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Year in Review

Best of The Trace: Our Favorite Stories of 2019

Highlights from another year on the gun beat.

Although we cover a single issue at The Trace, our beat is deceptively complex. Whether uncovering financial mismanagement at the NRA, documenting the increasingly sophisticated technological workarounds to federal gun regulations, or examining the intersection of gun crime, criminal justice, and racial disparities, our reporters plumbed an array of topics through the more than 215 stories we published this year.

Those articles also spanned mediums — from traditional text narratives to audio features, animations, and even one reader quiz — and benefited from the collaboration of our dozens of partners, which themselves ranged from small-town newspapers to national magazines. Like parents, we try not to pick favorites. But as 2019 draws to a close, we are putting forward the following 13 pieces as stories you won’t want to have missed.

Secrecy, Self-Dealing, and Greed at the NRA
Mike Spies

The NRA’s unique strength is derived from its sizable membership, whose dues provide the group with formidable revenues. In fiery public appeals, NRA leaders implore supporters to sustain the nonprofit’s defense of the Second Amendment against gun-grabbing “elites.” But as Spies’s reporting revealed in unprecedented detail, a primary activity of NRA executives and insiders has been their own enrichment. Published in partnership with The New Yorker, this investigation (and several subsequent follow-ups) pieced together a web of lavish compensation and contracts that have steered hundreds of millions of dollars to NRA officials, their friends and family members, and favored vendors. Several investigations were launched in response, including an ongoing probe by New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Since Parkland
Akoto Ofori-Atta, Trace staff, and more than 200 teen journalists

After the Parkland shooting, kids who endured the unspeakable emerged with a blunt message for the grownups of America: You are failing us. Their frustration was initially and primarily directed at elected officials. But it also extended to the media for mobilizing to cover mass shootings while devoting less attention to the chronic gun violence that exposes children in some city neighborhoods to danger every single day. Since Parkland was conceived as an antidote to that imbalance — one powered by young student journalists themselves. Our editors worked with nearly 200 teen reporters from across the country to profile nearly 1,200 kids killed by guns, excluding suicides, during the 12 months that began with the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School. The Miami Herald, McClatchy newspapers, and NowThis News joined us as partners on the project, complementing the student reporters’ work with articles and videos of their own.

Since Parkland organized its reported portraits into categories that showed children and teens lost to guns as more than just statistics: they were diligent students, beloved siblings, promising athletes, jokers, artists, dancers. But one category, “Stories Left to Tell,” contained more than 100 young victims, mostly Black and Latino, whose profiles remained incomplete when we launched Since Parkland, sometimes due to the scant clues found in the thin coverage of their deaths. Over the summer, we assembled a team of 10 of the teen journalists who powered Since Parkland to try to correct that. The update they produced together — The Hardest Stories to Tell — can be found here.

‘Everything That You’re Feeling Is Okay’
Ann Givens

On October 1, 2017, a gunman killed 58 people and injured 422 others at the Route 91 Harvest festival on the Las Vegas Strip. It was the most terrible single incident of gun violence in modern American history. As soon as the shooting stopped, investigators from the Clark County Coroner’s office set out to examine the dead. They swiftly found themselves overwhelmed: by grieving family members, conspiracy theorists who called them liars, and their own trauma. When coroner John Fudenberg realized that his colleagues needed help processing their grief, he ignored the stigma that can impede mental health treatment and got them support. In this piece, a feature story published in partnership with GQ, Givens explored how the team is healing two years on.

The Gun Industry Is Betting on Bigger High-Capacity Magazines
Alain Stephens

Spurred by the prospects of lucrative military contracts, American gun companies have developed a new generation of high-capacity magazines that allow their users to reliably fire 40 or more rounds before stopping to reload. Experts say the larger models will soon dominate the civilian market. But they’re not just sought after among gun enthusiasts: Perpetrators of some of the most high-profile shootings over the last five years involved magazines with capacities of 40 rounds or higher, according to Stephens’ exclusive review of police records. His reporting also flagged a dangerous loophole: in the majority of states, extended magazines can be purchased without a background check.

What Gun Violence Prevention Looks Like When It Focuses on the Communities Hurt the Most
Elizabeth Van Brocklin

Van Brocklin was among the first reporters to take a big picture view of the funding that states and cities have begun to direct toward evidence-based programs shown to reduce shootings in neighborhoods battling high rates of violent crime. The patchwork of public investment illustrates an evolution in the national gun violence prevention movement — a movement historically driven largely by white progressives responding to mass shootings. For a long time, activists of color have been pushing for more attention, and dollars, to go toward community-level interventions. The say the shift they’re now seeing is long overdue. “Victims of violence in communities have largely been seen as a problem for black folks, brown folks, poor folks to solve on our own,” Michael McBride, a Bay Area pastor and campaigner against urban violence and mass incarceration, told her in one of the article’s many searing passages.

When 12 People Are Shot in Your Neighborhood, and America Shrugs
Champe Barton

Despite the similarities between July’s mass shooting in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where 12 people were shot, and one a day later at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, where 15 people were shot, only one drew major media coverage. Examining news coverage of both shootings, this piece found that among six of the leading national newspapers, only two devoted space on their websites’ front pages to the Brownsville shooting for more than a few hours in the two days following the shooting. All six devoted space on their homepage to the Gilroy shooting for an average of 14-plus hours during the same period. That disparity in coverage translated to TV as well: CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC devoted 20 times as much airtime to discussing Gilroy as they did to discussing Brownsville, according to a review of archived cable news transcripts.

