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10 Americans Who Shaped the Gun Debate This Year

From an NRA-hating hunter, to an angry mother, to a group of Redditors, these people had a dramatic impact on how we viewed gun reform in 2015.


Deborah Azrael, gun-violence researcher

Despite some 300 million guns in circulation in America, research on guns and gun violence remains seriously underfunded. Among the handful of public health experts helping to expand the available pool of data is Dr. Deborah Azrael of Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center. Azrael co-authored a seminal study in 2015 that found firearm suicide rates are higher in states with higher rates of gun ownership, underscoring the relationship between the availability of guns and firearm suicides. She also updated — and confirmed — a contentious statistic regarding firearms transfers, finding that 40 percent of gun owners acquired their last firearm without a background check, a number consistent with an earlier, and much smaller, survey. Thanks to Azrael, we also know now that where there are more guns, more women die, and that public mass shootings are occurring more often.

In 2016, we’ll undoubtedly learn even more: Azrael and her colleagues are currently busy writing up the results from a massive survey on the U.S.’s private gun stockpile, the first comprehensive look at the number of firearms owned by Americans in over a decade. —Kate Masters

Corey Ciorciari, Hillary Clinton policy advisor

No 2016 presidential campaign has put more emphasis on reducing gun violence than Hillary Clinton’s. But despite insider-y rundowns in Politico about the brains behind Clinton’s campaign, little has been said about her point person on gun policy, an unheralded DC journeyman named Corey Ciorciari.

Ciorciari has a similar pedigree to the three wonks running Clinton’s policy shop: Maya Harris, Jake Sullivan, and Ann O’Leary. Like them, he has done stints on big campaigns (Obama’s first election), in the White House (during Obama’s first term), in a Senator’s office (as a legal fellow in Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin’s office) and at a big nonprofit (he worked at Everytown for Gun Safety, a seed donor to The Trace).

Sources who have worked directly with the campaign on gun issues tell The Trace Ciorciari is the advisor most responsible for developing Clinton’s first major policy statement, a plan to reduce gun violence. It was released in late August, two months into a six-month stretch of high-profile shootings from which the country could not turn away. The platform outlined bold positions on guns: expanding background checks, eliminating the “default proceed” sales for incomplete background checks, and executive action to allow more prosecutions of unlicensed gun businesses. Clinton dove into these gun policies during an extended ten-minute discussion of the subject at the first Democratic candidates’ debate.

Beltway consensus has held that taking a strong stance on gun reform could drive away mainstream voters and produce a conservative backlash. Now, with policies developed by Ciorciari and his campaign colleagues, Clinton is leading a group of Democrats who are taking a stronger position on guns. This newfound willingness to bang the drum for gun reform has trickled down to state primaries, most notably in four recent Virginia state senate races in which Democrats deployed gun policy as a prominent campaign issue. Emily Tisch Sussman, who ran Young Democrats of America during the last presidential campaign season and is now a campaign director for the Center for American Progress (CAP), believes gun policy could motivate Democratic voters in 2016 much as the issue of gay marriage did in 2012. “Democrats are going to have to reconvene the Obama coalition for 2016, and this has very high interest,” Sussman told The Trace this fall. —Alex Yablon

Patrick Dunphy, lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Badger Guns negligence suit

Patrick Dunphy requires the other attorneys at his law firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, a book about how the right arrangement of small circumstances can lead to extraordinary success. The text is a fitting choice, given that Dunphy secured a historic win in October against Badger Gunsone of the country’s most notorious gun dealers. The victory came despite the staggering odds against him and his clients, two Milwaukee police officers who were seriously injured with a handgun that Badger sold to a straw buyer in 2009.

Suing a gun store for negligence has been nearly impossible since Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005. The act prevents people who are injured by guns from suing gun stores or gun manufacturers, but there are a few exceptions. Dunphy was able to argue that because Badger Guns violated a law that prohibits straw purchasing the practice of buying a gun for someone else the store could not be protected by the shield law. The jury agreed, and the officers were ultimately awarded $1 million.

