Gun Violence Journalism That Stayed With Us in 2021 – The Trace

gun-violence-journalism-that-stayed-with-us-in-2021-–-the-trace

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While we might be the only American newsroom dedicated to full-time coverage of gun violence, we are far from alone in covering the topic. In 2021, our fellow journalists at other news outlets broke new ground on the issue, investigating topics like armed militias and vigilantism, policing, community violence, domestic violence, and suicides. While some of the following pieces highlighted troubling new aspects of our gun violence crisis, many explored interventions and solutions that could help make communities across the country safer.  

As the year draws to a close, we are continuing a Trace tradition of compiling must-read stories produced by our peers in other newsrooms. Throughout another difficult and momentous year, this is the work that inspired our staff, and pushed us to see things differently.

We learned a lot from the journalism below, and we hope you will, too.

“Why Many Police Traffic Stops Turn Deadly” 

David D. Kirkpatrick, Steve Eder, Kim Barker, and Julie Tate | The New York Times

The balance of power between American police and residents is dramatically lopsided. Numerous investigations have revealed that law enforcement is rarely held accountable when officers unjustifiably use deadly force, especially when the victim is a person of color. This remarkable piece from The New York Times finds a fresh angle on the subject of violent police encounters, but the story is much the same. During routine traffic stops, police often establish a hostile environment and overreact to what they perceive as signs of disrespect from unarmed drivers. This is often compounded by what criminologists call “officer-created jeopardy,” in which police put their own lives at risk by, for example, stepping in front of a car. If the vehicle then moves, they shoot the driver and claim self-defense. The reporters reviewed a trove of material, including video and audio recordings, and found a pattern of problematic conduct that undermined the narratives produced by officers in the aftermath of fatal interactions. In the end, police have killed more than 400 unarmed drivers and passengers over the past five years, according to The Times, and Black motorists were disproportionately affected.

— Mike Spies, senior writer

“Bridging the Divide Between the Police and the Policed”  

Saki Knafo | The New Yorker

Bill de Blasio made a promise the night in 2013 he was elected to his first term as New York City’s mayor: He vowed to foster “a real partnership between the best police force in the world and the communities they protect.” As his tenure comes to a close eight years later, he insists those efforts have been “overwhelmingly successful.” This narrative-rich piece explores how de Blasio’s attempts to connect the New York Police Department with community members played out in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood with one of the city’s highest rates of gun violence. Reporter Saki Knafo shows how improved relationships depend on steadfast precinct leaders who are willing to collaborate with outsiders and try less aggressive styles of policing. He found that the NYPD, despite de Blasio’s promises, looks fundamentally the same — in both its demographics and its internal culture — as it did when he started the job.

— Chip Brownlee, investigative fellow

“Despite federal law, many domestic abusers keep their guns in Mississippi”

Kate Royals | Mississippi Today

About 2,100 newspapers folded between 2005 and the start of the pandemic, Margaret Sullivan recently wrote in The Washington Post. Despite that grim trend, local reporters across the country still work doggedly to uncover important stories. A perfect example is this investigative feature on why so many domestic abusers in Mississippi are allowed to keep their guns. The story, from Mississippi Today reporter Kate Royals, points out how state officials are hesitant to take away domestic violence offenders’ guns. Sometimes, they even deliberately charge offenders with non-domestic crimes so the defendants can keep their weapons. Even though federal law prohibits convicted abusers from having guns, local police can’t enforce it in states like Mississippi, where there’s no parallel statute backing the ban. One local judge “literally handed the suspects their guns back in court … and that’s with us showing there’s a history of a conviction, not just being charged,” one former police officer told Royals. It’s an alarming tale, especially when research shows that the presence of a gun makes a domestic violence situation five times more likely to end in a female partner’s death. 

— Ann Givens, staff writer

“In rural Missouri, poverty, hopelessness and suicide drive high rates of gun deaths”

Kevin Hardy | The Kansas City Star  | Missouri Gun Violence Project

Many journalists are hesitant to report on the subject of suicide, which is sensitive, complex, and can cause contagion if mishandled. But the Missouri Gun Violence Project, a two-year, statewide journalism effort aimed at exploring the root causes of and solutions to gun deaths in the state, shows what deft and impactful reporting on the subject can look like. In a story published in March, Kansas City Star reporter Kevin Hardy demonstrates how poverty can cause people to feel hopeless and stuck — and how having access to a gun can turn a desperate moment into an irreversible act. Hardy’s reporting introduces us to Carmella Fenske, who first tried to end her life before she turned 13. Fenske’s parents were both alcoholics, she said, and no one encouraged her to go to college or pursue a career. She got a job in a sawmill for $7 an hour and struggled to care for her children through her addiction to methamphetamines. Suicide “sometimes seemed like the only way out,” she said. In a striking graphic, the story shows the incredible parallels between Missouri counties with the highest poverty rates and the ones with the most gun deaths, and reminds us that most gun deaths are suicides. We are left pondering a complex problem, but also possible solutions: increasing access to transportation and stable housing, and reducing children’s access to firearms. [If you are having thoughts of suicide, help is available 24 hours a day: Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.]

— Ann Givens, staff writer

“An Air Force sergeant killed himself on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The note he left is heartbreaking.”

