Maybe this Fourth of July would be different. The gun violence that plagued Philadelphia gradually came down, steadily. Perhaps the Day of Independence would pass without the bloodshed that has damaged it in recent years.
But sometime after 8 pm on the evening before the Fourth, in a neighborhood in southwest Philadelphia, someone dressed in a ski mask and body armor opened fire on a street, and brought any sense of celebration in the neighborhood to a terrible end.
The shooter, using an assault-style rifle, killed five people, ages 15 to 59, and wounded two others, firing apparently at random, hitting a car carrying a family on their way home and those just passing by. Police arrived to find what they described as an “extensive scene” of carnage, and chased the person who fired into an alley, where the gunman was arrested.
Police have not yet identified the suspect, who has not been charged. In initial reports, police described the suspect as a 40-year-old man, but authorities later clarified that they were not sure of the suspect’s gender identity and used the pronouns “they/them” at a news conference on Tuesday.
While so much of Philadelphia’s gun violence is driven by arguments and retaliation, the shooter in this case appeared to be shooting aimlessly, according to Larry Krasner, the Philadelphia district attorney.
“First of all, it seems to have the characteristics of a lot of random mass shootings that happen in the United States,” he said in an interview on 56th Street in the Kingsessing neighborhood, where the shooting happened, adding, “This doesn’t seem to be a whole bunch of people who knew each other very well.”
Mr. Krasner said he expected to see charges of multiple homicide and weapons offenses filed against the suspected shooter in the next 24 hours.
The five who were killed were Lashyd Merritt, 20; Dymir Stanton, 29; Ralph Moralis, 59, Dajuan Brown, 15, and Joseph Wamah, Jr., 31. Two children, ages 2 and 13, were hospitalized with injuries and were in stable condition.
In a neighborhood where hearing gunshots is not uncommon, witnesses said the volume and length of the barrage was striking. About 50 spent shell casings were found at the crime scene, which covered a two-by-four-block area, authorities said.
On Tuesday morning, Theo James, 25, said he saw the shooter and heard gunfire unlike any he’s heard before: “The shots sounded like this was a military base here on the corner.”
The shooter, he said, appeared to be shooting at people at random. “He was chasing people around,” Mr James said.
One of those killed, Mr. Merritt, had just graduated from high school and was working from home for the Internal Revenue Service, according to his brother-in-law, Dominique Evans. Mr. Merritt was on his way to the store from his home when he was shot and killed.
“He was a kind person,” Mr Evans said. “Very caring, intelligent.”
Willa Mae Dill, who lives in the neighborhood, said her nephew, Mr. Stanton, was “good with people.” A sports fan, he had a girlfriend and a 4-year-old daughter, and visited Mrs. Dill at her home most days.
Omar Davis, 60, was chatting with his friend Mr. Moralis, whom he knew as “Rab,” moments before gunfire erupted on Chester Avenue.
Mr. Davis said he had known Mr. Moralis for at least 47 years. He worked in restaurants. “Good guy,” he said. “He grew up in this community, everybody knows him.”
The shooting was one of at least 348 incidents across the nation this year in which four or more people were injured or killed, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
In Philadelphia, the number of gun homicides has soared in recent years and the crisis dominated the recent mayoral election.
The city tried to deal with the violence with grants for community groups, violence intervention programs and earlier curfews. It has sued the state legislature to preempt its authority to enact stronger local gun laws, such as reporting requirements for lost or stolen firearms.
The number of guns in the city has made the problem difficult to deal with, and at the press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Jim Kenney, the outgoing mayor, implored Congress to pass measures to reduce the ready accessibility of guns.
“This country needs to re-examine its conscience and figure out how to get guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” he said.
There are signs that Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic may be on the wane. There have been 212 murders in 2023 so far, a decline of 19 percent by 2022, according to the Office of the Controller.
But for the families of those who were killed, those numbers offer little comfort.
Dajuan Brown, 15, a rising sophomore at the Jules E. Mastbaum Area Vocational/Technical School, was staying at her grandmother’s house in the southwest section of the city for the summer.
The teenager “had his own spice on his dancing,” said his mother, Nyshyia Thomas, 34. “You were sad around him, he didn’t let you be sad.”
“My baby was only 15 years old,” said his mother. “And I just won’t be able to see my son anymore.”
Amy Harmon and Livia Albeck-Ripka contributed reporting. Kirsten Noyes and Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.