Straw buyers lie on background check forms, claiming they’re buying the gun for themselves. That leaves it to gun dealers to look for clues — are two people at the counter looking to buy one gun? Are they looking for the cheapest gun?   which can be just as vital as the background check itself.  “I think the case shows that gun sellers have to do more than just follow the letter of the federal and state laws,”says Dunphy. While the shield law will inhibit a flurry of new legal challenges to gun businesses, his successful case bolstered a notion within the court of public opinion: That the industry bears responsibility for preventing violent acts committed with its products. —Olivia Li

The FBI examiner who performed Dylann Roof’s background check

On April 13, 2015, an FBI examiner at the West Virginia headquarters of the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) received a request to look into Dylann Roof. NICS had flagged the 21-year-old when he tried to purchase a .45-caliber Glock pistol at a gun store in West Columbia, South Carolina. The reason: Roof had been arrested for drug possession on February 28. But the records indicating Roof’s guilt (which might disqualify him from gun ownership) or innocence were missing. It fell to the examiner — a woman, according to FBI Director James Comey, though nothing else is known about her — to figure out the outcome of that case. If she couldn’t make a determination within three days, the store could go ahead and sell Roof the Glock in what’s known as a “default proceed” sale, regardless of whether or not he was actually eligible to possess a firearm.

The examiner reviewed Lexington County court records and contacted the local sheriff and prosecutor for more information on the case. But she didn’t know about a wrinkle in local geography: the mall where Roof was arrested extends into neighboring Richland County, so she wasn’t looking in the right place. Because of clerical errors, none of the agencies she reached knew where she could find Roof’s police file, which contained a confession for drug possession — disqualifying him under federal law from purchasing the Glock. Since the examiner wasn’t able to complete the background check within three days, Roof got his gun.  

Two months later, on the evening of June 17, Roof used the weapon to murder nine members of a prayer group at Charleston’s Emanuel AME church, inaugurating a bloody season of high-profile shootings. The FBI later admitted that he should have been blocked from buying the weapon. The dead-end journey of Roof’s background check shined a light on the rarely acknowledged “default proceed” loophole, which allows approximately 3,000 sales to go through every year.

The loophole points to two larger problems with the NICS system: how it was built for speed rather than thoroughness — thanks in part to a 1993 amendment back by the National Rifle Association — and how it favors individual rights over collective safety. Sales approved by federally licensed gun sellers after the three-business-day determination period — as Roof’s was — are eight times more likely to involve a prohibited purchaser than sales with background checks that are resolved within 72 hours, according to a 2009 study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. (Mayors Against Illegal Guns is an earlier iteration of Everytown for Gun Safety, a seed donor of The Trace.) —Alex Yablon

David Fellerath, NRA-hating hunter

In late June, the Washington Post published a provocative first-person column under the title, “I love guns. But I hate the NRA.” Written by North Carolina-based hunter David Fellerath, the essay found common ground between gun safety advocates and gun owners. Most gun owners, Fellerath noted, support some form of gun regulation — and only a fraction of American gun owners belong to the NRA. “The NRA does not represent all gun owners, and it certainly doesn’t represent me,” he wrote. The piece received thousands of comments on the Post’s website, some of which were from hunters and everyday gun owners thanking Fellerath for giving voice to a community too rarely heard from in the gun debate.

In the wake of Fellerath’s column, other moderate gun owners spoke out. In August, a self-described former “gun nut” outlined in the Houston Press why he shifted his views and embraced tougher gun laws. “I used to have a huge collection of firearms,” he wrote, “and I came to feel that there was no reason for me to have them, and that it merely reflected a toxic personal attitude about guns.” About a month later, following a mass shooting at a community college in Oregon, gun owner and former police officer Mark Carman posted a video in which he called for comprehensive background checks and the creation of a gun registry. “It is not an infringement of one’s constitutional right under the Second Amendment if we just have some rules in place,” Carman said. Writer Steve Elliott destroyed his Ruger handgun a few weeks later in an act of protest against gun violence — and as a symbol of his refusal to the let the NRA speak on his behalf.

