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As the nation reels from the recent mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, we look at why efforts to enact comprehensive laws to reduce gun violence are failing. 

Reveal’s Najib Aminy tells the story of a former lobbyist for the NRA, who explains how another school shooting years ago polarized the political debate about guns and all but eliminated the chances for compromise.

Then, host Al Letson speaks with reporter Alain Stephens from The Trace. Stephens has been tracking how technology is making guns more lethal and says one of the most troubling inventions is something called an auto sear. These tiny devices can turn pistols and rifles into machine guns. He also brings us up to date on his effort to force the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to share data about police guns that end up being used in crimes. Reveal sued the ATF on his behalf, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently came down with a decision.  

We end with a discussion with Reveal’s Jennifer Gollan, who last fall completed a groundbreaking investigation about homicides by intimate partners convicted of domestic abuse. Her reporting led to a rare moment of consensus on Capitol Hill and new provisions in the recently reauthorized Violence Against Women Act.

Dig Deeper

Read: When Abusers Keep Their Guns (Reveal)

Read: The Return of the Machine Gun (The Trace) 

Read: The Sacramento Mass Shooting Likely Involved a Converted Machine Gun, Officials Say (The Trace) 

Read: Reveal sued the ATF for crime gun data. The court’s decision could greatly expand government transparency. (Reveal)  

Listen: When Abusers Keep Their Guns (Reveal)

Watch: Unrelinquished (Reveal)

Credits

Reporters: Najib Aminy, Alain Stephens and Jennifer Gollan | Producers: Najib Aminy and Nadia Hamdan | Editor: Taki Telonidis | Fact checker: Nikki Frick | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Post production: Jess Alvarenga, Steven Rascon and Kathryn Styer Martinez | Host: Al Letson | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan 

