When The Trace went live last summer — one day after the Charleston church massacre — we could not know just how many stories there would be to cover on the gun violence beat. But we were keenly aware of a few truths. One is that the high-profile mass shootings that came in seemingly ceaseless succession last year are misleading proxies for the gunfire that plagues some communities: Just 2 percent of the 33,000 people who are killed with a bullet in the U.S. each year die in a mass shooting. Another is that as surely as the nation is riveted by an Umpqua or a Fort Hood, so too will it inevitably move on.
Our ambition, as a small single-issue independent nonprofit, has been to produce journalism that reveals the full scope and horror of gun violence to a public that too often views the problem as an episodic one, mostly confined to a few bursts of outrage. We have also sought to expose how lobbying, money, and politics have hindered efforts by the federal government to conduct basic research into the causes and scope of violence, and profoundly influenced the national debate about guns.
Though many of us have learned this beat while reporting it, we resolved early on to drive home the human cost of gun violence, and reveal its most constant victims. One of our earliest pieces was a profile of the Wednesday Bible prayer group at Emanuel AME in Charleston (“They Sat and Studied Scripture, no Matter How Long nor How Hot the Day”). Though the circumstances were unusual, the victims were anything but: African Americans make up a disproportionate share of gun violence fatalities.
We also told the stories of individuals whose lives have been shattered by gun death. Sean Smith has spent his life trying to reckon with the fact that when he was a little boy, he accidentally shot and killed his little sister. (“What Became of the Boy Who Shot His Sister Dead.”) Smith’s story captured the burden that families shoulder in the aftermath of unintentional child shootings, an untold narrative that gripped thousands of readers on our social platforms. Our piece provoked a flurry of follow-up media coverage: Smith was featured on CNN, NPR, CBS, and taped a segment for OWN’s “Where Are They Now,” which is slated to air this fall.
We strived to focus attention on the victims, while remaining mindful of the numbing nature of violence journalism. We have come to realize that our challenge, to convince a public with an unlimited source of news coverage to read our stories about death and injury, is not so different from what the foreign war correspondent experiences. Except, of course, that the war we are chronicling is ripping apart American communities like Louisville, Kentucky, the site of the 2016 NRA convention, where 100 people were shot in the first three months of this year. (“Blocks From the NRA Convention, Louisville Residents Grapple with Gunshots and Bloodshed”)
Working with Slate and the Gun Violence Archive, we plotted 118,000 shootings in America into a searchable database that enabled people to see (and perhaps feel) the frequency of shootings near their homes, workplaces, and schools. On Twitter, auto-generated text filled in unique tallies that readers shared with their followers, bringing data on the prevalence of gun violence into the intimacy of social networks. (“How Many People Have Been Shot Near You This Year?”)
We also partnered with the Gun Violence Archive to highlight the pervasiveness of America’s gun epidemic every day. On our homepage, a widget automatically tallies the number of daily gun incidents across the country — The Trace’s version of a weather ticker. It’s a figure we share with our readers on social platforms regularly.
Money alone doesn’t explain the NRA’s influence. Our investigation into a long-running environmental dispute involving a gun range, published with the Tampa Bay Times, showed how a legendary NRA lobbyist pressured a Florida lawmaker to help kill a lawsuit against a gun range by a state environmental agency that she didn’t like — even though it had nothing to do with gun rights. The agency dropped the case days later. (“Torpedoed”)
As a small nonprofit dedicated to expanding awareness and understanding of gun violence, we rely heavily on our social networks to curate the best gun reporting on the web. Our own output matches the size of our small staff, yet we’re in constant communication with our 200,000+ social audience, sharing important updates and developments daily, and surfacing the context necessary to be an engaged, informed participant in the gun debate. We have also realized that a curated digital newsletter offers us the opportunity to communicate directly on a daily basis with our core audience of academics, journalists, policy makers, and community leaders.