Tag Archives: The Trace

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.

Sandy Hook’s hidden story

TraceLaw and news nerd that I am, I find great satisfaction in discovering new angles to litigation stories that others have missed. Last February, I did that for The Trace in a preview of the coming fight over the legal claims made by the families of the Sandy Hook mass shooting victims. Now that the judge has ruled, I revisited the topic with this analysis, published today.

The remarkable thing to me is that no news reports that I saw ever homed in on the same issue that drew my attention. That’s probably because it’s hard to explain to a lay audience in terms that are both accurate and understandable. It’s just as hard for a layman like me to grasp it in the first place, but that’s the kind of challenge that first drew me to covering the law and that still excites me. As I said, I’m a big old nerd.

I won’t repeat what’s explained in both stories, but I will try to summarize what issue I’m talking about (this is yet another test of my explanatory abilities). The lawsuit filed by the victims’ families against the maker and sellers of the gun that Adam Lanza used, a Bushmaster AR-15 style rifle, faces the same obstacle that any case against the gun industry does, thanks to Congress’ passage in 2005 of a law granting broad legal immunity to the industry. The law allows some lawsuits that fit limited exceptions. All the coverage of the Sandy Hook case focused on just one of the exceptions claimed in this lawsuit — a claim that by marketing military-style weapons to civilians, the industry has committed “negligent entrustment,” which means giving a dangerous thing to someone who shouldn’t have it — but that was the more far-fetched of the two. The other one, which I focused on thanks to an article I ran across and then my conversation with its law-professor author, allows lawsuits that allege actions that violate laws concerning the sale of guns. How the Sandy Hook plaintiffs’ lawyers made that argument, and how the judge reacted to it, were the untold story about this lawsuit.

Who cares? Well, I submit anyone who cares about this lawsuit or about the ongoing debate to repeal the immunity law should care, because the argument I wrote about came closer to keeping the Sandy Hook case alive than the negligent entrustment claim. Closer, but not close enough, as the judge has now narrowly but decisively agreed to throw the case out.

I’m glad The Trace provided me with a platform to tell that story, nerdy though it may have been.

Policing that works

Accompanying the relentless news of gun violence is an equally relentless set of debates about how we should respond. More gun control. Tougher policing and sentencing. Less policing. Better policing. Better families. More drug treatment and job training. End poverty and racism. Often, feeding those opinions and conclusions are the latest experiments that prove the point we want to make or provide a straw to grasp for: a city that has momentarily solved its violence problem with a particular tactic; a study of one place and one approach that seems to work; a place where a hated tactic seems to backfire.

What’s lacking from this anecdote-driven conversation is solid evidence of what actually works, not just in this place or that, but overall. In my latest story for The Trace (published also by The Crime Report), I look at the results of decades’ worth of accumulated evidence on what works in policing strategies to reduce gun violence. The result is a sort of scorecard on types of strategies that have amassed the strongest records of results.

The conclusions contradict many common assumptions about what should be done. More broadly, they run counter to a persistent pessimism that has dominated this field of study for about 40 years. Now, instead of a “nothing works” mentality, we have clear guidance on certain approaches that clearly do work — not because they worked once or twice, or recently, but because they have been subjected to scores of rigorous tests, and the research I cite has found patterns of effectiveness by combining studies’ results. So, problem solved? Obviously not. There’s a long history of policymakers and the public ignoring such findings. Even if they paid close attention, there’s little certainty even in these scientifically sound conclusions. After all, we’re talking about enormously complex social problems and circumstances that vary greatly and change constantly.

But the report card that I developed for The Trace — with an accompanying Q&A I did with one of the leading researchers, David Weisburd — goes a long way toward providing clarity about which policing approaches prove most promising to reduce gun violence.

Another look at a hometown tragedy

Not all of my stories for The Trace touch on my current main reporting interest in crime victims. But my latest does. And they’re victims whose story I know well from past articles I’ve written, and from an even more personal connection: the crime took place in my hometown of Webster, New York, involving people whose social circles intersect with my friends and family.

