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Year in Review

The Gun Violence Reporting That Most Inspired Us in 2016

The Trace was founded a year and a half ago with the mission of telling the story of gun violence in the United States. We are devoted to shining light on the massive human cost of an epidemic that leaves more than 100,000 victims dead or injured each year; describing the financial toll it exacts on communities and taxpayers; and exposing the tactics of the lobbyists pushing firearms into ever more public spaces and American institutions. But while we are the only newsroom devoted full-time to covering this beat, we are not the only journalists who report on this issue. We consistently learn from the efforts of local and national reporters around the U.S. who show willingness to engage deeply with a subject that at times seems intractable. Here, a list of the gun violence reporting that stuck with us most in 2016. We hope you’ll make time for these revelatory stories in your year-end reading.  

“These shootings, by and large, are not a middle-class phenomenon.”
Sharon Lafraniere, Daniela Porat, and Agustin Armendariz, "A Drumbeat of Multiple Shootings, but America Isn’t Listening," The New York Times, May 22, 2016

For this powerful investigation, the Times used two databases of news reports to examine more than 350 shootings that resulted in four or more injuries or fatalities. Most of the incidents, the analysis revealed, involved a black victim and perpetrator. They disproportionately took place in high-poverty neighborhoods. Then the reporters went farther, revealing a compounding injustice these communities endure: Almost half of these cases remain unsolved, a contributing factor to the vicious cycle that ultimately produces more violence.

"We have way too much gun violence, and there's only so many police officers."
Beth Schwartzapfel, "This Machine Could Prevent Gun Violence — If Only Cops Used It," The Marshall Project, October 6, 2016

In this vividly reported piece, Schwartzapfel explains how lack of manpower — and lack of enthusiasm — is keeping local law enforcement agencies from using existing technology that could be solving crimes. The National Integrated Ballistic Information Network is a federal database of nearly 3 million images of shell casings that police have collected from crime scenes or test-fired from guns used in crimes nationwide. Schwartzapfel discusses the entrenched attitudes that prevent police from using the system. And she never lets us forget why the technology matters: It could be saving lives now.

“All the cheap guns made in the '80s have either quit functioning or have been recovered by police. They seem to all be expensive and high-quality now.”
Justin George, "Shoot To Kill," Baltimore Sun, September 30

This August, when the FBI released national crime statistics for 2015, many were puzzled by a sudden jump in homicides after years of decline. With astonishing rigor and depth, George’s five-part series persuasively tied together disparate patterns in the gun market, criminal behavior, and firearms policy to explain the troubling data.

The Sun’s series inspired me to do my own reporting on how trends in legal gun manufacturing, salesmanship, and purchasing have affected the kinds of guns used in violent crimes. I found that the patterns George identified — criminals getting ahold of higher-caliber guns with larger magazines — originated in the exponential growth in the number of people carrying concealed firearms, a direct result of the American gun market’s shift to fear-based ownership over the past two decades.

"A bullet hits his hand. His hip. He survives because he does not scream."
Staff, "Choice and Chance: A gunman enters the Pulse nightclub. Those in his path have only a heartbeat to react," The Tampa Bay Times, June 20, 2016

The media response to the aftermath of the massacre of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in June was overwhelming. Representatives from every major news outlet — and dozens of smaller ones, including this one — descended on Orlando en masse. Many provided thoughtful coverage, but the incident was another reminder of the crucial role that local newspapers still play in their communities. Reporters for the Orlando Sentinel produced incisive breaking news coverage and remained with the victims long after everyone else had gone home. Other Florida publications also did impressive and important work.

I was particularly struck by a 3D interactive built by the Tampa Bay Times. The map of the nightclub allows users to relive those moments of terror and the split-second decisions that led patrons to live or die. The absence of sound or background music invites readers to focus on the words, on the images, on the colors used to spotlight different stories. The bare design allows small details, like the breakdown of sentences, to become a visual focal point and makes this journalistic piece a chilling experience. One of the first stories we read, for example, is of a woman named Brenda Marquez McCool, who urges her son to get down as Mateen aims at them. Tap the screen, “Her son lives.” Tap again, “She dies.”