Special thanks to Reveal general counsel Victoria Baranetsky and editors Nina Martin, Andy Donohue and Jenny Casas.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Nancy Solomon:A couple with powerful political connections was murdered in their bedroom. The case was never solved.
Speaker 2:They couldn’t have done a worse job if they intended to mess up that investigation.
Nancy Solomon:A botched investigation and New Jersey politics. I’m Nancy Solomon, listen to Dead End: a New Jersey Political Murder Mystery from WNYC Studios. Listen wherever you get podcasts.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. And this week’s show is about what I imagine is on all of our minds, the epidemic of gun violence that’s tearing apart our communities. And I have to tell you that we’ve had to rewrite this introduction too many times because these tragedies just keep happening, week in and week out. A month ago, we would’ve led with the attack in Sacramento that took six lives, but then came two shootings within a day of each other. One at a Taiwanese church in Orange County, California, the other in Buffalo, New York, where a white supremacist massacred 10 people at a grocery store. Buffalo’s Former Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield lost his 86 year old mother.
Former Fire Com…:We made no apologies for our suffering and our pain. You can see it. We’re not going to apologize for that, but we are not just hurting. We’re angry. We’re mad. And you expect us to keep doing this over and over and over again, over, over again, forgive and forget. While the people we elect and trust in offices around this country, do their best not to protect us, not to consider us equal. What are we supposed to do?
Al Letson:And now at least 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Hal Harrell:My heart was broken today. We’re a small community and we would need your prayers to get us through this.
Al Letson:That was Hal Harrell, superintendent of Uvalde schools. Like a lot of you, I dropped my kid off for school the day after the Uvalde killings. And it hurt to let him out of the car. I am mourning for those children and their families in Texas, but also yours and mine. And I’m angry because this shouldn’t be. Nowhere else in the world does this happen but here in America, over and over again. And the nation’s lawmakers have been unable, and in some cases, unwilling to make meaningful change. Hours after the shooting in Texas, Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut took to the Senate floor and addressed his colleagues.
Chris Murphy:I’m here on this floor to beg, to literally get down on my hands and knees and beg my colleagues. Find a path forward here, work with us to find a way to pass laws that make this less likely.
Al Letson:But as some lawmakers push for stricter laws, the Supreme Court is poised to rule on a challenge to a concealed carry law from New York. Overturning that law could force states to actually loosen restrictions on guns. So at a time when firearm deaths in the US are at an all time high, we’re going to spend this hour looking at gun violence and why so many efforts to pass comprehensive gun control legislation have failed. We start with a story that gives insight into how another mass shooting years ago opened up a path to common ground on new regulations and how that common ground abruptly disappeared. Aubra [inaudible] grew up in a family of hunters and competitive shooters in Butte, Montana.
Aubra:My mother had grown up in a family that had owned guns, many generations back. My grandfather was a third generation member of the NRA. I’m a fifth generation member of the NRA, and I was taught that guns were to be respected.
Al Letson:The first gun she ever fired was a .22 caliber Chipmunk rifle, a gift she got on her eighth birthday.
Aubra:My father took me out to the shooting range and he put a milk jug up on a log and he walked me through all the safety features. And then we spent about an hour shooting it.
Al Letson:Aubra eventually outgrew her beginner rifle and moved on to more advanced rifles, revolvers and pistols. She says, “as a young gun owner, the NRA was there for her with training and safety classes”.
Aubra:I think the thing that people who don’t live in places where firearm ownership is common, don’t realize is that for a long time owning a gun wasn’t a political act.
Al Letson:In 2005, Aubra moved to Washington and spent the next few years working on Capitol Hill. Then in 2011, she was offered a job by the NRA as a lobbyist, she jumped on it. But the job that at first felt like a perfect fit became painful and discouraging.
Aubra:That got blown to smithereens by both people on the radical right and people on the extreme left.
Al Letson:Aubra says, “this was the point of no return”. The national debate on guns would never be the same. Reveal’s Najib Aminy goes back to when it all started in December of 2012. And traces how that moment pushed Americans on both sides of the gun debate to the extreme .
Najib Aminy:First came the breaking news.
Speaker 9:Breaking news now for you. A Connecticut State Police and SWAT teams are now responding to a school shooting at an elementary school in Newtown. At either images you see here, children being led from Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is the district’s largest…
Najib Aminy:Then, the thoughts and prayers.
Speaker 10:We can let them know that we mourn with them and that we will lift the victims and their families and the entire community in prayer.
Najib Aminy:And not too long after, the congressional hearings.
Speaker 11:We have more than 200 people here today. We’re going to hear a lot of different perspectives on gun violence.
Najib Aminy:There was momentum building up for new gun laws from Democrats and Republicans. And President Barack Obama was waiting for a bill to sign.
Obama:I know this is not the first time this country has debated, how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different.
Najib Aminy:In the end though, it was the same as before. Congress failed to pass a bill that would’ve expanded background checks for firearms purchased online and at gun shows. Many people assumed it was because of lobbyists from the NRA.
Aubra:When the truth was I, and at least some of my colleagues at NRA, had done everything we could to ensure that some version of that bill passed. Post Sandy Hook, it wasn’t like the lobbyists at the NRA were immune to the impacts of what had happened.
Najib Aminy:Aubra says there were months of closed door meetings and high stakes negotiations between lawmakers and the NRA, after the Sandy hook shooting.
Aubra:And for a short while it looked like there was going to be a compromise, that we were going to sit down and come up with something that made sense. And maybe the NRA wouldn’t support it, but they’d be in a position to not oppose it.
Najib Aminy:But not everyone at the NRA was on board. And while some people in the organization were working toward a compromise, others were hardening their opposition to it. The NRA ran this ad targeting the president just a month after Sandy Hook.
Speaker 13:Are the president’s kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools, when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school?
Najib Aminy:Aubra says this rift had been growing inside the NRA for years, splitting the organization into Second Amendment moderates and hardliners. And from the outside, there was added pressure to move even further to the right, from newer and much smaller groups like the Gun Owners of America and the National Association for Gun Rights. For them, any hint of compromise would lead to what they called ultimate confiscation. The government, they believed, was coming for their guns. Then came an article in Politico that said the NRA was in talks with democratic senators.
Aubra:From the moment that article came out, there was no more talk of compromise. From the left it was, “How dare you work with the NRA? This is not the time to work with people who own guns. This is the time to take the ground and get as much gun control as we can.” And from the right, it was, “How dare you ever talk to a democratic senator about anything, any restriction.” And it broke down very quickly. And it was heartbreaking for me as a moderate gun owner, to see that there were areas where we could improve. And there were areas that should be apolitical and nothing was going to happen.
Najib Aminy:There was going to be no federal gun law. Any new legislation would have to come from the state level.
Andrew Cuomo:We are proposing today common sense measures. And I say to you, forget the extremists.
Najib Aminy:Governor Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers in New York State were the first to respond. In January 2013, they passed the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement or SAFE Act. The law banned certain types of semi-automatic firearms and limited the number of rounds you could have in a magazine. Cuomo called it the strictest gun law in the nation.
Andrew Cuomo:It’s simple, no one hunts with an assault rifle. No one needs 10 bullets to kill a deer and too many innocent people have died already. End the madness now. [crosstalk]
Najib Aminy:And since the SAFE Act, New York lawmakers have passed at least 15 new gun laws. Assemblywoman, Amy Paulin, who’s a Democrat from Westchester County, sponsored about a third of those bills.
Amy Paulin:I probably have more gun control bills than any other member than I can think of.
Najib Aminy:She’s held her seat for more than 20 years and says she’s introduced somewhere around 30 gun related bills. Do you know if you have an NRA rating?
Amy Paulin:I’ve never filled out their form, assuming I wouldn’t rate very well.
Najib Aminy:I don’t imagine that’s a concern or worry for you, but just out of curiosity.
Amy Paulin:No, I might be terrible. I would assume it’s pretty bad.
Najib Aminy:Still, she tells me she’s not trying to take away all guns from all people.
Amy Paulin:You can still get the gun. You can still get that gun. We just want to be sure as a society that you, again, aren’t going to harm other people or yourself. And sure you might have to go through a little bit of hoops, but aren’t the hoops worth it?
Najib Aminy:Since, the Sandy Hook shooting, state houses across the country have passed more than 465 gun control laws. Not surprisingly, many of these are in states, like New York, where Democrats control the legislature. But in the same time period, state houses also have passed more than 500 pro-gun bills. And you guessed it, these are mostly in Republican controlled states.
Speaker 15:New at 11, Georgia is now set to be the 25th state with a constitutional carry law. It means you no longer need a permit to carry a gun. Governor…
Najib Aminy:With the country this divided about guns, it kind of makes you wonder, is there anyone left in the middle? People like Aubra, who are gun owners, but also open to supporting laws aimed at reducing gun violence. This April, I went to a gun show in Syracuse, New York. Across 1000 tables in a cavernous building, the size of a football field, are all types of firearms. From antiques, shotguns, pistols, rifles to this. We have a flame thrower here, that’s going for $650. That’s cool, I guess. One of the first people I meet is Matt Mallory, a gun trainer who gives me a quick lesson.
Matt Mallory:How do we play cops and robbers as kids? Shoot me.
Najib Aminy:I don’t want to. A lesson that I quickly fail. [crosstalk] I ask him where he stands on gun laws.
Matt Mallory:I think there’s too many people out there that hate guns just because they don’t know about guns. And it might not be the tool for you, but who are you to tell other people they can’t use that tool to defend themselves. We don’t blame the car or the car manufacturer because somebody got drunk and got behind the wheel and use that car to kill somebody. We hold the person that was driving responsible.
Najib Aminy:Then Matt insists on walking me over to another booth.
Matt Mallory:I hate this because we might be on a wild goose chases. We get over there. If he’s not there, he is definitely on another. Hey, what we got Bob, got a news reporter.
Najib Aminy:This is where I meet Mike Master Giovanni. He’s wearing a red flannel shirt, blue jean shorts with tube socks and sneakers. And as the New York chapter president of the Gun Owners of America, Mike is armed to the teeth in talking points.
Mike:We have a government that their idea is to control people. Socialism is about one drop away. They want the American people to [inaudible] because they know that the American people, if they keep their firearms ownership, can’t be controlled the way they want them controlled.
Najib Aminy:So Mike, the gun owner and Matt, the gun trainer. They’re clearly not open to pretty much any gun control laws, but then I meet a shop owner.
Anthony:My name’s Anthony [inaudible], owner of [inaudible] Sporting Goods, the fourth generation of running the shop.
Najib Aminy:Anthony makes it clear that he “Backs the Blue” and supports the military. But when it comes to gun reform.
Anthony:I’m not an expert in politics. I don’t do it every day. They do. I do this every day. So if we could sit together, it’s got to be middle ground, like anything else. I mean, there’s give and take like anything else, but there’s too much gun violence.
Najib Aminy:Anthony says one of the biggest grievances gun owners have is how the laws are written.
Al Letson:I think a lot of the individuals coming out and writing these laws aren’t really familiar with firearms.
Najib Aminy:Anthony tells me a perfect example is the SAFE Act that passed in New York a month after the Sandy Hook shooting. He says a lot of the new rules are convoluted, like you can’t add certain accessories to your firearm unless you have a certain type of magazine that takes longer to reload. It’s a hassle for law abiding gun owners, but bad people with bad intentions, they can easily ignore the rules.
Anthony:The criminals aren’t concerned about the law is the bottom line. The criminals are criminals.
Najib Aminy:For Anthony, the key to writing gun laws that would make more of a difference is having gun owners like him at the table.
Anthony:I think there should be less fighting between people that aren’t in the firearms world and people that are. I would love to sit down with anybody and talk common sense, no yelling, no screaming. Let’s sit down and come up with something. These mass shootings got to stop.
Najib Aminy:This is a lot like what I heard from Aubra [inaudible], the former NRA lobbyist.
Aubra:If you don’t talk to the people who will be impacted by them every day and you don’t talk to the people who are familiar with the thing you’re trying to regulate, you’re going to get a law that on paper looks very reasonable and practical. But when you go to actually use it, is either a hindrance or useless.
Najib Aminy:Aubra quit her job at the NRA in 2013, because she says that it had gotten too extreme. These days, she sits on the board of 97Percent, a brand new advocacy group that promotes gun safety and bipartisan gun reform. She’s focused on getting gun owners in the same room with lawmakers. And when I told her I was also interviewing New York assemblywoman, Amy Paulin, for this story, she had one question that she wanted to ask.
Aubra:I would ask her the same question that I have asked every elected official I have ever worked for. Who did you talk to about this?
Amy Paulin:That’s a good question. There’s a lot of gun control groups that we know of, every town, New York is against gun violence. [inaudible] does a very good analysis of what’s happening around the country.
Najib Aminy:But how often do you speak to gun owners?
Amy Paulin:I do try, if I have a question I would call and say, “Does this make sense? Absolutely.” Remember we have gun owners in the legislature and they hear from other gun owners. So I do hear from them.
Najib Aminy:And do you feel like they’re represented in the legislation that you’ve drafted?
Amy Paulin:Maybe not as much the other pieces, honestly.
Najib Aminy:For Aubra [inaudible], the people in the middle aren’t represented by either side because of how advocacy works these days. Moderates tend not to organize like people who are fired up.
