For years, The Trace has served as the country’s only news outlet exclusively covering gun violence. We pay constant attention to the crisis — spotlighting mass shootings that fall under the radar, promising solutions, and attempts at reform — and keep you updated on rolling statistics like the numbers of guns people are buying and the National Rifle Association’s revenues.
We’re never alone in pursuing this work, but this year, with the unfortunate number of mass shootings that garnered national attention — Buffalo, Uvalde, and Highland Park, to name a few — it felt as though other news outlets woke up to the ubiquity of gun violence in our daily lives. We saw more scrutiny on the sheer number of mass shootings that don’t make the national news, the federal government’s efforts to pass a gun reform package, a landmark Supreme Court decision affecting where people can carry firearms, and the gun industry’s marketing tactics.
Each year since 2015, our reporters and editors have assembled a list of the stories our peers pursued on our beat that stood out to us. As always, this year’s picks are wide-ranging. We selected them because each one added to our understanding of a multifaceted issue during an especially difficult year. We hope you find them as valuable as we do.
“The Murders in Memphis Aren’t Stopping”
David A. Graham | The Atlantic
Memphis was the most violent metro area in the U.S. in 2020, according to FBI data. Even before the pandemic-era rise in violent crime across the country, the city’s murder rate rose — bucking national trends. Memphis’s policing issues are inextricable from the city’s makeup, David A. Graham argues in this nuanced piece for The Atlantic. Memphis is one of the nation’s largest majority-Black cities, as well as one of the poorest — and it has a long history of racial injustice. It was the site of numerous lynchings; was home to a slave trader who went on to become the first KKK grand wizard; and was the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, begetting an investigation into whether law enforcement was complicit in the killing. “Black communities are sometimes forced to choose between over-policing … and under-policing,” Graham writes. “In much of Memphis, however, the choice doesn’t seem to exist. Residents get both.” Graham’s probe into the way policy, law enforcement, and history collided to create a bafflingly stubborn homicide rate is tempered by his human portrait of the city. He sidesteps the old trope of characterizing Memphis as condemned, and instead calls attention to the street murals that animate the city, the smell of ribs from barbecue joints, and, most importantly, the people who call Memphis home.
— Sunny Sone, associate newsletter editor
“Chicago Police Are Arresting Thousands More Black Drivers After Traffic Stops Than They Report”
Pascal Sabino | Block Club Chicago and Injustice Watch
Journalism often relies on statistics to validate patterns the public is observing, including the disparities that people of color face when interacting with police officers. But this piece questions publicly available data that seemed to be at odds with the lived experiences of many Chicagoans, with powerful results. The analysis shows that Chicago Police publicly report only about one in six guns found in traffic stops, and that a disproportionate number of gun arrests resulting from those stops are occuring in the South and West Sides of Chicago. In 2021, the Chicago Police Department reported finding weapons in only 388 traffic stops, but Block Club’s data indicates that there were more than 2,300 weapons found in traffic stops. Sabino made these discoveries by looking at discrepancies between the data reported by the Chicago Police Department and court data analyzed by Block Club Chicago and Injustice Watch. This piece reminds us to always question the data we are given by city officials — and listen to community members.
— Rita Oceguera, Chicago staff reporter
“The Self-Fulfilling Prophecies of Clarence Thomas”
Corey Robin | The New Yorker
In June, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a momentous gun rights decision. Forget the government’s interest in regulating guns to promote safety, Thomas ruled; now, only gun restrictions analogous to those on the books in centuries past are constitutional.
Corey Robin, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, plumbed the worldview that gave rise to the Bruen decision. “Under Thomas’s aegis,” Robin wrote in The New Yorker, “the Court now assumes a society of extraordinary violence and minimal liberty, with no hope of the state being able to provide security to its citizens.” Robin, the author of a book on Thomas, describes how the justice sees the advance of liberal rights that began with the New Deal and reached a zenith in the 1960s as rooted in legal fictions. That rights revolution has led to the dissolution of society, and particularly the Black community, whose fate Thomas feels is uniquely dependent on self-empowerment and patriarchal authority.
