Guns in Philadelphia: The Views of Victims, Owners and Sellers

Sitting in the courtroom after her cousin was murdered, Rose Middleton told the shooter that she forgave him.

Middleton’s cousin, Robert Selvy, was 53 when he was murdered by someone who lived just a few streets down from him in 1997. Selvy was working to put his son through college.

“It was open season on cab drivers,” Middleton said. “They were being murdered left and right. Every time you turned on the news it was a cab driver being murdered. The last words my cousin spoke to me were ‘I love you.’ It was so sad and unnecessary.”

But Middleton admits to forgiving the killer and would like to meet him some day.

“The person who killed my cousin, I have a strong desire to meet with him,” she said. “When families get involved like that, no one wins. One’s a giver and one’s a taker. Truly, both have lost. Lives are altered on both sides. One, unfortunately, is in the grave and the other is in jail. Nobody wins.”

Middleton, 59, who lives in Northeast Philadelphia, has relied heavily on her faith to get her through myriad tragedies that have struck her and her family.

In 1973, she lost her husband on her mother’s birthday. Already with three kids, Middleton wasn’t aware she was pregnant at the time and raised four kids on her own.

Middleton lost her nephew, 21-year-old Michael Bokins, when he was mistaken for another person and was shot and killed at a Chinese store in Hunting Park.

In 2004, the unthinkable happened to Middleton’s son, Leonard Dandridge Jr. He had worked in construction and was saving money for a house. Middleton said her son’s girlfriend pretended to be pregnant and ask for an abortion. When he refused to give her the money, some of his neighbors shot him to death.

“The people lured him out for pizza; it was like his last meal,” Middleton said. “They pumped two bullets into him and pulled him out of his Jeep and ran over him. They took the Jeep and torched it out in Darby.”

Middleton turned to Mothers In Charge, a community advocacy and support organization for families affected by violence.
“Because of the death and the life of their loved one, each mother and member is committed to saving lives and preventing another mother from having to experience this terrible tragedy,” reads the group’s mission statement.

Mothers In Charge was founded by Dorothy Johnson-Speight after she lost her son to gun violence in 2002.

Khaaliq Johnson was 24 when he moved in with his half-brother. Johnson’s half-brother got into an argument over a parking spot with Ernest Odom, who lived on the same block. Johnson intervened and diffused the situation.

A day and half later, Johnson was returning from bringing a friend home. Odom had been drinking all day, Johnson-Speight said, and was still fuming over the parking argument. So, Odom shot Johnson seven times.

Odom was found guilty of first-degree murder and is serving two life sentences after killing a 19-year-old five months before murdering Johnson.

“He was a great guy,” Johnson-Speight said of her son. Johnson played basketball and used his love of the game to connect to young people on and off the court. He had recently been accepted into an accelerated master’s degree program in Springfield College in Delaware.

“He was doing everything right,” Johnson-Speight said. “I was planning on getting my PhD and working with kids together.”

Johnson said that the death of a child is very difficult and is not something that anyone should go through alone.

That’s one of the main reason why she founded Mothers In Charge. “I wanted to do something with my anger, tears and pain,” she said. “I wanted a way to channel it. I wanted to make a difference because so many people are losing their lives from violence. You see it on TV and radio, it made me want to do something about it. Myself and some other women who I knew lost children from violence. Our first meeting was in May of 2003. It will be seven years next month.”

There were 305 homicides in Philadelphia in 2009 while 10 minors die each day from gunfire in the United States, according to the Mothers In Charge Web site. Firearms were used in 229 known assaults this year to date in Philadelphia, according to Pennsylvania’s Uniform Crime Reporting System.  Firearms were used in 358 known robberies to date this year. There have been 30 reported murders in 2010 to date.

“It has to do with the availability of guns. They can get their hands on guns so easily,” Johnson said. “It’s the mindset of the culture that promotes violence. Video games, the music, a lot of things tell you how you become a man. A lot of young people are living in the mindset and that’s how you become a man.”

Middleton attributes crime to people who walk the streets with baggage and instead of staying positive, their negative sides comes out.

“It’s crazy how people just pick up a gun and kill another human being. I was taught to never take anything that you can’t give back. And with a life, you can’t give it back.”

The availability of guns is a hot-button issue, especially in the city. Both Middleton and Johnson think that guns are a dangerous weapon, but they are in agreement that guns don’t need to be outlawed altogether.

