No newsroom is an island, and though ours remains the only one focused on reporting on gun violence full-time, we were again inspired and moved by the great stories on our beat published this year by our colleagues from across the media. There was certainly a crush of gun news to cover in 2020. Firearm purchases set records, fueled by the overlapping anxieties of the pandemic, protests, and political divisions. In dozens of cities across the country, shootings increased dramatically; several have hit all-time highs. Protesters forced a reckoning over police violence and a public safety system that too often fails Black and Brown Americans, while armed demonstrators and vigilantes used their weapons to intimidate and, in a few cases, kill their ideological opponents.
Since our founding in 2015, The Trace’s reporters and editors have pulled together a list of the journalism on guns and gun violence that stood out to us. The compilation that follows is not intended as comprehensive, but rather represents a set of personal picks from this momentous year. The common thread is simply that each story stuck with us — because it taught us something new, challenged our perspectives, inspired us to dig deeper, or connected us with the human costs of the crisis we cover.
Bonnie Berkowitz and Christine Loman | The Washington Post
As the media has scrambled to make sense of the record violence that has struck multiple cities this year, the Post took a step back in time to remind readers of the individual tragedies represented by cold numbers. Focusing on one 24-hour-period — otherwise known as September 5, 2019 — the story illustrated the chronic failures and mundane occurrences that constitute the gun violence epidemic: A police shooting at 12:50 a.m. in St. Louis is the first of at least eight that day, three of which will be fatal. Forty minutes later, a 35-year-old father of three is fatally shot in an Ohio bar following a fight over a poorly made drink. And on it goes, through suicides by firearm and domestic shootings and stray bullets and children who got hold of loaded guns or were struck as they played outside. One of them was 7-year-old MiAsia Perry, left paralyzed after being hit by a burst of gunfire while she was learning to ride her hoverboard in Nashville, North Carolina. The paper writes that it chose to set the story on the day MiAsia was shot precisely “because it did not fall on a prime day for gun violence, such as a holiday, a Friday night, or a long day in the middle of summer. No single shooting grabbed national attention. It was just a Thursday.”
— J. Brian Charles, reporter
Erin Heffernan, Joel Currier | The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Kansas City Star, Report for America, and the Missouri Foundation for Health.
The area around North Grand Boulevard in St. Louis is one of the 20 neighborhoods in the city that make up a quarter of homicides in the state, despite being home to just 1.5 percent of the population. Reporters spent weeks interviewing residents about the daily rhythm of life in a pocket of our country that sees so much tragedy. “I get at least six or seven cars that have been shot up every month,” a local car mechanic says. “We’re not in Afghanistan. There’s no war going on, but if you count up the body count on the north side you might think there was.” Produced through the Missouri Gun Violence Project journalism collaborative, this haunting dispatch from America’s reigning murder capital appeared in a series detailing the human toll of gun violence. Another installment looked at a community-led violence interruption model that has shown promise in reducing shootings but remains underfunded. “I think it’s important for local news organizations to address gun violence, and solutions to gun violence, because of the potential impact they can have in actually preventing gun violence,” the journalist Jim MacMillan, who serves on the initiative’s advisory board, told us earlier this year.
— Tom Kutsch, newsletter editor
Lynette Tolbert Hazelton | Philadelphia Magazine
This story is an indelible portrait of a lone shooting victim, who was like so many nearly forgotten by the larger world — until Tolbert Hazelton ensured he was not. Raheem Ikeam Myers’ name was not even mentioned in the cursory coverage of his death, but by the end of this elegiac feature, we know him as his relatives and friends did. He was a convert to Islam whose Christian mother gave him the Muslim burial she knew he would have wanted. (The mourners wore red, his favorite color.) As a child he was sent to live in foster care and liked to dance and sing along with old R&B. As he grew, his family thought he spent too much time out late, but they loved him all the same. A smart kid who was frequently reassigned to different schools for acting out, Myers was busted on drug charges at 20 and spent the last decade of his life on probation and cycling in and out of prison, taking temp jobs that abruptly ended – his ex suspects – when his background check results came in. He did housework and was protective and caring toward his five children. “He had a heart of gold,” his mother remembers. “Raheem didn’t deserve to be gunned down. He was no angel, but he was still a person.”
