There has been, to put it mildly, no shortage of news in 2017. This year ends with us all too accustomed to frenzied cable news chyrons and phone screens bursting with push alerts.
Beneath the cacophony of the 24-hour news cycle, the American gun violence crisis has continued unabated. From time to time, some particularly violent act briefly shocks an otherwise numbed public. The New York Times’s single most-read article of the year detailed the discovery of multiple weapons in a Las Vegas hotel room rented by a gunman who, from his perch on the 32nd floor, unleashed a hail of bullets that took 58 lives, and injured hundreds more. In the No. 9 slot: A breaking news account of the methodical November massacre carried out inside a rural Texas church, nearly extinguishing an entire congregation.
At The Trace, we know that even though the nation’s attention inevitably moves on, there are still innumerable stories about guns and gun violence to be reported from every corner of the country. Every year, our reporters and editors compile a list of noteworthy stories produced by our colleagues in other newsrooms whose work follows our mission: to shine a light on America’s gun violence crisis, in all its dimensions.
The stories below illuminated critical issues and underexamined aspects of the gun debate. They are stories we’ve learned from and been inspired by. We think you’ll find them to be must-reads, as well.
John Woodrow Cox | The Washington Post
After the 6-year-old boy she said she would marry one day was murdered on the playground, first-grader Ava Olsen used sparkly stickers to cover up words like “gun” and “kill” in her chapter books. That’s just one of the many exquisite, excruciating details Cox gathered while reporting on the aftermath of the Townville Elementary School shooting, which left one dead and three injured in a rural South Carolina town in September 2016. Each of the four students Cox profiled was dealing with the tragedy differently — but their experience with trauma is far from unique: More than 135,000 American children have been exposed to a shooting at school since 1999, according to the Post’s calculations. The heart-rending story is part of a yearlong, must-read series on gun violence as seen through the eyes of children.
— Elizabeth Van Brocklin, reporter
David S. Bernstein | Boston Magazine
Hand-wringing over declining clearance rates usually focuses on just one type of crime: homicide. But even more shocking are the dismally low clearance rates for shootings in which the victim survives — a far more common scenario, but one that receives exponentially less attention. In this rare deep-dive on the subject, Bernstein examined 526 non-fatal shootings over a nearly three-year period in Boston, and found that police had made an arrest in just 20 of those cases. “No matter how you parse the numbers… one thing has become alarmingly clear,” Bernstein writes. “Shooting someone is not a punishable offense in Boston — so long as the victim doesn’t die.”
—Sarah Ryley, staff writer
More Perfect | WNYC
What’s all the fuss about the Second Amendment, anyway? This expertly produced and meticulously researched episode from the Radio Lab spin-off More Perfect breaks down the complexities of what’s become perhaps the most debated sentence in the Constitution. Producer Sean Rameswaram also traces the origins of the gun-rights movement, from the Black Panther Party’s efforts to carry weapons in the 1960s, to the audacious 1977 coup credited with radicalizing the National Rifle Association and planting the seeds of the unyielding gun-rights movement we know today.
—Miles Kohrman, senior editor
BENJAMIN MUELLER, NOAH REMNICK and AL BAKER | The New York Times
The final entry for the Times’s “Murder in the 4-0” ties together many of the causes and consequences of gun violence, and serves as a worthy bookend to the 18-month series that highlighted how disadvantaged communities in relatively safe cities experience disproportionate homicide rates.
The article focuses on the murder of Jequan Lawrence in the 40th Precinct in the South Bronx, and how his death is representative of the changing structure of once-legendary national gangs. Given the circumstances of Lawrence’s life, by the end of the piece, his death — which detectives called “the darkest and most confusing killing on those streets in all of 2016” — seems both inevitable and utterly preventable.
—Sean Campbell, investigative fellow
MALACHY BROWNE, DREW JORDAN, NICOLE FINEMAN, and CHRIS CIRILLO | The New York Times
When a mass shooting happens, we tend to instinctively move quickly past the terror and toward the quest for information: How many are dead? What was the motive? What might have prevented it?