The backlash from Second Amendment purists has been swift. Viewers of Carman’s video called him “a child molester and a drug dealer,” and Fellerath says “several people contacted me and wished I would have a deadly accident with a gun.” But he remains convinced that gun owners like himself need to speak out. “I think it’s really important for the public to have a complex understanding of guns, how they work, and the different kinds of people who use them,” Fellerath tells The Trace. —Elizabeth Van Brocklin

Nardyne Jefferies, mother of a gun violence victim

In September, Nardyne Jefferies showed up at a gun violence prevention rally in Washington D.C. holding up an 8½-by-11-inch color photo of her dead 16-year-old daughter. It was an autopsy picture, showing her daughter’s flesh split below the collarbone, peeled back to reveal bone and muscle. Almost as unnerving was the steely-eyed woman holding the image, her expression daring you to look away.

“The real horror of gun violence should be shown. It’s what is burned into my brain,” Jefferies told The Trace. “I’m sure if I lost all of my memory about everything else I would never forget the way my baby looked after being gunned down.”

Jefferies has become the unwitting pioneer of an ad hoc movement that seeks to compel lawmakers to acknowledge the grisly consequences of gun violence. Alex Pareene suggested on Gawker that gun control advocates should be as theatrically jarring as the anti-abortion movement, which achieved impressive victories by demonstrating with gruesome, poster-sized images of dead fetuses. While writers float that theory of change, Jeffries is actually carrying it out. She has hoisted the grim image of her daugher at city council meetings and sit-downs with lawmakers and watched as they turned their heads. She’s shown it to reporters who decline to use it in their stories. Jeffries says she’ll put the photo on a T-shirt if it means jolting the American public into action.

“I just can’t see myself talking about gun violence without showing what gun violence is,” she says. —Jennifer Mascia

Larry Martin, South Carolina State Senator

Until this year in South Carolina, a man could get five years in prison for beating his dog but only 30 days for beating his girlfriend. Few might have predicted that a Republican State Senator with an A+ from the National Rifle Association would be the one to help change that.

Martin, who chairs the state’s Senate judiciary committee, was the chief sponsor of a long-awaited bill extending gun bans for domestic abuse offenders that was signed into law by Governor Nikki Haley in June. Martin modeled his bill — which bars anyone convicted of criminal domestic violence from possessing firearms for three years to life, depending on the offense — after one adopted last year by Louisiana. “I figured if the Louisiana legislature can pass this with Bobby Jindal signing it into law, there’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be able to pass it,” he told The Trace this spring.

Early in the process, Martin brought his bill to the NRA. The group said it wouldn’t openly fight it — the same uncharacteristically restrained stance it took amid previous reform pushes in Louisiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont, Oregon, and Washington state, all of which successfully curtailed gun rights for domestic offenders.

Martin’s break from hardline NRA orthodoxy was indicative of a trend among Republican lawmakers in statehouses across the country, who’ve come out in favor of gun bans for domestic abusers. “Obviously some of us feel very strongly, regardless of political persuasion,” he said in June.

In a chilling postscript, 13 days after the bill passed, Martin found himself mourning the death of a Senate colleague killed by gun violence. When an NRA board member claimed that State Senator Clementa Pinckney, a pastor who died along with eight others in the shooting at Emanuel Church in Charleston, was partially to blame for his own death because he voted against concealed carry legislation, Martin called the comments “outrageous.” —Jennifer Mascia

Lisa Moore, leader of Gun Free UT

In June, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law a “campus carry” bill that will allow the concealed carry of handguns at state universities and community colleges. Concerned that allowing guns onto campus would make their school less safe, a group of University of Texas faculty, students, and parents formed Gun Free UT to protest the bill. A petition they founded has so far garnered more than 8,500 signatures.

