Listen: Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams on Gun Violence and Gun Control

Earlier this semester, the Swarthmore Political Engagement Project (SPEP) hosted Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. This was the first in a series of events designed to inform the Swarthmore College community about important issues in the upcoming election. Williams spoke on the issues of gun violence and gun control. He suggests that gun violence is not just a criminal law issue but a public health issue. "We need to have a holistic solution," he says.

Williams is the current District Attorney of Philadelphia, having formerly served as an Assistant District Attorney (ADA). He is the first African American District Attorney of Philadelphia, and in the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.


Audio Transcript

Seth Williams:  All right. Thank you. Good evening.

Audience:  Good evening.

Seth Williams:  I said, good evening!

Audience:  Good evening!

Seth Williams:   Outstanding. I'm very humbled to have been invited out to the Swarthmore. I'm still on the wait list as an undergrad here, so I'm very thankful. I had to go to Penn State. I'm very thankful to have been invited. I want to think Ms. Singh and the committee for inviting me. It's a very important topic that we've been invited here to discuss. I was told that I could talk for 90 minutes. Is that good?

Audience:  No.

Seth Williams:  No? I was actually told the keynote could be for 45 minutes. Instead of that, we had a very lively discussion upstairs from the panelists that you're going to hear from. I think it's much more important and much greater value for me to hear from all of them equally, and for us most importantly to hear from you. To have a discussion with you about this terrible condition of ours in America. It's called gun violence. I'm very thankful to be here. As you heard, I am not the smartest tool in the shed. I didn't get accepted to Swarthmore.

I failed Algebra 2 at Central High School. After I graduated from high school, I went on to the United States Military Academy at West Point. I was there for 197 days. I received a medical discharge. They found out I was allergic to math and chemistry. I'm not the smartest person, but I grew up in Philadelphia. I love Philadelphia. I knew there was way too much violence. I became an Assistant District Attorney in 1992. I prosecuted cases every day in court. I love trying cases. I love being a champion for victims.

I never knew before I went to law school that I was going to be an Assistant District Attorney. I was a public interest law scholar at Georgetown, so I knew I was committed to public service. I'd been the president of a student government at Penn State. I led a 102 mile march from Penn State to Harrisburg when I was a sophomore to get our school to divest from South Africa. I was committed to public interest law. You're shaking your heads. Yes, in 2016 everybody looks back and says that Apartheid was wrong. That Nelson Mandela is a hero and a saint.

Back in 1987 when I had long curly hair, I looked like the lost DeBarge brother, most Penn Staters, a much more conservative college and campus than Swarthmore, most Penn Staters thought that, "Hey. Why are you going to give up spring break when we're going to Cancun? Why are you marching to Harrisburg? What goes in South Africa is their business. Nelson Mandela should be in prison, because he's a Communist. He wanted to destroy the government."

I'm very proud of that. I have to say that I went to law school, I wasn't sure what I wanted to be. I had a clinic in my third year. A professor said, "Seth, as a young black man you should go back to Philadelphia and be a public defender because you understand the criminal mind." I had to think about that. He didn't mean any harm. It was like Archie Bunker giving Lionel Jefferson career advice on TV. I knew I wanted to go back to Philadelphia and become an Assistant District Attorney.

I thought the Assistant District Attorney had the power to approve crimes and charges, but also to decline them. To decide who had a search warrant approved for their home, who had one declined. That I was going to really bring the Constitution to life as an Assistant District Attorney. I really have enjoyed my experience of working with the police. We have several of them here. Chief Chitwood over there, an American hero.

I'm very thankful to be here but again, I wasn't driven to become a criminologist. In many ways, I am the amateur criminologist now. People say that I'm the DA. I said, "I just play a lawyer on TV now." I'm like the DA on Law and Order. I became interested in solutions only because I got married in 1996. My wife at that time when I met her, she already had a daughter. I became a stepdad, I had to buy a house. I wanted to remain an Assistant DA, so I started teaching at Penn State Abington.

I was teaching a criminology class. So I could be one step ahead of the students who were probably smarter than me, I had to read everything that was in the textbook. That's where I really first started learning about criminology. An entire branch of criminology known as the ecology of crime, patterns of crime based on time, temperature, season. We have more gun violence in Philadelphia, when? Does anybody know?