Shoot Someone In a Major U.S. City, and Odds Are You’ll Get Away With It
Sarah Ryley, Jeremy Singer-Vine, and Sean Campbell

In cities across the country, the failure to solve violent gun crimes is leaving shooters free to strike again, fueling cycles of violence and eroding trust in police. In some departments, hundreds of cases aren’t investigated at all. The Trace and BuzzFeed News’s review of over 1.5 million incidents revealed that the clearance rate for murders committed with guns has dropped by around 20 percentage points since the 1980s — even as the clearance rate for murders committed with other weapons or by physical force appears to have improved. The rates for gun assaults have also plummeted, falling to 30 percent. And the victims least likely to have their cases solved, by far, are black and Hispanic. Their reporting zeroed in on one important cause of the decline: enormous caseloads, and not nearly enough detectives to work them.

Easy Targets
Brian Freskos

There are more gun stores in America than Starbucks and McDonalds combined. Unlike pharmacies, explosives facilities, and other businesses that handle potentially harmful products, most are not required to secure their inventories, and that’s made them a target for thieves. In this investigation, published in partnership with The New Yorker, we tracked firearms stolen from gun store shelves to crime scenes across the nation. The ATF has called gun store theft “a substantial threat” to public safety and police. But there’s no federal requirement that dealers implement security measures such installing safes or or putting bars on doors and windows — the bureau can only issue recommendations. And only a small handful of states have laws mandating physical security elements for gun dealers. In the absence of consistent safeguards, the problem of unsecured gun dealers remains urgent: Between 2012 and 2017, burglars stole more than 32,0000 firearms from licensed sellers.

U.S. Gun Makers Send Weapons South As Migrants Flee North
Alex Yablon

The Trump administration has used taken extraordinary steps to try to curb immigration across the United States’ southern border. But this piece, published in partnership with Foreign Policy, looks at another aspect of U.S. policy fueling that same migration: our country provides more small arms and ammunition to Central America than any other, fueling the very violence that drives so many of the regions’ residents from their homelands. Those shipments include a cache of M4 assault rifles used by military police to fire on Honduran civilians protesting suspicious election results, which evidence we gathered indicates were sold by Connecticut-based Colt’s Manufacturing. The southward flow of U.S. guns may only intensify thanks to the Trump administration’s push to weaken controls on firearm exports.

FIRSTHAND: Gun Violence in Chicago
Brian Freskos, Sarah Ryley, Arionne Nettles, Nissa Rhee, and Dan Protess

For this project, we partnered with WTTW, Chicago’s PBS station, to explore some of the overlooked ways that people in the city experience gun violence. The multimedia package includes a documentary series profiling five Chicagoans as they struggle to secure support for childhood trauma, confront housing insecurity that increases their risk of getting shot, work together for prison reforms that can better rehabilitate juvenile offenders, and turn to gun ownership for the security they feel city officials are failing to provide. In another installment, The Trace’s Sarah Ryley analyzed Chicago police records on arrests in white and non-white areas. She found that in the same neighborhoods where the vast majority of shooters go free, low-level drug arrests are almost constant. In the project’s capstone, Brian Freskos took a hard look at the anti-violence agenda of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has said combating gun violence is her highest priority. His reporting underscores the tough choices facing her administration as she tries to make good on her promises.

In the Years Since the Isla Vista Shooting, the Incel Subculture Continues to Inspire Gunmen
Jennifer Mascia

Five years ago a shooting and stabbing rampage in the sleepy California college town of Isla Vista brought a potentially deadly strain of misogyny into public view. The Isla Vista killer described himself as an “incel”, a member of an online community united in its hatred of the women they believe they have spurned them. In some cases, incels’ resentment has curdled into violent extremism; in a country like the United States, where guns are easily accessible, this violence has on occasion taken the form of a mass shooting. This story, published in partnership with Jezebel, examined how shooters want to spread fear among those they feel have slighted them — and experts’ fear that new incel shootings might inspire future incidents of this strain of hate-fueled mass gun violence.

The Company Behind America’s Scariest School Shooter Drills
Sylvia Varnham O’Regan

This partnership with HuffPost peeled back the curtain on the ALICE Training Institute, the largest for-profit private provider of active shooting training in the United States. ALICE’s method includes encouraging teachers and students to confront school shooters and other violent intruders. There’s little evidence the company’s approach works, but what our investigation did find were numerous lawsuits and insurance claims from teachers who’ve suffered physical or psychological injuries during aggressive and hyper-realistic shooter drills. “When we do fire drills, have you ever seen a school light a room on fire and scare the shit out of people to make them react better?” said a former SWAT operator who now runs a school security firm skeptical of some of ALICE’s methods. “It doesn’t happen.”

Lockdown
Elizabeth Van Brocklin

For this audio feature in partnership with Slate, we spoke with students from kindergarten to high school to learn what they see, hear, and feel during the school shooter drills that have become a routine part of American childhood. Each school performs the exercises in a different way, and every child experiences them alone. But as their voices betray, even the younger students know better than we might expect what the drills are for. These are their stories.