“The US could end all mass shootings today and its rates of gun violence would still be many times higher than other rich countries.”
Lois Beckett, "America's Gun Problem Is So Much Bigger Than Mass Shootings," The Guardian, June 21, 2016

Beckett started writing about gun violence and gun policy at ProPublica and was hired in February by the Guardian to lead that news organization’s coverage of the issue from its New York bureau. She’s been a torchbearer for The Trace, informing several themes of our reporting — one of which is neatly summarized in the headline of the article highlighted here. The piece, which includes some superlatively edifying interactives by the Guardian’s graphics and data team, is part of a comprehensive five-part series that Beckett and her colleagues published shortly after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Another must-read from the project: Her clear-eyed rundown of promising gun violence interventions that don’t get their due amid the rancor of the gun debate that she so doggedly fact-checks. — James Burnett, editorial director

“But whose fault was it?”
Ryan Foley, Larry Fenn, and Nick Penzenstadler, “Chronicle of agony: Gun accidents kill at least 1 kid every other day,” Associated Press and USA TODAY, October 14, 2016

No one believes it is acceptable when an innocent child is fatally shot, and yet it happens with startling frequency. An investigation carried out by USA Today and the Associated Press found that during the first six months of 2016, children died in accidental shootings at a rate of one per day. The numbers showed that federal statistics vastly underrepresent these deaths, and that fatalities and injuries peak for children under five. As The Trace demonstrated in an investigation that also examined shootings by children, the deaths most often occur when children gain access to unsecured firearms belonging to adults.

“'It was a senseless act committed by an idiot.'"
Melissa Jeltsen, "This Is Not a Love Story,” The Huffington Post, February 11, 2016

No government agency expressly tallies homicides between intimate partners, even though such killings happen with numbing regularity. So Jeltsen took it upon herself to count up the incidents for one month. Using news reports, which she verified with local police agencies, she determined that at least 112 people had been killed during January at the hands of a current or former lover. Fifty-seven percent of those homicides were committed with a gun. Jeltsen concludes that risk assessment questionnaires and stronger gun laws could help reduce domestic homicides — but also that society needs to pay greater attention to male violence against women.

“Two days later, an officer came out to investigate. Four months passed before a detective called with a development. The man's gun was now evidence in another crime.”
Jonathan Bullington and Richard A. Webster, "The New Orleans Gun Pipeline: Stolen weapons fuel street violence," The Times-Picayune, February 16, 2016

In its first installment of a five-part series on illegal gun markets, the Times-Picayune spotlighted the important role that stolen firearms play in street crime. The story untangles an intricate ecosystem that is a growing source of guns for criminals in many major cities, even as such thefts go under-reported to police and local solutions are limited by lax state laws. After the article ran, New Orleans passed an ordinance to fine gun owners who fail to report lost or stolen weapons. The issues that Bullington and Webster brought to light have informed The Trace’s ongoing coverage of trafficking and underground gun markets.

“‘You start getting treated like anybody else when you need care, like a regular citizen.’”
Sarah Varney, "Medicaid Is Balm and Benefit for Victims of Gun Violence," Kaiser Health News, December 2, 2016

What the hell just happened? is a fine question for journalists to ponder in the wake of an unexpected election result, but there arrives a point when a surfeit of post-mortem coverage provides diminishing returns. The best beat reporters break from the pack with authoritative reporting on the ramifications of what comes next. In early December, Sarah Varney of the nonprofit Kaiser Health News did just that with a revelatory look at how the Affordable Care Act has aided gunshot survivors, and what a promised rollback of that law might mean for them.

Varney notes that states expanding their Medicaid programs under Obamacare have included several with large numbers of gun violence victims, whose newly gained health coverage gave them access to rehabilitory treatments out of reach to the uninsured. To show how their care could suffer if the law is repealed, she focuses on one young man making due until his Medicaid kicks in. He had been shot in the mouth, and he’s waiting for the postman to deliver his proof-of-coverage card, which will help him get the expensive hospital-quality gauze that he needs to cover a drainage tube in his neck. While he waits, he covers his wound with paper towels. It’s an unforgettable detail in a story that has been, for me, a reminder that politics should not distract from reporting that holds officials accountable for the real-world consequences of their policymaking.

