Nicolas Elizalde and four other teenage football players had just left a scrimmage at Philadelphia’s Roxborough High School in September, when five gunmen opened fire on them. Nicolas, just 14 years old, was killed in the attack; the other teens were wounded, but survived. Police eventually arrested three teens and an adult man in connection to the attack, charging them with murder and related crimes. A fifth shooter, also a teen, is still being sought.

The incident that cut Nicolas’s life short illustrates a troubling trend in Philadelphia, where despite an overall decline in the number of gunshot victims over the past year, shootings are up among one key demographic: people under the age of 18. The number of young people shot increased from 212 in 2021 to 217 last year, according to data from the Philadelphia Police Department. 

More disturbing is how many more young people were shot last year compared to five years earlier. In 2018, 119 youths were victims of gun violence, nearly 80 percent less than last year’s total. Fatalities almost doubled between 2018 and last year. During that period, overall shootings increased from 1,449 to 2,262.

Some of the recent shootings took place in broad daylight and were committed by multiple gunmen resembling teams of assassins, drawing headlines even in a city that has grown accustomed to explosive gun violence. Some of the shootings, officials and anti-violence activists say, stem from beefs on social media sites. But generally, they say that youth violence is fueled by the same ills that drive most gun violence: poverty, rage, and easy access to guns. 

As local officials try to make sense of the trend, grassroots anti-violence activists are questioning whether the city is putting enough resources into reaching the young men who carry and use illegal guns.  

“These young guys inherited a community depleted of resources — neglected since the ‘60s, redlined since the ‘30s,” said Reuben Jones, who founded Frontline Dads, an organization that mentors young people by providing them with educational and cultural programming, prevention, and intervention services. “So things like home ownership and generational wealth are missed.”

Some believe there may be other reasons behind the rise in teen shootings, but still pointed to decades of neglect. Archye Leacock, who founded another support organization called Institute for the Development of African American Youth (IDAAY), said rampant truancy and poor conflict resolution skills are helping drive up the bloodshed. “What do you think young people are doing when they’re not in school? This has been a problem for years,” he said. “We haven’t dealt with it.”

Philadelphia’s youngest victims

The average age of Philadelphia’s juvenile victims is just over 15, according to Police Department data. The majority of these victims, regardless of age, are Black, nearly 80 percent. The average age of all fatal and nonfatal shooting victims is 29.

“There’s no question that there is, statistically speaking, a significant increase in the number of juvenile victims of shootings and it’s extremely concerning to us,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. “This coincides with the pandemic, it coincides with the national phenomenon of gun-violence increase and it coincides with a historic buy of guns that happened all over the country — something like 11 million guns in a single year.” Gun purchases in the U.S. set a record in 2020 when 22.8 million were sold, according to industry data. Last year, 16.4 million guns were sold.  

Several shootings have felt like group assassinations. On March 28, the walk to school proved fatal for a 15-year-old boy who was gunned down near Mastery Gratz Charter High School in North Philadelphia. Devin Weeden was shot in the chest just before 7:40 a.m. by three young men dressed in all-black clothing, police said.

“This speaks to the level of violence that we continue to see in the city. Our children should be safe,” said Sergeant Eric Gripp, a Police Department spokesperson. “He had his whole life ahead of him, and now is dead this morning because we have individuals out there who can’t seem to handle any type of conflict without anything but producing a handgun.” 

The city is offering a $30,000 reward for tips leading to the capture of the gunmen, Gripp said.

A case involving an unsecured firearm occurred two days earlier, when a 10-year-old boy shot his 12-year-old brother in the chest in their North Philadelphia home. The gun was left unattended and no adult was home at the time of the shooting, authorities said. The 12-year-old victim was hospitalized in stable condition and his brother was not charged, police said. 

“Tragedies such as these have an impact on everyone, from the immediate family to the community, and everyone in between,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said in a statement.

On March 20, three boys, two 16-year-olds and one 13-year-old, were the targets of four masked gunmen who unleashed upward of 70 bullets on them on a West Philadelphia street. While police sought a motive and the suspects, who were still at large as of March 30, the boys were hospitalized, two in critical condition, police said.