In Thomas’s view, the right to bear arms is a safeguard against a government that enfeebles citizens under the guise of aiding them and is unable to protect individuals and disfavored groups. In Robin’s telling, Thomas’s argument resonates because there is a climate of menace and fear in the country — one for which the justice and his conservative allies, as well as their political adversaries, bear responsibility. “Today’s felt absence of physical security is the culmination of a decades-long war against social welfare,” Robin writes. “In the face of a state that won’t do anything about climate change, economic inequality, personal debt, voting rights, and women’s rights, it’s no wonder that an increasing portion of the population, across all races, genders, and beliefs, have determined that the best way to protect themselves, and their families, is by getting a gun. A society with no rights, no freedoms, except for those you claim yourself — this was always Thomas’s vision of the world. Now, for many Americans, it’s the only one available.”
— Will Van Sant, staff writer
“Gun in Texas Shooting Came From Company Known for Pushing Boundaries”
David Yaffe-Bellany and Jessica Silver-Greenberg | The New York Times
In the aftermath of a mass shooting, media outlets routinely point to the National Rifle Association’s role in promoting the concept that civilians should double as warriors. Meanwhile, the gun industry’s culpability in selling this idea — especially to adolescents — rarely gets examined. But in May, after an 18-year-old used an AR-15-style rifle to murder 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, The New York Times astutely put the spotlight on the weapon’s manufacturer, Daniel Defense. As the article explains, the company has developed a singular reputation for its controversial marketing tactics, infusing ads with allusions to violent video games, and featuring children and even Santa Claus wielding firearms. The tactics have become so questionable that they now give former high-ranking employees cause for concern, the Times reported. But because they were scared of professional and legal reprisals, they would not go on the record.
— Mike Spies, senior staff writer
“Picking Up the Pieces: A Baltimore High School Football Team Learns From Loss”
By J. Brian Charles | Baltimore Beat
In 2021, Baltimore’s Mergenthaler Vocational High School football team lost a player to a head injury sustained on the field, a blow that catalyzed the Mustangs to win the Maryland state championship. As the 2022 season began in September, the team faced another tragedy: A player was shot and killed in the parking lot just before the first game. In a feature for Baltimore Beat, my former colleague J. Brian Charles takes readers through the month that followed, explaining how losing two teammates in less than a year raised the stakes. For the players, the field is an escape, but success there became about more than football. Charles captures the contrast between how his subjects talk and think about their lives with how young they really are, a fact betrayed by the way they try to hide their feelings. For many high schoolers, the stakes of everyday life feel challenging enough. For these Baltimore teens, many of whom have experienced the killing of someone they know, they are unfathomable. The piece captures the way that trauma reverberates through communities facing gun violence. The young people in the story turn the loss of their teammates into motivation to excel on the field. But their resilience is bittersweet. One of their coaches told Charles, “I just wish we didn’t have to lose so much.”
— Gracie McKenzie, engagement editor
“‘I Was Just Thinking About My Son.’ Shot In His Own Home, a Gun Violence Victim Shares His Story”
Josiah Bates | TIME
Davante Griffin was shot during a home invasion last March. In this piece, he tells his own story: How all he could think about was his son, and how he was too scared to close his eyes as the paramedics cared for him. Griffin has since recovered from his injury, though he still experiences some complications and recurring nightmares. While he admits that he contemplated revenge, Griffin says he chose not to pursue it because he wanted to live for something other than getting even. “I had to really stop fixating on it,” he wrote, “and just move on.”
This story stood out to me because it takes readers through a survivor’s changing emotions in the short and long-term aftermath of a shooting. Griffin also speaks about his ideas of cultural norms related to gun violence and his outlook on issues that are widely discussed in some Black communities, including inadequate leadership, single-parent households, and parental guidance. He also writes that while he interacted with the police as a victim, they made him feel like a suspect. Unfortunately, this wasn’t Griffin’s first brush with gun violence. He had witnessed shootings, lost his stepfather to gun violence, and been shot at before this incident. It wasn’t until he was hit by a bullet that he truly changed his outlook.