“'It's not 10,000 agents and a big sophisticated place. It's a bunch of friggin' boxes. All half-ass records.'”
Jeanne Marie Laskas, "Inside the Federal Bureau Of Way Too Many Guns," GQ, August 30, 2016

Every day, Federal Agent Charlie Houser and his team hunt for needles in haystacks. In their case, the needle is a gun, and the game is rigged. In this feature, Laskas descends into the layers of absurdity that are the ATF’s National Tracing Center, where about 370,000 firearms are traced annually at the request of law enforcement agencies that need help solving a crime. The story’s colorful protagonist, Houser, guides the reader through the cumbersome tracing process, which must be painstakingly completed by hand, because federal law forbids the creation of a digital database of guns sales. With perseverance and ingenuity, the ATF team sifts through shipping containers of paper files and miles of microfilm to find a match. While the information in the story is not revelatory, Laskas’s vivid storytelling, and an accompanying video, makes it feel newly outrageous. The result was, for me, both the most entertaining and most frustrating article I read this year.

“In Wyoming, people call it the 'cowboy-up' mentality — the get-your-shit-together, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, can-do attitude that they say is bred into children from a young age.”
Anna Maria Barry-Jester, "Surviving Suicide in Wyoming," FiveThirtyEight, July 13, 2016

Coverage of the gun violence crisis tends to focus on mass shootings, and, to a lesser extent, urban homicides, yet neither category accounts for the vast majority of America’s 33,000 annual firearm deaths. Two-thirds of such deaths are suicides. This piece uses the story of Kenny Michelena, a rugged rancher overwhelmed by chronic physical pain and money troubles, to examine why Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the country, and why roughly 80 percent of those acts are committed by men. Like many in his state, Michelena owns guns. But his depression, along with easy access to firearms, proved to be a nearly lethal combination. Through interviews with him, his family, and his doctors, Barry-Jester tells a little discussed yet shockingly common story about the connection between guns and suicide.

"The logic of one Chicago mother is this: She is glad her own son is in jail, because the alternative is unbearable. 'He was bound to be shot this summer,' she says."
Staff, “A Weekend in Chicago,” The New York Times, June 4, 2016

On Memorial Day weekend, the Times dispatched 26 reporters, photographers, and videographers to Chicago on an ambitious mission: to chronicle every shooting that unfolded in the city over those three days. What resulted was a powerful multimedia project showing the tragedy that unfolded hour by hour, including a video of a mother heaving with grief after her son is killed, a still photo of a woman standing in a blood stained T-shirt after gunfire sprayed her home, and an account of a 15-year-old girl shot while riding in a friend’s car. Since then, the Times has followed the aftermath of that violent weekend — to a medical rehabilitation center, to the first day of school for a child whose mother can no longer walk with her, to the cemetery. It’s also followed the response of the criminal justice system: Of the 64 shootings that weekend, there had been two arrests as of last month.

“In that instant, the others began a new life defined not only by their suddenly changed relationships with one another but also their suddenly complicated relationships with guns.”
Terrence McCoy, "After a toddler accidentally shot and killed his older sister, a family’s wounds run deep," The Washington Post, December 1, 2016

Nine months ago, a gun-loving Alabama family lost a 9-year-old girl at the hands of her 4-year-old brother. McCoy documents their grief and recovery straightforwardly yet sensitively.

Doubt creeps in among the adults in the family, who must reconcile their love of guns with the damage those guns can do. The one person who seems least affected by the little girl’s death is the child who pulled the trigger — though McCoy leaves the reader with the impression that as the boy grows up, grief will find him, too.

“It’s impolite to call your customers 'wannabes.' So we called them ‘military enthusiasts.'"
Stephen Witt, “Big Gun’s Big Fail,” New York, November 15, 2016

Before I became an editor for The Trace, I spent many years writing about big business. I am possibly the perfect audience for a yarn about how one of the richest men in America, a private equity kingpin named Stephen Feinberg, cobbled together a gun industry empire by capitalizing on inefficiencies in the manufacturing of firearms — and some Americans’ demand for small personal arsenals. “While some enthusiasts collected guns,” Witt writes, “Feinberg collected gun companies.”

