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Year in Review

The Most Powerful Sentences About Gun Violence Published in 2015

Selections from exceptional journalism we read this year.

When The Trace launched in June with the goal of expanding coverage of America’s gun violence epidemic, we joined a community of journalists who’ve produced dogged, eye-opening, deftly rendered reporting on the issue. We learn something daily from our counterparts on this beat. As we close out 2015, we wanted to share selections from articles (and one book) that have stuck with us. We hope you’ll take time to click through and read the full stories, and that they may inform your thinking about gun violence as much as they have helped deepen ours.

From the South Side to the West Side and back for his last haircut, final dressing and motorcycle ride to the church, Tyshawn was gently held by adults along the way who wondered: Isn't anyone off-limits?
Peter Nickeas, "Kindness for Tyshawn After Unimaginable Cruelty," Chicago Tribune, November 16, 2015

In his graceful portrait of a community in mourning, Nickeas, a Tribune crime reporter who covers gun violence day in and day out, takes the reader through the careful preparations for 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee’s wake and funeral. Slaughtered in a Chicago alleyway in early November, allegedly over his father’s gang ties, the boy was but one of the young victims to die this year in gun homicides distinguished by their cruelty and senselessness. A few weeks before Tyshawn was killed, an 11-year-old boy used his father’s unsecured shotgun to fatally shoot an 8-year-old girl following a squabble about puppies.

Obviously there's tremendous variation in particular people's ethical frameworks, but where I come from, a death is a death.
Dylan Matthews, “Most gun deaths are suicides, not homicides. That's a strong case for gun control," Vox, June 3, 2015

Some conservative commentators who oppose gun reform also oppose counting suicides when tallying gun fatalities. Their rationale, as summarized by National Review‘s Charles C. W. Cooke, is that “suicides and murders are not morally comparable,” and that including the former inflates perceptions of gun deaths. Drawing on his own experience with depression, Matthews forcefully dismantles the notion that a self-inflicted death carries less weight, then explains how the greater lethality of suicides attempted with firearms means that many of those lives could be saved by tougher gun laws.

“I didn’t take him seriously.”
Joey Meek, as quoted by Stephanie McCrummen, "An American Void," Washington Post, September 12, 2015

McCrummen takes readers inside Dylann Roof’s life in the weeks before he carried out his massacre at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. To get the story, the Post reporter gained access to the trailer owned by the family of Roof’s childhood friend, 21-year-old Joey Meek, where Roof crashed on the couch and shared his racist views, at one point even showing off the Glock .45 that he would later use to kill nine people. Meek told McCrummen (and also investigators) that he didn’t believe Roof would act on his comments. “Would you believe your friend if they said something like that when they were drunk?” he asked.

“I got as high as 10. Half of the young people started to cry and still had their hands in the air.”
Michael McBride, as quoted by Lois Beckett, "How the Gun Control Debate Ignores Black Lives," ProPublica, November 24, 2015

In this detailed piece, Beckett focuses on how the broader gun violence conversation rarely includes those who bear the brunt of it: black men in urban areas. To illustrate that problem, she profiles someone struggling to solve it, a 37-year-old pastor named Michael McBride. An evangelist for programs like CeaseFire, which focuses on those young men most likely to either shoot someone or be shot, McBride met with Vice President Joe Biden, who was taking the lead in assembling the Obama administration’s response to the Sandy Hook shooting, and urged more funds for the program. Some readers will already know the ending — his pleas go ignored — but the consequences of that rejection are driven home by a scene in which McBride recounts presiding over a funeral for a 19-year-old who’d been shot outside a liquor store. McBride asks the congregants to to raise their hands if they’d been to a funeral before. Keep them up, he instructed, if you’ve been to two. Three. Four. McBride keeps counting, reaching double digits as the tears flow.

The NRA can’t claim to be raising money for the corporation — to finance such things as its lobbying or research initiatives — and then deposit that money into the account of its PAC.
Alan Berlow, “The NRA’s Brazen Shell Game with Donations," Yahoo News, April 21, 2015

In the summer of 2014, investigative reporter Alan Berlow donated “a dollar here and a dollar there” to the National Rifle Association, curious to see where the money would go. Some of it did not wind up in the organization’s coffers, as its website promised, but rather in the account of its political action committee: the NRA Political Victory Fund. Soliciting money for a PAC without making specific disclosures is illegal, according to various legal experts. Berlow soon discovered that the NRA was apparently running afoul of all kinds of campaign finance laws — between 2008 and 2013, it failed to report nearly $33 million in political expenditures. Evidence of similar violations has been uncovered at the state level, in Connecticut and Rhode Island. After Berlow’s story was released in April, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed formal complaints with both the IRS and the Federal Election Commission, asking them to audit the NRA.

