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Year in Review

The Most Memorable Gun Violence Journalism of 2019

16 articles, investigations, and special projects we admired this year.

The Trace is the only newsroom dedicated to full-time coverage of gun violence, but we’re by no means alone on this beat. In 2019, our fellow journalists broke new ground on the issue, investigating everything from illegal gun sales on social media platforms to the connections between hateful rhetoric and mass violence to the effect that constant gun violence has on America’s children. Where some of those stories illuminated new dimensions of the problem, others dug into interventions that could prevent shootings and save lives. 

As the year draws to a close, we are continuing a Trace tradition: compiling a list of the stories produced by journalists in other newsrooms that we admired the most. 

We learned a lot from the works listed below, and we think you will, too.

One Gun’s Path to Destruction
Scott Glover | CNN

This first installment of a two-part investigative series takes aim at an ambiguous, National Rifle Association-backed law that has emboldened black market profiteers. The Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 established muddled standards for whether private gun sellers need a federal license, frustrating efforts to prosecute people who hawk firearms without conducting background checks on their buyers. Glover and his CNN colleagues found that weapons sold by unlicensed dealers are often used in shootings and other violent crimes. But because of FOPA, these dealers are rarely prosecuted; when they are, the penalties are often lax. 

Glover tells his story by retracing the path that a single gun took as it traveled from an “incorrigible” unlicensed dealer to its use in the murder of a San Francisco engineering student. It’s a remarkable feat; many reporters (I am one of them) know firsthand how difficult it is to track a firearm through the underground market. But Glover does it masterfully, providing a poignant narrative that casts light on a complex driver of the gun violence crisis. 

—Brian Freskos, staff writer

Surrounded: Killings Near School, and the Students Left Behind
Sonali Kohli, Iris Lee, and Priya Krishnakumar | The Los Angeles Times

Researchers have found that exposure to gun violence increases the likelihood that a child will suffer from PTSD and the adverse life effects that come with it —  such as loneliness, hyper-vigilance, chronic health problems, and trouble with school, jobs, and relationships. Kohli, Lee, and Krishnakumar took a sensitive approach to this under-covered aspect of the gun issue by talking to teens who attend schools in Los Angeles neighborhoods with the highest rates of violence. The series describes in detail the lengths students go to keep themselves safe and includes an interactive that illustrates their routes to school, and what they have to consider along the way. One sophomore who attends a high school where more than 100 people have been killed on the surrounding blocks during the last five years told the reporters she feels some relief when she encounters other kids as she travels to and from classes: “If anything were to happen, there’s witnesses.” In the series’s final installment, high schoolers give feedback on a short profile the Times had published about a man fatally shot near their school. Their thoughtful responses make it clear that young people would like to see less reporting that stigmatizes victims based on the color of their skin or where they live, and more reporting that shows how gun violence affects everybody around it. 

—Sarah Ryley, staff writer

Gun Violence Has Sharply Declined in California's Bay Area. What Happened?
Lois Beckett, Darwin Bond Graham, Peter Andringa, and Abené Clayton | The Guardian

The Guardian’s Guns and Lies in America series kicked off with a feature that dug deep into the backstory behind a good-news headline: the 30 percent drop in fatal shootings that the San Francisco Bay Area recorded from 2007 to 2017, even as gun homicides nationwide remained mostly unchanged. Among the many key takeaways, this finding by the reporters sticks out: The decline happened against the backdrop of California’s de-incarceration push, suggesting that it’s possible to lower gun violence without leaning on increased prosecutions and longer prison terms. Rather than just repeat topline statistics, the story smartly contextualizes gun violence within the social, civic, and political forces at play in both the problem and in the search for solutions.

—J. Brian Charles, reporter 

What If Your Abusive Husband Is a Cop?
Rachel Aviv | The New Yorker

Aviv’s story about a small-town Georgia cop who got away with shooting his young wife is devastating, both in its specificity and in its broader implications. In the tragedy she unspools, the abuser was the one calling 911 and petitioning for a protective order, then using those facts to legally challenge his wife’s custody of the children. Again and again, as Aviv details, people in power failed to protect the real victim: Police never properly investigated what the officer claimed was his wife’s suicide attempt. A family court judge chuckled when a witness expressed fear of the defendant. The local establishment turned a blind eye. But as Aviv makes clear, this is not the story of a single case gone wrong. According to research she reviewed, 41 percent of male police officers admitted to having been physically aggressive toward their spouses; the study is from the 1990s, but as Aviv notes, the issue is chronically understudied today. Aviv offers another chilling connection between law enforcement and domestic violence: Officers accused of abuse are also about 50 percent more likely to be accused of using excessive force on the job. 

