The past year has been monumental for American gun violence in many ways: For the first time, young people ages 1 to 24 are more likely to die from guns than car accidents, according to data dating back to 2017; the U.S. Congress passed the first federal gun reform legislation in three decades as the Biden administration injected at least $300 million into community groups working to reduce violence; and the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that the Second Amendment confers a constitutional right to carry a gun outside the home, directing lower courts to change their methodology to look solely at historical analogues, which in many cases is loosening restrictions on who, when, and where a gun may be present in American spaces.
As the tenth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre loomed, we looked over this landscape to find a complex, and often contradictory reality.
In our newsroom, my colleagues have patiently probed below the surface of gun violence to find that the rate of firearm suicide among Black, Latino, and Asian youth has nearly doubled over the last decade, while increasing 88 percent among Native Americans and 35 percent among white teens; to document the rise of the auto-sear, a conversion device that can turn a handgun into a machine gun; and to portray the women in Chicago, hidden from view, who are helping their communities recover from shootings. They have reported from our local bureaus in Philadelphia and Chicago and on the national political scene. In our Ask the Trace series, they’ve engaged with questions all along this spectrum.
Collectively, these stories cover the rising tide of gun violence in America in 2022, but they also express a complicated national identity, still yoked to the firearm. Here are a dozen of our best stories of the year.
— Selin Thomas, associate editor
Jennifer Mascia and Olga Pierce
From 2019 through 2020, an American teenager took their life with a gun every seven hours on average. The Trace reported this staggering rise in suicide rates among young people in their teens by analyzing public health data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and comparing the gun suicide rate in 2011 through 2012 to the rate in 2019 through 2020. The sharpest increases were among young people of color. Researchers told us that the rise correlated with changing patterns in gun ownership, and that children of color are subject to unique stressors that put them at the highest risk of firearm death. Speaking of some of the Black children who died by suicide, Sean Joe, an expert on Black suicide and a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said: “They’re making a mental calculation that their death is more valued than their life. That’s just a tragic thing. When you have that crisis, and you put a gun in that situation, where guns are lethal 80 to 90 percent of the time? It makes a huge difference.”
Agya Aning, in partnership with The Cut
When you consider survey data that shows two out of three American gun owners have firearms mainly for self-protection, it’s unsurprising that a narrative emerged during the pandemic that Black women are purchasing more firearms than any other demographic group. Though conclusive evidence remains elusive, the narrative rings true to many Black gun owners, including many of the more than a dozen interviewed for this story, and is also supported by the gender breakdown of the more than 40,000 members of the National African American Gun Association, a majority of whom are female. This story is a look into the shifting identity of the American gun owner.
Alain Stephens, in partnership with VICE
An auto sear is a small plastic device that can be purchased on the black market for $20. When affixed to the back of a handgun, it transforms the weapon, allowing it to empty an entire magazine with a single pull of the trigger. This investigation by The Trace and VICE news documents the exploding popularity of the auto sear among criminals and anti-government extremists. “Auto sears are everywhere on the street right now,” said one veteran federal agent. “They’re one of the scariest things we’ve dealt with since I became an agent.”
In our Ask the Trace series, we try to answer difficult questions — often submitted by readers — about gun violence. The gun lobby has long pushed the notion that “a good guy with a gun” is the only thing that can stop “a bad guy with a gun.” That maxim is central to the National Rifle Association’s decades-long ambition to relax gun laws and increase gun sales. So, in this installment of Ask The Trace, we parsed the data and found that the ambiguity of defensive-gun-use statistics is their only reliable feature. The numbers are so hard to pin down that the CDC removed all relevant figures from the agency website in May. “What we do know for sure,” said David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, “is that having a gun in your house increases suicides, it increases gun accidents, and it increases homicides, at least of women in the house. And we can’t find any benefit from it.”
Champe Barton, in partnership with USA Today
In 2017, on the heels of a record-breaking surge in homicides in Chicago, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel published a sweeping Gun Trace Report, which identified the sellers of thousands of guns recovered by Chicago Police between 2013 and 2016. It showed that nearly one in four guns picked up by city police came from just 10 stores located across Illinois and northern Indiana. The top three stores together accounted for some 2,000 crime guns. According to inspection documents requested by The Trace from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for the gun dealers named in this report, the agency routinely issued softer penalties than warranted under agency guidelines when it discovered violations at many of these stores — in line with a nationwide pattern of conciliatory inspections first uncovered by The Trace and USA TODAY in 2021. This follow-up reporting reveals the broader scope of the violations, and the human toll of the ATF’s leniency.
