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Firearm violence is an ever-increasing element in the lives of the U.S. urban population. This study examined the trends in firearm violence and victims during a 5-year period in the city of Philadelphia. Medical Examiner records of all deaths in Philadelphia County in 1985 and 1990 were reviewed. Demographic, autopsy, and criminal record information was analyzed. There were 145 firearm homicide victims in 1985 versus 324 in 1990, a 123% increase. This was primarily because of deaths among young (age 15–24 years), black male victims. Handguns were involved in at least 90% of firearm homicides in both study years. The use of semiautomatic handguns increased from 24% to 39% during the study period. In 1985, 42% of revolver homicides died at the scene, versus 18% in 1990. However, 5% of victims of semiautomatic weapons fire died at the scene in 1985 versus 34% in 1990. The decrease in survival of semiautomatic weapon victims occurred despite the implementation of six trauma centers within the county, and probably reflects a shift toward high-velocity, high-caliber ammunition. Antemortem drug use and criminal history was common. A total of 54% of victims were intoxicated in 1985 and 61% were in 1990. Cocaine became the most common intoxicant in 1990, with 39% of victims using it during the antemortem period. The percentage of victims with a criminal record increased from 44% to 67%. Although the duration of criminal history decreased from 14 to 6 years, the number of patients with previous drug offenses increased from 33% to 84%. Overall, 84% of victims in 1990 had antemortem drug use or criminal history. Firearm deaths in general, and handgun deaths in particular, are on the rise in Philadelphia. This fact is mirrored in other U.S. metropolitan areas as well. This will lead to an increase in the magnitude of social and health care problems that violent crime produces, and further strain public health and trauma care resources. Understanding the “demographics” of violence will assist in the development of intervention and prevention programs for this major public health problem.

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