USA TODAY, June 4, 2013
By Yamiche Alcindor
CAMDEN, N.J. — Anderson Baker lives in a state with a litany of gun regulations. But no law stopped him from becoming a teenage drug dealer who could easily acquire, and use, his weapon of choice.
The national debate in the wake of the Newtown elementary school massacre has centered on the legislative approach to reducing gun violence: rein in assault rifles, downsize magazine clips, expand background checks and review mental health protocols. Baker says these types of measures would do little to stem violence that for decades has plagued this small city in the shadow of Philadelphia’s skyline.
Dozens of frustrated city leaders, residents, law enforcement officials and other experts interviewed by USA TODAY echo the conclusion that the blood running in Camden’s streets isn’t just about gun laws.
“I wanted to shoot people because that’s what I saw growing up,” said Baker, 20, a Camden native who spent four years in jail after being involved in several shootings. “When I was younger, I would see my boys and cousins going into jail and when they got out, all the girls wanted them. So, I wanted to go to jail. I wanted to be like America’s Most Wanted. I wanted my name to be known on the streets.”
Baker, a convicted felon and former gang member, said this mentality is alive and well in the streets of Camden, which statistics confirm is one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the USA.
Census records show that 42.5% of the city’s 77,000 residents were living in poverty in 2011. Camden’s murder rate — 61 per 100,000 people — was about 12 times the U.S. and New Jersey rates. Sixty-seven homicides were recorded in the city last year, breaking a grim record of 58 set in 1995.
It is against this backdrop that dozens of residents, city officials and other lawmakers in Camden shared their modest goal: prevent another record-breaking, crime-ridden year. Almost to a person, the focus was not on gun laws but on long-standing issues that fed Baker’s struggles: a failing education system, a dearth of jobs and a street culture that rewards and even encourages criminal behavior.
“We need to not just try to prevent the next Newtown but look at what is haunting the people in the densely populated, poorest sections of our country,” said Camden County Chief of Police Scott Thomson. “You have this paradox in that New Jersey has arguably the toughest gun laws in the nation yet has a city within it that has gun violence at Third World country rates.”
Thomson has been an officer for two decades and served as Camden’s police chief for five years before being sworn into his new position a month ago. He said Camden’s problems go deeper than New Jersey’s laws and points to the social problems of the city.
Camden’s school district has the second-lowest graduation rate in New Jersey, declining enrollment and at least three schools among the state’s worst performers. This spring, state officials moved to take over Camden’s schools.
The city’s law enforcement has also gone through substantial changes, adopting a county policing model that Thomson and Camden Mayor Dana Redd said will allow more officers to tackle crime and deter violence — such as the new phenomenon of daylight shootings.
Camden suffers with more people passing their days without work or even real prospects for a job. While the nation’s unemployment rate — 7.5% — has been on a steady, if slow, decline, 12.8% of Camden is still unemployed.
WHAT ISN’T WORKING
If people want to talk about guns, Thomson pointed out that desperate people on the streets can easily work around the many gun laws in place.
In a 2011 report, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which advocates stricter gun laws, considered New Jersey the state with the second strongest gun laws in America. New Jersey topped the list because among other things, the state requires permits to purchase any handgun, a special identification card to purchase long guns, and background checks in issuing permits. It requires firearms dealers to be licensed and prohibits the possession and transfer of assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines.
“All these laws do is retard law-abiding people in New Jersey from having guns to protect themselves,” said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, a non-profit group based in Bellevue, Wash., that supports lessening gun regulations. He said authorities should focus on arresting criminals rather than toughening laws because such changes only create a demand for illegal weapons that criminals sell.
One problem, Thomson said, is that New Jersey borders Pennsylvania, a state with laxer gun laws. He pointed out another problem without borders: People determined to arm themselves and carry out violence often find a way.
Which is why many in New Jersey shrug at the well-intended but often fruitless efforts by lawmakers in states such as Maryland and Connecticut who pass sweeping laws aimed at curbing gun violence. Sometimes, they argue, it’s about changing a mindset rather than just the laws.
“For those of us in urban centers, it behooves us to weigh in and make sure issues of urban America are also being discussed in states where these gun laws are being proposed,” Redd said.
At first glance, Camden looks like an abandoned urban center. Boarded homes, rusted street signs and pocked roads tell a story of a struggling city. For some, it’s also the familiar story of inner-city America and a type of violence — which often leaves young black and Latino men dead — that gets little attention and few congressional hearings.
For Baker, whose mother had her first of four children at age 13, it’s home.