Speaker 3:  Summertime.

Speaker 4:  Summer.

Seth Williams:  Why is that? It's hot. People are outside. People are upset. We had six homicides last Wednesday in Philadelphia. It was the hottest day of the year. It was the first day it was warm. As my mother would say, "People just acted the fool." I got a amen from over here. We can do things to change violence by environmental design. I started learning these things, only as a professor. Not because of day in and day out I was trying cases.

I'm very thankful. I ran for District Attorney in 2005, against my predecessor. I only raised $150,000. She raised and spent $1.3 million calling me everything but the Son of God. I ran on a platform of geographic base prosecution. Of using empirical data. Working with the police and communities to prevent crime. I believe the new paradigm of what it means to be an American prosecutor is that my job number one, is public safety which is preventing crime and reducing recidivism.

The rate of people that commit crimes over and over and over again. The old paradigm, any question posed to my predecessor, the answer would have been from her mouth, "More jails. More prison time." Don't get me wrong. The right people deserve to be in prison. The right people deserve to be in prison maybe for a long time, but I believe more important is trying to prevent crime.

I could talk to you all day about reducing and preventing crime and my thoughts, but we're here really to talk about gun violence. In Philadelphia, we've had 54 homicides so far year to date compared to 52 last year. We were actually lower than last year until last Wednesday, when we had six. Every year in Philadelphia, about 83 to 85% of our homicides are caused by handguns.

We have one of the highest rates of homicide caused by handgun. Every day, my morning begins, I receive an update of violent crimes and of gun violence and the homicide rate. It's the first thing I look at every day. How many of you would say, "What is the number one reason we have the gun violence?" Who's shooting who? What would you think? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Yes, ma'am? What's that?

Speaker 5: Unfortunately, young African-Americans.

Seth Williams: That's true. In Philadelphia we have a disproportionate number of, and people say that Black Lives Matter. I agree 100%, but all lives matter. We often forget that people shooting each other are young Black and Brown men in Philadelphia, but 81% of the people that kill white people are who? White people. Often we get caught up, and racism in many ways is an underlying tone in all conversations about criminal justice in America. That's for a whole nother day, possibly.

I'm going to come back to that, because I think we don't have the political will to end the gun violence maybe, because of the people being shot. We're going to get to that. In Philadelphia, we have 54 homicides so far this year. We used to have about 500 homicides in Philadelphia every year. My question was, who's committing these? We generally think when you hear that number, that it's nothing but drug dealers shooting each other like a bad Stephen Segal movie. A truck shows up with drugs in it and there's a shootout at the warehouse, or some kids around the corner and there's a shootout.

Frequently, there are shootouts on corners between drug dealers but the number one reason for the homicides in Philadelphia, and I'll let Chief Chitwood speak for himself and the Major here from Chester might have different facts. The number one cause for these homicides is an argument. Yes, often they are young men who are co-conspirators or in confederations of knuckleheads and hooligans and little gangs in Philadelphia that often are selling drugs, but the reason why the homicide was committed has nothing to do with the drug sales.

These guys don't have healthy conflict resolution skills. They shoot each other over arguments, over very, very basic things. Someone said something about the Sixers. Someone said something about someone's girlfriend. Someone fouled someone too hard at the basketball court. Someone stepped on someone's new Tims or sneaks. There's an argument. Everything at the macro level, between countries and on the micro level, someone felt disrespected.

At the macro level, it leads to a war. The micro level, someone pulls out a gun. Where they might have just punched someone a couple of generations ago, but because of the availability of handguns just they go and get it and shoot somebody. At the heart of the conflict is something that's written in this book. Anybody know what this is? The Constitution. Where is the conflict here, that this tension arises today? Anyone? All right. I just want you to smile. I want her, in her most theatric voice to read for us the Second Amendment.

Speaker 6: The right to bear arms.

Seth Williams: Real loud. Theatrical.

Speaker 6: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Seth Williams:  What do you think that means? Anyone? What does it mean to you? What do you think it means?

Speaker 7: That in order to facilitate a well regulated military, there needs to be access to arms in order to facilitate the well regulated militias.

