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Who gets shot in America: What I learned compiling records of carnage for the New York Times

By Jennifer Mascia
Tuesday, July 15, 2014 7:00 EDT
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A year and a half ago, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Joe Nocera, an Op-Ed columnist at the New York Times, asked me, an editorial assistant at the newspaper, to find out who gets shot in America every day.

Joe has a young child, and he was haunted by the fact that it could easily have been his own son in that classroom. We realized that we didn’t know who the majority of gun violence victims were, the people whose deaths didn’t make it onto a CNN broadcast.

Six weeks after Newtown, Joe wrote a column consisting of a few lines about shootings that had happened that week, presented without comment. He had a blog he wasn’t using, so starting the next day, I started writing at that blog by searching for America’s shooting victims.

The project began with just a couple of items unearthed during a Google news search, but after a few months I was searching ten pages deep — for “shooting,” “man shot,” “woman shot,” “child shot,” “teen shot” and “accidentally shot.” By the project’s end, the report featured 40 shootings a day. Of course, there were more, but I was only finding the ones reported in the news. This naturally limited my scope — most suicides aren’t reported at all.

Each post garnered hundreds of comments, ranging from the staunchest gun-rights advocates to the most earnest gun control defenders. I moderated them all, and made sure to include a wide range of opinion. Some of these commenters began addressing me by name, and they engaged in a lively debate with each other. A community was born, and a conversation was being had that I didn’t think existed anywhere else.

A few months in, I noticed how shootings spiked over the weekends, and I came up with a new format specifically for Friday through Sunday, in which I’d limit each shooting to a single detail-packed sentence instead of the three-line descriptions I employed during the week. I was inspired by Portraits of Grief, the post-9/11 victim profiles by the Times, which gave readers a clear picture of who these people were in remarkably few words. These single sentences resulted in paragraph after paragraph. I never expected people to read it all; I just wanted them to scroll through and see just how many shootings there were. I wanted them to get a sense of the carnage.

One person who was impressed by the sheer volume of mayhem was Sen. Dick Durbin, who read the Gun Report on the Senate floor. Twice. “The tally of shootings in America goes on to fill 19 paragraphs,” Durbin remarked in May 2013.

Summer was the worst. Holiday weekends were full of needless shootings — arguments, stray bullets, kids finding their parents’ guns. Compiling weekend reports took me 10 hours every Sunday. It was a slog, but it was necessary. This is exactly why I went to journalism school. It’s rare that you get to effect change on such a big stage. Even though the Gun Report was online, and appeared not in print but on a columnist’s personal blog, it got attention. No one else in the country was doing this, and the New York Review of Books and New York magazine took notice. Would this change public opinion or spark legislative change? Probably not. But perhaps it would elicit a conversation about guns between each mass shooting. That drumbeat needed to continue before and after the Adam Lanzas of the world did their damage.

I covered many shootings of and by children — kids under 10 shooting each other while playing with a gun; a man once left an AK-47 on a picnic table, only for his 6-year-old grandson to pick it up and kill him with it — but I am haunted by one shooting in particular that didn’t involve children at all. In January, Phillip Willet, 79, who was bedridden after being diagnosed with cancer, shot and killed his wife, 79-year-old Catherine Willet, and then shot himself. He lived; she did not. One of the victim’s sisters overheard the lead-up to the shooting, which took place in the couple’s bedroom.

The two were arguing, and Catherine Willet could be heard saying, “Don’t do that. Why are you doing this? I love you. Please Phil, I love you.” He then shot her in the head.

It took a lot to make me cry in regards to the Report — I was numb at this point — but after writing this one I had to put my head down and just let myself feel it. Much like the day I found myself reporting on a friend.

Ali Eskandarian, 35, was one of a group of musicians shot and killed by a disturbed former acquaintance in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in November. I sat down at my desk at work, ready to put the finishing touches on that day’s report, when I opened the homepage of the Times and read about the murder of three members of the Yellow Dogs, a rock band comprised mostly of expats from Tehran. Ali was the ex-boyfriend of a former Times colleague of mine, and I’d gone to several of his live shows. The couple had me over for a few smoky, scotch-soaked parties at their apartment in Greenwood Heights. Ali was vibrant, full of positive energy and love. And a couple of e-mails later, I confirmed that he was dead.

I wrote about him two days later. I was used to covering people I didn’t know; I was even moved by their plight. But this changed everything.

Around the time the report marked its first year of existence, I began to feel its tug on my psyche. Starting with a blank page every morning and filling with news analysis, art and the punishing list of gunshot victims felt like climbing a mountain. But I didn’t want to stop. I couldn’t. If I did, who would speak for these people? If my voice fell silent, I’d let down those whose stories would never see the light of day beyond their local paper.

—-

My mother died four and a half years after my father succumbed to lung cancer, and as I was cleaning out her apartment I found his gun under their bed.

It was a .22 and it had a name: “The Plinker,” which was etched into its Bakelite handle. It was my parents’ security gun, the one weapon they kept around the house just in case. In my youth I’d never found it, and I was an only child who rifled through every closet and drawer. My father kept it hidden and unloaded. But I was glad he had it.

