Gun violence has been all too common in Harrisburg in recent years. abc27 spoke with an undercover vice agent who talks about where illegal guns are coming from and how the city's violence is fueled.
Harrisburg Criminal Investigation Division Captain Deric Moody updated the city's latest numbers involving gun violence. Moody said police have responded to more than 1,000 gun/weapon-related calls, have had 73 non-lethal shooting victims, and recovered 207 illegal guns off the streets.
Moody also said the city's homicide total for 2013 is now 17 after the department reassigned previous death investigations. Harrisburg's latest homicide on Friday was initially the city's 15th of 2013. The 17 figure has matched Harrisburg's 2009, 1990 the deadliest years on record in the past two decades.
Harrisburg Bureau of Police granted abc27 permission to speak with an undercover vice agent on the condition the officer's identity remained anonymous. The officer has 20 years of experience working as a city officer.
The agent explained the majority of Harrisburg's illegal guns are infiltrated in from outside city limits.
"Many instances, we've recovered weapons from drug dealers, and through the investigation it's determined the owner of the gun actually traded that [gun] for the drugs."
According to the agent, oftentimes drug users who live in the suburbs buy their guns legally, travel into the city to trade that weapon to fulfill their habit. The agent points out there are no gun shops within Harrisburg city limits, and half of the population is living around the poverty line and could not afford to purchase weapons legally.
A 2011 federal report by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation examined the drug and gang activity in eastern and central Pennsylvania. The report specifically noted gang members obtain guns through drug exchange, straw purchases, and sometimes home invasions.
The report also pointed out a startling trend where teens as young as 14 were found to use heroin and were even admitted to local methadone clinics. Agents determined young teens become addicted to prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin, which agencies likened to "legal heroin." The report said teens who obtain the pills through simple surgeries like wisdom teeth removal or broken bones develop a dependency on heroin.
Because heroin is five times cheaper than the cost of a prescription Oxycontin pill, agents found a rise in usage in suburban youth.
Recently in Harrisburg, the vice agent said law enforcement from various agencies have done a good job cracking down on drug trafficking around Harrisburg, the marketplace for the deadly drug have fueled violence.
"We've put a strain on the drug trade in the city," the agent said. "Because of that, individuals who are selling drugs are scratching for their commodity, for their drugs."
The agent noted it's a supply-and-demand factor that breeds violence when drug dealers try to protect or control what little product or business they have. The agent said it is a vicious cycle that continues to kill. Drug overdoses are rising in the county as gun violence rises in the city, resulting in 26 homicides in Dauphin County, 10 more than 2010. Dauphin County Coroner Graham Hetrick typically releases the annual report in the new year.
During recent news conferences, Hetrick has said overdoses are up countywide.
The vice agent said residents who witness gun crimes in the city often stay quiet in fear of retaliation. Remaining mum does little to help police and agents find the source of the gun violence, according to the agent. The agent said the gun violence issues is a multi-layer and complex issue that deals with poverty, morality, broken homes and poorly educated youth.
The agent said many Harrisburg drug dealers are 15, 16 or 17 years of age and are providing income for their families to eat and live. Often parents "don't ask questions because the money is good," according to the agent.
The agent believes no one piece of legislation, one politician or single police officer could slow gun violence. Rather, the agent said the entire community needs to "buy in" on the cause and work with city leaders.
"Citizens have to stand up and say, 'It's enough. We want a normal, safe block,' " the agent said.