The backdrop for that acquisitions spree is the mass shooting era, which presents opportunities to sell lots of guns, but also poses huge risks for the personal reputation of anyone involved in the business of making and marketing firearms. Witt — who worked in private equity before becoming a writer — uses insider information to pierce the wall of secrecy that Feinberg forged around his gun conglomerate, while calling on his own business knowledge to look for a hidden casualty of the consolidation that Feinberg engineered. As Freedom Group (now rechristened Remington Group) looked to boost profits, it lowered the quality of some of the products that Feinberg had come to revere.

“She joined the ranks of the unintended, as detectives call those who bleed over someone else’s beef.”
Benjamin Mueller and Al Baker, “A Mother is Shot Dead on a Playground, and a Sea of Witnesses Goes Silent," The New York Times, October 7, 2016

In a kind of counterpart to its National team’s chronicling of shootings in Chicago, the Times’s Metro staff set out to follow every killing in one police precinct in the South Bronx. Though crime rates have dropped significantly in New York, violence is still high in areas like the 40th Precinct, which had experienced 22 homicides by the end of October. The Times’s powerful reporting converted that number into a series of searing personal stories.

I found one article to be especially illuminating. Jessica White was a mother of three who died shielding her children from gunfire. Reporters Benjamin Muller and Al Baker showed why even such a high-profile shooting leads neither swiftly nor surely to an arrest and conviction, shedding a light on witness intimidation and the frustrations of detectives who juggle at least 200 cases each.

“After death, black bodies in America have often been displayed in grotesque and dehumanizing ways… The Thompsons seek to reverse that painful legacy.”
Noah Remnick, "Dignity in Death for Black Families at a Brooklyn Funeral Home," The New York Times, July 22, 2016

A violent death touches many people in a neighborhood, including those whose job it is to arrange the funeral. This is the story of a century-old mortuary in Brooklyn, and the two sisters who run it. In striving to honor the shooting victims they care for — constructing a wax eyelid to restore what a bullet destroyed, or covering a constellation of gunshot wounds with a baseball cap — the sisters try to ameliorate a painful legacy of dehumanizing black bodies. The work takes a toll, as Remnick’s piece sensitively shows.

“'Even though it makes some liberals nervous, it’s like our trainers say: Now we’re a hard target.'”
Anne Helen Petersen, “A Remote Idaho Town Makes the Case for Guns in Schools,” Buzzfeed, March 10, 2016

The school district in Garden Valley, Idaho, has just over 250 students, an eight-man football team, and a firearms policy that critics fear could be a sign of things to come. Select teachers are trained to use Beretta 9mm rifles that are kept hidden in camouflaged safes throughout the district’s single school building, just in case. Petersen’s examination of the policy doubles as an empathetic portrait of a town where gun culture is woven into the social fabric, but where worries about the destructive power of guns — especially when it comes to its most vulnerable residents — persist.

“'And then you get to go tell their mom that they are not coming home, when all we needed was a few more minutes.'”
Nicola Twilley, "Can Hypothermia Save Gunshot victims?" The New Yorker, November 28, 2016

Blood loss is the primary cause of death for people suffering from traumatic injuries. Gunshot wounds are so lethal precisely because of this — bullets often rip through blood vessels and arteries and victims “bleed out” before medical responders can get them to an operating room and doctors can repair the damage. In her deftly told feature, Twilley explores an innovative but controversial medical solution: freezing gunshot victims nearly to death to slow blood loss while they undergo life-saving operations. The procedure is set to be tested at a leading trauma center in Baltimore, where gun lethality rates are rising. While considering its possible benefits, Twilley also considers its troubling irony: Most gunshot victims in Baltimore are black men, who, in America, have been subjected to an ugly history of risky experimental medical treatments.

“Guns have been left on car roofs and even atop a toilet paper dispenser in a car dealership’s bathroom.”
Thomas Peele, "944 Lost Guns," Bay Area News Group, Thomas Peele

Drawing on hundreds of public records requests, this startling investigation discovered that law enforcement agencies across California had recorded 944 guns lost or stolen since 2010. More than half of the stolen police weapons, the reporters found, were taken from personal cars or trucks where the guns were left vulnerable. In other cases, service guns simply could be not accounted for. Three months after the story ran, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill requiring officers to lock their handguns in the trunk or in a hidden container whenever they leave their vehicles unattended.

