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Nissa Rhee's article on gun violence prevention in Englewood, Chicago, is one of our picks for the most memorable gun violence journalism of 2018. [Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor]

Year in Review

The Most Memorable Gun Violence Reporting of 2018

Stories that inspired us as they examined under-reported aspects of America's gun violence crisis.

At The Trace, we know firsthand how much ground there is to cover on the gun beat. There’s the gun lobby, a complicated web of state and federal laws, and the ways guns intersect with suicide, domestic violence, and accidental deaths among children. There’s also, of course, the unrelenting stream of gun homicides that mire black and brown communities in cities across the country in cycles of violence, injury, and death.  

And that’s before we get to mass shootings, the aspect of this issue that gets an outsized share of news coverage. This year, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, ushered in one of the most significant shifts in the gun debate in recent history — a forceful, diverse, savvy youth-led movement used the weight of its moral authority to mobilize young voters, pressure lawmakers, and sustain the issue in the news.

Our peers at other news organizations worked alongside us to help chronicle it all. Below is Team Trace’s picks for the most eye-opening, instructive, and highest-impact reporting and commentary on gun violence in 2018.

The children of Central City
Jonathan Bullington and Richard A. Webster | The Times-Picayune

During the years they had spent covering crime in New Orleans, Bullington and Webster had made an observation: At every crime scene they covered, they would see young children playing on the other side of the yellow tape. The persistent exposure to violence, they thought, must have a negative impact. Determined to report on the problem with the nuance it demanded, they set up a temporary bureau in Central City, one of New Orleans’ most violent neighborhoods. In an eight-part series, reported over the course of 10 months, Bullington and Webster explored trauma among children by following the players and coaches of A.L. Davis Park Panthers, the neighborhood’s youth football team. Among the duo’s most unforgettable findings: One in five Central City children they surveyed had witnessed a murder, and more than half had someone close to them murdered. Beyond the data, their sprawling narrative tenderly captures the many ways gun violence shapes the children’s world and life outcomes. With their work, Bullington and Webster provide a model for rigorous, compassionate reporting on the traumatic aftereffects of gun violence, one of the most under-examined aspects of the crisis.

—Akoto Ofori-Atta, senior editor

Database: How many children have experienced school shootings in America?
John Woodrow Cox, Steven Rich, Allyson Chiu, John Muyskens and Monica Ulmanu | The Washington Post

This hand-built database of school shootings is the latest in the Post‘s extraordinary series of data projects about gun violence (see also their mass shooting and police shooting trackers). It’s the most comprehensive dataset of its kind, stretching back to the Columbine shooting in 1999, documenting more than 200 incidents over that time period. The authors estimated the number of students present in school during the shootings — more than 200,000, all told — brilliantly quantifying the ripple effect of gun violence in a way that few data projects have been able to do. They also found that black students experience school shootings at a rate double their share of the school population, and that more school shootings occurred in 2018 than in any year since 1999.

—Daniel Nass, graphics editor

Do you remember the student who was shot at FSU? He’s pretty sure we’ve all moved on.
Claire McNeill | Tampa Bay Times

I read many compelling profiles of Parkland survivors this year, but the survivor story that most moved me was about a victim of a shooting I’d never heard of. In her cinematic profile, McNeill gets in the head of Ronny Ahmed, who was paralyzed from the waist down as a college student at Florida State University in 2014. After an initial wave of attention, Ronny watched as his classmates graduated and “disappeared into marriages and babies,” leaving him to slowly chip away at the degree the shooting interrupted. McNeil doesn’t shield us from the painful realities of Ronny’s gunshot injury — muscle spasms, hip injections, catheters — as well as the existential questions that come with his activism. As Ronny prepares to give a speech at the state capitol, he wonders if his efforts are making a difference. It’s an intimate portrayal of a survivor’s struggle to adapt to new circumstances, and how these injuries throw promising young people off course.