The only reason you have not been shot is because nobody has yet decided to shoot you.
Mark Joseph Stern, “The Price We Pay for Liberty?,” Slate, December 2, 2015

Shortly after 14 people were murdered at an office party in San Bernardino, California, Mark Joseph Stern wrote about how the belief that firearms can and should be widely distributed and carried into schools, churches, theaters has come with an immense loss of human life. If bloodshed is seen as an acceptable sacrifice for freedom, he argues, perhaps the time has come for Americans to redefine what “liberty” really means. Stern compares the issue to court decisions in the early 1900s that struck down child labor and workplace safety laws, noting that they violated “freedoms” embraced by both employers and employees at the time. Now, such laws are seen as a vital measure of protection for vulnerable citizens. Stern believes that it’s time our attitudes toward guns undergo a similar evolution. Otherwise, he writes, Americans will continue to fear that anyone, anywhere could be the next victim.

She laid out local battles over funding for city fire and emergency medical services and plans to build the city’s first Wal-Mart, on the block where she was later shot.
Sarah Stillman, "Death of a Young Black Journalist," The New Yorker, July 30, 2015

On her way home from an assignment late one night last May, Charnice Milton, a 27-year-old journalist from Baltimore, was struck in the head by a bullet intended for someone else. In this moving portrait of her life as a young, hard-nosed — yet shy — local reporter who found no story about her beloved Baltimore community too small, Stillman distills the sadness, irony, and absurdity of Milton’s murder, which happened against the backdrop of Baltimore’s climbing homicide rate. Milton’s death didn’t draw much national attention. This sentence — and this piece more broadly — serves as a haunting reminder of the thousands of gun deaths that never will.

"They prosecute people for drowning dogs. Do you know how this makes me feel?"
Donna Bryan, as quoted by Brandy Zadrozny, “This Florida Man Got a Free Pass for Shooting a Pregnant Woman To Death," The Daily Beast, February 20, 2015

Donna Bryan’s pregnant 25-year-old daughter, Katherine Hoover, was killed by a negligent discharge in 2014. Hoover had been visiting the Brooksville, Florida, home of 35-year-old William DeHayes, a friend of her new husband, who demonstrated the gun slinging tricks he’d learned on YouTube. He unholstered an antique 9mm revolver that had belonged to his grandfather and it discharged, sending a bullet into Hoover’s temple, killing her and her unborn son. DeHayes swears the gun wasn’t loaded and has not been charged with a crime. Bryan has been petitioning the state’s attorney, the governor, and her senators in the hope that someone will try DeHayes for involuntary manslaughter. In his recommendation not to prosecute, assistant state attorney Brad Magrino wrote, “There is no evidence to suggest that DeHayes had a careless or reckless indifference to the safety of the victims when the firearm discharged.”

She would be hospitalized three more times in quick succession, twice for infections and once for a broken bone; all told, the bills would approach $1 million in the first year alone.
Mark Follman, Julia Lurie, Jaeah Lee, and James West, “What Does Gun Violence Really Cost?,” Mother Jones, May/June 2015

The subject of this sentence is a woman named Jennifer Longdon. She had been shot by a stranger in the parking lot of a strip mall in Phoenix, Arizona, and was left a paraplegic. Before the shooting, she had earned $80,000 a year. After her first year of treatment, she was forced to file for personal bankruptcy. Her story is just one of those unearthed by the Mother Jones team in this report, which shows how the lucky stroke of surviving a shooting can be followed by a lifetime of health costs that have a crippling effect all on their own.

Few experts examined what was evident every day of John Skaggs’s working life: that the state’s inability to catch and punish even a bare majority of murderers in black enclaves such as Watts was itself a root cause of the violence, and that this was a terrible problem — perhaps the most terrible thing in contemporary American life.
Jill Leovy, Ghettoside, January 2015

Leovy’s searing book builds on her experience as a Los Angeles Times’ crime reporter and creator of its Homicide Report site, and here we get a distillation of everything that makes it so good, and so important. Skaggs is her compelling protagonist, a rakish, crusading LAPD homicide detective who together with his partner closes cases at a rate double the citywide average. The moral imperative he sees in his work (“what was evident every day…”) is matched by the sense of mission that the journalist brings to hers. It’s true that the problem she exposes in Ghettoside has gone largely unexamined, but now that she has flipped on the flood lights, the reader feels a duty to not look away. By the end of the book, you are persuaded by the argument begun in this sentence: Where unpunished capital crimes allow lawlessness to flourish, guns become a justice system unto themselves — a convincing candidate indeed for our country’s worst failure.

