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City Council wants to address youth gun violence — but where to begin?

All ideas were welcome in City Hall’s chambers on Monday.

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Philadelphia City Council says enough is enough.

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson is moving toward "a comprehensive strategy" to tackle gun violence. Youth gun violence, in particular. He introduced a resolution to prioritize the issue, ran an op-ed on Philly.com outlining its scourge on the city, and on Monday held a marathon public hearing to get the ball rolling.

No one was expecting a miracle in City Hall’s chambers, where five panels of 30 witnesses presented over the course of six hours. But the issue should demand more attention.

Councilman Curtis Jones kicked off the session with an analogy: “If 300 whales washed up on the Schuylkill [River] shores, every marine biologist would be down in Philadelphia to find out why this tragedy has befallen these whales. And whales are important. But [our] lives matter too.”

An early testimony from Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Reed painted the picture with numbers: 4,700 people have been murdered in Philadelphia since 2001, and most of them were murdered with guns, he said. Equally alarming, more than 22,000 people have been shot in that same timeframe. And despite improvements in the last few years, the city has still clocked an average of about 300 annual homicides over the last decade.

"If it weren't for emergency centers and hospitals, the [homicide] number would be even greater," First Assistant District Attorney George Mosee added.

The five panels contained a veritable who’s-who of stakeholders in violence reduction. They were families of gunshot victims, behavioral health providers, anti-violence groups, law enforcement officials, and religious leaders. Everyone there had been effected, either personally and professionally, by the issue at hand. Even the the members of Council's Committee on Public Safety shared stories of how bullets shaped their lives. 

But at times, the hearing felt derailed by its own ambition. Even with the limited focus on youth gun violence — and let’s be honest, it affects far more than the youth — this is a mindbogglingly complex problem.

No topic was off limits, so long as it could be linked to gun violence.

Poverty, warm weather, education, PTSD, straw purchases, recreational centers, reentry programs, recidivism, economic depression, workforce development, public-private partnerships, gun violence reduction initiatives, the cycle of violence, the “no snitching” code of the streets.

Student attendance problems in the Philadelphia School District dominated long stretches of the conversation. Then the focus shifted to parenting practices, then back to truancy, and then a new panel of witnesses brought a new set of issues.

"A wide scope is so important because this is a multi-faceted issue which requires a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach,” Councilman Johnson said during a break from the hearing. “We're in a state of emergency and we should all feel a sense of urgency to address this issue now.”

A bill Johnson introduced this year will establish an official Commission on Youth Gun Violence. The commission will be charged with making specific policy recommendations and outlining revenue streams. All of the issues discussed in Monday's hearing are important. But going forward, Johnson says the issue will be prioritizing which ones to address.

"Today, you saw that an organization cannot solve the issue of youth gun violence by itself," he said. "It was important to connect the dots between agencies and bring all parties to the table to get everyone on the same page. As we go into the budget process, everyone needs to work together, on all levels, to determine where our resources are best used to address different underlying issues which contribute to youth gun violence. At the end of the day, we're trying to keep kids from participating in gun violence and prevent them from picking up the guns in the first place."

AL DÍA could not stay to report on the full hearing. Check out these Philly Mag and The Daily News reports for a more detailed review of the testimonies. Also, check out this compilation of tweets from City Hall yesterday.

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