Five years earlier, days before I moved out of my parents’ apartment, a man followed me home from the bus stop. He drove slowly alongside me and tried to engage me as I trudged the long block home. I don’t remember what he said, trying my best to ignore him, but when I told my parents, they knew just what to do. The next day they met me at the stop, and stuck in the waistband of my mother’s sweatpants was my father’s gun. It was not the most secure place (as Plaxico Burress learned), but she made it clear that she was ready to defend her daughter from anyone who might snatch her off the street.

This is why it’s impossible for me to be a gun control absolutist. I am a single woman living in New York City, and if someone breaks into my apartment while I am home, I am going to want a gun to defend myself. It’s the quickest way to stop someone. A knife involves approaching an assailant and it can be grabbed out of my hand. But I can fire a gun across a room and preclude a lifetime of psychological damage, or worse, in an instant.

Why wasn’t the gun in the waistband of my father’s jeans that night? Because he was an ex-convict, and if he was caught with a gun in zero-tolerance New York, he’d likely be sent back to prison. He’d already broken his parole once, right after I was born, and he was so afraid of going back to Sing Sing that he took my mother and me across the country, where we lived under fake names. When I was five, the FBI found us, and when my father returned home a year later, we could be ourselves again. I grew up knowing that my father had been in prison, but I had no idea why.

A few months before my parents met me at that bus stop, I’d found his criminal record on the Internet. Turns out he’d been in prison for 12 years before I was born, for murder. Gun murder. He shot a criminal informant several times in a park in Brooklyn in 1963. Right before my mother died, she confessed that he’d committed several gun murders he’d never been arrested for. In 2010, I wrote a book about how I found out I was the daughter of a mob enforcer, Never Tell Our Business to Strangers.

It wasn’t until I had been doing the Gun Report for several months that it sunk in that the daughter of a man who had taken lives with guns was given an opportunity to report on gun violence. Perhaps it was my penance. I could atone for the lives my father took. Joe didn’t even know of my family history when I took this on. One day I explained it to him, and he understood that this was a labor of love.

—-

Before starting work on Gun Report, I had my own ideas about gun violence: Most of it probably resulted from gang activity, I assumed, along with the marital domestic shootings we so often read about.

More than 350 posts and 40,000 deaths later, here is what I learned.

Gang shootings are prevalent, especially in former hubs of industry now in economic decline in Ohio; the Flint/Tri-Cities region of Michigan; in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, Indiana; Newport News, Va.; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Carjackings and home invasions often appeared in my Google news searches. I was surprised to learn that suburbs were a magnet for gun violence, perhaps mirroring the housing implosion, which decimated the suburbs and propelled people to cities, where there are always jobs.

Not that nation’s largest cities are exempt: Miami, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Newark, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Dallas are notable examples. (Less so New York, possibly because of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, which was ruled unconstitutional.) Drive-by shootings still plague northern and southern California; Los Angeles, Fresno and the entire east side of the state are rife with gang activity. Tennessee, Alabama, and Missouri also frequently popped up in this regard.

What was also notable was where the shootings aren’t: Maine, Hawaii, Vermont, Wyoming, Montana, and New Hampshire were rarely mentioned in the report. Why? Weapons don’t easily flow into Hawaii, surrounded by the Pacific, and Montana and Wyoming are sparsely populated, mostly by experienced, rural gun owners. But homeowners in these states are also armed against home invaders, and as we saw in Montana in May, tragedy can result.

But while half of the shootings I featured were the result of a crime, the other half, I was most surprised to learn, resulted from arguments — often fueled by alcohol — among friends, neighbors, family members and romantic partners. More and more, people are solving their differences not with their fists but with guns. Husbands and wives are shooting each other, as are sisters and brothers. In many homes across America, loaded guns are easily accessible, and children find them, accidentally shooting themselves or each other. One hundred children died in unintentional shootings in the year after Newtown, which breaks down to two every week.

A year and a half later, you might expect that I’d have a solution to the country’s scourge of gun violence. But there is no one answer. It’s a favorite talking point of the right, but it’s true: Criminals will always find a way to get guns. But a lot of the people I covered weren’t criminals until the bullet left the chamber. How do you prevent a law-abiding person from obtaining a gun when he or she hasn’t done anything illegal yet?

Perhaps we can solve the problem in pieces. We’re vetted in so many areas of society — for instance, we need several points of ID for driver’s licenses, plus a written test and behind-the-wheel driver’s ed; just try to get an apartment in New York City without a credit check, and employer, bank references, and a guarantor. I think we need more vetting to get a firearm.

In Iowa, it’s easier to sell a gun than lemonade. In Arkansas, it takes less time to buy a gun than to qualify for food stamps. In Arizona, you need a permit to cut hair, but not to carry a concealed weapon. In Florida you’re fingerprinted to be a substitute teacher, but not to buy or carry a gun. It’s easier to buy an assault weapon than it is to vote.