Aubra:You create an organization that survives on donations and survives on grassroots support, whether it’s pro gun control or pro Second Amendment. That organization cannot exist in the middle because the middle doesn’t motivate people to write the checks.
Najib Aminy:What happens if nothing changes?
Aubra:The question is not what happens if nothing changes. The question is, what happens if the only people who are allowed to form its change are the people with extreme beliefs?
Al Letson:That story was from Reveal’s Najib Aminy. In the days after the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Aubra reached out to democratic and republican members of Congress to see what could be done. She says both sides were reluctant to budge from their positions. One of the roadblocks to reaching consensus on laws for reducing gun violence is that policy makers don’t have access to good gun data.
Speaker 31:So it’s like we don’t even really know what’s killing us.
Al Letson:Coming up. Why federal gun statistics are kept secret and a victory for transparency. You’re listening to Reveal.
Missa Perron:Hi, this is Missa Perron, membership manager here at Reveal. Reveal is a nonprofit news organization. We depend on the support of our listeners. Donate today. Please head to revealnews.org/donate. Thank you.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. This is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. For many Americans, the best way to confront gun violence is to carry their own firearm. Robert Nash is one of them. Several years ago, he decided he wanted a handgun for self defense so he applied for a concealed carry permit. He lives in New York state, which means to get a license, he has to prove to a judge that he faces a direct threat and needs to protect himself.
Robert Nash:Get assigned a judge randomly, as far as I know, but I got assigned one that tends to say no to everybody.
Al Letson:And the judge said no to Robert. He could not have what’s called, an unrestricted license to carry on the street. Just a limited one for hunting and target shooting. That didn’t sit well with Robert. So he reached out to the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association. Almost immediately, he heard back from its president.
Robert Nash:And he says, “I know all about this.” He says, “You’re not the only one.” He said, “But I don’t know if we have a case yet. Let me talk to somebody at the NRA.” And he did. He got back to me right away and he says, “Look it, I think we have a case. I just want to get New York state’s law fixed. This requirement violates the Second Amendment.”
Al Letson:So they went to court and lost. They appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Speaker 16:The Supreme Court is agreeing to hear a case that has the potential to expand the scope of the Second Amendment.
Al Letson:In November, lawyers from both sides stood before the high court. Mr.
Speaker 17:Mr. Chief justice, and may I please the court. The text of the Second Amendment.
Al Letson:The justices had a lot to say, weighing in with questions and comments.
Speaker 18:What it appears to me is that the history tradition of carrying weapons is that states get a lot of death.
Speaker 19:How rural does the area have to be before your restrictions [crosstalk]
Speaker 20:You can’t and law enforcement is not available to come to your aid if something does happen, but…
Speaker 21:Well, how many muggings take place in the forest?
Al Letson:A ruling on the case is expected next month. This is the first time in more than a decade, the Supreme Court will decide a gun case. In the last case, the court ruled the Second Amendment guarantees all Americans the right to keep firearms for self-defense in their home. This ruling could extend that right outside the home to public places and overturning New York’s law will affect other states that have strict concealed carry laws on the books. The legal tug of war comes as gun sales in the US are at a record high. In 2020, gun factories produced more than 11 million firearms, nearly triple the number in 2000. And that doesn’t count the ones that are untraceable, including a new generation of guns made at home.
Al Letson:Reporter, Alan Stevens, thinks a lot about firearms, where they come from, how many are used in crimes and how new technology is making them more lethal. Alan’s a gun owner, a military veteran, and now a journalist. He did a story for Reveal a few years back and currently works for The Trace, an outlet that covers guns and gun violence in America. The most troubling thing he’s seeing now is something called an auto sear.
Alan Stevens:It’s this thing that’s about the size of a thimble and it can turn your common semiautomatic weapon into an automatic machine gun.
Al Letson:I’m not a gun enthusiast at all, but I do know my way around a handgun. And so a handgun either has a clip or it’s a revolver where you put bullets in the chamber. How does this technology turn it into a machine gun?
Alan Stevens:It looks like a small black Lego block, or a small, little bitty, inconspicuous device that could fit in the palm of your hand, right? And you either fit this inside of your AR-15 or most commonly on the back of a Glock type handgun. And it just snaps onto the back with some installation. And it just overrides those firing controls and allows you to just turn that thing into an automatic weapon, capable of firing up to 1200 rounds per minute so about 20 rounds a second.
Al Letson:And I just want to jump in and warn listeners, but we’re about to hear some gunfire.
Alan Stevens:So here’s a clip of a semiautomatic.
Alan Stevens:And then this is me actually going out and I met with an arms trafficker and a guy with actually a legal gun license. And we went out and we started firing some of these auto sears, and this is how they sound.
Alan Stevens:So that’s about 60 rounds right there that I just entirely emptied out on a drum mag. So you can see it’s just a ferocious amount of fire power. And you could find these things for as cheap as $20 online. So that right now, that’s what’s keeping me awake at night.
Al Letson:How did you find out about these?
Alan Stevens:So this is actually kind of a natural evolution of my reporting on ghost guns, these homemade un-serialized firearms that had gotten really popular over the years. And when I was doing that investigation those years ago, I’m talking to these high level federal agents and they tell me that technology. The internet and this kind of do it yourself gun craft has really went viral. And the next evolution of making guns is now making them into machine guns.
Alan Stevens:So I just started tracking this and I just started pulling all the federal case files that I could find of people with machine guns. And I found them all sorts of places.
Al Letson:So have we seen these devices in the wild i.e., has there been shootings where we know that these were used?
Alan Stevens:Absolutely. And that was part of my investigation. I’ve seen this in everything from mass shootings, in fact. And Sacramento, someone had one of these autos sears and fired into a downtown crowd during a busy weekend. We’ve seen this with extremist groups so the Boogaloo boys in particular, have had a number of incidents where they have bought these and even used these to assassinate officers and orchestrated attacks. And then we also see this in just regular common street violence. So it really is kind of a thing that has just popped off. In fact, it popped off so much that I actually could readily find videos, just social media videos of being like, “Yo, look at the machine gun fight going on outside.” It’s just Pandora’s box has been opened on these things.
Al Letson:Do we know how big a problem these auto sears are?
Alan Stevens:So we don’t. We really don’t. Part of that is just because when it comes to gun violence and gun reporting, the federal entities that are involved in this are particularly secretive and obfuscated. I tell new reporters when they come to the gun violence beat, I tell them just the difficulty of this world that they’re entering in. The majority of the gun companies are private. They’re mostly absolved due to laws so they’re not going to be sued. So that’s not a window in, there’s not a ton of research. And then the one government entity that you have to interact with is law enforcement. And out of law enforcement, you have to deal with the ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. And so what a lot of people don’t know is that they’re one of the most secretive organizations out there. We did a statistical analysis one time when we found out that they honor less public information request in agencies like the FBI and the DEA and even the CIA.
Alan Stevens:And so this is the world that you enter in when we start reporting on gun violence and it is shadowy and secret and very hard to get info.
Al Letson:So what do you think that is?
Alan Stevens:It’s by design. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have been nearly director list for 20 years. They have been beaten up by special interest, lobbying by lawsuits and even by scandal. And they’re more afraid of the gun companies of getting raped over the coals by Congress than they are of informing the public about gun violence or notifying them about their successes or their failures right in this space. So, we don’t even really know what’s killing us.
Al Letson:So you’ve been on this beat for six years. Can you give me an example of how hard it is to get information from these organizations?
Alan Stevens:I’ll give you an example right here, work with y’all. This was years ago and I was this young investigative fellow working for Reveal. And I asked a very simple question. I wanted to know how many police guns were showing up in crimes.
Al Letson:So I go to the remote Hills of West Virginia to find a guy named Scott Thomason.
Alan Stevens:I had heard about police weapons showing up at crime scenes for a variety of different factors and that the ATF, they had kept records of this.
Al Letson:For decades, Thomason worked undercover as an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Alan Stevens:And in fact, people had reported on these records until essentially the NRA had lobbied heavily for a law that would block this information from being released. And so essentially it would require me to sue to just get very basic answers.
Al Letson:What if I told you I was going to string that thread together to find out how many sold police guns ended up in crimes? What would you say to that endeavor?
Alan Stevens:Good luck. Good luck.
Al Letson:So to get the data you were looking for, you teamed up with Reveal and with our lead council, Victoria Baranetsky. Victoria, how are you?
Victoria Barane…:Good. Hi Al.
Al Letson:I have no idea why I called you Victoria, because you’re Vicky to me.
Victoria Barane…:Thank goodness. I got a little scared. I was like, “Do I put on a collared shirt?”
Al Letson:No, no, no, no. So Vicky, when Alan came to you with this ATF response, what was your reaction?
Victoria Barane…:Honestly, I was a bit disappointed in the government and the circumstances that existed and was really proud of Alan because he basically acted as a super sleuth, mini attorney. So basically Alan came into my office, said, “Listen, I’ve been trying to get this data. How can you help?” And explained the whole legal regime to me that Congress passes this law that had been lobbied by the NRA. To essentially not permit the ATF to disclose data about guns to the public. ATF cleans its hands and says, “Fine, we won’t touch it.” But this is the key part. Alan had looked a little bit closer at that law. For many years, reporters had just assumed that was it, case closed. However, if you look at the interior of the law, you see, there are three specific exceptions that Congress had made.
Victoria Barane…:Congress said the third exception is statistical aggregate data. That’s the key to the story here. And what’s even more interesting is that for many years before data journalism was really a thing, nobody really cared about statistical data. Everybody wanted the specifics on an individual gun. But all Alan was asking for was the number of guns that had been used in law enforcement and ended up in crimes that year so that was statistical aggregate data. And the agency said, “Nope, we’re not allowed to give you any information.” And so we went to court.
Al Letson:And so what happened in the end?
Victoria Barane…:So it’s been a five year battle. So there’s a lot that’s happened in that time.
Al Letson:Wait, wait, wait, wait. Five years?
Victoria Barane…:So we filed the lawsuit in 2017. It was actually the first lawsuit I filed when I was at Reveal. And we only got a decision from the court this past year.
Al Letson:And what was that decision?
Victoria Barane…:So ultimately the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, this is one of the highest courts in the country, right under the Supreme Court of the United States. And the court said, “Alan was right, that this was statistical aggregate data. And under the plain definition and plain meaning of the statute, it just had to be released.”
Al Letson:So Alan, the Ninth Circuit rule that under FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act, the ATF had to give you the data. The big question is, have they?
Alan Stevens:So we got some data just recently and it’s a lot of guns I’ll say. But it’s one thing to have that data, like any good data reporter. But it’s another thing to contextualize that data so it’s time to find out who and what and how, and why this is happening.
Al Letson:So you’re going to vet the data. And once you do, you’ll do a follow up story. But until then, is there anything else you guys can tell us about these numbers?
Victoria Barane…:If you actually saw the data sheet of what Alan actually got, it’s about 12 numbers that the government was fighting over. This is what we’re talking about. 12 numbers, about the numbers of guns from the years 2006 to 2022. You’re just asking for the plain numbers that the government holds, that it is making sure that it’s doing its due diligence in how guns are being operated within its territory.
Alan Stevens:I’m with you, Vicky. It’s for real, I’ve never asked the government. I’ve never asked the ATF anything other than, is it doing its job? Are you there? Are you doing the basics? I’ve asked them, just tell me what’s happening to your own weapons. Tell me, are you inspecting gun stores like we pay you to do. Tell me, what are you going to do about machine guns? Machine guns are patently illegal. They’re bad. We know they’re bad. And it’s like, they don’t want to tell me the basics on that. And it’s taken me, like I said, five, six years, half a decade to just realize that’s by design.
Victoria Barane…:Moreover, there was also this sort of interesting side story about how the agency was claiming that records that were requested from this database amounted to the creation of a new document. Generally, under FOIA, you’re not allowed to make the government produce new records. That’s kind of understandable. You can’t say, “Hey government, go draft up this report of all this information I want.” But there’s a real difference between basically doing a search of a database and handing over just what the results of that search were. Here, the government was claiming that doing a search of the ATF database was like creating a whole new record. And in the argument in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in fact, one of the judges even said, “Is this any different from doing a Google search in my inbox?”
Victoria Barane…:The point here being that not only was the ATF going so far as to say that you can’t have access to this data, but they were trying to create an even larger blanket rule that looking into a database of any government database would not be permissible under the law, which would’ve had a much more far-reaching effect for all agencies. Think about the number of databases there are in the world, let alone that the government organizes and how much of our public data is stored in databases today. And so this battle was really a much larger one that we had to go to the mattresses over. And luckily, we won on both accounts.