—Ann Givens, staff writer

How America’s Oldest Gun Maker Went Bankrupt: A Financial Engineering Mystery
Jesse Baron | The New York Times Magazine

Baron’s deeply reported narrative on the financial travails of Remington doubles as an unusually revealing examination of the actual business of guns. Seven years after its acquisition in 2007 by the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, the gunmaker moved its headquarters from New York State to gun-friendly Alabama, where the company benefited from a major tax inducement. But private equity ownership also coincided with increasingly unsustainable debts that ultimately forced Remington into Chapter 11 bankruptcy amid a punishing market for gun sales. Cerberus walked away with a profit, while taxpayers and workers got hosed. It’s not easy to pry scoops out of the gun industry, which includes few publicly traded companies and fiercely guards its secrecy. Baron’s story is powered by numerous insider sources, including one paranoid — but forthcoming — executive whom the writer finally convinces to sit for an interview under memorably cloak-and-dagger conditions. 

Tom Kutsch, news editor

Caliber, Cartridges, and Bump Stocks: Guns, Explained for Non-Gun People
Dylan Mathews | Vox

There are some gun owners who think you shouldn’t have an opinion on gun control unless you’ve used firearms and know how they work. To counter the “gunsplainers,” some gun violence prevention supporters say that they don’t need technical knowledge to take the moral position that fewer people should be getting shot in America. For policymakers — and the journalists who cover them — the bar is higher, however: Not understanding the intricacies of the gear can lead to porous laws or confusing coverage. To be honest, I wish The Trace had thought to compile everything we’ve learned about how guns function in one helpful post. Hats off to Vox for beating us to it — their comprehensive explainer provides a valuable public service. 

James Burnett, editorial director 

Private Jet Ferried Relatives of NRA Chief Executive
Mark Maremont | The Wall Street Journal

I asked to include a second entry on this list so that I could give a shoutout to Maremont, who this year produced a string of scoops on the National Rifle Association’s spending and particularly the lavish lifestyle it supported for NRA chief Wayne LaPierre. (Permit me a plug for our own extensive investigative reporting on the group’s financial practices, of which we are quite proud.) Maremont and his Journal colleague Coulter Jones landed this particular story by blending old-fashioned human sourcing and internal documents with a clever analysis of Federal Aviation Administration records. Their sleuthing showed that private jets chartered by the NRA for LaPierre’s travel had on at least seven occasions made side trips to Nebraska, where a niece of his wife, Susan, resides. The niece has a low-level fundraising job for the NRA’s women’s group, according to the Journal‘s sources, but the legitimacy of the flights will be of interest to investigators — whether the NRA and LaPierre violated nonprofit law by using tax-exempt donations to cover personal expenses is at the heart of the official probes the group is confronting. 

JB

Shattered: Life After Being Shot
Alana Wise and Tyrone Turner | WAMU

This multimedia project from the Guns & America series is a powerful and important reminder of the mental and physical pain endured by the tens of thousands of Americans who every year are shot and survive, a population often overlooked in discussions of gun violence. Wise and Turner built a list of subjects representing the full spectrum of shootings — they are victims of community violence, domestic incidents, and public gun rampages. Their stories describe the challenges of living with a gunshot injury. In Wise’s and Turner’s deft telling, they are also studies in resilience. 

Miles Kohrman, special projects editor

How the El Paso Killer Echoed the Incendiary Words of Conservative Media Stars
Jeremy W. Peters, Michael M. Grynbaum, Keith Collins, Rich Harris, and Rumsey Taylor | The New York Times

When reports surfaced that the El Paso Walmart shooter had ranted online about the “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” pundits saw echoes of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of conservative media and President Trump and wondered aloud if their incendiary language had influenced the gunman’s deadly attack. A quintet of New York Times reporters took an empirical approach to that question, examining five years’ worth of transcripts from Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC to see how many times right-wing personalities and politicians used terms like “invasion” and “replacement” to describe migrants to the United States. They found hundreds of instances, “a shared vocabulary of intolerance that stokes fears centered on immigrants of color.” The Times’s reporting provided a concrete measure of a noxious message that may be creating a very real public safety risk: The fear of being outnumbered by immigrants and people of color is thought to have inspired several mass shooters in recent years.

—Jennifer Mascia, engagement writer

Why is American Masculinity at the Center of Gun Culture, But Not the Gun Debate?
Nicki DeMarco, Erin Patrick O'Connor, and Sarah Hashemi | The Washington Post

This incisive mini-documentary offers insights into how the gun lobby taps macho ideals to maintain a grip on conservative voters. Firearms allow men to assert their relevance, a symbolism the National Rifle Association leans on hard in its messaging, which is ultimately reinforced through our broader culture. “When we expect boys and men to be dominant, powerful, in control,” says sociologist Scott Meltzer, “then we’re coaching them… to engage in violence when they feel like they’ve lost control.” Our stifled gun debate, sociologist Jennifer Carlson argues in another scene, is what happens when we avoid hard conversations about gender norms. “It’s easier to talk about a physical object or a policy we don’t like than it is to talk about the profound vulnerability at the heart of guns politics in this country.”

