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Philadelphia: Teen 'afraid every day' as gun violence soars

Story Highlights

• Officials: Angry youth, plentiful guns behind murder spike in City of Brotherly Love
• Philadelphia's increase in homicides more than twice the national rate
• Feds vow $50 million to fight urban violence in cities across nation
• Police chief says guns, post-9/11 shift in priorities contributed to spike
By Kevin Bohn
CNN Washington Bureau
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PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Isaac Diaz walks through the toughest parts of North Philadelphia each day on his way to and from high school. But what really scares the 18-year-old senior is lying in his own bed at night.

He can hear the gunshots then.

"Last year it wasn't so often. Now it's as often as every night," Diaz recently told CNN. "It might be your best friend dying, and you don't even know about it."

Out on the street, Diaz said, a casual stroll can suddenly turn deadly. (Watch Diaz explain how he lives with daily gunfire Video)

"You don't know what's going to happen," he said. "You don't know if you're walking in the neighborhood and a guy from middle school sees you and he just had a bad incident with his mother and father and he's walking around with a gun."

"I'm afraid every day."

Philadelphia is just one of the nation's cities trying to deal with a murder spike. As of Wednesday, 150 people have been slain in the city, compared to 140 by this time last year.

The numbers put Philadelphia on a pace well ahead of a bloody 2006, when 406 people were slain by others in the so-called City of Brotherly Love. It was the first time homicides topped the 400 mark since 1990. (Watch a mother grieve over a son shot for his car Video)

Nationally, violent crime is spiking, too.

FBI data from December, the most recent statistics available, show murders and robberies rose by 3.7 percent nationwide during the first six months of 2006.

Those findings came on top of a 2.2 percent crime hike in 2005 -- the first increase since 2001.

Guns plentiful

The spike prompted Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to order a study of violence in 18 cities. The results were released earlier this week, when Gonzales announced that the Justice Department would spend $50 million to combat urban violence.

The Justice Department concluded that the increased violence is caused by a younger and more violent generation of criminals who have easy access to guns. Many are loosely organized into street gangs and crews.

In Philadelphia, police and civic activists point to several factors, including poverty and drugs. But by far the biggest catalyst, they say, is the availability of guns.

Young men who grow up angry with few opportunities use guns to win status on the streets, said Greg Bucceroni, of Men United for a Better Philadelphia, which mentors at-risk teens, counsels crime victims and sponsors community events to try to reduce violence. (Watch Bucceroni talk about how why the violence is getting worse Video)

"They feel that's how they get respect, so the level of violence escalates," he said.

Bucceroni works for the city but also spends much of his time volunteering to help guide kids who have gotten into trouble. An activist since the early 1980s, he has seen the changes.

"In the 70s, I mean, if somebody came up and they had a zip gun -- which was a homemade gun -- that was big time," he said. "Now if, if you don't have an AK-47 or a sawed-off shotgun or a 9 mm, even if you pull out a .38, they laugh at you because, 'Is that all you've got?' That is their mentality when now people are carrying automatic handguns."

The city is trying several initiatives to help reduce the murder rate, including hiring police and truant officers, and redeploying police officers to problem areas.

'Hometown security'

Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson told CNN the police can't stop the violence by themselves.

"The clergy has to get involved," he said. "The business people have to get involved. The politicians have to get involved. The community has to get involved. If you are only going to depend on law enforcement it is not going to change the quality of life."

As he speaks, his passion grows.

"A 9-year-old boy is killed on the streets of Philadelphia, no one comes forward. Where a 4-year-old girl is shot no one comes forward. Where a house is firebombed, six people killed -- four under the age of 5 years -- no one comes forward. The community has to come to realize by not coming forward they are only hurting themselves," Johnson said.

Besides spending $50 million this year to take guns and drugs off the streets, the Justice Department will push Congress to enact laws to let the federal government better investigate and prosecute violent crime, Gonzales said.

Johnson welcomes the help, but said cities suffered when federal priorities shifted after 9/11.

"Funds coming into the city have been cut -- not just for policing but for education, for jobs, for health care, for all kinds of things," he said. "All of the money is going overseas -- again homeland security is very important, but hometown security is just as important."

CNN's Kelli Arena contributed to this report.


"I'm afraid every day," says high school senior Isaac Diaz, who hears gunshots at night from his bed.



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