The December 24, 2012, ambush of volunteer firefighters in a neighborhood on the Lake Ontario shore killed two (Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka) and seriously wounded two others (Ted Scardino and Joe Hofstetter). Three years ago, when I was working on what I hoped would be a book about the crime — I have since put that project on hold, I hope not forever — I wrote two stories about the crime’s aftermath. One, a cover story in Pacific Standard, looked at  the psychological growth that can be sparked by the trauma of such an event. The other, in the magazine where I once worked as an editor, The American Lawyer, told of Scardino’s efforts to press for tougher federal laws on straw purchases of weapons.

Straw purchases — where someone who can pass a background check illegally supplies weapons to someone barred from buying a gun — once again are the subject of my new story for The Trace. Using the lawsuit that the victims and their families brought against Gander Mountain, the retailer that sold the guns that ended up in the Webster killer’s hands, I examine a tactic used by plaintiffs’ lawyers to try to win these cases. The tactic: comparing a retailer’s behavior to industry standards promoted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation to show whether a gun seller took enough care to prevent a straw purchase.

When Chiapperini vs. Gander Mountain was filed on the victims’ behalf by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the social-media peanut gallery criticized the victims for trying to cash in on their tragedy, or simply for looking in the wrong place to lay blame. If the firefighters’ and families’ allegations prove correct about what Gander Mountain clerks did and didn’t do, then the plaintiffs in this lawsuit will convincingly win that argument — not that everyone can be convinced to change their mind when guns are the subject.

The victims said when they filed the suit that they want this to bring about reforms, and to help other people. That’s a common impulse when tragedy strikes. I’ll continue to follow this case to see if the victims ever reach their goal.

Dick Heller, sore winner

In my previous story for The Trace, about Ted Cruz’s record as a gun-rights lawyer, I brushed up on my history of the most important Second Amendment case in history, D.C. v. Heller. In that story, the case was just one of several I looked at. Now I’ve taken a deeper dive into the 2008 case, with this newly published profile of Dick Heller himself.

This story is what’s known in the business as a write-around. That means the subject of the story wouldn’t talk to me. Rather than let him have veto power over the story, I forged ahead, gleaning his background and views from books, articles, and my own interviews with others who have worked for or against him.

The result is, I hope, a fair portrait of an important historical figure whose controversial politics and colorful personal backstory bring to light aspects of the Heller case — a case that’s now very much back in the news, with the battle on over replacing Justice Antonin Scalia, the Heller majority opinion author.

My central conclusion: Heller’s politics, combined with his frustration over D.C.’s continued efforts to regulate guns, pushed him toward the absolutist end of the gun-rights spectrum — and away from the case that bears his name.

One aspect of the story I didn’t get a chance to explore this time are the arguments over whether Heller might be overturned if a Democratically appointed justice replaces Scalia, and if so, what difference that would make. Here’s one take on that. I hope to revisit that topic in a later story with views from all sides.

Fact-checking Ted Cruz’s gun-law record

I spent an 11-year chunk of my career in Texas. But I left that state when Ted Cruz was still in law school. So I have not been there to watch his political rise first hand. Still, I’ve remained interested in the place and visited multiple times to report on stories there. And, like everyone, I can’t take my eyes off this year’s presidential campaign.

So I was glad to get an assignment from The Trace on Ted Cruz’s record as a lawyer handling gun-rights cases. He has made that work a central point in his campaign, but as my new story on that record explains, he’s inflated his role in key cases while skipping past some inconvenient details about compromise positions that he no longer seems to hold.

I plan to write more for The Trace about the legal battles over gun safety and regulations, past and present. Reporting on this story (and on my previous one, about the federal law giving the gun industry immunity from civil lawsuits) has given me a quick refresher course in that world. I look forward to continuing my education and finding new stories to tell about how legal policy and litigation is shaping gun-rights battles today.

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.