Seth Williams: Anyone else? I went to a Quaker school as a child, so I like consensus. Anyone else? Any other thoughts? Let's take a cultural and historical perspective of when the Bill of Rights was written. Our Constitution, the Bill of Rights was written, the entire Bill of Rights is our reaction to how the Redcoats, how the British treated us. You have the right to a speedy trial, because the British would arrest you.

You remain in a stockade for maybe four or five years, then find out what you were charged with. Then maybe have a trial. It's almost impossible to determine who could be your witnesses against the Crown for having stolen an apple four years ago at 3rd and Market. Each one of our Bill of Rights really is a reaction to us wanting to protect the individual against the Crown.

Really, the Second Amendment in my humble opinion and many other folks' really is for the state, we were a Confederation of states, to be able to regulate a militia for each state. I'm a member now of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, which really is the militia for Pennsylvania. For there to be a well regulated militia to protect the state from the federal government or from some invading army.

Not for me to be able to have unfettered access to as many handguns as possible. Anything more than two handguns in your house isn't a handgun. For us not to have unfettered, unregulated access individually before the state. That's the primary issue. I would also say more cynically, the real reason we have a problem is because of the lobbying manufacturing. The manufacturing lobby of those that sell handguns.

I want to say it's a billion dollar industry. I know it's probably not that high, but it could probably very well be close to that in America. They're a very, very powerful lobby in every state capital and in the national capital. What I believe, we have to look at the empirical data. I said I became an amateur criminologist from teaching at Penn State. What I see when we look at who's being shot in Philadelphia, who's committing the offenses, we can draw a Venn diagram.

The Pew Charitable Trusts did a study called Murder is no Mystery. We could do a Venn diagram. Remember Venn diagrams from eighth grade science class? I could draw a circle of those most likely to be shot in Philadelphia. I can superimpose that with another circle of those most likely to do the shooting. The intersection and the union of those two is about 85%. We could pretty much identify those most likely to be shot and to do the shooting.

Again, I would say a cynic might think we don't have the political will. There was one weekend since I was a DA where we had 40 shootings in Philadelphia. Eight of them were homicides. All of them were young Black and Brown men. I venture to say that had they all 30 been visiting us from Scandinavia, staying at the Four Seasons Hotel, Nancy Grace, CNN, they would all still be in Philadelphia. What is the problem with Philadelphia? It just barely made page eight in the daily news.

New York City had the political will to reduce gun violence. Some of my esteemed panelists will talk to you about the theory of making gun violence a public health issue. Not just a criminal law issue. I believe we have to have a holistic solution. Not just the criminal laws, but how do we handle it? I go and talk to kids in third grade, fourth grade. I go to elementary schools twice, three times a week talking about bullying.

We're really talking about conflict resolution. Treating it like they did in New York. They used to have in New York close to 2400 homicides a year. There also, about 85% of them were committed with handguns, but they had the political will in New York City, New York state to reduce the gun violence in New York City. Across the board. Not just with criminal law. The criminal law was very important.

One thing that they did, and I tell people, in Philadelphia we haven't had one homicide in the City of Philadelphia in the last three years by a person carrying one of these. Does anybody know what that is? It's a license to carry a firearm. I have a license to carry a firearm. I don't carry a firearm. I have a license to ride a motorcycle. I don't own a motorcycle. I like people with licenses, all right? If I tell you not one person in Philadelphia has been charged with shooting and killing someone had a license, what does that tell you?

Audience:   Illegal guns.

Seth Williams: These are people that possess and got the guns illegally. I want to use empirical data, not just the emotion. Yes, we need to reduce the traffic of handguns so we're prosecuting people for being straw purchasers. Does anybody know what a straw purchaser is? Anyone other than a panelist? Anyone other than an alum? Yes, in the back, young lady?

Speaker 8:  Hi, someone who goes to a state where they have Indian laws on how many guns you can purchase at a time or [inaudible 00:17:25] to purchase one gun at a time, and then taking those guns and going back to the States with laws for gun ownership?

Seth Williams:  That's a gun dealer. That's a person who's going, getting lots of ... A straw purchaser, yes sir?