— James Burnett, editorial director
For Religious Leaders Who Serve Families Affected by Chicago’s Violence, the Work Takes a Toll: ‘It’s a Very Lonely Place’
Javonte Anderson | The Chicago Tribune
In Chicago, it’s common for reporters to cover the funerals of people lost to the city’s gun violence. It’s something that I’ve done over the years while reporting here. But rarely do we take a look at how these deaths affect the people who help make the grieving and closure process smoother. This is a nuanced and heartfelt look at the toll gun violence takes on religious leaders. Many of them often witness grief-stricken families and the violent aftermaths of shootings and have, themselves, lost loved ones to gun violence. As Anderson points out in the piece, these pastors counsel victims and also advocate against violence. Traditional crime reporting can get so caught up in the numbers — “such and such number of people were shot over the weekend” — that we lose sight not only of the humanity of the people killed, but of the ripple effects their deaths have on everyone around them. Anderson’s story was a refreshing reminder and a blueprint for how we can better cover this issue.
— Lakeidra Chavis, reporter
Perry Stein | The Washington Post
Media narratives can suggest that gun violence happens in a vacuum. It doesn’t. As Stein’s story shows, each death ripples outward — through households, social networks, and communities. The collateral damage can be vicious, compounding the inequity that drives more violence. Stein’s reporting on how shootings ultimately depress grades and test scores offers an enraging portal into the cumulative harms of gun violence — nearly 15,000 families a year made incomplete by firearm homicides, carrying their grief and trauma into classrooms and job searches. It’s impossible to walk away from a story like this believing that the gun debate in the U.S. should be limited to fights over gun laws.
— Champe Barton, reporter
KERA and Guns and America
This five-part audio documentary tags along with members of a teen theater troupe from North Texas — many from neighborhoods with elevated levels of violence — as they produce a play tackling the topic of guns in all their complexity. It’s the setup for a deeply rendered sociological portrait, following the teens as they develop their own opinions about guns, gun culture, and American violence. Listeners are introduced to the thoughtful and often nuanced perspective of a generation raised under the specter of school shootings, rising suicides, and political polarization. “Gun Play” was one of two podcasts in 2020 bearing the imprint of Guns and America, a two-year-long radio reporting collaborative that ended this fall. The other, No Compromise, looked at the brothers behind a far-right gun network — a topic that Brian Freskos and I wrote about for The Trace.
— Alain Stephens, Western Correspondent
Craig McCarthy, Carl Campanile, Aaron Feis | New York Post
Police brass in a number of cities have tried to blame this year’s staggering surges in gun violence on bail reforms that have kept more defendants out of lockup as they await trial. In New York City at least, that argument is applesauce — as a trio of New York Post reporters showed using the NYPD’s own data. Crunching the numbers, they found that out of the approximately 11,000 people released from Rikers Island jail under state bail reforms this year, only one had been charged with a shooting. It was a similar story with the 2,500 or so defendants released early to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at the crowded facility. Only nine — or 0.3 percent — had been linked to a shooting, and most of them were either victims or witnesses, not perpetrators. If there’s no hard evidence linking bail reform to subsequent shootings, then what is the explanation for the alarming jump in violent crime? The NYPD might look at another set of numbers, which show it’s solving far fewer crimes than a year ago. As The Trace has documented, the failure to arrest perpetrators in the vast majority of shootings fuels cycles of violence, leading to more shootings and eroding trust in the police.
— Brian Freskos, staff writer
Edgar Sandoval | The New York Times
We read a lot of mayors’ and police chiefs’ promises to crack down on illegal guns. We hear much less about what compels people in high-crime neighborhoods to carry illegal firearms despite that threat of punishment. Sandoval’s story demonstrates a truism of journalism: There’s no substitute for reporting. Instead of relying on the opinions of law enforcement officials or academics, Sandoval spent time with young men who describe living under threat of violence and the sense of security and empowerment that comes with owning or having access to a firearm. A reporter who shared Sandoval’s article on Twitter noted that public defenders often say owners of legal and illegal guns possess them for the same reasons, which tracks with most accounts of 2020’s surge in gun sales being driven by concerns over personal security.
— Will Van Sant, staff writer
Nicole Lewis, Aviva Shen, and Katie Park | The Marshall Project/Slate
This groundbreaking project turns the conversation about crime prevention on its head by collecting the perspectives of thousands of incarcerated people, a constituency with a keen understanding of our society’s breakdowns. In one section of the survey, respondents listed access to basic resources and services as the factors they believe could have put them on a better path before their arrests and convictions. One 30-year-old respondent wrote that “affordable mental healthcare” would have helped them the most; another cited “ a better paying job” and “protection from racial discrimination.” Others mentioned drug treatment, affordable housing, grief counseling, daycare vouchers, and after-school sports. Strikingly, the share who replied that “nothing would have made a difference” was zero percent.