Alan Stevens:Imagine that. I was a small, young reporter at the time. I’m living in Texas. And this is my first FOIA to the ATF. And their response was like, “What? Like, we’re just going to nullify FOIA almost for the future. It’s just insane.” And so you see that type of, it’s like pulling teeth out of an alligator, in the dark, underwater. It’s just insane to do this beat. It’s crazy, man.
Al Letson:So this fight that you and Vicky have been going through for the last five years to get all of this information that really, Vicky said was 12 numbers. What does that tell you about America? And what does that tell you about the future for gun violence in this country?
Alan Stevens:It tells me that I don’t know. That lawsuit, we’re just now getting basic answers. And so what’s the cost of that? I think the public hears that and is like, “Well, I don’t care, four years, whatever.” But what’s the cost of that? Well, 111 people die every day from getting shot and it’s so common. I know people, I talk to people who lose loved ones. It happens all around us. We’re having this national conversation about gun violence in America and we’re mostly having it in the dark. And so in the meantime, we have to file these lawsuits to get basic questions. And while it takes all this time and resources and effort, we eat the violence. We’re just getting killed out here. We’re just getting killed every day. And so, I don’t think it fairs as well for our future.
Al Letson:Alan, thank you so much for coming in and for filing the lawsuit.
Alan Stevens:Hey man, thanks for being along on the ride with me.
Al Letson:Alan Stevens covers guns and gun violence for The Trace and Victoria Baranetsky is Reveal’s general counsel. Our story was produced by Nadia Hamdon.
Al Letson:Like many types of gun violence, killings by intimate partners have been climbing. And for years, lawmakers seemed gridlocked. Then came an investigation and an unexpected breakthrough.
Speaker 22:Even under your masks, I’ve seen tears that have welled up at this announcement that we are at this point.
Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal.
Speaker 36:Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program, to bring you a special bulletin.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is [crosstalk]
Speaker 23:This is [inaudible] and Fernando Arruda. We’re the sound designers behind Reveal. Each week we create an album of regional music for every single episode. We like to think thematically and create music that will help listeners understand the story. It’s all available for download. You can find it at revealnews.bandcamp.com. Thanks for listening.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. We’re now going to follow up on a story about gun violence we did last fall that accomplished what many people thought was impossible. It brought together lawmakers, Democrats, and Republicans to agree on national legislation to prevent domestic violence. The new steps were added to the Violence Against Women Act that was signed into law in March. Let’s go back to the beginning. A few months into the pandemic Reveal’s, Jennifer Golan, noticed a troubling trend.
Jennifer Gollan:There was talk among researchers that domestic violence incidents were increasing. And I wanted to know what was going on. So I started running background checks on perpetrators of these domestic violence homicides.
Al Letson:And as she dove into those cases, she discovered many of them had something in common.
Jennifer Gollan:There were so many cases involving people who shouldn’t have had guns in the first place. And that was shocking because we have laws on the books that prohibit people who have criminal histories from having guns. And yet, here were all these murders that seemed preventable, if someone had just taken the gun away.
Al Letson:Jen spent months reporting on this. And back in October, we aired “When abusers keep their guns”. And it exposed what can happen when the law to take away someone’s gun is not enforced. Jen focused on the story of Ashley Rucker.
Jennifer Gollan:Ashley was a medical assistant, who lived in Florida and she was a single mom who had a young son. And she came from a really close family, she had a younger sister, Lisa, and they were really close.
Lisa:If you were her friend, she had your back 100%.
Jennifer Gollan:That’s just who she was.
Lisa:When I was younger, she used to tell me that I would never have to fight anybody because she would always do it. And to this day, I’m 32 and I’ve never been in a fight in my life.
Al Letson:Ashley was dating someone named Chad Absher.
Jennifer Gollan:Chad Absher was a guy who also lived in Florida and he had his own lawn care business for years. But what we found is in digging through his criminal history, he was actually convicted of a felony at one point for stalking an ex-girlfriend and shooting up her house.
Al Letson:And even though that meant he was barred by state and federal law from having a gun, Chad still carried one. Police never took it away. After dating Chad for a couple years, Ashley decided to end the relationship. He was too controlling and often picked a fight.
Lisa:But every time that she would say, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m done.” He would threaten her. I heard him tell her that he would kill her and all of her family. In early 2017, there were police reports that were made that he possessed a firearm and threatened my sister with it.
Al Letson:About six months later, it’s the night before Halloween. Ashley and Lisa are in their apartment and they’d ordered pizza to share with their sons. Chad shows up and starts arguing with Ashley. Things escalate. Then Chad reaches for his gun.
Dispatcher:Jackson 911. What is the location of the emergency?
Witness:Oh my God, there’s been a murder. There’s been a murder.
Dispatcher:What’s the address?
Witness:Oh my God.
Dispatcher:What’s the address?
Al Letson:Lisa says, Chad shot her and Ashley too. Ashley died and Lisa barely survived. Chad is in jail awaiting trial for a first degree murder, attempted murder and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. But could the whole thing have been avoided? Jen Golan is here now. And Jen, what are your big takeaways from that story?
Jennifer Gollan:This was a wrenching project Al. I mean, on the one hand federal law and many states prohibit felons and domestic abusers from having guns, yet we discovered an open secret. The law is largely not enforced.
Al Letson:I mean, basically we rely on the honor system.
Jennifer Gollan:Exactly, abusers are trusted to hand over their guns themselves. We found many cases where they just didn’t. This is especially important now Al, because domestic violence homicides jumped during the pandemic to the highest level in nearly three decades.
Al Letson:So your investigation aired here on Reveal and The Guardian co-published your digital series. Reveal also produced a film with Fault Lines from Al Jazeera. How did people react when all of that came out?
Jennifer Gollan:Well, after the radio piece aired, we heard from a congressman’s office. They were very excited about the work and wanted to show the film on Capitol Hill. I flew to DC for the screening and briefed lawmakers and advocates on our findings.
Speaker 40:For more than a year, I’ve been delving into the murders of people killed.
Jennifer Gollan:Several members of Congress spoke, some in deeply personal terms about their own experiences surviving domestic abuse.
Speaker 25:I, as a survivor, have experienced all kinds of violence up to and including had a loaded pistol leveled at my head.
Jennifer Gollan:That was Democrat Gwen Moore from Milwaukee. Congressman Eric Swalwell spoke too, and he cited our investigation and told the group, they need to figure out a way to make sure abusers turn in their guns. But knowing how polarized Congress is, I wasn’t counting on any action.
Al Letson:So what happened next?
Jennifer Gollan:Well then a few months later in February, I got a call from sources on Capitol Hill. They said a group of senators had made a huge breakthrough that included broad proposals spurred by our reporting. They’d just been written into the Senate’s Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization, which had been stalled in the Senate for three years. Now, all of a sudden, senators on both sides of the aisle were agreeing. Something had to be done.
Al Letson:In this political environment. That is amazing.
Jennifer Gollan:It’s true. And by February, this group had a proposal, it was ready to go to the full Senate for a vote. And they held a press conference to announce what they’d done. Here’s Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski.
Lisa Murkowski:Even under your masks, I’ve seen tears that have welled up at this announcement that we are at this point. That perhaps, just perhaps, we’re going to avoid VAWA being the political football.
Jennifer Gollan:Others spoke too, including other senators and the head of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and even Angelina Jolie was there. This is an issue that’s really important to her.
Angelina Jolie:Standing here at the center of our nation’s power. I can think only of everyone who’s been made to feel powerless by their abusers, by a system that failed.
Al Letson:You said the senate proposal included measures inspired by your reporting. What were they?
Jennifer Gollan:Well, like I said before, there’s often no mechanism in place to take guns away from domestic abusers. So senators proposed that the Justice Department appoints state and local prosecutors to go after violations of federal firearms laws. Another problem we found is that the most egregious cases are often overlooked. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, that’s supposed to enforce the nation’s gun laws has limited reach. Now the US Attorney General can deputize local and state police to act as ATF agents to investigate these cases.
Al Letson:So what happened when this went to the full Senate?
Jennifer Gollan:Well, a month after the Senate announced its proposal, Congress approved the deal in March. President Joe Biden sponsored that first VAWA almost 30 years ago. So when the bill landed on his desk, he quickly signed it into law.
President Joe B…:Thank you for coming together and never giving up. The fact is it really wasn’t so long ago, this country didn’t want to talk about violence against women, let alone as being a national epidemic, something the government had to address. As a society, we literally looked away.
Al Letson:So this is now the law, but what happens next to put it into action? I mean, this sounds like a lot of new responsibilities on prosecutors and police.
Jennifer Gollan:That’s right. What’s supposed to happen now is the Justice Department will identify at least 75 jurisdictions across the country where local authorities need help dealing with domestic violence shootings. And another thing is the Justice Department will designate people and every US attorneys and every ATF field office to help police some prosecutors across the country.
Al Letson:Still, it sounds like it’s going to take time. Like you mentioned, domestic violence is spiking right now.
Jennifer Gollan:That’s right. The National Domestic Violence Hotline received more calls in February than at any time in its 25 year history, Al. I mean, they got 74,000 calls, chats and texts. And like I found in my reporting, many of those abusers had guns.
Al Letson:What else is being done to tackle this issue?
Jennifer Gollan:All right, well, even with the new law in place, it’s going to take a lot to keep victims of domestic violence safe. So right now, I’m reporting on a crucial moment in a typical domestic violence case when the cops are called. The police are at the scene, they’ve talked to the victim and they’ve dealt with the abuser. But then they have to decide, should I get more involved? And that means making a calculation, is this person who was threatened or attacked today at risk of being killed by their partner the next time they get into an argument?
Al Letson:Wait, how are they supposed to do that?
Jennifer Gollan:It’s usually a judgment call by the police officer. And as we learned in our reporting, police often get it wrong. But there’s this tool that researchers say can predict whether an abuse victim could end up being murdered. It’s called a lethality assessment.
Al Letson:And what is it?
Jennifer Gollan:Well, it’s similar than you might think. It’s a list of questions that police are supposed to ask victims before they leave the scene. And there are a number of assessments out there, but the one police use most often was developed by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. I talked with Tanya Grant. She teaches in the criminal justice program at Mercy College in New York state.
 Tanya Grant:It’s not cumbersome. They literally need to check the boxes and the questions are not, 4, 5, 6 sentences in lengths. It’s one sentence. Has he or she threatened to kill you or your children? It’s very, very clear, concise, to the point. And then at that point, if the protocol is triggered, meaning these victims affirm any of those questions that become, you’re in a lethal kind of situation. Then they need to pick up a phone and then they call the agency and then the agency takes over from there.
Al Letson:How well do these lethality assessments work?
Jennifer Gollan:Well, they’ve been around for 17 years and research shows they’re effective. If the victim answers yes to several questions, then the police are supposed to call victims advocates to help them. The problem is, not enough police departments use them. And even when they do, they don’t always use them the right way. We uncovered a slew of cases where women and children were killed by abusers after police failed to ask these simple questions.
 Tanya Grant:I heard officers say to me that it was easier if the victim had died paperwork wise than actually having an entire folder full of paperwork that is required in an active domestic violence case. And I’ve heard that tons of times. Here they come with another form. The second thing I think is that a lot of training is not done properly for officers from the very, very beginning.
Al Letson:So Jen, what’s being done to encourage police to use these lethality assessments more?
Jennifer Gollan:Well, there’s no requirement that police even use these lethality tools. There is training from the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. They train law enforcement and police can apply for grants to help pay for it. But it’s up to individual police departments to even decide that this is a priority. And we’re just not there yet.
Al Letson:Thanks Jen. That’s Reveal’s Jennifer Golan.
Jennifer Gollan:Thank you very much, Al.
Al Letson:This is the time in the show when we typically thank the people who put it together. But today we’d like to take a moment to remember those killed at the Uvalde school shooting. Uziyah Garcia, Xavier Lopez, Jose Flores, Miranda Mathis, Ellie Garcia, Tess Marie Mata, Eliahana Cruz Torres, Annabell Guadalupe Rodriguez, Makenna Elrod, Nevaeh Bravo, Maite Yuleana Rodriguez, Alithia Ramirez, Jayce Carmelo Luevanos, Nicole Silguero, RO Rojelio Torres, Alexandria Aniyah Rubio, Amerie Jo Garza, Jacky Cazares, Layla Salazar, all were in the fourth grade. Also, killed were teachers Eva Mireles and Irma Garcia. This is Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Nancy Solomon:A couple with powerful political connections was murdered in their bedroom. The case was never solved.
Speaker 2:They couldn’t have done a worse job if they intended to mess up that investigation.