Speaker 9:  Is it a person who buys a gun legally for another person?

Seth Williams: Exactly. Generally it's the criminal's girlfriend. He'll send her in, she'll buy a couple guns, because she doesn't have a background. She doesn't have a criminal history. She then gives it or sells it to her boyfriend. His criminal enterprise uses to hurt people. By prosecuting and going after those people, that's one thing that we're doing. Also, we're using empirical data. In Philadelphia, I tell people as an undergrad, plagiarism is a bad thing. Your teachers tell you that?

 As a DA, plagiarism is a great thing. My goal is to try to find best practices anywhere and to see if we can replicate them in Philadelphia. You're going to hear, in Chicago they had violence interrupters where you get people that have street cred to work with law enforcement. To go out and talk, hear, what are people saying? Who has a beef? Who is upset with whom? Then maybe we can try to prevent that by imposing healthy conflict resolution.

I stole from Professor David Kennedy, who is a professor at the John Jay School of Criminology in New York, the idea we call in Philadelphia focused deterrence. We use criminal mapping in Philadelphia. I have a monthly gun stat meeting for my chiefs of geographic areas. We talk about all of the gun cases where people possess them illegally. It's a violation from Firearms Act. All the non-fatal shootings. All of the gunpoint robberies.

We can show you on the map all the safe places. 95% of Philadelphia is very, very safe. There's hotspots everywhere, where the crimes occur. We're trying to use that science. We've identified a very small neighborhood in South Philadelphia where there's about 12 gangs that commit all the violence. We invite those individuals in. Representatives of them, three or four at a time, of each of the 12 groups. We have close to 40 people in a room. They're invited.

They're on probation or parole, so they have to come in. We let them know there's a new game in town. How many have ever watched the TV show The Wire on HBO? Remember there was an episode called New Hamsterdam. It was a Major, what did the police Major of that area do? He brought the drug dealers together, said, "Look. I'm going to let you sell all the drugs you want in this four-block area, but you can't shoot anybody. If anybody commits a crime with a gun, I'm shutting the whole thing down."

I saw that, and I read David Kennedy's book. We're not allowing people to sell drugs. I want you to repeat that, I know I'm on TV. I'll be on YouTube. I'm not saying that. Drugs are bad. I'm not saying that. What we're saying is we bring them in. We tell them, "If anyone in your crew, if anyone in your gang commits a crime with a gun, we're going to hold your entire crew responsible." How can you do that? All of you are on active probation or parole.

 If Pookie commits a crime with a gun and you are supposed to be on monthly urinalysis, we're going to make it weekly. Whatever they each have, and that makes them do what? It's like a positive peer pressure. They say, "Whoa. Whoa, look. Don't do anything with a gun. Because that's gonna bring heat on us. And we have nothing to do with your beef with that guy." When you were kids you went to visit your Grandma. Your cousins were there. Grandma said, "All of you have to do this or you can't go see the fireworks."

You made sure that your other cousin who was the slouch, made sure he did everything right so you could all go see fireworks. It was the same concept. We're trying to use empirical data. We're trying to use new solutions. Again, you have to have the political will. In New York and Albany they passed a law that if you possess a gun without a license, you're going to go to jail for three and a half years. For the most part, I'm opposed to mandatory sentences.

For the right ones, and I think people who carry guns illegally are the people that are willing to kill my Aunt Shirley, my favorite aunt, kill one of my three daughters or anybody that's in this room. What they did in New York, they instituted that and did other things. Their homicide rate went from about 24, 2500 a year. Last year they had less homicides in New York City, a city of 8 million people, than we did in Philadelphia of 1.5 million people. We had around 280 or so, in Philadelphia last year. They had the political will to reduce the gun violence. We can do the same.

I'm very glad this is political engagement. I hope all of you remain engaged. I hope all of you try to learn as much as possible, whatever your majors are, but always remain committed to social justice. Trying to help out your fellow man and woman. I could talk to you all day, all week about solutions and ideas about reducing gun violence. I'm hearing upstairs, my fellow panelists, many of them are much smarter than I am. I want you to hear from them, and for us to have a great discussion together. All right? Again, thank you Ms. Singh.