— Daniel Nass, data and graphics editor
Death, Sex & Money podcast | WNYC Studios
In 2009, Tom Baker was a Phoenix police officer responding off-duty to a dispute when, he claims, he shot and killed a man who charged at him with a knife. More than 10 years later, he’s dropped out of the force for academia, where he researches police-related deaths to find ways to keep other officers from acting similarly. This episode of the podcast is a revelatory look at how complex police violence can be, and what happens when an officer chooses to wrestle with his contradictory feelings rather than push them aside. In another interviewer’s hands, the regrets of an officer who killed a man and faced no consequences might ring hollow. But host Anna Sale doesn’t flinch from probing questions and lets the conversations run long. It’s like watching a movie with a single tracking shot, through which the intensity and tension is ramped up the longer it goes on.
— Kevin T. Dugan, Trace contributor
This captivating podcast documents the 1979 shooting of Bonita Carter, an unarmed 20-year-old Black woman, in Birmingham, Alabama. Carter’s death — nearly 16 years after Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and four decades before Black Lives Matter — sparked protests, outrage, and demands for change in the city, which went on to elect its first Black mayor. Hosted by award-winning journalists Roy S. Johnson and John Archibald, “Unjustifiable” shows how Carter came to represent the hundreds of other people killed by police in Birmingham during the 20th century, and how the uprising after her death presaged today’s movement for police reform.
— Chip Brownlee, investigative fellow
Elizabeth Flock | The New Yorker
Brittany Smith is an Alabama woman charged with murder for fatally shooting her rapist with a gun legally owned by her brother Chris, who’d come to her aid. The siblings originally told police that Chris killed her attacker because “a woman who had defended herself against violence would never get a fair trial in Jackson County,” Flock writes. As the article shows, courts frequently discount evidence of abuse when weighing the fates of women who resort to violence against an abuser. After Flock’s story was published, a judge rejected Smith’s “stand your ground” defense and in October, as her trial was about to get underway, she unexpectedly pleaded guilty to murder. She is expected to serve seven months, followed by 18 months on house arrest and then probation. “I’m not a murderer,” Smith said from jail, “but when it’s the lesser of two evils, what can you do?”
— Jennifer Mascia, news writer
Topic Studios, The Intercept, the Invisible Institute, and iHeartRadio
Who shot Courtney Copeland? That’s the animating question behind this absorbing and devastating investigative project. Copeland was found with a fatal gunshot wound near a Chicago police station in 2016. But his mother, Shapearl Wells, quickly started to doubt the official narrative. Stonewalled by detectives, Wells launched her own investigation, eventually teaming up with the Invisible Institute and The Intercept to help seek the truth. The podcast offers a searing look at how the city’s own dismal clearance rates for shooting cases affect families of color. “We are the average Black family trying to fight against a huge city, and everywhere we turn we hear the doors getting slammed in our face,” Wells says at one point. The podcast marries the pacing of a true crime drama with the moral force of one American’s crusade to compel from a broken system what it refuses to give freely.
— Tom Kutsch, newsletter editor
A West Side House Party Exposes the Disconnect Between Young Black Residents, Chicago Officials and the News During Pandemic
Vee L. Harrison | The TRiiBE
A packed house party held on the West Side of Chicago in late April went viral on Facebook, making national headlines for violating the state’s lockdown order. But this article deftly showed how the episode was about much more than a reckless kids narrative. “Young people… have to fight for survival every day. Every young person that was at that party, I would be willing to bet that they know 10 to 20 people that have been killed, and they are suffering from post-traumatic stress,” Illinois state Representative La Shawn K. Ford tells The Triibe, one of the cohort of publications led by young Black journalists that have been leading the way on more representative coverage of Black communities in Chicago and beyond. Here, Harrison shows how generations of mistreatment and negative portrayals by city officials and legacy media have left those institutions disconnected from many young Black residents, leading to the gaps in knowledge and trust that are the bigger story.
— Gracie McKenzie, engagement editor
“Echoes of Gunfire” runs just 21 minutes, but it stays with you for weeks. The first of its four interviews is perhaps the most devastating: A now-grown son speaks with his mother about the day he accidentally shot and killed his sister. The second is a conversation between a Columbine survivor and her teenage daughter. She relays the guilt that has followed her from that day, and asks her daughter whether she feels safe in school. In the third, a 10-year-old boy tells his mother about his class lockdown drills — and his plans to save his friends should a real shooter ever come through the doors. Woven through the interviews are moments from an exchange between two friends trying to better understand each other’s views on guns. Lorna Washington feels strongly about carrying a firearm for protection; Willie Sparrow dislikes guns, and feels less safe when they are around. So many positions on guns are driven by emotion, and this powerful episode reminds us of why.
— Ann Givens, staff writer