With this affecting video essay, the Times’s journalists dare us to hit pause. Synchronizing audio of the attack with more than 30 videos taken at the scene, they create a heart-wrenching reconstruction of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. As we watch, we feel the terror alongside the concert-goers. Like them, we don’t know who will be hit next or where. We hear the breathless police officers as they give their locations before entering the killer’s room. We hear a frightened woman wondering, “Why are there people laying on the ground?”
—Ann Givens, staff writer
JASON FAGONE | HuffPost Highline
While there’s no shortage of reporting that seeks to explain gun violence from a statistical perspective, stories that focus on the physical effects of shootings are rarer. “What Bullets Do to Bodies” helped fill that gap, offering an unflinching view of the injuries and anguish that people experience after they are shot.
Jason Fagone tells the story through Dr. Amy Goldberg, a tireless North Philadelphia trauma surgeon who spends her days repairing bodies shattered by bullets in one of the most violent cities in the country. Goldberg believes that the visceral details she encounters through her work — people “riddled with bullets, dead as doornails” — are what’s missing from the gun debate. She wants Americans to see what she’s seen, through the release of graphic photos of shooting victims. “The country won’t be ready for it,” she said, “but that’s what needs to happen. That’s the only chance at all for this to ever be reversed.”
—Daniel Nass, visual journalist
Brittany Horn, Jessica Masulli Reyes, Esteban Parra, and Christina Jedra and Larry Fenn | The News Journal, USA Today, and Associated Press
Unchecked gun violence has made Wilmington, Delaware, the most dangerous place to be a teenager in America. Young people there get shot at a rate nearly double that recorded in Chicago. In September, reporters from the local News Journal collaborated with USA Today and the AP for a sweeping series exploring their city’s terrible superlative.
The project’s national platform helped bring attention to the many gun homicides that result neither from mass shootings nor big-city gang wars, but instead stem from neighborhood disputes in mid-sized, down-and-out, often forgotten metros. What gives the stories their real power, though, is the way the reporters take pains to hold the city’s and state’s leaders accountable for failing to adequately address the problem.
Wilmington, we learn, was the subject of a rare Centers for Disease Control study of gun violence in 2015, which led to a prescription for identifying and protecting those teens at the highest risk of becoming victims. The recommendations sat unimplemented as young people kept dying. The News Journal lets officials try to pass the buck — then drops the hammer. In neighboring Pennsylvania, reporters track down a county administrator whose work shows that the program Wilmington has lamented as impossible is in fact completely feasible.
“They (Delaware) can buy the technology and analytics,” the source says. “They can’t buy the political will.”
—James Burnett, editorial director
Nicholas Fandos | The New York Times
Several articles have highlighted unseemly relationships between the National Rifle Association and Kremlin-connected officials during the long lead-up to the 2016 election, but definitive accounting of Russia’s interest in the NRA, and vice versa, remains elusive. A story that appeared in the New York Times in early December provides the best evidence yet that inquiries surrounding the NRA’s ties to Russia aren’t baseless.
The Times article hinges on an email from Paul Erickson, an NRA member with access to the organization’s leaders as well as members of the Russian government, to Rick Dearborn, a Trump campaign advisor. The 2016 email, “described in detail” to reporter Nicholas Fandos, reveals that Erickson attempted to facilitate a “first contact” meeting between the Trump campaign and a Vladimir Putin-linked operative at the NRA’s upcoming spring convention, in Louisville, Kentucky. “The Kremlin believes that the only possibility of a true reset in this relationship would be with an new Republican in the White House,” Erickson wrote.
The meeting never took place, but over the next six months, the NRA would spend more than any other outside group in support of Trump.
–Mike Spies, staff writer
Michael Tarm | The Associated Press
That thieves had been stealing firearms by the hundreds from unattended freight trains in Chicago rail yards had long been well known around that city, but the Associated Press took its reporting a significant step further than other outlets by uncovering just what happens to those firearms after they’re stolen. For its deftly crafted piece, the AP reviewed hundreds of court records related to one train heist in 2015 that netted the thieves 111 guns. Only 16 have been recovered. Of those, one had been used in a shooting, another was found in the hands of a murder suspect, and a third was taken from a heroin dealer.