When Tracy Brown, a Bay Area artist and activist, came across the work of machinist Mike Lessnick on the internet, she was shocked, though unsurprised. Lessnick had designed a rubber shooting target, popular among gun enthusiasts nationwide, that resembled a Black man. In fact, Lessnick, who is white, established Kistabra Inc. to manufacture thousands of them, not only for the public, but for law enforcement agencies, and every branch of the U.S. military, according to the company website. Kistabra even secured a federal contract with the General Services Administration, which offers goods to government entities in bulk and at substantial discounts. So Lessnick’s rubber Black man was being sold and shot at within the power structures that the American public was just reckoning with following the police killing of George Floyd and the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. Brown wanted the government to end their contract; this story shows how she did it.
Will Van Sant, in partnership with Politico Magazine
For decades, the NRA has maneuvered to place justices on the U.S. Supreme Court who support a sweeping interpretation of the Second Amendment. Meanwhile, Will Van Sant shows, the gun-rights organization has supported a cadre of legal scholars and advocacy groups that research, write, and file amicus briefs in support of its positions. The Trace examined 49 briefs filed in the seminal Bruen case, along with court and Internal Revenue Service filings, and found that the NRA has provided undisclosed financial support to at least a quarter of them. The amicus briefs in Bruen provide a window into the NRA’s long-standing, highly choreographed, and in this case successful, legal strategy — and also demonstrate the limits of current Supreme Court ethics rules.
Kendra Snow remembers locking the door of the laundromat where she was working and running to the intersection of 75th and Stewart, where her 16-year-old son had just been shot in front of a liquor store. It was 2015, and she knew the intersection well. It had long been a hotspot for neighborhood violence, one where both her younger brother and her son’s father had survived shootings. Still, nothing could have prepared her for this race toward her wounded son. He survived, but would need months of physical therapy and years of care that Medicaid wouldn’t cover, a path to healing that they are still pursuing. Snow’s experience reflects that of many women of color in Chicago whose loved ones survive gun violence, and whose emotional labor and care alleviate its ricocheting effects in their communities, often without recognition.
Chip Brownlee, in partnership with The City
As the federal government invests in community-based public safety strategies at an unprecedented level, cities are trying to quickly launch alternative strategies while under political pressure to act amid rising rates of shootings. This story documents the trajectory of one of them: New York’s attempt at a version of Advance Peace. Nineteen months after the program’s announcement, it is more of a cautionary tale than a reason for optimism. Advance Peace staffers, four people closely involved with the pilot program, and documents and emails reviewed by The Trace and The City, reveal a struggle between building a reliable infrastructure to prevent gun violence in participation with the community and maintaining the flexibility that that work requires.
Mike Spies, in partnership with The New Yorker
For three decades, John R. Lott has been producing firearms data that is embraced and magnified by the gun-rights movement as it attempts to roll back gun regulations. All of Lott’s studies reach two self-reinforcing conclusions: Guns make Americans safer, and gun laws place them in danger. The Trace delved deep into Lott’s work and his record, and in a story co-published with The New Yorker, showed that the criticism by other researchers has not diminished Lott’s stature. Instead, it has often fed the conspiracy-oriented mentality of the gun-rights movement. A tour of nearly 30 years of gun policy, the story reveals a career marked by questionable conduct and even deception that underlies assertions that serve as a basis to loosen gun regulations — from the spread of “shall-issue” laws in the 1990s to the more recent rise of constitutional or permitless carry laws, now in place in 25 states.
Mensah Dean, in partnership with The Philadelphia Inquirer
Nine people were killed at Philadelphia gas stations this year and last, up from zero in 2018, 2019, and 2020. This story explores a single part of the worsening gun violence crisis in Philadelphia, documenting a chilling trend with new data from the Police Department that quantifies a trend that’s caused several people who’ve been injured or lost loved ones to file negligence lawsuits. They say gas stations should have done more to protect patrons. “I don’t think the public is aware of this because they may think of shootings usually happening at bars or nightclubs, certainly not at gas stations,” said attorney David P. Thiruselvam, who has filed nine lawsuits against gas stations. “But it’s becoming an epidemic, and the gas station industry is aware of it because it’s in the news all the time. But they are not doing anything about it.”
Joe Sexton, in partnership with The Sunday Longread
In the spring of 2020, Rochester, New York, seemed poised for genuine police reform. Then came a 911 call for a Black man in crisis. What followed left Daniel Prude dead at 41, the first casualty in a tragedy of police, politics, and very personal betrayals. The city’s mayor and police chief, both born and raised in Rochester, both people of color, had pledged to make policing more humane. Instead, they put their own interests above their principles, one deception at a time. They did so in secret, and then in public, aided by the dishonesty of many others. Joe Sexton tells the heartbreaking definitive account of the Daniel Prude case with an authority born of a total immersion in police records, sworn depositions, 911 audio, and his own interviews.