—Elizabeth Van Brocklin, reporter

Guns: An American conversation
Advance Local and Spaceship Media

We are big into data here at The Trace. And sometimes it can be vexing to report new statistics on gun violence, only to have the most fervent gun owners who read our reporting react by rejecting those facts and substituting debunked claims. “Guns: An American Conversation” was an ambitious, multiplatform experiment in puncturing the filter bubbles that have sorted us into alternate realities when it comes to firearms. The project provided a new model for a role that journalism can play in this fractious age: What if instead of giving people new things to fight about online, news organizations went to the pains of bringing them together for constructive dialogues?

—James Burnett, editorial director

Armored school doors, bulletproof whiteboards and secret snipers
John Woodrow Cox and Steven Rich | The Washington Post

The headline captures just a few of the hair-raising products and services that Cox and Rich found in another installment of their reporting on school shootings and their reverberations. The campus security industry is thriving, but Cox and Rich note there is little research to show whether the measures work to protect students: Many of the schools surveyed in the article said there was nothing they could have done to prevent the shootings that happened on their grounds. Meanwhile, as Cox and Rich’s work underscores in rich and sorrowful detail, campus gun rampages are fundamentally reshaping the educational experiences of millions of children and teachers – whether they have been directly exposed or not.

—Brian Freskos, reporter

Stephon Clark and the shooting of black men, armed and unarmed
Jelani Cobb | The New Yorker

Racism is certainly at play in some fatal shootings of black people by white cops, but Cobb argues that there is another reason law enforcement officers are so quick to pull the trigger: The gradual loosening of gun laws over the last few decades has led to an explosion in the number of civilians who are armed. “There are more weapons than there are Americans,” an attorney for the South Carolina officer who killed Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, in 2015, told Cobb. “Why wouldn’t a police officer think, when I stop this car, that the potential is there for violence?” Making matters more complicated, in states where people aren’t required to get permits to carry concealed guns, police don’t have a way of verifying whether someone is legally allowed to own guns. The ease at which violent, unstable people are able to get guns “permeates every aspect of [law enforcement officers’] job and life,” Cobb writes.

—Jennifer Mascia, engagement writer

Despite spike in shootings, a Chicago community gets a handle on violence
Nissa Rhee | The Christian Science Monitor

One complaint you’ll often hear from Chicago residents living in violent neighborhoods is that they are tired of reporters depicting their communities as warzones. Rhee masterfully avoided that pitfall. Her story provides a nuanced portrait of Englewood, the struggles that the neighborhood has long grappled with, and how residents and police came together to make it a safer place. Her writing beautifully captures the sentiments of community members and surfaces details that make you feel like you’re on the ground with her.

—Brian Freskos, reporter

Adam Putnam’s office stopped reviewing concealed weapons background checks for a year because it couldn’t log in
Steven Contorno | Tampa Bay Times

In Florida, there are 1.8 million people who have a permit allowing them to carry a concealed handgun in public. No other state has come close to issuing as many licenses to its residents, which was a point of pride for Adam Putnam, a leading 2018 Republican candidate for Florida’s governorship and a favorite of the National Rifle Association.

But over the summer, The Tampa Bay Times published a troubling report: For more than a year, the state Agriculture Department failed to conduct national background checks for tens of thousands of applications, potentially allowing prohibited individuals — drug addicts or those who have been involuntarily committed — to acquire permits. The paper revealed the stunning reason for this colossal act of negligence: The employee responsible for conducting background checks could not log into the appropriate system.

Putnam lost the NRA’s backing, and did not win the Republican nomination.