— Afea Tucker, Philadelphia community engagement reporter
“Crime Without Punishment”
The national problem of murders going unsolved gets the deep-dive treatment in this CBS News documentary series. Crime Without Punishment introduces us to mothers who can’t get homicide detectives on the phone to talk about their children’s deaths. “I was told to go solve my own crime and bring them the evidence. And from that day forward, I started finding evidence,” Margie Allen, a Jackson, Mississippi, mother, recounts. The series also reveals the glaring disparity in arrests made for cases when a victim is Black as opposed to white.
The clearance rate has been dragged down by an increase in guns on the streets, more killings committed overall, witnesses too fearful to testify, and not enough homicide detectives to track down suspects. “What I’m acknowledging is that it just won’t be solved by law enforcement. But this solution will have to be a collaborative approach,” says a police official in Oakland, California, where the clearance rate is 47 percent. But the series also shows some bright spots. In Dallas, the former police chief said building better relationships with community members helped the department solve more murders, bringing the clearance rate to over 70 percent from 2018 to 2020, higher than the national average of just over 50 percent.
— Mensah M. Dean, Philadelphia staff writer
“Crime and the Built Environment”
Aaron Chalfin | Vital City
In conversations about solving the gun violence crisis, we often hear ideas like hiring more police officers, changing gun laws, or funding more community-based public safety programs and mental health treatment options. But we rarely think about how the built environment — like dimly lit sidewalks and abandoned lots — contribute to violence and crime. This piece in the policy journal Vital City explores the question of how neighborhoods and other communal spaces can be better designed to empower citizens to protect themselves, summing up the research in plain language. Some of the ideas are simple: Erect more street lights. Others are harder to implement, like turning vacant lots into parks and gardens. And some are controversial, like installing more surveillance cameras. But the core takeaway is that when our streets and neighborhoods are used and monitored by the public, they’re safer for everyone.
— Chip Brownlee, staff reporter
“After Surviving a High School Shooting, He Was ‘An Empty Shell. No Emotion.’ Now What?”
Lisa Miller | New York magazine
In a country with an average of nearly two mass shootings a day, the rampage at Oxford High School in Michigan stood out. Rarely are a perpetrator’s parents hit with criminal charges — but then, rarely do parents respond to their 15-year-old son’s worsening mental health by bringing him to target practice and giving him a new handgun. In a July dispatch in New York magazine, Lisa Miller examines the Oakland County prosecutor’s decision to try the shooter’s parents for involuntary manslaughter. Proving gross negligence in the Detroit suburb, Miller writes, won’t be easy: “Oxford is gun country, and no one in town wanted to frame the shooting as a gun problem.” The parents seemed stoic in the face of troubling warning signs — hallucinations, animal torture, an obsession with school shootings — but Miller questions whether school officials should shoulder some of the blame, for confiscating and then returning the gunman’s backpack on the morning of the shooting without even searching it. The ultimate culprit, Miller suggests, might just be an “almost total refusal in conservative state legislatures to pass laws or restrictions that make careless gun ownership a crime.”
— Jennifer Mascia, senior news writer
“A Handgun for Christmas”
Michael Rosenberg | Sports Illustrated
While the Oxford case makes its way through the courts, survivors grapple with the long-term effects of trauma. In an expertly crafted 8,200-word feature in Sports Illustrated, Michael Rosenberg chronicles a shooting’s aftermath from the perspective of 15-year-old Keegan Gregory as he navigates a world he no longer recognizes, where “every creak of the floor could be an intruder, every hour could bring death.” Gregory was in the shooter’s sights when a classmate told him to hide in a bathroom stall; moments later, he saw that boy get gunned down, and he ran for his life. But he would never be the same. Over the next several months, sudden moves and sounds triggered him; he found himself mapping escape routes wherever he went; and he faced crippling insomnia. “By Michigan law, Keegan wasn’t even technically a victim,” Rosenberg writes, a reminder that gun violence trauma casts a wide net. With prose that lands like a gut punch, Rosenberg shows us how Keegan steers himself out of the skid. But he never lets us forget the victims who died, peppering the text with their names like a mantra: Hana, Madisyn, Tate, Justin.
— Jennifer Mascia, senior news writer