Like any news outlet, The Trace entered this year with a slate of projects and stories already in the pipeline for the next 12 months. But 2020 had other plans. While the pandemic, an uprising for racial justice, and an unprecedented presidential election transfixed the nation, seismic events reverberated on our beat. Our reporters documented the efforts of violence interrupters facing simultaneous public health crises and uncovered the businesses profiting from flouting shutdown orders, arming extremists, and schooling police officers in dangerous ideas. With communities confronting a historic increase in gun violence, we told the stories of overlooked victims — and how individual Americans are using their own power to save lives.
As 2020 finally winds down, here is our work from the past year we don’t want you to miss.
Champe Barton, J. Brian Charles, Jennifer Mascia, and Chip Brownlee
As the coronavirus pandemic picked up steam, rates of many violent crimes plummeted. Gun violence, as we first reported, was and has remained the notable exception. In the data was another distressing truth: Mass shootings — incidents with four or more people shot — have occurred in numbers not seen in years. A team of Trace reporters documented the trend, spanning communities from Los Angeles to Syracuse, New York. Using Census data, they found that mass shootings were disproportionately affecting majority-Black neighborhoods, while receiving a dearth of national attention. “When these mass shootings happen in white communities, everybody has a response: they have policies, investments, thoughts and prayers,” said Amber Goodwin, the founding director of the Community Justice Action Fund. “When Black people are shot and killed, it’s a lack of response. Or if there is a response, it’s a divestment. It’s carceral.” The article was a follow-up to our earlier reporting on the challenges facing violence interrupters, who have confronted surging shootings without being able to provide the intimate, in-person counseling and support that is key to their effectiveness.
Deputy Valerie Martinez came to Thibodaux, Louisiana, to escape her violent ex-husband. In the years since her arrival, she has worked with the local Republican sheriff to pioneer innovative tactics for protecting women by ensuring that abusers don’t have access to firearms. She’s also encouraged larger jurisdictions across the gun-friendly state to adopt her methods. Martinez’s story, co-published with The Daily Beast, showed how much committed individuals can do to improve public safety. She later told Ann Givens that the piece kicked off an “avalanche of outreach” to her office from people and agencies wanting to learn more about how to keep firearms out of the hands of abusers. It’s a task made more pressing by COVID-related stay-at-home orders and social isolation, which have increased the threat of domestic violence. Ann wrote about one Wisconsin woman’s struggle to stay safe as a part of our series, Ricochet.
Amid protests after the police killing of George Floyd, the Portland, Oregon, City Council — led by its lone Black member — disbanded a controversial police gun violence task force as a part of a broader series of law enforcement reforms. But two months later, as gun violence was surging, some residents began to question the unit’s dismantling, and Mayor Ted Wheeler hinted that he might restore part of the team. The case could have lessons for cities across the country as they rethink their public safety strategies.
Navigating a path forward won’t be easy: While protesters say police cuts are not deep enough, some advocates say the changes leave Black communities vulnerable to increased crime. Royal Harris, a community activist and former gang member, worried what might come next. “We tear shit up without a plan,” he told Casey Parks, a Trace contributor. “That’s radical to white people in Portland. But Black and Brown men will disproportionately suffer.”
In late May, Chicago-based Trace reporter Lakeidra Chavis noticed an alarming trend: Data from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office showed that suicides among Black residents were surging toward a 10-year high. It was something experts had been concerned about at the start of the pandemic, given the potential combination of COVID-related anxiety, depression, and rising unemployment. As Lakeidra determined, suicide risks in Chicago have been exacerbated by the city’s disinvestment in mental health services, particularly in majority-Black neighborhoods. A social worker put it this way: “Ignoring the issue until it becomes a crisis has become the method of treatment.” After Lakeidra’s story was published in partnership with The Chicago Sun-Times, the city issued a health alert confirming her reporting, and Cook County health officials announced they were developing an incremental plan to address the problem. So far, they have unveiled an $8-million investment in mental health services.