Champe Barton, investigative fellow

Under Digital Surveillance: How American Schools Spy on Millions of Kids
Lois Beckett | The Guardian

For years, Beckett has been producing pioneering reporting on gun violence. With this series, she again breaks new ground, detailing how the threat of school shootings is subjecting children to a private surveillance industry that monitors emails, texts, and social media activity for signs of trouble. Her story examines the toll on student privacy while acknowledging all the complexities at play. Schools, after all, are under pressure to protect students — perhaps the technology could save lives. It’s chilling to consider, however, the ease with which America has embraced the surveillance Beckett describes, even as the debate for stricter gun control measures remains so clamorous.

—Will Van Sant, staff writer 

The Hired Guns of Instagram
Kaitlyn Tiffany | Vox

Gun companies are barred from advertising their weapons on Facebook and the platforms it owns, including Instagram. Tiffany exposed the backdoor gunmakers developed to skirt the rule: paying female social media influencers to market the gun lifestyle to their hundreds of thousands of followers. Her smart reporting illuminates how surprisingly dependent firearm marketers have become on the influencer economy. “[Influencers] can promote our product better than we can. It really is the only way for gun companies to grow,” one tells Tiffany. Or it was: As we were producing this list, Facebook announced that it was banning sponsored posts featuring guns. Vox’s feature was not only an eye-opening read, it also had real impact. 

Akoto Ofori-Atta, managing editor

Gun Sellers are Sneaking Onto Facebook’s Booming Secondhand Marketplace and California Arms Traffickers Used Snapchat to Market Illegal Weapons
Parmy Olson and Zusha Elinson | The Wall Street Journal
Darwin Bond Graham | The Guardian

Olsen and Elinson’s reporting reveals the tactics that social media users have developed to sell guns in violation of the platforms’ own policies — and the law. One vivid example the duo flagged: On Facebook’s Marketplace, which strictly forbids guns, sellers list empty gun cases at jacked-up prices to signal to buyers that what’s actually on offer is the gun itself. The Journal‘s report prompted a group of U.S. senators to condemn Facebook’s porous enforcement. In California, where assault weapons are banned and background checks are required for private sales, The Guardian produced a related exposé, showing how a group of arms traffickers had turned to Snapchat to connect with would-be buyers, selling more than 100 illegal guns before a sting by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives brought them down. The stories are impressive in their own right, and outraging when read in tandem, exposing big tech’s complicity in the murky world of private gun sales.

—Daniel Nass, graphics editor

When Black Panthers Carried Guns, Conservatives Supported Gun Control
Joshua Manson | Buzzfeed

In 1967, black people took to the streets to protest racial injustice, some of them while carrying guns. Their demonstrations pitted the National Rifle Association’s Second Amendment philosophy — the unilateral right to bear arms among all Americans — against the racial fears at the heart of the gun group’s conservative ideals. In the end, the racial fears won out, and the NRA joined other conservative forces in supporting gun control. Manson’s analysis on this often-forgotten moment in the group’s history is a reminder that America’s gun debate is not always about fixed principles, but is instead animated by economic interests, shifting politics, and, of course, race.

Alain Stephens, Western correspondent

Show Of Force
Brett Murphy, Gina Barton, and Nick Penzenstadler | USA Today/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

G4S is the largest private security company in the world, with more employees than most countries have active military personnel. In the United States, as this impressive investigation reveals, G4S has a major problem: It keeps losing guns. Since 2009, the company has lost track of some 640 firearms, or about 55 each year. For comparison, the Drug Enforcement Administration, a federal agency responsible for twice as many firearms, loses an average of five annually. Adding to their feat, the reporters behind this project managed to track down some 60 of the missing firearms. The guns stolen and lost by G4S were involved in a variety of crimes, many of them violent. 

—MK

All-American Despair
Stephen Rodrick | Rolling Stone

It’s not easy to untangle what lies beneath our country’s troubling increase in suicides. Rolling Stone was smart to put talented magazine writer Stephen Rodrick on the case. What did he encounter during his year of reporting?  “Guns, lots of them. Guns that could be procured in an hour. A house where a wife did a gun sweep and found dozens hidden. I found suicidal men who balked at installing gun locks on their pistols because they were afraid of being caught unarmed when mythical marauders invaded their homes. And I found that the men who survived suicide attempts had one thing in common: They didn’t use guns. Pills can be vomited, ropes can break, but bullets rarely miss.” Few people realize that suicides make up the largest share of gun deaths. With his deep and nuanced story, Rodrick indelibly shows the ways that depression, our country’s many social ills, and ready access to firearms are combining to steal tens of thousands of lives every year.

—Tali Woodward, deputy editor