“We do have the right to protect ourselves,” Middleton said. “It might be perceivable to have a weapon. But on the other side, people are using guns to kill innocent people. You have to balance it out. It’s common sense. Why would one person want to come in a buy 10-15 guns?”

Johnson said: “I think guns need to be outlawed to people who cannot responsibly own a gun. There are people who own guns because they are hunters or collectors. If they have that weapon in a responsible way, I don’t have a problem with it.”

While Johnson noted that crime has decreased slightly, it is an epidemic both locally and nationally. She is optimistic, however,  that one day violence won’t be as bad and this world will be a safer place.

“I am always hopeful” Johnson said. “It may not be tomorrow. I may not even be around to see it. My daughter is going to deliver a baby on Mother’s Day. Maybe the work I’m doing will make it a safer world for my daughter to raise my grandson.”

Middletown is no longer an active member of Mothers in Charge. She still found herself crying too often and feeling angry. Recently, she has found a new role to take charge of as a great-grandmother.]

Fred Delia says the gun business is misunderstood.

Delia, who has owned Delia’s Gun Shop since 1969, says that the people that come in to his store use guns properly.

“Nobody understands the gun business,” he said. “Sportsmen and hunters are good people. I wouldn’t be in the business if I sold guns to bad people for crime for 40 years or two years. They send inspectors in here once a year, twice a year. The state police are in here to investigate us. Everything is fine here. It’s what happens when the guns leave this store.”

What happened around the block from Delia’s store just a few weeks ago in early April left a 22-year-old barmaid dead of a fatal gunshot wound. Rachel Marcelis had finished her shift when a customer offered to show her his new gun outside.

“A lot of people come in for protection. They are scared of the crime rate. Women come in and want it for protection. I tell them to go to the instructor and learn how to properly use the gun and protect themselves. When the police are three minutes away and a handgun is only seconds away, it just makes sense.”

What happens outside and on the streets is alarming.

Last week, a 44-year-old man was killed at his home in Southwest Philadelphia. In addition, there were three reports of shootings at bars, including two at Lid’s Bar in Logan.

“It’s not safe anymore, said Greg Isabella, owner of Firing Line, Inc. in South Philladelphia. “The number of police has been reduced. The family structure has broken down and that has given a lot of problems with pre-teenagers selling drugs on the street.”

Delia agreed: “Drugs. It’s got to be drugs. Nothing else.”

Both Delia and Isabella said that Barack Obama is one of the biggest anti-gun presidents, but his administration did not fill their shops with frantic firearm enthusiasts stocking up on weapons and ammunition for fear of weapons being banned all together.

“When there was a new president and a new administration, everyone thought the gun industry was booming,” Isabella said. “It was to a certain extent. With any type of economics you always have a pendulum where it goes up and comes down. It’s starting to look like a bureaucracy. The government probably thinks that you need a lot of paper, but it’s very easy to know if a dealer is good or bad.”

Isabella talked about law enforcement being the best deterrent for crime. The National Rifle Association worked to fund state personnel to investigate illegal sales and stolen guns.

“Now they’re making big arrests,” Isabella said. “In my opinion, homicides are down because the people who are getting guns are not getting them anymore.”

Delia said the process to obtain a gun is quicker these days, but it’s more difficult to actually get it in a person’s hands. Waiting times used to be two days, three days, five days and two weeks. Today, with a proper ID and drivers license a person can come in and attempt to purchase a gun. Then, Delia and Isabella have to call the state with the person’s information.

“They have the final say,” Delia said. “Any prior record and they deny them flatly. It’s the state of Pennsylvania that has the final say for who gets a gun. If they say turn him down, then you’re denied. You don’t just say it’s OK and just take the gun. You can’t do that or you’ll be out of business.”

When someone is allowed to make a purchase, the stores make sure that the buyer knows how to use the gun properly and for its intended purposes.

“With every gun we sell there’s a lock on it,” Delia said. “We tell them to go to the range where instructors will take you through it. It’s not that much to learn the proper use of the gun. Most of the people who come in are used to using guns. The people that aren’t, I talk to them and make sure they know how to use it properly and not injure themselves or other people.”

Delia said he thinks that the gun industry is moving along very well and that police are doing a good job despite not having the necessary manpower.

As long as gun stores, ranges and professionals do their part on educating prospective users and law enforcement has sufficient help, Delia said he is optimistic that crime and gun violence will decrease in the near future.

“I think it will,” he said. “The more and more people carrying firearms, they are more respectful and knowledgeable with them. I still see one thing wrong and it’s drugs and these crime gangs who have no respect for firearms or the value of a human life.”]

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