One challenge our staff has long faced in covering guns is the lack of easy-to-access, reliable data on gun background checks, which in the absence of federal tracking of gun purchases provide the best proxy for how many new firearms entered circulation during a given time period. The FBI publishes background check figures monthly, but the data includes checks run for a variety of reasons beyond gun purchases. Over the summer, Daniel Nass, The Trace’s editor for data and visualizations, tackled the problem with this tracker, which estimates monthly sales in each state going back 20 years. What it shows for this year: While demand for firearms has spiked in the past after events like mass shootings, nothing compares to the current surge, which began at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March. Demand was so unprecedented that by the end of September, estimated gun sales had already matched the number sold in all of 2016, the previous highest-sales year on record.
In 2018, federal agents revealed that guns made by Jimenez Arms, Inc. had been funneled into an alleged trafficking network. Facing dual lawsuits over its role in the case, the gunmaker filed for bankruptcy in 2020. But shortly after declaring the company insolvent, company president Paul Jimenez began reorganizing the operation as JA Industries — the twelfth gunmaking business operated by members and close associates of the same extended family since 1970. In an investigation published in partnership with The Daily Beast, Brian Freskos showed how Jimenez’s business arrangements were part of a pattern of schemes that have repeatedly blocked victims seeking justice through the courts.
In 1985, Joe Biden said on the Senate floor that he “never believed that additional gun control or federal registration of guns would reduce crime.” This year, he ran on the most aggressive gun reform platform in the Democratic Party’s history. How did he get there? Chip Brownlee talked to insiders about what led to Biden’s about-face and how gun control became part of the Democratic platform. The question we’ll be following in 2021: Will Biden be able to implement any of his proposals?
J. Brian Charles
For children living in neighborhoods where shootings are frequent, school buildings can be a vital refuge from daily conflict. In Philadelphia, like many cities across the nation, the pandemic took that resource away. The Trace’s J. Brian Charles found that virtual classrooms have made it difficult for educators to provide mentoring and behavioral health services for students threatened by community violence. “When a kid comes through the door, you know something’s off,” Edwin Desamour, the dean of a North Philadelphia middle school, told him. “We can do preventive things before this kid explodes. A lot of times, the kids won’t initiate the contact, you have to recognize it and reach out. But online, it’s hard to capture those things.” Though Brian’s reporting identified a national problem, it had particular urgency in Philadelphia, where the homicide rate has jumped 35 percent this year, hitting the city’s young people hard. Chalkbeat Philadelphia republished the story, which detailed how Desamour’s school was doing its best to adapt.
Champe Barton, Daniel Nass, and Kevin Johnson
Five states — Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, and Washington — ordered gun dealers to close in April under their stay-at-home orders. But Champe Barton and Daniel Nass noticed that the number of gun background checks processed in those states hardly fell at all. In fact, in three of the five states where gun stores were supposed to be closed, more checks were processed in the month after a stay-at-home order was issued than before. Champe called dozens of stores, confirming his suspicion — the vast majority were still open, violating state policy. “Home defense needs to be a consideration of the governor at a time like this,” one dealer said. “Either there is no Second Amendment, or you have the right to bear arms.” We partnered with USA TODAY to dig into how state law enforcement agencies had largely turned a blind eye to dealers’ noncompliance.
Even before the coronavirus sent the count into lockdown, getting a domestic violence protection order from the courts in Wayne County, Michigan, which includes Detroit, was an arduous process. Three days before its courthouses closed in April, Judge Kathleen McCarthy accelerated a plan to offer an e-filing option. Only a handful of other states and cities around the country allow people to request restraining orders online, and while Wayne County’s move was born out of the need to help victims sheltering in place with their abusers, it could serve as a model post-pandemic for easier access to court protection, Jennifer Mascia reported in partnership with Outlier Media’s Katlyn Alo and The Detroit Free Press.