Petula Dvorak | The Washington Post

This heartbreaking column about the persistent epidemic of military suicide chronicles the life and tragic death of 31-year-old Kenneth Omar Santiago, an Air Force veteran who shot himself on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just before Veterans Day this year. Dvorak examines factors that contribute to the broader problem, including barriers to care — particularly a staff shortage in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ psychiatric facilities — and a stigma against veterans seeking help for mental illness. At least 17 veterans die by suicide every day. Naveed Shah, a combat veteran and political director of Common Defense, a progressive military organization, said Santiago’s death, “in this hallowed place, at this time of reverence for veterans, perhaps should provide pause for government officials and elected leaders in Washington to consider the impact 20 years of wars have had on our armed forces.”

— Tom Kutsch, newsletter editor

“Out of the Barrel of a Gun”

Charles Homans | The New York Times Magazine

Shortly after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, The New York Times Magazine published a piece by editor Charles Homans headlined “Out of the Barrel of a Gun,” a reference to Mao Zedong’s 1938 observation about the basis of political power. Through sharp reporting on armed militia protesters in Virginia, and alongside powerful photos from Mark Peterson, Homans considers how boundaries between the fringe and mainstream elements of the gun rights movement and within the GOP have crumbled in the last decade. The resulting story strikingly captures the absurdities on display both at the armed protests that have arisen in recent years and in the attempts by journalists to cover the spectacles. Homans describes journalists outnumbering protesting militiamen on the streets of Richmond, Virginia, and writes that the armed men, bedecked in guns and tactical gear, posted themselves against walls “waiting with transparent eagerness for reporters to swarm around them and feigning reluctance when they did.” Of course, the humor disappears when you consider the faith that Homans’ militiamen appear to have in Mao’s dictum.

— Will Van Sant, staff writer

“‘I Felt Hate More Than Anything’: How an Active Duty Airman Tried to Start a Civil War”

Gisela Pérez de Acha, Kathryn Hurd, and Ellie Lightfoot | ProPublica and Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program 

In 2020, well before the Capitol insurrection, the Department of Homeland Security noted that domestic terrorism had surpassed foreign threats as America’s top terror concern. Among the array of extremist cohorts that have blossomed in the last few years, none seems to have grown as quickly as the Boogaloo movement. The anti-government ideology, whose name comes from an internet meme about a second American civil war, has been linked to violent activity across the country. What isn’t as well known is the movement’s knack for attracting former military members, whose affinity for weapons, explosives, and violent tradecraft can be a boon to its cause. ProPublica’s and Berkeley’s investigation pulls the curtain back on how Boogaloo members recruited Steven Carrillo, an active-duty airman with diagnosed mental illness, to become an anti-government extremist who has since been charged with the murder of two law enforcement officers. The story details how the movement’s ragtag demeanor actually masked a well-organized cell built to carry out violence.

— Alain Stephens, Western Correspondent

“Episode 20: With Ian Ayres and Fredrick E. Vars”

Hosts Samuel Moyn and David Schleicher | Digging a Hole: A Legal Theory Podcast

A podcast about gun rights and regulation was among the most thought-provoking conversations on the topic that I came across all year. In an April episode of Digging a Hole: A Legal Theory Podcast, academics Ian Ayres and Fredrick E. Vars discuss several ideas from their book, “Weapon of Choice: Fighting Gun Violence While Respecting Gun Rights.” The authors turn libertarian gun rights orthodoxy on its head, in part by focusing instead on other rights, including those to peaceful assembly and property. In short, they argue that individuals should have more freedom to declare their homes, businesses, and the places they gather gun-free. They also discuss Donna’s Law, described as an “individual defense against suicide,” which allows people to voluntarily bar themselves from making gun purchases. The hosts press the authors on potential pitfalls: Might their effort be a clever attempt to overcome political stalemate by embracing libertarianism that concedes too much ground to a false gun rights ideology? I don’t know the answer to that, but given the likelihood that the Supreme Court will expand the right to carry guns in public, greater attention will be given to where governments can establish gun-free zones. We should also be thinking about where individuals can do the same.

— Will Van Sant, staff writer

“A Brooklyn Grandmother Wants Cuomo to Free the Man Imprisoned for Shooting Her in the Head. Not Even Her Husband Agrees.”

Reuven Blau | THE CITY

Gun violence journalism often focuses on the people directly harmed by shootings, rather than the person on the other side of the gun. Part of what makes this piece so powerful is its spotlight on both, told through the lens of a survivor with an almost unfathomable reservoir of compassion. Reporter Reuven Blau introduces us to Carolyn Jones, who was struck in the head by a stray bullet while leaving a Brooklyn, New York, church 25 years ago. Two men were imprisoned for the crime; both have maintained their innocence. After slowly learning to walk and speak again, Jones began visiting one of the convicted perpetrators, Michael Flournoy, in prison, and got to know his family. In 2017, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo commuted Flournoy’s sentence, citing his friendship with Jones. The other man convicted of shooting Jones, David Herion, is midway through a 45-year sentence and not eligible for parole until 2035. Jones tells THE CITY that, even though she’s never met Herion, she can’t fully heal until he is released. Her experience demonstrates how each victim’s concept of justice can differ.

— Jennifer Mascia, news writer

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