In tying the stolen guns to other crimes, the AP filled a critical gap that I’ve often spotted in the media’s coverage of gun theft. Many stories focus on the number of guns that are stolen in a particular time frame. While those statistics are certainly alarming, the bigger problem is that stolen guns often arm dangerous individuals who use them to perpetrate further crimes. By tracking down just a few of the thousands of stolen weapons that flood the black market, the AP painted a more complete picture of the public safety threat posed by gun theft.
—Brian Freskos, reporter
Laura Morel | The Tampa Bay Times and Reveal
In a partnership between the Tampa Bay Times and Reveal, reporter Laura C. Morel chronicles the life and death of Charles Kondek, a Florida police officer whose fatal shooting in 2014 served as a tragic reminder of the consequences of leaving guns in unlocked cars. In detail and depth, Morel captures the frustrations of Kondek’s family, and of law enforcement officials who say lives could be saved if gun owners simply locked their car doors. What people don’t realize, one Florida detective says, is that leaving guns in unlocked cars “opens the realm to so many other crimes.”
–Brian Freskos, reporter
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Danielle Allen | The New Yorker
There are so many incidents of gun violence in the United States each day that we tend to lose track of the people behind the numbers. Writer Danielle Allen tries to solve that problem for one “statistic”: her cousin, Michael Alexander Allen, who was killed by a gun in 2009. By narrating Michael’s movement through the criminal justice system, Allen poignantly shows us how her cousin became inextricably linked to gun violence from the age of 15 until his death 14 years later.
—Sean Campbell, investigative fellow
Patrick Blanchfield | The New York Times
The Trace doesn’t typically wax interpretative about the carnage we cover every day, instead focusing on reporting new facts. But sometimes it’s worthwhile to step back and consider American gun violence through a wide lens. Pat Blanchfield’s essay on faith, sacrifice, and the Sutherland Springs massacre was a powerful, unsettling read. “Our national reaction to mass shootings in general, and to those involving children in particular, is saturated with theological rhetoric,” he writes. “Underwriting all this is a logic of sacrifice… But when it comes to the reality of gun violence in America — of which mass shootings are only a part — sacrifice as a concept is insufficient, and the notion of innocence itself, suspect.”
—Alex Yablon, reporter
Petula Dvorak | The Washington Post
When she embarked on a column about shooting survivor Zaan Scott, Petula Dvorak had no idea that it would end with his sudden death. Scott, a 25-year-old swimming instructor in Washington, D.C., was shot during a robbery five weeks earlier, leaving him paralyzed. Despite this, he saw silver linings: “Maybe I’ll be able to teach from the side of the pool,” he said. “Or maybe I’ll go back to school.” But it was Scott’s love story that tugged heartstrings, even before readers were told of his demise: His fiancée, 25-year-old Jamese Harvey, refused to leave his side, despite the fact that he would likely use a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Less than 24 hours before the column was published, Dvorak’s colleague Marvin Joseph was photographing Scott when he stopped breathing. He died shortly afterward. And a column about a gunshot survivor’s resilience unexpectedly turned into his obituary.
—Jennifer Mascia, engagement writer
Kathleen McGrory and Connie Humburg | The Tampa Bay Times
McGrory and Humburg combed through 60 million hospital discharge records, spanning a five-year period, for their trailblazing investigation on gun injuries and deaths among children living in Florida. Their tenacious reporting revealed a harrowing statistic: a child is shot in Florida every 17 hours. The report dexterously connects the spike in gun injuries among children to persistent, fear-driven gun ownership and the easy access to firearms across the state. It also gave us this unforgettable quote from Dr. Judy Schaechter, chairwoman of the pediatrics department at the University of Miami: “I call [gun injury and death among children] America’s most preventable disease.”
—Akoto Ofori-Atta, senior editor