Kevin T. Dugan and Daniel Nass
During a two-week period in late August and early September, a 30-second anti-Biden ad from the National Rifle Association aired thousands of times in five swing states. During the same stretch, ads for President Trump’s reelection campaign effectively dropped off the same stations’ airwaves. In Federal Communication Commission filings, the firms placing the ads for the NRA and Trump campaign look like separate entities, but Daniel Nass and Kevin T. Dugan’s investigation in partnership with The Daily Beast indicated that they may be one and the same. It was a repeat of the two organizations’ apparent ad coordination strategy from the 2016 election, which The Trace’s Mike Spies reported on two years ago, when the NRA spent far more on Trump’s campaign. Ex-officials say the evidence we uncovered indicates further potential campaign finance violations, and warrants a government investigation.
Will Van Sant
When Kentucky prosecutors charged Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker with attempted murder, some voices in the gun rights community asked why the National Rifle Association was keeping quiet. When he looked into the question, staff writer Will Van Sant found that the group has historically declined to defend the gun rights of Black Americans when doing so could implicate the actions or priorities of law enforcement. The story brought a new dimension to Will’s authoritative reporting on how the NRA operates: “The NRA styles itself as a bulwark for liberty and an essential check on state power, but its interest in confronting government abuses comes to a hard stop at the thin blue line.” It may not be a surprise to learn there’s a financial backdrop to the allegiance: Cops are reliable NRA donors, and rely extensively on the gun group’s firearm instructors.
Melinda Wenner Moyer
The record gun sales that have accompanied the unrest of 2020 are a reminder that the NRA and the gun industry have been effective at spreading the belief that “good guys with guns” save lives. But defensive gun use is the exception rather than the rule, contributor Melinda Wenner Moyer showed in this explainer. She also reviewed research that found people are more likely to be injured after threatening attackers with guns than if they had called the police or run away. “The research on guns points to one conclusion: The more guns we have, and the closer we keep them to us, the more danger we will be in during this pandemic,” Melinda wrote.
For those who chose to buy a gun this year, our Western correspondent Alain Stephens wrote this guide to the dos and don’ts of keeping a weapon in your home.
The term “boogaloo” is slang for the armed insurrection that a loose assortment of preppers, Second Amendment absolutists, and anti-government extremists are gearing up for — and in some cases trying to accelerate. Adherents’ fixation on guns and tactical gear makes them attractive customers for gun businesses, and a feature by contributor Ian Karbal zeroed in on the sellers that hawk their products by invoking the memes and rhetoric of the spreading anti-government ideology.
In the days after the story was published in partnership with The Informant, Facebook took down the page and Instagram account of the Michigan ammo company featured in our story, along with hundreds of accounts, pages, and groups associated with a subset of boogaloo proponents using the platform to plan offline violence. But stopping the behavior won’t be that easy, Karbal wrote on Twitter, and the increasing aggressiveness of right-wing extremists — and its intersection with unregulated internet gun sales — are among the threads we’ll be pursuing in 2021.
After the killing of George Floyd, Western correspondent Alain Stephens set out to explore what’s fueling harmful mindsets among police officers. He zeroed in on the industry of “warrior cop” training, through which for-profit groups school police departments in militarized tactics and inculcate officers with the exaggerated belief that police are under constant threat. “We’re implicating officers with a highly problematic view of the world, that when it goes awry, it is very likely to result in excessive uses of force, and damage the well being of our most vulnerable communities,” said Michael Sierra-Arevalo, a University of Texas sociologist.
Lakeidra Chavis, Agya K. Aning, Alain Stephens
The National African American Gun Association, or NAAGA, hasn’t been around for long, but it already boasts more than 40,000 members. After steadily expanding during the first three years of the Trump presidency, its ranks have swelled by more than 25 percent in 2020 as an unsettled year pushed firearm purchases to record levels. “We had one member that actually cried at the first meeting, because they were so appreciative,” Dickson Amoah, 40, who founded the Chicago chapter in 2016, told my colleague Lakeidra Chavis for this December collaboration with NPR’s Code Switch. The companion podcast episode takes you to an Illinois gun range with NAAGA’s Chicago chapter and explores the history of Black gun ownership dating all the way back to slavery.