The team behind the story, the Bay Area News Group, increased the impact of their work by compiling the data into a publicly accessible database. Their reporting has encouraged other reporters — including me — to document similar problems in police departments across the country.

"'Once we get to New York, all we got to do is meet with our folks and they already sold.'"
Michael K. Williams, "Iron Pipeline," VICELAND, July 19, 2016

This episode of Williams’s new VICE series accomplishes something that few journalists have: securing interviews with active gun runners. Following traffickers in Atlanta, Chicago, and New York, the 24-minute documentary also talks to law enforcement officials working to stem the flow of illegal firearms. In one poignant moment, Williams discloses that, off camera, a young trafficker from Chicago asked him to “take me with you.” The viewer then learns that, soon after filming, the man was gunned down in broad daylight.

"'Some days it's safe, some days it's not.'”
Staff, “The Next Day: Living Around Gun Violence,” Chicago Tribune, December 4, 2016

The gun violence plaguing Chicago has made national headlines repeatedly this year, but it took a hometown newspaper to show how life in the hardest-hit neighborhoods of that city are not defined by violence. In this moving photo essay, Chicago Tribune photojournalist Brian Cassella documented “the next day” for a handful of Chicagoans who live, work, and go to school around the crime tape marking yesterday’s shootings. I have experienced similar circumstances growing up in Chicago, and was impressed at how Casella’s images closed the distance that can be created by scoreboard coverage of the latest body counts.

"He was what the agent called an 'unwitting informant.'"
John Diedrich and Raquel Rutledge, "ATF Sting in Milwaukee Flawed from the Start," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 12, 2016

I’m including this authoritative write-up of an ATF inspector general’s report as a way to highlight the years of excellent investigative reporting by the Journal-Sentinel that led up to it. As part of its broader reporting on the underground gun market, the newspaper uncovered pervasive dysfunction in undercover ATF operations intended to combat trafficking, which lead to lost guns and discriminatory policing practices.

“Shutting down gun groups has become its own version of the game ‘Whack-A-Mole’ for Facebook.”
Matt Drange, “Inside the Secret Group for Gun Owners Banned from Facebook,” Forbes, May 3, 2016

After Facebook announced in January that it would start shutting down pages marketing private gun sales, Drange kept an eye out to see if the company would make good on its vow. Over a series of articles, he discovered that the new policy had not put a stop to gun sales on the social network; he infiltrated a secret group run by gun page administrators, where he found a pro-gun rights Facebook engineer violating his own company’s policy; and he wondered why a Canadian hacker had come up with a better solution for identifying pages where guns might be sold than Facebook itself.

“'People want the Chiraq stuff. They want a superthug ghetto man, and I’m giving that to them. I’m just playing my role.'”
Forrest Stuart, "Dispatches from the Rap Wars," Chicago Magazine, September 19, 2016

This vivid as-told-to by a University of Chicago sociologist recounts the 18 months he spent embedded with Chicago gang members at the heart of the drill music scene. The result is a cinematic ethnography of the complicated relationship that some of the city’s young men have with the uniquely local variety of hip hop. In the crew Stuart spends most of his time with, members assigned to security carried the guns to protect the talent — and sometimes to carry out threats. The videos the crews post on social media are seen as a ticket out of a homegrown war zone. But as Stuart shows, insults delivered in rhymes can lead to bloodshed on the streets.

“The training ... involves listening to hundreds of recordings of fireworks, helicopters, truck brakes, gunshots: all the clamorous din of modern cities. Some are just trash cans banging together, but some are the sounds of death.”
Brooke Jarvis, "Listening for Gunshots," California Sunday, September 29, 2016

In an unassuming office park in the San Francisco Bay Area, analysts for the gunshot detection technology ShotSpotter strap on headphones and listen for the crack of bullets. Since its launch two decades ago, ShotSpotter has installed small microphones that register gunfire in cities across the county. Currently, the technology is active in more than 90 cities and towns. When an analyst identifies a positive “bang” — and the company estimates it hears about 100,000 per year — an alert is sent to a local police department. Jarvis’s use of the actual audio files received by the ShotSpotter staff gives the reader an experience that feels unsettlingly foreign, but is part of the normal aural landscape of too many neighborhoods.