President Obama and Philadelphia DA Seth Williams

Every day, a stat sheet on Seth Williams’ phone shows him how gun violence played out the day before in the city. He sees the causes — often, it’s due to arguments — and details on location, as well as who was affected. One thing that’s almost always missing: Numbers of people licensed to carry. In the last two years, just one person who committed a homicide actually had a license to carry the gun they used.

During those two years, Philadelphia saw 528 homicides — about 80 percent of them involved a firearm.

President Obama recently announced a slew of new gun regulations he used executive power to institute, including expanded background checks. So in a city like Philly where few people with guns follow the rules and get background checks, do Obama’s moves make a difference?

Gun control advocates and those working to decrease gun violence in the city say yes.

“No matter what solution you propose, it’s not going to be the end all or the cure all,” Williams, who has been Philadelphia district attorney since 2010, said in an interview Wednesday. “And so that opens you up to criticism from a lot of people who say, ‘well, it’s not going to do this or not going to do that.’ But you have to try.”

Williams said that though criminals who illegally carry guns often aren’t going through background checks, expanding the checks should cut down on the number of firearms on the black market. Stronger checks should also cut down on ‘straw purchasers,’ people who buy guns and pass them off to others.

In Philadelphia, law-abiding residents who are not listed as mentally incompetent by the state do not need a license or register with the city to own a gun they keep in their home. But anyone in Pennsylvania carrying the gun outside that home is required to apply for a permit to carry. And anyone buying a gun at all is run through a background check system that flags violent criminals and those with mental health marks.

But it’s other efforts to cut down on gun violence that Williams says can work in conjunction with Obama’s executive orders to decrease the impact in the city. 

Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFire PA, a nonprofit group advocating against gun violence, said her group is pushing for the passage of a statewide rule that would require gun dealers and individuals report lost or stolen guns to law enforcement. If they don’t, they’d face a fine or another type of penalty.

Williams says that move would be significant; law enforcement frequently tracks firearms used in crimes back to original owners who never reported they no longer actually owned the gun.

“They would say ‘oh, it was stolen.’ Oh really, nothing else in your whole house? Nothing was stolen except this gun? And you never reported it stolen?” he said. “So there is actually an out for people who were really straw purchasers. If you lawfully purchased the gun then gave it to a criminal, there’s really no way for us to punish them.”

There’s a problem though: Republican legislators in Pennsylvania, many of whom represent districts where constituents largely oppose additional gun regulations, hold majorities in both chambers. Between that and the NRA lobby, both Williams and Goodman admit pushing anything seen as gun control in Harrisburg is an uphill battle.

So in Philly, law enforcement and the district attorney’s office have largely focused on enforcing existing law. In the last eight years, homicides have decreased dramatically, and two years ago marked the lowest homicide rate since 1967.

One of those moves is instituting high bail for people illegally carrying guns when they’re arrested. Williams said he’s instructed prosecutors to seek bail in the neighborhood of $75,000 or $100,000 in those cases, which can counter citywide efforts to reduce pre-trial prison populations.

“I’m trying to do all I can so that we’re not warehousing people. My goal is to have the right people in jail,” he said. “The right people being held prior to trial [are] people that possess guns illegally. Those are the most violent people.”

Other measures are more preventative. Williams said he’s focused on pushing conflict resolution training for kids and teenagers so they don’t turn to a gun to resolve a problem. The Gun Stat tool used by law enforcement identifies violent crime hot spots and zeroes in on them.

There’s also Focused Deterrence, a pilot program in South Philly where police used intelligence to identify about 45 people they say are prone to involvement in street violence. Law enforcement gathered those people together, and issued a warning: If one of their crew members committed a crime with a gun, the city would come down hard on everyone.

By the end of the program’s first year, shootings in the area decreased by 40 percent and homicides were cut in half. Williams is working with new Police Commissioner Richard Ross and Mayor Jim Kenney to discuss the expansion of that program to other areas of the city.

Goodman said police initiatives are an important part of the gun violence prevention puzzle, but legislation can make a major difference moving forward, whether it’s increased mandatory sentencing, stricter rules for reporting lost or stolen guns or ensuring people on the terror watch list can’t buy firearms. She also said her group is playing defense, as a number of legislators are working to decrease gun regulations in Pennsylvania, including eliminating the state’s background check system that works in tandem with the federal one.

“What the president did is a start,” she said. “If [people] care about this, they need to be talking to their legislators… For the folks who work in Harrisburg, what matters is votes and dollars. If they hear gun violence prevention will make a difference, that’s the only way we’re going to make progress.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.