A new study has confirmed what anyone who reads the daily headlines in Philadelphia probably already knows: Gun violence in this state is killing black people at a higher rate than anywhere else in America.

The Washington-based Violence Policy Center reported yesterday that Pennsylvania leads the nation in the per capita rate of black homicide victims - ahead of the next closest states, Louisiana, Indiana, California and Missouri.

The figures are based on an analysis of 2004 FBI crime statistics, the first study to rank states based on their black homicide rates, said the center's statement.

The center's executive director noted that the survey looked at statewide data, and he was reluctant to speculate on Philadelphia's role. In 2004, the city registered 330 murders - the number rose sharply to 406 last year - and more than 80 percent of the victims were black.

"The handgun is the primary [reason] behind the high rates," said Josh Sugarmann, the center director.

The report, which was co-authored by Sugarmann, said that firearms killed 86 percent of the 398 black murder victims in Pennsylvania in 2004. And eight out of 10 of those deaths were by a handgun.

Nationally, "most homicides are gun-related," Sugarmann said. "Most homicides tend to be intragender' and intraracial, but blacks in this country tend to be more affected" by the trend.

According to the FBI's 2004 numbers, firearms were the weapon of choice for 70 percent of murders. Of that group, handguns made up 77 percent of killings. Both numbers, while high, are lower than the Pennsylvania rate, fodder for those who say that the Keystone State pays a price for its lax gun laws.

Both in Pennsylvania and across the country, blacks were murdered at a much higher rate than the general population. The nation's per capita homicide rate was 5.5 murders per 100,000 residents, according to the FBI.

Meanwhile, the 2004 national per capita rate for blacks registered 18.71 per 100,000, the Violence Policy Center Study said.

And Pennsylvania's count was about 58 percent higher than the already daunting national number, marking 29.52 homicides per 100,000 in 2004, the report said.

Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson said yesterday the statistics tell only half the story.

"You have to look at the bigger issue," Johnson said.

Black Americans are regularly battling problems with high-school dropouts, joblessness and imprisonment, argued Johnson.

"Until we fix the unemployment, the schools, and the poverty," the violence can't be fixed, he said.

Sugarmann said that the study was intended to raise policymakers' awareness of the dangers of handguns. He said the center is well-aware of other socioeconomic factors that contributed to the discrepancy in race-based homicide rates.

For local leaders, who have pleaded with Harrisburg to change the state's lax gun laws, the study provided a kind of ammunition.

State Rep. Dwight Evans, a mayoral candidate, said the report was "very timely" as state lawmakers revisit the debate over legislation such as a one-gun-a-month purchase limit.

"If you don't change the policy on the handgun issue," Evans said, "we will never affect, or reduce, the level of gun violence."

Evans pointed out that gun-related injuries charged Pennsylvania hospitals $127 million in 2003.

"Someone has to pick up that cost," he said.

Violence "has gotten to the point where it is affecting our [state] budget," Evans said.

Although blacks make up 10 percent of the state's population, according to the latest U.S. Census figures, the race-based report should alarm Pennsylvanians of all backgrounds, said Bilal Quayyum of Men United for a Better Philadelphia.

While gun homicides plague young blacks in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Quayyum said, suicides by handgun are a predominantly white, male problem in the rest of the state.

"The moral consciousness of these guys sitting in Harrisburg" is based on whether "they will take control of the handgun," Quayyum said.