—Mike Spies, staff writer

In 10 days, a husband's violence escalated from a brutal assault to murder in public view
Alison Dirr | Appleton Post-Crescent

Every 16 hours in the United States, a woman is fatally shot by a current or former romantic partner. With this piece, Dirr puts a face on that grisly statistic. On January 2, Robert Schmidt, a Wisconsin stay-at-home-dad, was charged with felony domestic violence after allegedly holding his wife, Sara, at gunpoint and raping her on New Year’s Eve. On January 5, he was released on bond and told he couldn’t possess guns. On January 8, he bought a Glock from someone he met on the website Armslist. On January 9, a week after he was arrested, he ambushed Sara in her parents’ driveway and killed her in front of their three children, then took his own life as deputies closed in. Because Wisconsin is among the states that do not require background checks on private gun sales, the Armslist seller did not vet Schmidt, who was able to acquire a weapon he was banned from owning. Dirr’s tick tock of the events leading to Sara’s death illustrates how quickly gaps in gun laws can jeopardize public safety and escalate into deadly violence.

—Jennifer Mascia, engagement writer

Gun violence in Madison | Cycles of trauma
Dean Mosiman | Wisconsin State Journal

In the opening article of his searing series on gun violence in the Wisconsin capital, Mosiman notes that critics often describe Madison as a city with two realities: one of “progressive politics and economic vitality,” and another of poverty and large disparities, felt most by its black residents. But Mosiman notes there is a third Madison: “one where a small but rising number of teens and young adults, often with a history of unaddressed trauma, carry guns like cellphones.” Over the course of his series, Mosiman enters this world and asks hard questions about what’s behind the city’s uptick in youth violence — and what can be done to stop it.

—Miles Kohrman, senior editor

Targeted: A family and the quest to stop the next school shooter
Bethany Barnes | The Oregonian

Bethany Barnes tells the story of a teenage boy who is identified as a possible school shooter and the investigation that ensues as school officials try to determine if he poses a real threat. In the process, she also elucidates the broader consequences of school shootings, which prompt every student, parent, and teacher to wonder who might be the next copycat. We see the ways that suspicion seeps into the life of a single teenager, and how that changed him and his community.

—Tali Woodward, deputy editor

Gun culture is my culture. And I fear for what it has become.
David Joy | New York Times Magazine

Joy offers a searing reflection on his mostly typical — but sometimes extraordinary — experiences as a gun owner. He keeps a loaded pistol on the nightstand, and another one on the coffee table. His friends shoot guns out of cars for thrills. He once sold a semiautomatic rifle to a stranger in a Cracker Barrel parking lot. A childhood mugging left him with a distrust of strangers, and he has experienced near-fatal encounters with police. Joy distills the mindset of a contemporary gun owner in this piece with enormous sensitivity, nuance and depth, explaining to readers living outside of the South how firearms trickle into all aspects of everyday life, for good or for ill.

—Alex Yablon, reporter

A bird in jail is worth two on the street
Sarah Koenig | Serial, This American Life and WBEZ Chicago

The third season of Serial takes a deep dive into American criminal justice by focusing not on a single case, but a single city, Cleveland. Episode four tells the story of a young black man who spent more than a year in jail for the murder of an infant — a shooting he did not commit. Not only does Koenig take us through the details of his case, she also gives a window into the life of the infant’s grieving father. Through him, she gives listeners a clear-eyed glimpse of the nuances that come with living in a community oppressed by gun violence. The infant’s father is certain the wrongly accused man knows who killed his child, but he understands the dynamics between residents and police that keep the man from sharing information with the cops. He’s also thought about taking justice into his own hands, but he decided against it, as he couldn’t bear the thought of putting another family through the same suffering. “Just me knowing that somebody going to be…feeling like this—I can’t,” he told Koenig. “This ain’t the pain you want.”