Nancy Solomon:A botched investigation and New Jersey politics. I’m Nancy Solomon, listen to Dead End: a New Jersey Political Murder Mystery from WNYC Studios. Listen wherever you get podcasts.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. And this week’s show is about what I imagine is on all of our minds, the epidemic of gun violence that’s tearing apart our communities. And I have to tell you that we’ve had to rewrite this introduction too many times because these tragedies just keep happening, week in and week out. A month ago, we would’ve led with the attack in Sacramento that took six lives, but then came two shootings within a day of each other. One at a Taiwanese church in Orange County, California, the other in Buffalo, New York, where a white supremacist massacred 10 people at a grocery store. Buffalo’s Former Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield lost his 86 year old mother.
Former Fire Com…:We made no apologies for our suffering and our pain. You can see it. We’re not going to apologize for that, but we are not just hurting. We’re angry. We’re mad. And you expect us to keep doing this over and over and over again, over, over again, forgive and forget. While the people we elect and trust in offices around this country, do their best not to protect us, not to consider us equal. What are we supposed to do?
Al Letson:And now at least 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Hal Harrell:My heart was broken today. We’re a small community and we would need your prayers to get us through this.
Al Letson:That was Hal Harrell, superintendent of Uvalde schools. Like a lot of you, I dropped my kid off for school the day after the Uvalde killings. And it hurt to let him out of the car. I am mourning for those children and their families in Texas, but also yours and mine. And I’m angry because this shouldn’t be. Nowhere else in the world does this happen but here in America, over and over again. And the nation’s lawmakers have been unable, and in some cases, unwilling to make meaningful change. Hours after the shooting in Texas, Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut took to the Senate floor and addressed his colleagues.
Chris Murphy:I’m here on this floor to beg, to literally get down on my hands and knees and beg my colleagues. Find a path forward here, work with us to find a way to pass laws that make this less likely.
Al Letson:But as some lawmakers push for stricter laws, the Supreme Court is poised to rule on a challenge to a concealed carry law from New York. Overturning that law could force states to actually loosen restrictions on guns. So at a time when firearm deaths in the US are at an all time high, we’re going to spend this hour looking at gun violence and why so many efforts to pass comprehensive gun control legislation have failed. We start with a story that gives insight into how another mass shooting years ago opened up a path to common ground on new regulations and how that common ground abruptly disappeared. Aubra [inaudible] grew up in a family of hunters and competitive shooters in Butte, Montana.
Aubra:My mother had grown up in a family that had owned guns, many generations back. My grandfather was a third generation member of the NRA. I’m a fifth generation member of the NRA, and I was taught that guns were to be respected.
Al Letson:The first gun she ever fired was a .22 caliber Chipmunk rifle, a gift she got on her eighth birthday.
Aubra:My father took me out to the shooting range and he put a milk jug up on a log and he walked me through all the safety features. And then we spent about an hour shooting it.
Al Letson:Aubra eventually outgrew her beginner rifle and moved on to more advanced rifles, revolvers and pistols. She says, “as a young gun owner, the NRA was there for her with training and safety classes”.
Aubra:I think the thing that people who don’t live in places where firearm ownership is common, don’t realize is that for a long time owning a gun wasn’t a political act.
Al Letson:In 2005, Aubra moved to Washington and spent the next few years working on Capitol Hill. Then in 2011, she was offered a job by the NRA as a lobbyist, she jumped on it. But the job that at first felt like a perfect fit became painful and discouraging.
Aubra:That got blown to smithereens by both people on the radical right and people on the extreme left.
Al Letson:Aubra says, “this was the point of no return”. The national debate on guns would never be the same. Reveal’s Najib Aminy goes back to when it all started in December of 2012. And traces how that moment pushed Americans on both sides of the gun debate to the extreme .
Najib Aminy:First came the breaking news.
Speaker 9:Breaking news now for you. A Connecticut State Police and SWAT teams are now responding to a school shooting at an elementary school in Newtown. At either images you see here, children being led from Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is the district’s largest…
Najib Aminy:Then, the thoughts and prayers.
Speaker 10:We can let them know that we mourn with them and that we will lift the victims and their families and the entire community in prayer.
Najib Aminy:And not too long after, the congressional hearings.
Speaker 11:We have more than 200 people here today. We’re going to hear a lot of different perspectives on gun violence.
Najib Aminy:There was momentum building up for new gun laws from Democrats and Republicans. And President Barack Obama was waiting for a bill to sign.
Obama:I know this is not the first time this country has debated, how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different.
Najib Aminy:In the end though, it was the same as before. Congress failed to pass a bill that would’ve expanded background checks for firearms purchased online and at gun shows. Many people assumed it was because of lobbyists from the NRA.
Aubra:When the truth was I, and at least some of my colleagues at NRA, had done everything we could to ensure that some version of that bill passed. Post Sandy Hook, it wasn’t like the lobbyists at the NRA were immune to the impacts of what had happened.
Najib Aminy:Aubra says there were months of closed door meetings and high stakes negotiations between lawmakers and the NRA, after the Sandy hook shooting.
Aubra:And for a short while it looked like there was going to be a compromise, that we were going to sit down and come up with something that made sense. And maybe the NRA wouldn’t support it, but they’d be in a position to not oppose it.
Najib Aminy:But not everyone at the NRA was on board. And while some people in the organization were working toward a compromise, others were hardening their opposition to it. The NRA ran this ad targeting the president just a month after Sandy Hook.
Speaker 13:Are the president’s kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools, when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school?
Najib Aminy:Aubra says this rift had been growing inside the NRA for years, splitting the organization into Second Amendment moderates and hardliners. And from the outside, there was added pressure to move even further to the right, from newer and much smaller groups like the Gun Owners of America and the National Association for Gun Rights. For them, any hint of compromise would lead to what they called ultimate confiscation. The government, they believed, was coming for their guns. Then came an article in Politico that said the NRA was in talks with democratic senators.
Aubra:From the moment that article came out, there was no more talk of compromise. From the left it was, “How dare you work with the NRA? This is not the time to work with people who own guns. This is the time to take the ground and get as much gun control as we can.” And from the right, it was, “How dare you ever talk to a democratic senator about anything, any restriction.” And it broke down very quickly. And it was heartbreaking for me as a moderate gun owner, to see that there were areas where we could improve. And there were areas that should be apolitical and nothing was going to happen.
Najib Aminy:There was going to be no federal gun law. Any new legislation would have to come from the state level.
Andrew Cuomo:We are proposing today common sense measures. And I say to you, forget the extremists.
Najib Aminy:Governor Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers in New York State were the first to respond. In January 2013, they passed the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement or SAFE Act. The law banned certain types of semi-automatic firearms and limited the number of rounds you could have in a magazine. Cuomo called it the strictest gun law in the nation.
Andrew Cuomo:It’s simple, no one hunts with an assault rifle. No one needs 10 bullets to kill a deer and too many innocent people have died already. End the madness now. [crosstalk]
Najib Aminy:And since the SAFE Act, New York lawmakers have passed at least 15 new gun laws. Assemblywoman, Amy Paulin, who’s a Democrat from Westchester County, sponsored about a third of those bills.
Amy Paulin:I probably have more gun control bills than any other member than I can think of.
Najib Aminy:She’s held her seat for more than 20 years and says she’s introduced somewhere around 30 gun related bills. Do you know if you have an NRA rating?
Amy Paulin:I’ve never filled out their form, assuming I wouldn’t rate very well.
Najib Aminy:I don’t imagine that’s a concern or worry for you, but just out of curiosity.
Amy Paulin:No, I might be terrible. I would assume it’s pretty bad.
Najib Aminy:Still, she tells me she’s not trying to take away all guns from all people.
Amy Paulin:You can still get the gun. You can still get that gun. We just want to be sure as a society that you, again, aren’t going to harm other people or yourself. And sure you might have to go through a little bit of hoops, but aren’t the hoops worth it?
Najib Aminy:Since, the Sandy Hook shooting, state houses across the country have passed more than 465 gun control laws. Not surprisingly, many of these are in states, like New York, where Democrats control the legislature. But in the same time period, state houses also have passed more than 500 pro-gun bills. And you guessed it, these are mostly in Republican controlled states.
Speaker 15:New at 11, Georgia is now set to be the 25th state with a constitutional carry law. It means you no longer need a permit to carry a gun. Governor…
Najib Aminy:With the country this divided about guns, it kind of makes you wonder, is there anyone left in the middle? People like Aubra, who are gun owners, but also open to supporting laws aimed at reducing gun violence. This April, I went to a gun show in Syracuse, New York. Across 1000 tables in a cavernous building, the size of a football field, are all types of firearms. From antiques, shotguns, pistols, rifles to this. We have a flame thrower here, that’s going for $650. That’s cool, I guess. One of the first people I meet is Matt Mallory, a gun trainer who gives me a quick lesson.
Matt Mallory:How do we play cops and robbers as kids? Shoot me.
Najib Aminy:I don’t want to. A lesson that I quickly fail. [crosstalk] I ask him where he stands on gun laws.
Matt Mallory:I think there’s too many people out there that hate guns just because they don’t know about guns. And it might not be the tool for you, but who are you to tell other people they can’t use that tool to defend themselves. We don’t blame the car or the car manufacturer because somebody got drunk and got behind the wheel and use that car to kill somebody. We hold the person that was driving responsible.
Najib Aminy:Then Matt insists on walking me over to another booth.
Matt Mallory:I hate this because we might be on a wild goose chases. We get over there. If he’s not there, he is definitely on another. Hey, what we got Bob, got a news reporter.
Najib Aminy:This is where I meet Mike Master Giovanni. He’s wearing a red flannel shirt, blue jean shorts with tube socks and sneakers. And as the New York chapter president of the Gun Owners of America, Mike is armed to the teeth in talking points.
Mike:We have a government that their idea is to control people. Socialism is about one drop away. They want the American people to [inaudible] because they know that the American people, if they keep their firearms ownership, can’t be controlled the way they want them controlled.
Najib Aminy:So Mike, the gun owner and Matt, the gun trainer. They’re clearly not open to pretty much any gun control laws, but then I meet a shop owner.
Anthony:My name’s Anthony [inaudible], owner of [inaudible] Sporting Goods, the fourth generation of running the shop.
Najib Aminy:Anthony makes it clear that he “Backs the Blue” and supports the military. But when it comes to gun reform.
Anthony:I’m not an expert in politics. I don’t do it every day. They do. I do this every day. So if we could sit together, it’s got to be middle ground, like anything else. I mean, there’s give and take like anything else, but there’s too much gun violence.
Najib Aminy:Anthony says one of the biggest grievances gun owners have is how the laws are written.
Al Letson:I think a lot of the individuals coming out and writing these laws aren’t really familiar with firearms.
Najib Aminy:Anthony tells me a perfect example is the SAFE Act that passed in New York a month after the Sandy Hook shooting. He says a lot of the new rules are convoluted, like you can’t add certain accessories to your firearm unless you have a certain type of magazine that takes longer to reload. It’s a hassle for law abiding gun owners, but bad people with bad intentions, they can easily ignore the rules.
Anthony:The criminals aren’t concerned about the law is the bottom line. The criminals are criminals.
Najib Aminy:For Anthony, the key to writing gun laws that would make more of a difference is having gun owners like him at the table.
Anthony:I think there should be less fighting between people that aren’t in the firearms world and people that are. I would love to sit down with anybody and talk common sense, no yelling, no screaming. Let’s sit down and come up with something. These mass shootings got to stop.
Najib Aminy:This is a lot like what I heard from Aubra [inaudible], the former NRA lobbyist.
Aubra:If you don’t talk to the people who will be impacted by them every day and you don’t talk to the people who are familiar with the thing you’re trying to regulate, you’re going to get a law that on paper looks very reasonable and practical. But when you go to actually use it, is either a hindrance or useless.
Najib Aminy:Aubra quit her job at the NRA in 2013, because she says that it had gotten too extreme. These days, she sits on the board of 97Percent, a brand new advocacy group that promotes gun safety and bipartisan gun reform. She’s focused on getting gun owners in the same room with lawmakers. And when I told her I was also interviewing New York assemblywoman, Amy Paulin, for this story, she had one question that she wanted to ask.
Aubra:I would ask her the same question that I have asked every elected official I have ever worked for. Who did you talk to about this?
Amy Paulin:That’s a good question. There’s a lot of gun control groups that we know of, every town, New York is against gun violence. [inaudible] does a very good analysis of what’s happening around the country.
Najib Aminy:But how often do you speak to gun owners?
Amy Paulin:I do try, if I have a question I would call and say, “Does this make sense? Absolutely.” Remember we have gun owners in the legislature and they hear from other gun owners. So I do hear from them.
Najib Aminy:And do you feel like they’re represented in the legislation that you’ve drafted?
Amy Paulin:Maybe not as much the other pieces, honestly.
Najib Aminy:For Aubra [inaudible], the people in the middle aren’t represented by either side because of how advocacy works these days. Moderates tend not to organize like people who are fired up.
Aubra:You create an organization that survives on donations and survives on grassroots support, whether it’s pro gun control or pro Second Amendment. That organization cannot exist in the middle because the middle doesn’t motivate people to write the checks.
Najib Aminy:What happens if nothing changes?
Aubra:The question is not what happens if nothing changes. The question is, what happens if the only people who are allowed to form its change are the people with extreme beliefs?
Al Letson:That story was from Reveal’s Najib Aminy. In the days after the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Aubra reached out to democratic and republican members of Congress to see what could be done. She says both sides were reluctant to budge from their positions. One of the roadblocks to reaching consensus on laws for reducing gun violence is that policy makers don’t have access to good gun data.