Among Gun Free UT’s leading voices is Lisa Moore, a UT professor who teaches gay and lesbian studies. Where other opponents of campus carry have emphasized the risk of accidental shootings and the extreme rarity of mass shootings stopped by concealed carriers, Moore is among those pushing a new and powerful idea into the debate: The worry that allowing guns on campus could disrupt the core spirit of college as a safe place for dissent and free speech. “I’m going to be much less willing to go into deep and controversial issues [in my classes], which is a huge loss, since, later on in life, they’ll have to grapple with deep and controversial issues,” she told The Trace this fall. “In order to learn those skills, you have to feel safe.” Her argument has been echoed by the top leader of the UT system. William McRaven, a retired admiral and current University of Texas chancellor, has voiced concern that the bill could impinge on academic freedom. “You will stymie discussion — heated discussion in areas — in the classroom,” he told CNN.

The campus carry law gives public universities some discretion to carve out gun free zones. But earlier this month, the Campus Carry Working Group at UT’s main Austin campus determined that — despite its own members’ preference for barring guns from classrooms — the university’s hands are tied by the law. The group released a report with recommendations on how to promote safety in spite of the statute. When the measure takes effect on August 1, 2016, Moore suspects some teachers will start avoiding class discussions altogether. “I’ve heard faculty say, ‘I’ll just give everyone As from now on,” she said.I’m not going to risk pissing someone off if they’re going to be armed.” —Elizabeth Van Brocklin

John Parker, Jr., Umpqua Community College student

On October 1, as a student opened fire on a classroom at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Oregon, another student named John Parker, Jr., decided not to intervene. At the time of the shooting, the Air Force veteran was elsewhere on campus and carrying a concealed firearm, making him the proverbial “good guy with a gun,” whom Second Amendment advocates often imagine saving the day in the event of an active shooting. “Luckily we made the choice not to get involved,” Parker told MSNBC. “We were quite a distance away from the actual building where it was happening, which would have opened us up to being potential targets ourselves.”

Groups like the National Rifle Association have long argued that a heavily-armed society is a safer one, allowing civilians to protect themselves from a host of ever-present dangers, including, but not limited to, “home invaders and drug cartels and car-jackers and … campus killers.” Yet a recent study by Harvard University’s David Hemmenway suggests that owning a gun does not make you any safer. The study shows not only that so-called “Defensive Gun Use” rarely protects a person from harm, but also that such incidents are much more rare than gun advocates claim.

Parker’s statement, coming from someone devoid of a political agenda, demonstrated one of the reasons why a civilian concealed carrier has stopped only one active shooting from 2000 to 2013, according to an FBI report. As Parker explained to the MSNBC reporter, “Not knowing where SWAT was on their response time, they wouldn’t know who we were, and if we had our guns ready to shoot they could think we were the bad guys.” Without intending to, Parker was embodying a new definition of a good guy with a gun: someone who exercises common sense in the face of danger. —Mike Spies

The Redditors behind the Mass Shooting Tracker

The federal government does not provide an official criteria for a mass shooting, but some journalists and researchers have adopted a definition that builds off the FBI’s standard for mass murder, which sets a threshold of four fatalities in a single incident.

Leading the push for a more expansive criteria is the Mass Shooting Tracker, a crowdsourced website that grew out of the cheeky gun news subreddit /r/GunsAreCool. It defines a mass shooting as one with four or more people hit by bullets in one event, arguing that a shooting “means ‘people shot.’”

“Arguing that 18 people shot during one event is not a mass shooting is absurd,” the Tracker’s founders write. Medical advancements have helped save lives that would have otherwise been lost, a fact that Brock Weller, 29, one of two Redditors who produce the Tracker, believes the gun lobby benefits from. “Those gunshot victims are just as shot and will never be the same,” he told The Trace this fall.

Mass shootings attract the most attention to the problem of gun violence. It’s paradoxical that one of the year’s most high-profile attacks — the shooting at a movie theatre in Lafayette, Louisiana, in which two people were fatally shot and nine others wounded — did not technically fit the criteria of a mass shooting. As the Tracker’s definition gains a foothold in the media — including on the front page of The New York Times — a new precedent is being set for how we think about the pervasiveness of gun violence, not just this year, as multiple shootings generated national headlines, but in future years as well. —Jennifer Mascia

All illustrations by Alex Fine for The Trace