Earlier this month, Philadelphia suffered yet another horrific mass shooting. Rather than the uniquely American ritual of a single madman slaughtering people in a nightclub, school, or music festival, this was instead an ordinary fistfight that got out of control, sparking a disorganized melee. Three people died and 11 others were wounded, the worst mass shooting in the city in seven years.
Subsequent revelations have shed new light on the situation that is highly relevant to the broader debate about gun control and police reform. It turns out that not only have Pennsylvania police departments (in Philadelphia and at the state level) made it much easier to obtain a concealed-carry license in the city, but their own incompetence allowed the man who shot first to get one when he should have been rejected. Both American problems of too many guns and the wretched incompetence of our police departments contributed to the tragedy.
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First, what happened? As The Philadelphia Inquirer reports, it all started on South Street, one of the most popular nightlife hubs in the city, at about 11:30 p.m. on June 4. Three men—Gregory Jackson (34), Rashawn Vareen (34), and Micah Towns (23)—apparently got into a verbal altercation, which turned into a fight when Vareen attacked Towns. According to security camera footage, Jackson shot first, hitting Towns, who pulled out a gun of his own and returned fire multiple times, hitting Jackson and killing him.
A short time later, another man named Quran Garner (who was 18, and apparently a friend of Towns) allegedly pulled out his gun and fired down South Street into a crowd. Police coming on the scene then shot Garner in the hand, who dropped the weapon.
All this gunfire—which took maybe a minute—sparked mass panic among hundreds of bystanders, and apparently more wild shooting from two more young men who were uninvolved with the original dispute. Qaadir Dukes-Hill and Nahjee Whittington (both 18), standing apart from one another a block away, allegedly took out their guns and started shooting toward the scene of the first fight, wounding several bystanders in the process, two fatally. Dukes-Hill allegedly shot and killed Alexis Quinn, a home health aide, while Whittington allegedly shot and killed Kristopher Minners, a Girard College student.
It was yet another senseless gun violence tragedy on American streets.
But here’s where the policy comes in. As Victor Fiorillo writes at Philadelphia magazine, in 2021 the Philadelphia Police Department made it dramatically easier to get a concealed-carry permit. Previously, one had to go to a particular city building and get fingerprinted, but now the process is entirely online. As a result, the rate of permit denials declined from 17.5 percent to less than 10 percent, while the number of granted permits exploded from 7,444 in 2020 to 52,230 in 2021. That’s over 3 percent of the entire city population in just one year. Fear of crime accounts for some of the increase, but probably not much—in the Philly suburbs, where the concealed-carry application has always been online, the increase from 2020 to 2021 was just 45 percent.
In Philadelphia today, most people can get a legal handgun and a legal permit to carry it concealed everywhere they go in a matter of minutes.
Handgun sales and transfers in Philly have also increased, from an average of about 11,100 before the pandemic to about 24,000 in both 2020 and 2021. One result of these two trends is a large increase in gun thefts, particularly from cars, which were up 37 percent in 2021. The city is simply awash in guns, both legal and illegal. Garner, one of the shooters, had a “ghost gun” made with a 3D printer, but he did not kill anyone.
Sure enough, both Jackson and Towns had concealed-carry permits. However, as NBC10 recently reported, Jackson should not have been eligible for one, thanks to an arrest for illegal handgun possession in the Philly suburbs in December 2020. Inexplicably, the state police trooper did not file the arrest record until April 28 this year, and Jackson did not receive a court summons until June 1.
Once again, the behavior of the police directly undermined the safety of the people they are supposed to protect. Philadelphia cops senselessly chose to streamline the process to get a concealed-carry permit, flooding city streets with literally tens of thousands of legal handguns. Then, on an occasion when enforcing the scant rules for who is allowed to have a permit might have made a difference, state police sat on the relevant paperwork for 18 months.
More broadly, we see the abject falsehood of the conservative slogan that an “armed society is a polite society.” Many Philadelphians report carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense because of the substantial increase in the homicide rate in recent years, and on an individual level, that might even make sense. But in terms of the city as a whole, the causality plainly runs in the opposite direction: Philadelphia is a (relatively) dangerous place because so many people are armed.
For all of human history, there have been hotheaded people, typically though not always younger men, who get into fights. This disastrous episode illustrates how a nation swimming up to its armpits in guns exponentially worsens the side effects of that universal tendency, both for the men who fight one another and for anyone around them.
If there had been no guns involved, a fight like this almost certainly would have been just a minor assault, with a few scrapes, bruises, and maybe some stitches or a broken bone, something barely worth even filing a police report over. Instead, it escalated in seconds to lethal consequences for one of the fighters, a life-threatening wound for another, plus death for two more totally innocent people, serious injuries for numerous others, and no doubt many years in prison for three teenagers, who seem to be more panicked and dumb than cold-blooded killers.
Even setting a zero-gun counterfactual aside, just one less gun could easily have forestalled the entire incident. If Jackson had been properly denied his conceal-carry permit, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t have been carrying that night and wouldn’t have fired the first shot, and possibly not touched off the entire bloody catastrophe.
In Philadelphia today, most people can get a legal handgun and a legal permit to carry it concealed everywhere they go in a matter of minutes. The few who are legally ineligible can buy a gun illegally, or steal one, mainly thanks to diversions from the gigantic legal supply. As a result, thousands and thousands of people out on the streets every night are packing heat, and as we see, some of them are either spoiling for a fight, or jumpy teenagers with poor impulse control.
Any pleasant night out on the town—Minners, for instance, was a popular mentor out celebrating his birthday, where he hoped to meet some women—can end with you being shot to death by accident. Even Towns, who by all accounts genuinely did only use his weapon in self-defense, helped touch off the rest of the pointless slaughter with the fear spread by his shots.
In other words, Philadelphia has become something like a conservative gun utopia, where the problem of a “bad guy with a gun” has prompted a large fraction of the whole population to arm themselves. This is no way for human beings to live.