Speaker 31:So it’s like we don’t even really know what’s killing us.
Al Letson:Coming up. Why federal gun statistics are kept secret and a victory for transparency. You’re listening to Reveal.
Missa Perron:Hi, this is Missa Perron, membership manager here at Reveal. Reveal is a nonprofit news organization. We depend on the support of our listeners. Donate today. Please head to revealnews.org/donate. Thank you.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. This is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. For many Americans, the best way to confront gun violence is to carry their own firearm. Robert Nash is one of them. Several years ago, he decided he wanted a handgun for self defense so he applied for a concealed carry permit. He lives in New York state, which means to get a license, he has to prove to a judge that he faces a direct threat and needs to protect himself.
Robert Nash:Get assigned a judge randomly, as far as I know, but I got assigned one that tends to say no to everybody.
Al Letson:And the judge said no to Robert. He could not have what’s called, an unrestricted license to carry on the street. Just a limited one for hunting and target shooting. That didn’t sit well with Robert. So he reached out to the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association. Almost immediately, he heard back from its president.
Robert Nash:And he says, “I know all about this.” He says, “You’re not the only one.” He said, “But I don’t know if we have a case yet. Let me talk to somebody at the NRA.” And he did. He got back to me right away and he says, “Look it, I think we have a case. I just want to get New York state’s law fixed. This requirement violates the Second Amendment.”
Al Letson:So they went to court and lost. They appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Speaker 16:The Supreme Court is agreeing to hear a case that has the potential to expand the scope of the Second Amendment.
Al Letson:In November, lawyers from both sides stood before the high court. Mr.
Speaker 17:Mr. Chief justice, and may I please the court. The text of the Second Amendment.
Al Letson:The justices had a lot to say, weighing in with questions and comments.
Speaker 18:What it appears to me is that the history tradition of carrying weapons is that states get a lot of death.
Speaker 19:How rural does the area have to be before your restrictions [crosstalk]
Speaker 20:You can’t and law enforcement is not available to come to your aid if something does happen, but…
Speaker 21:Well, how many muggings take place in the forest?
Al Letson:A ruling on the case is expected next month. This is the first time in more than a decade, the Supreme Court will decide a gun case. In the last case, the court ruled the Second Amendment guarantees all Americans the right to keep firearms for self-defense in their home. This ruling could extend that right outside the home to public places and overturning New York’s law will affect other states that have strict concealed carry laws on the books. The legal tug of war comes as gun sales in the US are at a record high. In 2020, gun factories produced more than 11 million firearms, nearly triple the number in 2000. And that doesn’t count the ones that are untraceable, including a new generation of guns made at home.
Al Letson:Reporter, Alan Stevens, thinks a lot about firearms, where they come from, how many are used in crimes and how new technology is making them more lethal. Alan’s a gun owner, a military veteran, and now a journalist. He did a story for Reveal a few years back and currently works for The Trace, an outlet that covers guns and gun violence in America. The most troubling thing he’s seeing now is something called an auto sear.
Alan Stevens:It’s this thing that’s about the size of a thimble and it can turn your common semiautomatic weapon into an automatic machine gun.
Al Letson:I’m not a gun enthusiast at all, but I do know my way around a handgun. And so a handgun either has a clip or it’s a revolver where you put bullets in the chamber. How does this technology turn it into a machine gun?
Alan Stevens:It looks like a small black Lego block, or a small, little bitty, inconspicuous device that could fit in the palm of your hand, right? And you either fit this inside of your AR-15 or most commonly on the back of a Glock type handgun. And it just snaps onto the back with some installation. And it just overrides those firing controls and allows you to just turn that thing into an automatic weapon, capable of firing up to 1200 rounds per minute so about 20 rounds a second.
Al Letson:And I just want to jump in and warn listeners, but we’re about to hear some gunfire.
Alan Stevens:So here’s a clip of a semiautomatic.
Alan Stevens:And then this is me actually going out and I met with an arms trafficker and a guy with actually a legal gun license. And we went out and we started firing some of these auto sears, and this is how they sound.
Alan Stevens:So that’s about 60 rounds right there that I just entirely emptied out on a drum mag. So you can see it’s just a ferocious amount of fire power. And you could find these things for as cheap as $20 online. So that right now, that’s what’s keeping me awake at night.
Al Letson:How did you find out about these?
Alan Stevens:So this is actually kind of a natural evolution of my reporting on ghost guns, these homemade un-serialized firearms that had gotten really popular over the years. And when I was doing that investigation those years ago, I’m talking to these high level federal agents and they tell me that technology. The internet and this kind of do it yourself gun craft has really went viral. And the next evolution of making guns is now making them into machine guns.
Alan Stevens:So I just started tracking this and I just started pulling all the federal case files that I could find of people with machine guns. And I found them all sorts of places.
Al Letson:So have we seen these devices in the wild i.e., has there been shootings where we know that these were used?
Alan Stevens:Absolutely. And that was part of my investigation. I’ve seen this in everything from mass shootings, in fact. And Sacramento, someone had one of these autos sears and fired into a downtown crowd during a busy weekend. We’ve seen this with extremist groups so the Boogaloo boys in particular, have had a number of incidents where they have bought these and even used these to assassinate officers and orchestrated attacks. And then we also see this in just regular common street violence. So it really is kind of a thing that has just popped off. In fact, it popped off so much that I actually could readily find videos, just social media videos of being like, “Yo, look at the machine gun fight going on outside.” It’s just Pandora’s box has been opened on these things.
Al Letson:Do we know how big a problem these auto sears are?
Alan Stevens:So we don’t. We really don’t. Part of that is just because when it comes to gun violence and gun reporting, the federal entities that are involved in this are particularly secretive and obfuscated. I tell new reporters when they come to the gun violence beat, I tell them just the difficulty of this world that they’re entering in. The majority of the gun companies are private. They’re mostly absolved due to laws so they’re not going to be sued. So that’s not a window in, there’s not a ton of research. And then the one government entity that you have to interact with is law enforcement. And out of law enforcement, you have to deal with the ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. And so what a lot of people don’t know is that they’re one of the most secretive organizations out there. We did a statistical analysis one time when we found out that they honor less public information request in agencies like the FBI and the DEA and even the CIA.
Alan Stevens:And so this is the world that you enter in when we start reporting on gun violence and it is shadowy and secret and very hard to get info.
Al Letson:So what do you think that is?
Alan Stevens:It’s by design. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have been nearly director list for 20 years. They have been beaten up by special interest, lobbying by lawsuits and even by scandal. And they’re more afraid of the gun companies of getting raped over the coals by Congress than they are of informing the public about gun violence or notifying them about their successes or their failures right in this space. So, we don’t even really know what’s killing us.
Al Letson:So you’ve been on this beat for six years. Can you give me an example of how hard it is to get information from these organizations?
Alan Stevens:I’ll give you an example right here, work with y’all. This was years ago and I was this young investigative fellow working for Reveal. And I asked a very simple question. I wanted to know how many police guns were showing up in crimes.
Al Letson:So I go to the remote Hills of West Virginia to find a guy named Scott Thomason.
Alan Stevens:I had heard about police weapons showing up at crime scenes for a variety of different factors and that the ATF, they had kept records of this.
Al Letson:For decades, Thomason worked undercover as an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Alan Stevens:And in fact, people had reported on these records until essentially the NRA had lobbied heavily for a law that would block this information from being released. And so essentially it would require me to sue to just get very basic answers.
Al Letson:What if I told you I was going to string that thread together to find out how many sold police guns ended up in crimes? What would you say to that endeavor?
Alan Stevens:Good luck. Good luck.
Al Letson:So to get the data you were looking for, you teamed up with Reveal and with our lead council, Victoria Baranetsky. Victoria, how are you?
Victoria Barane…:Good. Hi Al.
Al Letson:I have no idea why I called you Victoria, because you’re Vicky to me.
Victoria Barane…:Thank goodness. I got a little scared. I was like, “Do I put on a collared shirt?”
Al Letson:No, no, no, no. So Vicky, when Alan came to you with this ATF response, what was your reaction?
Victoria Barane…:Honestly, I was a bit disappointed in the government and the circumstances that existed and was really proud of Alan because he basically acted as a super sleuth, mini attorney. So basically Alan came into my office, said, “Listen, I’ve been trying to get this data. How can you help?” And explained the whole legal regime to me that Congress passes this law that had been lobbied by the NRA. To essentially not permit the ATF to disclose data about guns to the public. ATF cleans its hands and says, “Fine, we won’t touch it.” But this is the key part. Alan had looked a little bit closer at that law. For many years, reporters had just assumed that was it, case closed. However, if you look at the interior of the law, you see, there are three specific exceptions that Congress had made.
Victoria Barane…:Congress said the third exception is statistical aggregate data. That’s the key to the story here. And what’s even more interesting is that for many years before data journalism was really a thing, nobody really cared about statistical data. Everybody wanted the specifics on an individual gun. But all Alan was asking for was the number of guns that had been used in law enforcement and ended up in crimes that year so that was statistical aggregate data. And the agency said, “Nope, we’re not allowed to give you any information.” And so we went to court.
Al Letson:And so what happened in the end?
Victoria Barane…:So it’s been a five year battle. So there’s a lot that’s happened in that time.
Al Letson:Wait, wait, wait, wait. Five years?
Victoria Barane…:So we filed the lawsuit in 2017. It was actually the first lawsuit I filed when I was at Reveal. And we only got a decision from the court this past year.
Al Letson:And what was that decision?
Victoria Barane…:So ultimately the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, this is one of the highest courts in the country, right under the Supreme Court of the United States. And the court said, “Alan was right, that this was statistical aggregate data. And under the plain definition and plain meaning of the statute, it just had to be released.”
Al Letson:So Alan, the Ninth Circuit rule that under FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act, the ATF had to give you the data. The big question is, have they?
Alan Stevens:So we got some data just recently and it’s a lot of guns I’ll say. But it’s one thing to have that data, like any good data reporter. But it’s another thing to contextualize that data so it’s time to find out who and what and how, and why this is happening.
Al Letson:So you’re going to vet the data. And once you do, you’ll do a follow up story. But until then, is there anything else you guys can tell us about these numbers?
Victoria Barane…:If you actually saw the data sheet of what Alan actually got, it’s about 12 numbers that the government was fighting over. This is what we’re talking about. 12 numbers, about the numbers of guns from the years 2006 to 2022. You’re just asking for the plain numbers that the government holds, that it is making sure that it’s doing its due diligence in how guns are being operated within its territory.
Alan Stevens:I’m with you, Vicky. It’s for real, I’ve never asked the government. I’ve never asked the ATF anything other than, is it doing its job? Are you there? Are you doing the basics? I’ve asked them, just tell me what’s happening to your own weapons. Tell me, are you inspecting gun stores like we pay you to do. Tell me, what are you going to do about machine guns? Machine guns are patently illegal. They’re bad. We know they’re bad. And it’s like, they don’t want to tell me the basics on that. And it’s taken me, like I said, five, six years, half a decade to just realize that’s by design.
Victoria Barane…:Moreover, there was also this sort of interesting side story about how the agency was claiming that records that were requested from this database amounted to the creation of a new document. Generally, under FOIA, you’re not allowed to make the government produce new records. That’s kind of understandable. You can’t say, “Hey government, go draft up this report of all this information I want.” But there’s a real difference between basically doing a search of a database and handing over just what the results of that search were. Here, the government was claiming that doing a search of the ATF database was like creating a whole new record. And in the argument in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in fact, one of the judges even said, “Is this any different from doing a Google search in my inbox?”
Victoria Barane…:The point here being that not only was the ATF going so far as to say that you can’t have access to this data, but they were trying to create an even larger blanket rule that looking into a database of any government database would not be permissible under the law, which would’ve had a much more far-reaching effect for all agencies. Think about the number of databases there are in the world, let alone that the government organizes and how much of our public data is stored in databases today. And so this battle was really a much larger one that we had to go to the mattresses over. And luckily, we won on both accounts.
Alan Stevens:Imagine that. I was a small, young reporter at the time. I’m living in Texas. And this is my first FOIA to the ATF. And their response was like, “What? Like, we’re just going to nullify FOIA almost for the future. It’s just insane.” And so you see that type of, it’s like pulling teeth out of an alligator, in the dark, underwater. It’s just insane to do this beat. It’s crazy, man.
Al Letson:So this fight that you and Vicky have been going through for the last five years to get all of this information that really, Vicky said was 12 numbers. What does that tell you about America? And what does that tell you about the future for gun violence in this country?
