only to extinguish life - there's just one thing to think about: death. No, that's not exactly right: The volume is so overwhelming that I'm not really thinking at all. It's my lizard brain that's processing this sight - that ancient, preverbal part of the brain that is incapable of higher reasoning, only survival. I think it's telling me to get out of there. There is nothing these guns are good for but death. I wonder how anyone carries a gun without it being a constant, metallic reminder of mortality.

Then again, maybe that's the point.

Every week, 100 to 200 guns get delivered to the Gun Room from the Firearms Identification Unit - the "gun lab" within the Forensics Unit. FIU is the first stop a crime gun makes through the criminal-justice system.

The day before I visited, police had arrested Jermal Ponds for allegedly carrying guns on SEPTA; his AK-47, handgun and ammo had arrived the day I did. The lab processes each gun, analyzing, testing, typing and giving it a bar code that will follow it through the system's many stops. After the lab is finished with them, guns are packed in large, wooden boxes the approximate size and shape of coffins. Each week, three to four coffins arrive at City Hall, stuffed with ballistics, unfired ammunition, handguns, rifles and long guns, and a few white cardboard boxes that are reserved for guns used in homicides. Three police officers who work the Gun Room have to unpack the coffin and somehow find a place to store the contents.

It's not easy. So many crime guns get confiscated that City Hall's evidence room can't hold them all; three other locations also store guns. Guns don't live here forever, either; after the slow wheels of justice turn and the court cases are adjudicated, guns are set aside to be destroyed. (Here, the term is "destroyal," a word I've never heard but that's fitting.) All but homicide guns, which are never destroyed.

On the day I visited, about a hundred guns destined for destroyal filled a plastic bin, the kind you'd buy at Target to store your comforters. They'll be added to a load that will be taken to a steel mill, where they will be melted down in a blast furnace.

The police make four such trips a year. These trips won't make a dent. The guns will just keep coming.

Each gun tells a story, but here in the Gun Room, there are no good stories. Each is a story of failure, despair, desperation, death. Some of these stories are also pathetic. I see a few rifles rigged up with a sling of cheap plastic twine, the kind you'd use to tie a bakery box. A few are sawed off, or jury-rigged with crude, homemade parts.

Gun people, especially the NRA and its many members, take pains to defend the honor of guns, imbuing them with holiness and patriotism. In their hands, guns - which they insist they buy for safety, sport or collecting - are honorable things, and by extension, they themselves are honorable. They say that guns don't kill people. They say that there is no such thing as "illegal guns," only the unlawful people who own them. (By the way, many of the crime guns in the Gun Room have legal owners.) They say that there are enough gun laws, that they just need to be enforced. I have never agreed with these statements, but now I feel even more strongly. They are lies.

If gun lovers really believed that guns are honorable, why aren't they more protective of this honor? Why are they so silent when criminals and murderers and snipers and insane gunmen shoot up temples and theaters, compromising the honor of guns? Why isn't the NRA horrified and outraged, more supportive of reasonable controls, more insistent that guns should be in the hands of only those who deserve them?

Instead, after every mass murder, someone inevitably insists that such a massacre would have been prevented if only MORE people had guns to defend themselves. They are afraid that President Obama or some other liberal is going to deny their Second Amendment rights. They're afraid someone is going to take away their guns.

As if that were even possible, with the millions sold each year. Last year, 11 million guns were sold in the U.S., pushing up the per-capita gun ownership to 88 guns per hundred residents. (Russia's numbers: 8 per hundred residents.)

Crime and guns and homicides and drugs: These are words we confront daily. They are abstract concepts, problems to solve. We can make them a little more real by looking at the numbers: 1,421 shooting victims in Philadelphia last year; 265 gun murders. But even numbers are abstract. The astonishing thing about the Gun Room is that each of these guns is the physical manifestation of crime. It's as if all the crimes committed in the city have gathered in one room for us to actually see their enormity. The sight is so powerful that I challenge Mayor Nutter and Commissioner Charles Ramsey to move the Gun Room to street level. Build a glass cage and put these guns on public display. Maybe then we'll see a new way to solve this problem.

Sandra Shea is the editorial page editor of the Daily News.

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