A hard look at the numbers behind 2021’s record gun violence in Philly, and an overview of what’s being done

People of color and young adults bore the brunt of city shootings.

Philadelphians demanding more resources to combat gun violence march down Broad Street in March 2021

Philadelphians demanding more resources to combat gun violence march down Broad Street in March 2021

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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After Philadelphia’s deadliest year on record, officials and community leaders are doubling down on violence prevention efforts with a focus on guns, which caused the overwhelming majority of the more than 550 homicides the city recorded in 2021. New grant opportunities, a new city-run job training program, and a new police unit focused on shooting arrests are coming.

These things are positive, but they can’t bring back the lives lost, a majority of whom were people of color, especially Black and Hispanic men.

There are names behind all of the grim statistics — the Philadelphia Obituary Project is compiling a 2021 list here — but a look at the numbers can help residents and leaders understand where to focus time and attention.

Using the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting’s open-source dashboard of shooting incidents and fatalities over time, we compiled the biggest takeaways from a year of unprecedented violence.

Yes, the majority of homicides are shootings

Not all homicides in Philly happen by gun, but the majority do. Shootings comprised over 85% of last year’s 562 homicides. That’s not new: gun violence has caused most killings in Philadelphia for the past half-decade.

But the proportion has actually dropped since 2016, when 90% of murders were related to shootings — of which there were far fewer overall.

Fatal shootings have nearly doubled since 2016

The city’s 486 shooting deaths last year is up 23% from 2020. Compared to five years ago, fatal shootings in Philadelphia have jumped 95%, with most of that rise coming after the pandemic hit — a trend seen in many U.S. cities. In Philly, shooting deaths in 2020 were 50% higher than the year prior.

The majority of shootings do not end in death. In each of the past two years, fatal shootings made up a fifth of gun violence incidents in Philadelphia.

Counting both fatal and nonfatal incidents, there were 2,327 total shootings in 2021, up 76% from 2016. As it did with homicides, the biggest spike occurred in 2020, which saw 561 more shootings than the year prior.

There were at least 25 mass shootings

A wave of mass shootings has been shaking the nation, but the ones in Philadelphia don’t often make the news. Proof: there were 25 of them last year, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, which defines the term as an incident when “4 or more [people are] shot or killed, not including the shooter.”

These instances are responsible for less than a percent of last year’s shooting fatalities, but the regularity and density of gun violence in Philly can make it feel like a mass shooting happens daily.

In 2021, the majority of mass shootings took place in North Philly, with a small cluster concentrated in Kingsessing. This mirrors where shootings occur in general (see our ward-level map here).

The deadliest shootings of 2021 took place in March and June, respectively. The first wounded a 17-year-old Tamir Brown and killed 24-year-old Naquir Smith alongside another victim in Overbrook Park, while the other claimed the lives of a pair of unnamed 17 and 23-year-old boys in Olney. The largest took place in February at the Olney Transportation Center, where a gunman opened fire to wound eight people.

“We hope that data and information we provide may prove useful but we never forget that we are talking about real people,” the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting posted on Jan. 3.

Young people and people of color bore the brunt

In 2021, nearly 95% of shooting victims were people of color. Black men comprised three-quarters of both shooting fatalities and total victims. Hispanic men were a distant second, comprising 10% of all shooting victims, and Black women totaled the third-most, at 7%.

An Inquirer report found the neighborhood blocks responsible for the lionshare of Philadelphia’s gun violence were heavily redlined in 1930s, creating a long-term linkage between the discriminatory lending program and the gunfire that directly impacts Black and brown communities.

The age group hit hardest by last year’s record violence was young adults. People aged 18 to 24 made up a quarter of 2021’s fatal and nonfatal shooting incidents.

Other gun-related crimes are growing

Violent crime not related to shootings, such as rape and assault without a gun, are actually seeing a small drop in Philadelphia, per year-end police data.

Some gun-related crimes are sharply increasing. Gunpoint robberies jumped 28% last year, totaling nearly 2,400 incidents in 2021. There’s also been a surge in stolen guns, with thefts from cars reportedly a frequent means. (Perhaps connected: carjackings are on the rise.)

However, aggravated assault with a gun is down slightly, with 114 fewer incidents taking place in the past year vs. 2020.

So what’s being done?

Last summer, City Council and Mayor Jim Kenney allocated $22 million dollars in funding for community-based anti-violence programs, part of their touted $155 million anti-violence spending in this year’s city budget.

By the end of 2021 (which is halfway through the city’s fiscal year), only $13.5 million had been distributed, according to The Inquirer. It went to 31 community organizations. Some of them, like the Nicetown Community Development Corporation and Men Who Care of Germantown, provide targeted workforce development and wrap around programs for their neighborhoods. Others, such as Mothers in Charge and the Urban League, are focusing on small-group therapy and mentorship programs that will pull from blocks across the city.

Help also came from the district attorney’s CARES program, which offers grief counseling, assistance with funeral arrangements, and other wraparound services through a team of crisis responders with lived experience grappling with gun violence. In 2020, the CARES team engaged with the next-of-kin for nearly every homicide victim, according to the DAO.

Looking towards 2022, the city is preparing to implement a version of Chicago’s READI program, which aims to reduce gun violence through a mix of cognitive behavioral therapy, job coaching, and anywhere from 12 to 18 months of paid employment. Early evaluations of the program showed participants are 79% less likely to get arrested for gun violence-related charges. The city hopes it will have at least 200 open spots, according to Erica Atwood, of the Mayor’s Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives.

Only about 1 in 5 shootings in the past half-decade has led to an arrest. To address this, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw is launching a new unit focused on nonfatal shootings. Reportedly staffed with 30 to 40 detectives, it’ll work in conjunction with the homicide unit to help solve these cases and help take perpetrators off the streets.

And there several other programs already working to address gun violence in the city — run by new coalitions like Partners in Peace, longstanding nonprofits like the House of Umoja, grassroots efforts like those from Maleek Jackson’s boxing gym, and even a new initiative from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Can this massive but decentralized approach make a real difference? Some leaders and activists, including Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, have been pushing hard for the mayor to declare gun violence a citywide emergency. They say it would remove red tape anti-violence spending and help with coordination. So far, Kenney has resisted.

People and families affected by gun violence can find a list of resources here.