—Sean Campbell, senior investigative fellow

“There are ways to prevent some of these these shootings. But people don't know about them because WE DON'T COVER THEM.”
Lois Beckett | Twitter

Beckett, the author of many incisive articles on gun issues, is also an adroit user of Twitter, where she provides memorable live reporting and commentary. By my lights, her thread on a conspicuous imbalance in gun violence coverage, posted after the Borderline mass shooting in November, was the most influential gun violence journalism of 2018 — or should be. Beckett argues that lopsided coverage of the terror of gun rampages, and rote media references to lack of federal legislative responses, have themselves become obstacles to progress. “In years of talking to gun violence prevention advocates and researchers, what I’ve heard over and over is that the biggest enemy of this work isn’t the NRA,” she wrote. “It’s the cynicism and hopelessness of the general public—their belief that nothing can be done.” From the beginning, The Trace has reported on interventions proven to reduce shootings. Beckett’s clarion call has pushed us to meaningfully increase our coverage of solutions as we prepare for 2019 and beyond.

—James Burnett, editorial director

A teen's suicide and the battle to confiscate his father's firearms
Mike Kelly | North Jersey Record

Two autumns ago, Jack Gonzales Farrell felt intolerably trapped. To escape the feeling, he retrieved his dad’s revolver from an unlocked safe, took it to a park overlooking a lake, and shot himself in the head. Two days later the New Jersey teen died, his death fueling a court battle over whether his father, a retired police officer who’d been diagnosed with PTSD, should be allowed to continue to buy and own guns.

Jack’s case soon became a touchpoint for several veins of the gun debate: an alarming increase in youth suicides, the fight for stricter penalties for parents who don’t safeguard guns from children, and questions surrounding gun ownership by people with mental illness. In an accompanying video, Jack’s mother reads aloud a letter she penned to President Donald Trump, begging him to hold accountable parents who leave guns accessible to minors. She notes that Jack was buried in a “Make America Great Again” hat. “My son will wear your hat forever,” she reads.

—Elizabeth Van Brocklin, reporter

One toddler. One loaded gun. Boy’s shooting death keeps SC among the deadliest for kids
Jennifer Berry Hawes | Post and Courier

More than 80 children were accidentally shot and killed by other children this year, according to the Children’s Firearm Safety Alliance. One of those was 3-year-old Aiden Martin, who accidentally shot himself with a small, semiautomatic handgun one of his father’s friend’s brought to his house. In a story that is both heartbreaking and enlightening, Post and Courier reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes details the tragedy, its devastating impact on one South Carolina family, and the simple legislative fixes that could save other children.

—Ann Givens, staff writer

U.S. law enforcement failed to see the threat of white nationalism. Now they don’t know how to stop it.
Janet Reitman | New York Times Magazine

The nation was shocked by last year’s violent confrontations between armed white nationalists and antiracist counter-protestors on the bucolic streets of the historic downtown of Charlottesville, Virginia. The clashes left one woman dead and dozens wounded, the grim apotheosis of the new era of politics heralded by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and election. As Reitman’s story shows, cops were just as caught off guard as the rest of the country by the gun-toting militias and white nationalists. Her analysis shows that since the start of the millennium, law enforcement invested more resources to tracking Islamic terrorists, while ignoring the threat of home-grown armed extremists. Now, law enforcement are left with very few ideas for stopping the threat.

—Alex Yablon, reporter

We can feel it: change is within reach.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School newspaper staff | Guardian US

By the time a gunman killed 17 students and teachers at a Parkland, Florida, high school, many grownups had begun to lose hope that politicians would ever come together to stop mass shootings. But the teen survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had not lost hope. Instead, they became the central organizers of one of the most powerful grassroots gun reform movements in history. Last March, the Guardian invited student journalists from the school’s newspaper, the Eagle Eye, to guest edit coverage of the massive March for Our Lives protest that grew from that tragedy. Students contributed a “manifesto to fix America’s gun laws,” forcefully demanding reforms that go beyond what even many left-leaning politicians would back. They also assigned Guardian reporters several stories, including a chilling feature on the impossible choice their teachers were forced to make during the attack, exposing the real challenges of proposals to arm teachers as a solution for school shootings.

—Sarah Ryley, staff writer