But in order to obtain a firearm in Japan, which has half the population of America and averages about four gun murders per year, you must fill out binders full of paperwork, listen to 20 hours of lectures, take a written test and a shooting class, pass a criminal background check, subject yourself to a physical and psychological exam, submit to half a dozen police interviews, and police interviews of your friends and family, as well. You are asked to produce a floor map of your home and indicate where a firearm will be stored, as well as photos of the locks on your gun safe. Approval usually takes a year. You need to jump through such extreme hoops to own guns — and can get arrested just for firing one — that the Yakuza, the mob in Japan, prefers not to use them.

In Canada, where the right to private gun ownership is not guaranteed by law, third-party character references are required to get a gun, and licensing authorities conduct interviews with an applicant’s spouse, partner, or next of kin before issuing a license. You must pass a firearm safety and law class, and a practical training course is required — much like driver’s ed. Gun owners must re-apply and re-qualify for their firearm license every 5 years — much like a driver’s license. But all this vetting doesn’t inhibit gun ownership: Canadians can own an unlimited amount of weapons and ammunition, and they don’t need to provide a reason for acquiring a gun.

After the Port Arthur massacre in Australia in 1996, legislation was enacted to tighten gun laws. Semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns were banned, and you have to provide a reason to obtain all other firearms. The government held a gun buyback, netting 650,000 of newly illegal weapons from existing owners. Sure, some politicians lost their jobs by enacting gun control, but the laws stand, and there hasn’t been a mass shooting there since. Some estimate that the buyback has prevented 200 deaths a year. And perhaps most importantly, gun suicides declined. In America, 60 percent of adult firearm deaths are a result of suicide.

These are strictures that Second Amendment absolutists would balk at, but I don’t think the pro-gun crowd honestly wants a crazy person to get hold of guns. Even Antonin Scalia, the strict constuctionist Supreme Court judge, believes that there are limits on gun ownership.

“Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited,” he wrote in District of Columbia v. Heller. “It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

Universal background checks are something most Americans already support. Ensuring that gun checks are cross-referenced with mental health records in every state is a must. When Second Amendment advocates say we should enforce the laws already in place, they’re right. Montana and South Dakota submitted only three mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in 2012. North Dakota and Massachusetts turned in one, and Rhode Island submitted none.

Smart guns that only activate for their owner would reduce the chance that a child or an intruder could discharge them. Armatix, a German company, offers a gun that operates only when the owner is wearing a corresponding wristwatch. But the National Rifle Association has vigorously opposed such technology, and the two vendors who tried to market smart guns in America were harassed and received death threats from Second Amendment extremists, so they pulled the guns from their shelves.

A favorite argument of the gun-rights crowd is that nothing stops a bad guy with a gun more effectively than a good guy with a gun. I have come to believe that people who think they are going to shoot the bad guys — which sometimes does happen — are influenced by movies. Often their own guns are grabbed by the bad guys and used against them, especially during home invasions. In my daily reports, I made sure to include police officers accidentally shooting themselves and each other. If highly trained people have accidents, how can civilians be expected to be perfect marksmen during a high-stress robbery?

Maybe a solution to gun violence is one that Chris Rock cheekily proposed during a stand-up routine 15 years ago: bullet control. But it’s not such a bad idea. In 1993, New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan floated the idea of an ammunition tax. In California last year, a nickel-per-bullet tax was briefly considered, and in New Jersey, lawmakers sought to slap an additional 5 percent sales tax on guns and ammo. Both bills appear to be dead.

Efforts to curb gun violence by elected officials has done little to mitigate the damage. The NY SAFE Act, written in response to the Newtown massacre, instituted background checks for ammunition purchases, required that assault weapons be registered and broadened the definition of “assault weapon.” But gunmakers are modifying AR-15 and AR-10 rifles to circumvent the new regulations, and they are just as deadly.

In fact, when it comes to gun control, many state politicians are moving in the opposite direction: Kansas and Missouri have passed bills that nullify local and federal gun laws in favor of more relaxed state laws.

Efforts to research the problem were hamstrung in 1996, when the NRA successfully lobbied the federal government to freeze funding for CDC research into gun violence. After Newtown, President Obama issued an executive action that replenished the funding, and though it is meager, we should see some results soon. In the meantime, legislators are starting to fill in the gaps, Congresswomen Robin Kelly, who represents part of Chicago, recently released her own report on gun violence.

With more than 300 million guns already in circulation in America, and the right to carry a concealed weapon now legal in every state, it will be impossible to wipe out gun violence completely. But we can certainly reduce some deaths, and that is better than nothing. Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

—-

A few days after the plug was pulled on the Gun Report in early June, there were school shootings in Portland and Seattle, and two officers in Las Vegas, along with another man, were shot and killed by anti-government extremists who then committed suicide. To be silenced while all this was going on was excruciating. I burned at not being able to cover it.

But there will always be shootings. I could write gun reports until the end of my natural life, and given the apathy in Congress, the sheer volume will never diminish. I am not even sure much will change within the next few generations. All we can do — journalists, gunshot victims and their families, people who care — is continue the drumbeat. We can mark every death and remember every victim. It’s not a solution, but it’s something.

 
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