Ten-year-old Faheem Thomas-Childs was on his way to school in 2004 when a drug deal went wrong. The little boy was caught in the crossfire and shot in the face. He held on for five days but eventually died. Some 2,000 people attended his funeral. For a short time, Thomas-Childs became a symbol for what needed fixing in Philadelphia, but ultimately nothing changed.
Thirteen years later, gun violence remains rampant throughout the state. Addressing a room full of doctors and public health advocates at the University of Pennsylvania’s annual trauma symposium, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro called for a more holistic approach to reducing gun deaths.
"I believe in the Second Amendment and I defend those rights, but I also believe people have a right not to be shot," Shapiro said.
Just four months into his new attorney general post, Shapiro plans to combat firearm deaths by expanding Philadelphia’s Gun Violence Task Force into neighboring communities.
Of particular interest is Chester, which was recently deemed the most dangerous city in Pennsylvania. The Delaware County city has a violent crime rate more than double that of any other city in the state, according to a study published by Pittsburgh attorney Gary E. Gerson and data visualization firm 1point21 Interactive.
Since its creation in 2006, Philadelphia’s task force has removed 275,000 guns from the streets, Shapiro said.
Veteran police officers and assistant district attorneys are the primary actors behind the task force, but the attorney general plans to bring in additional undercover agents to target illegal gun sales and straw purchases, or lying about the owner of a firearm.
"Gun violence remains a daily tragic problem in our country," Shapiro said. "[The crisis] extends beyond the gunshot victim and beyond the person who pulls the trigger. The numbers are truly staggering."
In 2015, more than 9,500 Americans were killed by guns and another 20,000 people took their own lives using firearms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than three times that number were shot but did not die from their wounds.
In Philadelphia, 85 people have already died as of April 13, the vast majority as a result of shootings, according to the Philadelphia Police Department.
Additionally, Pennsylvania’s gun death rate is the highest in the region with more than 1,400 gun deaths in 2015, according to the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
"My job is go out and deal with crime in our communities and … I can do that every day and have success, but we’re still not going to solve the root cause of the problem, which is a lack of economic opportunity, a lack of educational opportunity and the public health crisis that occurs as a result of this trauma," Shapiro said.
As the Philadelphia Police Department said in a recent interview with NBC10, policing is not the only answer to reducing gun crimes. Higher than average poverty rates and a lack of educational resources conspire to create a volatile environment for many people, especially youth.
For instance, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has treated more than 1,800 people under the age of 24 for gunshot wounds between 2007 and 2016. That translates to roughly 15 firearm victims per month.
Youth who are exposed to violence and trauma at an early age are less likely to succeed in school and more likely to exhibit behavioral and developmental problems later in life, according to the CDC. With this in mind, Shapiro hopes to collaborate more fully with schools, community centers and local leaders to curb neighborhood-specific violence.
"We know zip codes are determining factors in future success," he said. "We, as a community, should not tolerate this."