Alan Stevens:It tells me that I don’t know. That lawsuit, we’re just now getting basic answers. And so what’s the cost of that? I think the public hears that and is like, “Well, I don’t care, four years, whatever.” But what’s the cost of that? Well, 111 people die every day from getting shot and it’s so common. I know people, I talk to people who lose loved ones. It happens all around us. We’re having this national conversation about gun violence in America and we’re mostly having it in the dark. And so in the meantime, we have to file these lawsuits to get basic questions. And while it takes all this time and resources and effort, we eat the violence. We’re just getting killed out here. We’re just getting killed every day. And so, I don’t think it fairs as well for our future.
Al Letson:Alan, thank you so much for coming in and for filing the lawsuit.
Alan Stevens:Hey man, thanks for being along on the ride with me.
Al Letson:Alan Stevens covers guns and gun violence for The Trace and Victoria Baranetsky is Reveal’s general counsel. Our story was produced by Nadia Hamdon.
Al Letson:Like many types of gun violence, killings by intimate partners have been climbing. And for years, lawmakers seemed gridlocked. Then came an investigation and an unexpected breakthrough.
Speaker 22:Even under your masks, I’ve seen tears that have welled up at this announcement that we are at this point.
Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal.
Speaker 36:Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program, to bring you a special bulletin.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is [crosstalk]
Speaker 23:This is [inaudible] and Fernando Arruda. We’re the sound designers behind Reveal. Each week we create an album of regional music for every single episode. We like to think thematically and create music that will help listeners understand the story. It’s all available for download. You can find it at revealnews.bandcamp.com. Thanks for listening.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. We’re now going to follow up on a story about gun violence we did last fall that accomplished what many people thought was impossible. It brought together lawmakers, Democrats, and Republicans to agree on national legislation to prevent domestic violence. The new steps were added to the Violence Against Women Act that was signed into law in March. Let’s go back to the beginning. A few months into the pandemic Reveal’s, Jennifer Golan, noticed a troubling trend.
Jennifer Gollan:There was talk among researchers that domestic violence incidents were increasing. And I wanted to know what was going on. So I started running background checks on perpetrators of these domestic violence homicides.
Al Letson:And as she dove into those cases, she discovered many of them had something in common.
Jennifer Gollan:There were so many cases involving people who shouldn’t have had guns in the first place. And that was shocking because we have laws on the books that prohibit people who have criminal histories from having guns. And yet, here were all these murders that seemed preventable, if someone had just taken the gun away.
Al Letson:Jen spent months reporting on this. And back in October, we aired “When abusers keep their guns”. And it exposed what can happen when the law to take away someone’s gun is not enforced. Jen focused on the story of Ashley Rucker.
Jennifer Gollan:Ashley was a medical assistant, who lived in Florida and she was a single mom who had a young son. And she came from a really close family, she had a younger sister, Lisa, and they were really close.
Lisa:If you were her friend, she had your back 100%.
Jennifer Gollan:That’s just who she was.
Lisa:When I was younger, she used to tell me that I would never have to fight anybody because she would always do it. And to this day, I’m 32 and I’ve never been in a fight in my life.
Al Letson:Ashley was dating someone named Chad Absher.
Jennifer Gollan:Chad Absher was a guy who also lived in Florida and he had his own lawn care business for years. But what we found is in digging through his criminal history, he was actually convicted of a felony at one point for stalking an ex-girlfriend and shooting up her house.
Al Letson:And even though that meant he was barred by state and federal law from having a gun, Chad still carried one. Police never took it away. After dating Chad for a couple years, Ashley decided to end the relationship. He was too controlling and often picked a fight.
Lisa:But every time that she would say, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m done.” He would threaten her. I heard him tell her that he would kill her and all of her family. In early 2017, there were police reports that were made that he possessed a firearm and threatened my sister with it.
Al Letson:About six months later, it’s the night before Halloween. Ashley and Lisa are in their apartment and they’d ordered pizza to share with their sons. Chad shows up and starts arguing with Ashley. Things escalate. Then Chad reaches for his gun.
Dispatcher:Jackson 911. What is the location of the emergency?
Witness:Oh my God, there’s been a murder. There’s been a murder.
Dispatcher:What’s the address?
Witness:Oh my God.
Dispatcher:What’s the address?
Al Letson:Lisa says, Chad shot her and Ashley too. Ashley died and Lisa barely survived. Chad is in jail awaiting trial for a first degree murder, attempted murder and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. But could the whole thing have been avoided? Jen Golan is here now. And Jen, what are your big takeaways from that story?
Jennifer Gollan:This was a wrenching project Al. I mean, on the one hand federal law and many states prohibit felons and domestic abusers from having guns, yet we discovered an open secret. The law is largely not enforced.
Al Letson:I mean, basically we rely on the honor system.
Jennifer Gollan:Exactly, abusers are trusted to hand over their guns themselves. We found many cases where they just didn’t. This is especially important now Al, because domestic violence homicides jumped during the pandemic to the highest level in nearly three decades.
Al Letson:So your investigation aired here on Reveal and The Guardian co-published your digital series. Reveal also produced a film with Fault Lines from Al Jazeera. How did people react when all of that came out?
Jennifer Gollan:Well, after the radio piece aired, we heard from a congressman’s office. They were very excited about the work and wanted to show the film on Capitol Hill. I flew to DC for the screening and briefed lawmakers and advocates on our findings.
Speaker 40:For more than a year, I’ve been delving into the murders of people killed.
Jennifer Gollan:Several members of Congress spoke, some in deeply personal terms about their own experiences surviving domestic abuse.
Speaker 25:I, as a survivor, have experienced all kinds of violence up to and including had a loaded pistol leveled at my head.
Jennifer Gollan:That was Democrat Gwen Moore from Milwaukee. Congressman Eric Swalwell spoke too, and he cited our investigation and told the group, they need to figure out a way to make sure abusers turn in their guns. But knowing how polarized Congress is, I wasn’t counting on any action.
Al Letson:So what happened next?
Jennifer Gollan:Well then a few months later in February, I got a call from sources on Capitol Hill. They said a group of senators had made a huge breakthrough that included broad proposals spurred by our reporting. They’d just been written into the Senate’s Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization, which had been stalled in the Senate for three years. Now, all of a sudden, senators on both sides of the aisle were agreeing. Something had to be done.
Al Letson:In this political environment. That is amazing.
Jennifer Gollan:It’s true. And by February, this group had a proposal, it was ready to go to the full Senate for a vote. And they held a press conference to announce what they’d done. Here’s Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski.
Lisa Murkowski:Even under your masks, I’ve seen tears that have welled up at this announcement that we are at this point. That perhaps, just perhaps, we’re going to avoid VAWA being the political football.
Jennifer Gollan:Others spoke too, including other senators and the head of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and even Angelina Jolie was there. This is an issue that’s really important to her.
Angelina Jolie:Standing here at the center of our nation’s power. I can think only of everyone who’s been made to feel powerless by their abusers, by a system that failed.
Al Letson:You said the senate proposal included measures inspired by your reporting. What were they?
Jennifer Gollan:Well, like I said before, there’s often no mechanism in place to take guns away from domestic abusers. So senators proposed that the Justice Department appoints state and local prosecutors to go after violations of federal firearms laws. Another problem we found is that the most egregious cases are often overlooked. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, that’s supposed to enforce the nation’s gun laws has limited reach. Now the US Attorney General can deputize local and state police to act as ATF agents to investigate these cases.
Al Letson:So what happened when this went to the full Senate?
Jennifer Gollan:Well, a month after the Senate announced its proposal, Congress approved the deal in March. President Joe Biden sponsored that first VAWA almost 30 years ago. So when the bill landed on his desk, he quickly signed it into law.
President Joe B…:Thank you for coming together and never giving up. The fact is it really wasn’t so long ago, this country didn’t want to talk about violence against women, let alone as being a national epidemic, something the government had to address. As a society, we literally looked away.
Al Letson:So this is now the law, but what happens next to put it into action? I mean, this sounds like a lot of new responsibilities on prosecutors and police.
Jennifer Gollan:That’s right. What’s supposed to happen now is the Justice Department will identify at least 75 jurisdictions across the country where local authorities need help dealing with domestic violence shootings. And another thing is the Justice Department will designate people and every US attorneys and every ATF field office to help police some prosecutors across the country.
Al Letson:Still, it sounds like it’s going to take time. Like you mentioned, domestic violence is spiking right now.
Jennifer Gollan:That’s right. The National Domestic Violence Hotline received more calls in February than at any time in its 25 year history, Al. I mean, they got 74,000 calls, chats and texts. And like I found in my reporting, many of those abusers had guns.
Al Letson:What else is being done to tackle this issue?
Jennifer Gollan:All right, well, even with the new law in place, it’s going to take a lot to keep victims of domestic violence safe. So right now, I’m reporting on a crucial moment in a typical domestic violence case when the cops are called. The police are at the scene, they’ve talked to the victim and they’ve dealt with the abuser. But then they have to decide, should I get more involved? And that means making a calculation, is this person who was threatened or attacked today at risk of being killed by their partner the next time they get into an argument?
Al Letson:Wait, how are they supposed to do that?
Jennifer Gollan:It’s usually a judgment call by the police officer. And as we learned in our reporting, police often get it wrong. But there’s this tool that researchers say can predict whether an abuse victim could end up being murdered. It’s called a lethality assessment.
Al Letson:And what is it?
Jennifer Gollan:Well, it’s similar than you might think. It’s a list of questions that police are supposed to ask victims before they leave the scene. And there are a number of assessments out there, but the one police use most often was developed by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. I talked with Tanya Grant. She teaches in the criminal justice program at Mercy College in New York state.
 Tanya Grant:It’s not cumbersome. They literally need to check the boxes and the questions are not, 4, 5, 6 sentences in lengths. It’s one sentence. Has he or she threatened to kill you or your children? It’s very, very clear, concise, to the point. And then at that point, if the protocol is triggered, meaning these victims affirm any of those questions that become, you’re in a lethal kind of situation. Then they need to pick up a phone and then they call the agency and then the agency takes over from there.
Al Letson:How well do these lethality assessments work?
Jennifer Gollan:Well, they’ve been around for 17 years and research shows they’re effective. If the victim answers yes to several questions, then the police are supposed to call victims advocates to help them. The problem is, not enough police departments use them. And even when they do, they don’t always use them the right way. We uncovered a slew of cases where women and children were killed by abusers after police failed to ask these simple questions.
 Tanya Grant:I heard officers say to me that it was easier if the victim had died paperwork wise than actually having an entire folder full of paperwork that is required in an active domestic violence case. And I’ve heard that tons of times. Here they come with another form. The second thing I think is that a lot of training is not done properly for officers from the very, very beginning.
Al Letson:So Jen, what’s being done to encourage police to use these lethality assessments more?
Jennifer Gollan:Well, there’s no requirement that police even use these lethality tools. There is training from the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. They train law enforcement and police can apply for grants to help pay for it. But it’s up to individual police departments to even decide that this is a priority. And we’re just not there yet.
Al Letson:Thanks Jen. That’s Reveal’s Jennifer Golan.
Jennifer Gollan:Thank you very much, Al.
Al Letson:This is the time in the show when we typically thank the people who put it together. But today we’d like to take a moment to remember those killed at the Uvalde school shooting. Uziyah Garcia, Xavier Lopez, Jose Flores, Miranda Mathis, Ellie Garcia, Tess Marie Mata, Eliahana Cruz Torres, Annabell Guadalupe Rodriguez, Makenna Elrod, Nevaeh Bravo, Maite Yuleana Rodriguez, Alithia Ramirez, Jayce Carmelo Luevanos, Nicole Silguero, RO Rojelio Torres, Alexandria Aniyah Rubio, Amerie Jo Garza, Jacky Cazares, Layla Salazar, all were in the fourth grade. Also, killed were teachers Eva Mireles and Irma Garcia. This is Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Najib Aminy is a producer for Reveal. Previously, he was an editor at Flipboard, a news aggregation startup, and helped guide the company’s editorial and curation practices and policies. Before that, he spent time reporting for newspapers such as Newsday and The Indianapolis Star. He is the host and producer of an independent podcast, "Some Noise," which is based out of Oakland, California, and was featured by Apple, The Guardian and The Paris Review. He is a lifelong New York Knicks fan, has a soon-to-be-named kitten and is a product of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Aminy is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Nadia Hamdan (she/her) is a producer for Reveal. Previously, she was a public radio reporter with NPR station KUT 90.5 in Austin, Texas. Hamdan's reporting has been heard on NPR's “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” WBUR’s “Here & Now” and the BBC’s “World Service,” among other programs. She's won numerous awards for her reporting, including a national Public Media Journalists Association Award, two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and multiple Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Awards. Hamdan was awarded a Texas Gavel Award from the State Bar of Texas for a podcast on why sexual assaults are so hard to prosecute in Austin. She once conducted an entire interview while riding a mule through downtown Austin, where she is based.