“Broad daylight, broad daylight on the streets of the city of Philadelphia, four males shooting up the block with no care in the world,” said police Captain James Kearney, commander of the Shooting Investigation Group. “We’re using every tool in our toolbox to bring this one in.”

Getting behind the numbers

Inside a storefront building — located on North Broad Street within the 22nd Police District, where shootings of teenagers are most prevalent — Frontline Dads Inc. gathered on March 27 for a regular meeting; attendees offered theories about what’s fueling the bloodshed.

“We like to say the young guys are doing this, or the young guys are doing that, but the fact is, the city is not investing in these young brothers. How I know that is because I went to prison at the age of 16 and served 31 years of a life sentence,” said Luis “Suave” Gonzalez. “So, I’m qualified to talk about gun violence.”

Gonzalez works with Frontline Dads and at Community College of Philadelphia as a success coach for students who’ve been involved in the criminal justice system. “It’s easy to say the 22nd District got the most juvenile shootings, but let’s count how many rec centers we got open for them. How many jobs do we have for them? How many safe havens?” added Gonzalez, 53, the subject of “Suave,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning podcast detailing his life.

Listening intently were three teens ordered by judges to enroll in Frontline Dads programming. Calebe, 16; Jose, 18; and Najee, 17, said they were not employed and hoped the program would help them stay out of trouble so they could reach their goals of working in either the construction or real estate trades.

They declined to talk about their open criminal cases, and were reluctant to discuss the spiking gun violence among teens — until Jose broke the ice. “Why would we go shoot or rob somebody two hours away where the white folks at, when we could do it right here?” asked Jose, who is working toward his GED. “They put all these things out there that we would want: shoes, clothes, cars. What are people going to do?” 

Najee echoed Gonzalez’s plea for more rec centers and activities. “If not, we just going to be in the same spot doing the same thing. I’m in here for the same thing, two times in a row,” he said, pointing to the electronic monitor wrapped around his ankle.

‘Shooters are getting younger and younger’

Leacock, the executive director of IDAAY, housed in a brownstone on the 2300 block of North Broad Street, one block from Frontline Dads, said stress triggers some young men to become violent.

“I see too many young people under 18 who are literally struggling,” he said. “We have guys walking in here 14, 16, 17, 19 years old, with kids,” said Leacock, who runs a host of programs focusing on college preparation, fatherhood, conflict resolution, and counseling for those who have been adjudicated delinquent in Philadelphia Family Court.

Down in South Philadelphia, Anton Moore, a Democratic ward leader and former BET producer, runs Unity in the Community, a nonprofit that teaches teen boys carpentry skills to steer them from crime and idleness. Teens shooting teens, Moore said, stems chiefly from “dumb stuff on social media” and dysfunctional homes. 

“There aren’t a lot of male figures in these young mens’ lives to show them the right way,” he said. “Shooters are getting younger and younger, and they’re able to get access to guns and they don’t have a way to express themselves but by shooting,” he continued. “That’s why it’s important that we create opportunities for them to advance themselves in society, but also to be mentors and to be tough on these young men. They need guidance.”

Back in North Philly, at Frontline Dads, Jones lamented the ruins of his neighborhood where the young men he is trying to help live: directly across Broad Street is the abandoned Uptown Theater where the legends of Motown and the Philly Sound once dazzled; the forlorn Botany 500 menswear factory further up North Broad; the abandoned Tastykake bakery factory not far away on West Hunting Park Avenue; and the dozen public schools shuttered within the last decade to save money.

“When we talk about mass incarceration, poverty, unemployment, and drug addiction, a lot of it is centered in North Philadelphia,” he said. “So it’s no wonder we see a high rate of gun violence here.”

Stopping gun violence in general and teen shootings in particular, he said, will take more than the work of his program and similar ones like it. 

“We live in a city of a million and a half people. None of those programs has the capacity to serve all the people who are in need,” he said. “The reality is, we just don’t have enough resources. We have to invest in these communities.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Reuben Jones’s first name.