“Every time in the woods, you feared for your life. It was absolutely, completely out of hand.”
Paul Magnuson, as quoted by Jack Healy, “In Quiet Woods, a Clamorous Gun Debate,” The New York Times, August 18, 2015

Over the Fourth of July weekend, a 60-year-old camper named Glenn Martin was roasting marshmallows with his family in Colorado’s Pike National Forest when he muttered “ow.” Martin slumped over in a pool of blood, the victim of a stray bullet. The incident sparked a flurry of inquiries into the use of firearms in America’s public lands. Hunting and target practice is widely permitted in the National Forests, but as this short investigation by Healy shows, complaints about the environmental and safety risks of backcountry shooting have seen a dramatic increase. In 2014 alone, the United States Forest service issued over 1,100 warnings and citations related to shooting, roughly 300 more than a decade ago. It sounds “like a mixture of thunder and gunfire, just rolling through the mountains,” one camper said. The reason for the increase in complaints is murky. Responsible gun owners have been shooting on public land for generations. But recent events suggest that Americans are increasingly seeking thrills over caring for their surroundings and the safety of their neighbors — which sometimes with deadly consequences.

To say that you’d have to be crazy to shoot up a school is not the same as saying that crazy people are predisposed to kill.
Andrew Solomon, “The Myth of the ‘Autistic Shooter,'” The New York Times, October 12, 2015

The shooting at an Oregon community college in October reignited a conversation about mental health and gun violence. Amid speculation that the Umpqua shooter had autism, this op-ed cautioned against drawing easy caricatures of autistic people as “cold, calculating killing machines.” Solomon, who’s written extensively on psychology and politics, notes that fewer than 5 percent of gun crimes are committed by people with mental illness; likewise, less than 5 percent of people with mental illness commit violent crimes. In fact, he adds, autistic people are more often victims of stigma, bullying, and aggression, rather than the other way around.

Too many ironies intrude when I contemplate discussing the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes with people who are packing heat.
Alan Jacobs, “Bloodbath and Beyond,” Harpers, August 13, 2015

Jacobs, a professor who teaches literature and philosophy at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, felt relieved when his employer, a private university, would not allow concealed carry of firearms on its campus, a policy that a new Texas law dictates that public universities must begin to enact next year. In this essay, he reflects on the increasing ubiquity of guns in everyday suburban life, including a shootout between rival biker gangs and police in his Central Texas town that left nine dead. Jacobs argues that the ultimate aim of absolutist gun rights advocates — like those driving campus carry — is to loosen the government’s monopoly on the use of force, an idea at the core of Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes’ seventeenth-century classic of Enlightenment philosophy, which established the idea of the “social contract” between a government and citizens, and which Jacobs teaches to his students. Jacobs examines how the spread of this ethos of armed self-empowerment undermines that social contract and is letting violence seep into everyday life.

“It’s a terrible thing to be told you have to kill someone.”
Taylor Woolrich, as quoted by Madison Pauly, "Why Taylor Woolrich Wanted a Gun,” Buzzfeed, August 13, 2015

Amid a frenzied but largely unsuccessful push this year for legislation allowing the concealed carry of guns on college campuses, advocates nudged a new argument to the fore: by packing heat, students can protect themselves against sexual assault. This article about Dartmouth undergrad Taylor Woolrich paints a picture of stalking so horrific that it challenges even the most sensible arguments against concealed carry. When Woolwich’s stalker followed her across the country from high school in California to college in New Hampshire, more than one police officer told her to carry a gun for protection. But Dartmouth would not let her. So Woolrich turned to Students for Concealed Carry, who put her in touch with the pro-gun researcher John Lott. Though Lott is widely discredited, Woolrich found in him someone who understood the danger she felt every day. After Lott ghost-wrote an editorial from Woolrich’s point of view, Woolrich walked back her participation in the organization, worrying that her public plea about stalking had turned her into an “NRA puppet.” Pauly’s article documents the lengths that campus carry advocates are going to as they seek to broaden their base, as well as the personal calculus of one woman who temporarily signed on to their cause.

"Do I need an AK-47? No. But you know what? It's an AK-47!”
C.J. Grisham to John H. Richardson, “Walking Through Texas with a Gun and a Mission," Esquire, November 2015

It seems that it would take a Herculean effort to humanize CJ Grisham, a cantankerous Iraq vet, irascible cop-hater, and the loose-tongued, antagonistic founder of Open Carry Texas. But John H. Richardson’s profile of the 5-foot, 5-inch gun lover offers a detailed, fair-minded portrait of Grisham and his movement. It is a must-read for anyone serious about learning what adherents find appealing about gun culture, and what’s behind its greatest tone-deafness.

Young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.
Malcolm Gladwell, "Thresholds of Violence," The New Yorker, October 19, 2015

Gladwell employs riot theory to explain why school shooters no longer resemble the late 1990s archetype of the disaffected goth loner. Using the decades-old work of Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, who studied why people do “things that seem at odds with who they are or what they think is right,” Gladwell theorizes that the school-shooting epidemic of the past 20 years could be thought of as a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to, and in combination with, those that came before. Rather than being simply contagious, he concludes, this riot is evolving as it spreads.

[Top: Chicago Tribune reporter Peter Nickeas records notes while working his overnight crime shift in Chicago. Photo: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images]