Alain Stephens

Alain Stephens is a reporter for the “Texas Standard,” a statewide radio news show aired from KUT in Austin. Stephens served in the U.S. Coast Guard and Air Force and spent time as a police officer in North Texas before making the switch to journalism. He graduated from the University of North Texas with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, focused on law enforcement. When he’s not digging up stories, he spends most of his free time reading comic books and watching YouTube.

Taki Telonidis is an interim executive producer for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Nikki Frick is the associate editor for research and copy for Reveal. She previously worked as a copy editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and held internships at The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and Washingtonpost.com. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was an American Copy Editors Society Aubespin scholar. Frick is based in Milwaukee.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) is the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Jess Alvarenga (they/she) is an associate producer for Reveal. They are an audio producer and documentary filmmaker from the American South. Meeting at the intersection of art and journalism, they use storytelling as a way to document and reimagine immigrant narratives, particularly those of the Central American diaspora. In 2017, Alvarenga was awarded an individual artist grant from the Houston Arts Alliance and the City of Houston for their work on the city’s Central American population. They have a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley.

Steven Rascón (he/they) is a production assistant for Reveal. He is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy Fellowship. His focus is investigative reporting and audio documentary. He has written for online, magazines and radio. His reporting on underreported fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles' LGBTQ community aired on KCRW and KQED. Rascón is passionate about telling diverse stories for radio through community engagement. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts and creative writing.

Kathryn Styer Martínez

Kathryn Styer Martínez (she/ella) is a production assistant for Reveal. She studies audio and photojournalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also a Greater Good Science Center reporting fellow, focusing on Latino well-being.

Martínez was the 2020-21 Toni Randolph reporting fellow at Minnesota Public Radio, the 2019-20 New Economy Reporting Project fellow and the former director of KGPC-LP FM, Peralta Community Radio. Her work has appeared in El Tecolote, The Oaklandside, MPR News, National Public Radio, Outside Online, Talk Poverty, New Life Quarterly and Making Contact.

She earned bachelor’s degrees in Raza studies and political science from San Francisco State University.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.

Kevin Sullivan is the executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Sullivan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Jennifer Gollan

Jennifer Gollan is an award-winning reporter. Her investigation When Abusers Keep Their Guns, which exposed how perpetrators often kill their intimate partners with guns they possess unlawfully, spurred sweeping provisions in federal law that greatly expanded the power of local and state police and prosecutors to crack down on abusers with illegal firearms. The project won a 2022 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and has been nominated for a 2022 Emmy Award.

Gollan also has reported on topics ranging from oil companies that dodge accountability for workers’ deaths to shoddy tire manufacturing practices that kill motorists. Her series on rampant exploitation and abuse of caregivers in the burgeoning elder care-home industry, Caregivers and Takers, prompted a congressional hearing and a statewide enforcement sweep in California to recover workers’ wages. Another investigation – focused on how Navy shipbuilders received billions in public money even after their workers were killed or injured on the job – led to tightened federal oversight of contractors’ safety violations.

Gollan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Guardian US and Politico Magazine, as well as on PBS NewsHour and Al Jazeera English’s “Fault Lines” program. Her honors include a national Emmy Award, a Hillman Prize for web journalism, two Sigma Delta Chi Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, a National Headliner Award, a Gracie Award and two Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing awards. Gollan is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.