Though he grew up without a father, Baker had plenty of men — often imprisoned uncles, cousins and neighborhood drug dealers — whom he admired. As a youngster, he was bullied and had behavior problems that led him to be bounced around schools and alternative programs.
Baker said his decisions to start selling drugs at 13, join the Bloods gang at 15 and carry out dozens of shootings were about manhood and making a name for himself the only way he knew how.
“It’s about beef,” Baker said. “It’s about territory. It’s about who can make the most money and have the biggest block.”
This brash teenager didn’t need gun shows or shops, nor was he slowed by background checks or waiting periods or reams of documentation. Baker secured his weapons of choice by borrowing guns from family and friends. In each instance, he was never encumbered by New Jersey’s tough-as-nails laws.
THIS ISN’T NEWTOWN
Last year’s massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., changed the conversation America had been having about gun laws and safety in our streets. Suddenly, the laws Baker and his compatriots had been easily circumventing were getting a second look. Assault rifles and magazine clip limits were back on the table. Universal background checks were pushed. Yet in Camden — where most shooters use illegal handguns and a dwindling police force gave rise to open-air drug markets — the solutions being proposed had no connection to the reality on the ground, officials say.
The city needs a holistic solution that gets to the heart of why people such as Baker turn to violence in the first place, they say. Other cities with higher profiles know this inner-city plague. Indeed, Chicago and Baltimore ache like Camden, with fairly strong gun laws but murder rates among the highest in the nation.
Thomson said 98% of crimes in Camden are not committed by assault weapons. The city’s greatest problem is the proliferation of illegal firearms, such as criminals’ weapon of choice in most shootings: semiautomatic 9mm handguns.
It’s the kind of weapon Baker and other members of the Bloods, a gang that has chapters around the country, would carry.
Baker said he never attempted to get a permit and never had a background check when he got his guns.
“Gun laws to people in Camden are like saying you’ll get a ticket if you jaywalk,” Baker said. “It means nothing. Most politicians don’t get that.”
Most criminals are stealing guns, buying them from straw purchasers or tapping states with more lax gun laws such as Virginia and Pennsylvania, Thomson said.
In Pennsylvania, no permit is required to buy guns in stores or at gun shows, and there’s no limit to the number of firearms a person can purchase at one time. Instead, the state requires a permit to carry weapons openly or concealed outside of a home.
“Pennsylvania is one of the states where there is just a glut of firearms,” said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey. “You don’t have to travel too far to get your hand on a gun here.”
Ramsey, who wants stronger gun laws, acknowledged that his city’s weapons often make their way into Camden.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
For Destiny Bingham, 16, the good and the bad of Camden have intersected in her own family.
Bingham is a standout high school junior at LEAP Academy Science, Technology, Engineering and Math High School. Her parents divorced when she was 12 but always stressed the importance of her education.
She entered fourth grade at LEAP Academy, a charter school system founded in 1997. The system has longer school days and performance-based teacher pay. It regularly sends the majority of graduates to college.
Though Bingham is carving a better path for herself through her academic achievements, she’s not far removed her city’s crime scene. Her father, in fact, was recently charged with selling illegal guns.
In January, Bingham sat in a Camden courtroom staring at her father as a judge sentenced him to three years in prison. “I was disappointed because he was part of the problem,” she said.
As she passes drug dealers on her way to school every morning, she pictures herself going off to college, leaving Camden behind.
These are the same drug dealers Baker knows, and Micah Khan tries to redirect.
Khan heads Cease Murder Diplomats, a group that does conflict mediation on a grass-roots level and sends “community ambassadors” into neighborhoods and schools to talk about behavior modification.
“We have to talk about prevention before it gets to incarceration and guns and violence and murder,” Khan said. “We have sat at a table with gang members who both had guns in their pockets, and they have been able to get up, shake hands and walk away.”
Replicating such results and reducing Camden’s crime and recidivism rates will take resources and support for people coming out of jail, he said.
Despite those challenges, Baker is one of Khan’s success stories.
NOT ANOTHER STATISTIC
Baker’s street life came to a sudden end Nov. 12, 2008, when he was arrested and charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault and having an unlawful weapon after a run-in with a rival gang. Baker was found guilty of making a “terroristic threat” and served four years in a juvenile detention center.
While incarcerated, Baker became Muslim. Even with his new religion, Baker admitted, he was back on the streets selling drugs after his release in August 2012. Then Khan helped him enroll in Camden County College.
Baker is studying history civilization and works with the Cease Murder Diplomats.
“The younger kids looked up to us, and now they are doing what we used to do,” he said. “When I walk down the street, I see the same brothers I was incarcerated with, and they just don’t get it. I don’t want to be another statistic in the grave.”