Op-ed: Our punishments for illegal guns are too weak

Sen. John Sabatina Jr. (D-5th dist.) James Robinson | Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Caucus

By Sen. John P. Sabatina Jr.

There’s been a disturbing uptick in shootings in our city recently. As of July 9, there have been 639 shootings in the city. In fact, there were only 20 days out of the first 185 in 2019 in which someone was NOT shot. It’s a scary situation for all of us.

The Philadelphia Police Department has tracked the numbers. So far this year, 820 people have been arrested for illegal possession of a firearm. Those arrests mark the largest increase since 2015, when 464 people were arrested for illegal firearm possession through the same date.

With that many illegal guns around the city, it is no wonder we are experiencing a homicide crisis. Murders are up above 300 a year again. In 2017, it was 315. In 2018, it shot up to 351. And the trend is not looking good. We’re on pace to exceed 351 this year.

Even in the time since I began writing this, there were four more reported shootings. The 19th District’s commanding officer, John Stanford, tweeted: “Two men shot & killed last night … as a result of more senseless gun violence, despite the persistent efforts of our @PhillyPolice Officers. WE all must do more to stop this!”

He is right, we must do something.

Part of the problem is the punishment for illegally carrying a firearm is weak. Right now, it is a misdemeanor to carry a firearm without a license. In all likelihood, an offender would serve little, if any, jail time. If time were to be served, it would be in county lockup.  That’s a slap on the wrist and leads to a revolving door of people continually carrying guns illegally.

I served almost five years as an assistant district attorney. When prosecuting cases, I had to assess the severity of the crime as well as the defendant. I can tell you that short stints in county lockup are not a major deterrent to those who continually run afoul of the law. What does act as a deterrent, however, is a long stint in state prison.

That is why I’m proposing changing the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony. More importantly, a violation of this law would result in a two-year mandatory minimum prison sentence. A similar law in New York had a tremendous positive impact. In the early 1990s, New York City averaged about 2,000 homicides. There were fewer than 300 homicides in both 2017 and 2018.

There’s a strong correlation between illegal gun possession and illegal activity. Making our communities places where people think twice about carrying a gun will decrease crime. It will absolutely mean fewer bullets flying around.

The only way for our society to get relief from this rash of gun crimes is to make sure the word gets out that carrying a gun illegally carries a severe penalty. The status quo is not good enough and it is not keeping us safe. ••