Tag Archives: gun violence

Photo finish

Violence interventionist James Clark, left, and four young men he’s counseling. Just hours later, three of the young men were shot. Then a second shooting five days later claimed the life of DeAndre Kelley, seated at far right. Photo by Whitney Curtis for Politico. Used with permission.

Covering gun violence and policing has taught me that no matter how long the reporting, writing, and editing of a story might take, the stories can change in an instant, right on deadline. That happened to me, for example, when I wrote this story for TakePart on Minneapolis. After months of reporting, writing, and editing, we went down to the wire with changes after two controversial police shootings occurred on the eve of publication. Now it’s happened again, in a particularly sad turn of events.

The Trace and Politico just published my story challenging Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ notion that increasing federal gun prosecutions can lower urban violence. We chose St. Louis as a case study because it boasts two relevant distinctions: It already has the most aggressive federal gun-prosecution rate in the country, while at the same time having the highest gun-violence rate among large cities. Although it would take more study to prove that federal gun prosecutions and their long sentences fail to reduce crime, it’s safe to say that they’re not the panacea that Sessions portrays them as. So I used the St. Louis experience to revisit a topic I have written about before, on the evidence of what actually works to reduce gun violence.

I wanted the story to look not just at what doesn’t seem to work, but also at which strategies might work better. For that angle, I focused on James Clark, a well-known violence intervention activist. I first encountered Clark back in December 2015, when I was in St. Louis on an assignment for The New York Times. When I landed the latest assignment, I decided to use Clark as a voice for the violence-reduction strategies that could do more good if they were given needed resources.

On Saturday, August 19, as my Trace/Politico story approached publication after months of off-and-on work, my editors sent photographer Whitney Curtis out with Clark to show him doing his work. In one scene she photographed, Clark chatted with four young men on the stoop of a north St. Louis home. Hours later, three of the four got shot. They called Clark first, instead of the police, and he ended up driving them to a hospital after calling police himself. All three survived. But, five days later, one of the four young men, DeAndre Kelley, got shot again with one of his high school friends, the friend’s mother, and a 10-year-old boy. All four died.

We learned of this a week before publication. I scrambled to talk to Clark and Curtis to add to the ending of the story, and to explain how one snapshot in time can serve as a disturbing reminder of the urgency of the work that people like Clark do.

An update on my work

Since the end of my Soros Justice Fellowship in 2015, I have hoped and planned to continue focusing on how we respond to crime victims. Throughout much of 2016 I worked on a variety of assignments, all concerning criminal justice policy, but I realized this fall that unless I set aside that work temporarily, I would never find the time to focus on a book proposal. So that is what I have done since October.

I have been reporting on what I see as the core narrative in a book that explores urban violence, its victims, and our policies to help those victims and reduce the violence. I will continue that work in 2017 — with, I hope, a book contract at some point, so that I can afford to devote more months to the book’s reporting and eventually writing.

I am being deliberately vague at this point. Once I am sure of the direction this is taking, I plan to share glimpses of the work in progress. Stay tuned.


A new client, with strings attached

TraceOne of the bright spots in the journalism business has been the growth of digital-only publications that pay writers reasonably well — unlike so many that pay insultingly low rates (and pretty much get what they pay for). Some of these quality outfits are nonprofits by design, others by circumstances, and some even make money. They have taken up some of the slack left by shrinking print publication budgets.

One quality nonprofit I have been happy to write for is The Trace, which covers gun policy with intelligent original reporting and that pays its freelance writers enough to make it worthwhile to take on challenging topics such as these. On my “recent work” page, I link to two stories I wrote for The Trace last September on “stand your ground” laws. Now I have a new story up on the site, this time on the Newtown victims’ families’ lawsuit against the manufacturer and sellers of Adam Lanza’s preferred weapon, the Bushmaster AR-15. The issues in the lawsuit focus on the provisions of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), the federal law granting immunity — with some exceptions — to the gun industry from lawsuits over injury and death from gun violence. This is the first in what my editor and I plan to be a regular string of stories on a variety of gun-law topics.

