Domestic violence homicides were up 240% last year. Why is Philly getting guns from so few accused abusers?
Gun violence has made too many of our fellow Philadelphians live in fear of leaving their homes. But for some, especially women, they may facethe greatest danger without walking outside their front door. Last year, the city saw a dramatic spike in homicides that police currently can attribute to a domestic violence motive – 43 murders in 2021 compared with 18 in 2020 or 28 in 2019.
Since 2019, Philadelphia has hada tool intended to prevent these horrific acts of violence – but the city continues to fail to utilize it.
In fall 2018, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a bill that requires people identified as potential threats in protection-from-abuse orders to relinquish their guns to local law enforcement within 24 hours. The law, known as Act 79, went into effect in April 2019.
The enforcement of the law depends on multiple entities working in concert: the courts, sheriff, and police all need to communicate as each plays a part in the process. Here’s how it works: The gun relinquishment order is entered by a judge. The courts need to communicate that order with police and the Sheriff’s Office. Once the order is served, the subject of the order has 24 hours to surrender their gun to the Sheriff’s Office. If the gun is not turned in, police are empowered to enforce the violation of the law.
In Philadelphia, making that collaboration work has proven to be a challenge.
In both 2020 and 2021, only 13% of the roughly 2,000 people who are accused of domestic abuse each year in Philadelphia have complied with an order to relinquish a weapon, according to data from the Pennsylvania State Police. For comparison, in nearby counties – Delaware, Chester, Bucks, Montgomery – the rate of compliance was between 46% and 55%.
Even more concerning: the low compliance rate has been a constant in Philadelphia since Act 79 took effect.
In December 2019, just before Sheriff Rochelle Bilal took office, The Inquirer found that under her predecessor, Jewell Williams, the compliance rate during the first few months of Act 79 had been about 11%. Again, the compliance rate in neighboring counties was much higher.
The excuses that were offered then bordered on the absurd: one, for example, was that the five-to-seven-page orders were too burdensome for sheriff deputies to carry.
An April 2020 analysis by this board found that in the first three months of 2020, Bilal’s first months in office, the recovery rate didn’t go up. Bilal did express her commitment to the issue. Under her leadership, the percentage of weapons recovered after a protection-from-abuse order was included as a performance goalmetric in budget documents filed with City Council. The sheriff’s self-imposed goal for her office this year is 70%. The budget documents don’t include data on the office’s progress toward that goal.
During the pandemic, the Sheriff’s Office stepped up and took it upon itself to serve the protection-from-abuse orders – a development this board applauded and hopes will become the norm.
The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to request to comment about the low recovery rate or ongoing internal efforts to increase it.
In November 2020, the city controller, Rebecca Rhynhart, published her office’s audit of the Sheriff’s Office’s firearms inventory – noting more than 200 missing guns, as well as willingness from Bilal to collaborate on improvements. Rhynhart recommended that the Sheriff’s Office and the Police Department formalize each agency’s responsibilities in recovering protection-from-abuseweapons in a written memorandum of understanding.
A spokesperson for the city said conversations to finalize a memorandum between the sheriff and police are ongoing.
Philadelphia officials often demand that Harrisburg lawmakers enact some form of gun control. Act 79 is one occasion in recent memory when the legislature did exactly that, and the city has failed to effectively enforce the law. Nearly three years after Act 79 took effect, it’s long past time for Philadelphia to formalize the kind of procedures that willensure widespread compliance. There is no excuse for allowing women who took the brave act of requesting a protection-from-abuse order to face a continued threat from a gun.