Last week, Amy Henson found herself at the Criminal Justice Center before a judge talking about the effects of gun violence in her community. But unlike most instances, Henson was not wounded or an eyewitness to a shooting. Instead, the Point Breeze resident was testifying at a sentencing hearing for a suspected drug dealer caught carrying an illegal gun in her neighborhood.
"There are victims here, but nobody really thinks about them because nobody was shot," said Henson, 65.
While the problem of illegal guns in Philadelphia is longstanding and well-documented, the "don't snitch" mentality has created such a fear in many communities that silence is often the norm in police investigations.
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But Henson is part of a grassroots campaign to show judges that the community is concerned by showing up at sentencing hearings in cases of straw purchasing or illegal possession. She was joined in the courtroom by a handful of community members. After hearing from Henson, Common Pleas Court Judge Ellen Green-Ceisler denied Barry Houi's request for house arrest and sentenced him to six to 12 months in prison followed by four months probation.
"The problem is that now often these guys will get a few months probation and that's not a deterrent, it's an inconvenience," said Max Nacheman, director of CeaseFirePA, a statewide gun reform organization that spearheads the court watch. "Instead, if somebody knows 'If I'm caught with an illegal gun I'm going to jail,' they think twice."
Mayor Michael Nutter urged tougher sentencing earlier this year as part of his plan to reduce gun violence. The activists know it is another case of David versus Goliath, in light of Pennsylvania's history of siding with pro-gun lobbyists in the Legislature and at the court level, but they remain encouraged.
"Somebody's got to start the movement," Henson said. "People deserve to live their life without fear, certainly this type of fear that they have absolutely no reason to have."
Arming the NRA
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is considering legislation that would give the National Rifle Association a better chance of fighting municipalities that enact their own gun reforms by giving them “standing.”
Courts have denied several challenges by the group in the past based on the grounds that they did not have standing and no individual’s rights were harmed.
If approved, the move would likely trigger a slew of complaints against cities like Philadelphia.
The bill would also need approval from the Senate and be signed into law by the governor.