That’s all on the positive side of the ledger: a reporting challenge, an important policy matter, a potentially landmark case, and more stories to come. The negative, though, is that when working for anyone — nonprofits or for-profits — a writer must be aware of a publisher’s agenda and of its inherent biases. Ideally, the agenda is the same as mine as a journalist: to tell important stories that are true to the facts. That, indeed, has been my experience with The Trace, where my editor doesn’t expect or want stories to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. In fact, he bends over backward to avoid the appearance that a story favors one side or the other. The appearance of bias, however, is inevitable, given that some of The Trace’s startup funding came from Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. Everytown is, in turn, funded in large part by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and both he and Everytown advocate tougher gun regulations. It’s inevitable, then, that on this hopelessly contentious issue, some will see any work appearing at The Trace as hack journalism. At the very least, it makes it harder to get some calls returned.

I can’t help that. I can only do my job with integrity, letting the facts lead me to honest conclusions, or simply telling factual stories that readers can then use to form their own conclusions. I look forward to writing more for The Trace in coming months — and hoping that my stories speak for themselves.

Numbers and lives

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 5.35.23 PMAs part of a memorable report on the true costs of gun violence, a Mother Jones team — Mark Follman, Julie Lurie, Jaeah Lee, and James West — powerfully tells victims’ stories alongside data-driven reporting on the dollars and cents. The data side of the report is impressive enough, as it methodically quantifies the knowns and unknowns of what gun violence costs this country. But the human side of the stories goes to the heart of what victims suffer when injured by gunfire, or when their loved ones die in gun violence.

In a companion package of stories, we meet eight victims and survivors who tell their stories in short form: how they were injured, and the financial and other loses they have suffered. One of them, Jennifer Longdon, is the focus of the main story as she eloquently describes the attack that left her and her fiancé profoundly disabled and her anti-violence advocacy in Phoenix. Accompanying the text story are three videos: one summarizing the nationwide costs of gun violence, and two on Longdon’s case. The first of those describes the crime itself. The second, shown below, addresses the costs to Longdon. Hear Longdon talk about her losses beyond the financial. “Nothing,” she says, “was ever going to be simple or easy again.”

The voices from within

A common tough-on-crime assumption about people convicted of violent crimes is that they lack any sense of responsibility toward their victims; that they hurt or killed out of sheer evil and cruelty, and any remorse they show at trial or in prison is simply a con to win sympathy.

But, when we talk to them and hear their stories and feel their anguish, we get a different sense of things. It doesn’t make everything right. It doesn’t condone what they did or excuse them from punishment. But it does remind us they are human beings who made very big mistakes. Once we realize that, it becomes harder to dehumanize them as monsters and animals. Out of that might come a more informed discussion about sentencing and prison policies.

On Monday, I’ll begin writing the fourth installment of my upcoming series on crime victims. This one focuses on a remarkable program in which victims of crime and survivors of murder victims go into prisons to counsel inmates, to help them see the harm they have caused, and to try to equip them with the skills they need to function as productive members of society when they get out. I was privileged to watch two graduation ceremonies behind bars in which dozens of inmates, having completed a 14-week program led by crime victims, stood up and spoke from their hearts to thank the victims and to talk about their regrets. It changed me to witness it.

So the timing was perfect when I read today in The New York Times about the Voices From Within Project and a stunning, newly published video (see below) in which the producers set up a camera in a room and invited inmates at New York’s Sing Sing prison to tell their stories. The project’s website includes extended clips from more prison inmates.

Producer Dan Slepian introduces the six-minute video with a four-minute talk in which he tells how the volunteer project will now give New York City officials a tool to teach young people about the harm that comes from gun violence. It’s a commendable project. And it teaches lessons to us all — not just lessons useful to violence-prone young people, but for those of us who don’t imagine the searing pain that these men feel for having destroyed lives.

Here’s the video: