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From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.
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We want to begin tonight with yet another deadly mass shooting in America.
In 2023, the unrelenting epidemic of gun violence in the United States has claimed the lives of more than 41,000 people.
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Two people killed, dozens of others injured after gun —
The police commissioner, again, saying five people were shot, including two kids. At least 18 dead and at least 13 injured. Several of them —
And throughout the year, each and every one of those shootings from suicides to accidental shootings to mass shootings was chronicled by a website.
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According to the Gun Violence Archive.
According to the US Gun Violence Archive.
According to the Gun Violence Archive.
Called the Gun Violence Archive that has become the most authoritative and widely cited source of data about the country’s ongoing crisis of gun deaths. Today, a conversation with the founder of that site, Mark Bryant, about why he’s dedicated so much of his life to painstakingly chronicling a problem with no end in sight.
It’s Monday, December 18.
Good afternoon. how are you, Mark?
I’m doing good. Well, sorry. We’re good except I just hit the microphone. So we’re ready to roll over here.
Good. Good. Good. Well, Mark, thank you very much for making time for us. I really appreciate it.
Well, thank you for having me.
I just want to explain why we’re talking to you. We, the New York Times, the Daily, we cite this archive that you have created so frequently year after year. And over time, it occurred to us that you, Mark, have become this really important but largely unheralded and unseen authority on something that really defines the life of our country and especially something that we think about at the end of every year, which is the number of people who are shot by a gun.
And it felt that, if we could understand this work that you have been carrying out, potentially, we could better understand this epidemic of gun violence in a different way. That, at least, is our hope. So just to start, I wonder if you can tell us your own backstory. And I want to ask you in particular about your own relationship to guns. Where and when does that story begin?
It actually began in about 1960 in Harlan, Kentucky. There was not a lot of recreation for people in that era. There was no cable TV. Well, there was cable TV, but there were three channels. And you had very little things to do. So a lot of the fathers would take the boys up to the top of the mountain and to the garbage dump, and you would go shoot rats.
Your father did this with you? He took you to shoot rats?
And there would be like maybe five fathers, 10 fathers up there at any given time. And mostly guys but a couple of girls would be there as well. And we were usually using 22 rifles. So we would shoot rats.
How old were you when you were doing this?
Probably five, six years old.
I wonder what it was like to have a gun in your hands at such a tender age — five years old.
I don’t think anybody thought about that. At the time, remember that was the time that we had Jarts as a toy. So we had all sorts of toys that we would now consider outlandish for a kid to own. And then leap forward to Boy Scouts another decade later, and you had a shooting range at the camp. And then later, I started target shooting at a range. And I did that for maybe 10 years, 20 years. So I’ve just grown up around people like my father and all that where that was just a common part of their world. It was just one of the things that you did.
So how do you get from there from being this young kid who enjoys shooting a gun to becoming what you are now — the nation’s leading chronicler of gun violence and its impact on people’s lives? That doesn’t seem like a straight line journey. So tell us that story.
Who does straight lines? That sounds so boring. So I’ve been working in computers doing database work. I was building databases for folks. I was building small business computer systems for law firms and all that sort of thing. So really, the thought of gun violence, it was — you would see it in the news.
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It was one ambulance after another bringing in the victims of the shooting spree to the emergency room at University Hospital.
You would see it when Standard Gravure had their shooting in Louisville in the ‘80s.
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Family members began arriving at the hospital to check on their loved ones. Some were overwhelmed with grief.
Then after that —
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Three students are dead, five others hit by bullets.
— we had Heath High School in Kentucky, several people killed.
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How in the world could we allow something like this to happen at our schools? Please do something to keep this from ever happening again.
We started seeing Columbine.
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I don’t even know if people are going to be able to walk back in the school again and see empty chairs. And it will be horrible.
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A parent’s worst nightmare, a student’s worst nightmare — the deadliest campus shooting in US history.
This was just a ever-building wave that it’s all combined just gave me a sense of uneasiness, I suppose.
So once this all comes together in your head and you’re starting to see the phenomenon of mass shootings in the US in that time period, what is crossing your mind? Where does it lead you?
So 2012, that was kind of a weirdly-defining moment because there was the Aurora Theater shooting. And Aurora got just an insane amount of coverage, as it should have. But there was a guy in Tuscaloosa, Alabama that, on that same week, went to a bar and shot 17 people. Nobody was killed, but the media did not cover it very well. And that was the thing that annoyed me.
Well, just explain that. That sounds like you’re saying, at the very moment that America is beginning to truly enter what we now think of as this era of the epidemic of mass shootings, you are noticing that the way the country decides to focus on and care about some of these mass shootings is really different than the way we decide to focus and care about others. There’s a real gap here.
Yes. Yes. That was a thing that was bothering me because, as you started seeing the building of incidents and started seeing the aggregation of all of this stuff, that was started to make it sufficient that something needed to be done. And what I could see was the left was looking at banning things and looking at all of this. The right is looking at, nuh-hu, Second Amendment. And what I see is that is a war that’s going to do nothing but escalate.
So I’m starting to look at there needs to be a conversation. And it has to be between gun owners and those who oppose guns to come to a consensus on how to solve some of this. But you can’t solve a problem if you don’t have a common set of understanding. If you don’t have that common understanding, you’re just going to be throwing things at each other. You’re never going to be able to find a solution. And the media and CDC and FBI has incomplete data. There was a knowledge gap. And so there needs to be a systemic change to where there’s a common set of knowledge.
So you’re watching this fight escalate but without any real common source of knowledge about what’s really going on.
So what I needed was I knew that I needed to collect data. I knew there needed to be a common data set, and it needed to have verifiable data. And that’s the key to make all this work.
So in your mind, if Americans and American lawmakers had a truly correct portrait of what gun violence looked like in this country, then they would inevitably, and correct me if I’m overinterpreting what you’re saying, they would be kind of shocked into action. They would start to do something about it. And at the very least, they would be able to debate this with the same data.
Yes. I think that that’s a good way of looking at it. All we wanted to do was get people talking, singing from the same page of the hymnal, as the Southern phrase goes.
So once you decide that this is going to be your calling, organizing a data set around gun violence that everyone can agree is trustworthy, what did you actually do? Take us back to the start of this all and walk us through the process.
At first, I was writing blogs about gun violence. And I was using Slate data from their 2013 project.
Slate, the online news magazine?
Yes. The Slate Archive was a crowdsourced effort by Slate. They started it right after Sandy Hook. And their goal was to put a face or a name to every person who had died in the year past Sandy Hook. And that had never been done. Nobody had ever, ever looked at that granularity before.
But boy, we found that it’s really good for the big city incidents. But for small town stuff, it missed a lot of stuff. And so I was bugging them on a fairly frequent basis. Why did you not do this one? Why didn’t you do this one? How come this one’s not in here?
Well, describe that just a little bit more. It sounds like you’re looking for things that they’re missing. How are you doing that? How are you finding these incidents that aren’t in Slate?
Among other things, Alta Vista, if you remember it, and a couple of other older search engines that used to exist. When I was going through them, I was looking at different newspapers just from their online presence.
So you’re basically combing the internet for shootings, pestering the people who have something approaching a database.
And so what prompts you to create your own archive rather than just keep working on Slate’s.
Slate called me one day and said, hey, we’re going to drop this after a year. And what we really wanted to do was we wanted to do a snapshot of a year past Sandy Hook. So their drop deadline was in 2013. And so I asked could we take it over, and we did. And we started building it up, and we got better at it. And we learned using Google searches and different search parameters we could dig through things a lot faster. That was the processes that we started, and things sort of blossomed after that.
We’ll be right back.
Mark, you set out to create this database that would chronicle the extent of gun violence in the United States. And fast forwarding a few years, that’s exactly what you end up doing.
It took a few years, but yes.
So I want to describe the resource that the Gun Violence Archive ultimately becomes in your hands. And I do use it a lot as a journalist. It’s not flashy at all. In fact, it’s kind of unflashy. But it’s very clear about what it’s doing. When you go to the site, the first thing you see is a summary of data this year, which is, of course, shocking every time you look at it.
We’re talking to you on Thursday, December 14. Right now, your site says that the total number of all gun violence deaths so far in 2023 is 40,955. The number of children the Archive says that have been killed by guns is 283 so far this year. You can click on any of these categories and find the story behind each of these numbers.
If I click teens killed, I get the address of each of these shootings. There’s information about the victims, information about the kind of gun involved. The level of detail is really extraordinary. And so I’m curious, what lengths do you and your team end up going to track all this information down and fill in these gaps in the record that nobody else is even trying to fill?
We have a team of let’s use the 24 as the total. A good example of the extremes that we will go to is there was a shooting at a impromptu concert in a field in either Alabama or Mississippi. I’m not sure which one it was. We knew it was on a road. That was it. We knew the name of the road, and that was all. And so that does not give you a good granularity to put a geocode on because you’ve got a 40 mile long road. You really can’t see where this occurred and even what town it occurred in.
So what we did was we went through all the different media that had tried to cover it. And they all were very good about covering it but very bad about giving details as to where this occurred. Sheriff was of no help whatsoever. So one report had the reporter standing in front of the cattle fence of the field. And from that, I took Google Street Views and drove the entire route looking for that damned cattle fence and found it and matched it to the video of the channel 5 Memphis reporter.
You went down a 40 mile road on Google Street View?
Yes. I didn’t have to go down all of it, thank goodness. We found it about 15, 20 miles in. But I’m matching the, OK, this has got a dent here on this top rail. And this has a post over here that’s leaning to the side. And if you look in the back, you’ll see these trees are like this, and there’s two telephone poles back there. But that’s the extent we will go to.
Fortunately, most of these things do not require that. But every once in a while I burn an hour on an incident. There are times that we need a name of someone who has died because I understand on someone’s injured we don’t need to have that name. But when someone is passed, this is their last hurrah. This is the last time they are ever going to be noted anywhere. So I want to make sure I got it right. So I’m going to have their name right. I’m going to have their age. I have mothers call me or email me and say you didn’t spell my daughter’s name correctly, or my son was 16, not 15.
So you end up hearing from the families of these victims themselves?
What are those conversations like when someone’s calling you either to correct a piece of information or to add to the archive? You’re on the phone with someone who’s going through something very, very awful and raw.
Yes, it is hard. That’s the hardest part of what I do in a lot of respects in that I’m talking to mothers that have lost their child. I talk to mothers that are stressed, that are in a place they’ve never, ever been in their life. There was a woman who lived in Nashville. Her son had been shot and killed in Nashville at the Waffle House shooting a few years ago. And I talked to her when her second son got shot.
Oh, my goodness.
I will talk to mothers who — I got one I can’t remember what city she’s in now, somewhere in the Midwest, and she had lost a daughter, and then she lost another daughter. And she was just about gone. I mean, she was just — I could hear it in her voice. And you don’t want to hear that.
I contemplated calling police for just a welfare check. But I ended up calling a group that they knew people that were in there to talk to her. So they did. So she she’s better now. And sadly, she has no more daughters to give to gun violence. But it was hard know. It’s hard doing some of that stuff. But that’s part of the job.
It’s a very strange situation you’ve gotten yourself into where you wanted to fill a gap in our knowledge of gun violence, and filling that gap means that you have just been saturated in death. And you’re now dealing with mothers who have lost not one but two of their children to gun violence.
Yes. This it’s sort of a virtual tombstone for folks. This is their this is that touch point for them, the last thing that they’re going to see. Every time, they type their kid’s name on the internet, we come up. We’re going to be that memorial for them.
And when those calls end, Mark, and those people, some of them it sounds like are shattered, and they’re talking to you about these small little details and making sure they’re right, I mean, on your end of that call when it’s over, how are you feeling?
We see this every day. And while I know that you look at an emergency room doc and they see this every day as well and they learn to compartmentalize their reality with someone else’s reality, and I’m pretty good at that compartmentalization. Do I always succeed? No. Now every once in a while it may be harder, but for the most part with very few exceptions, I’m able to segregate that information.
How do your employees feel at the end of some of these days and some of these calls?
I have one woman who there was a shooting with a kid. And she called, and she says, I can’t take this. And I said, OK, do you need time out? And she goes yes. I said so your job’s here when you’re ready to come back. All you have to do is just sort yourself out, talk to me, let me know where you are, how your head is, and when and if you’re ready to come back, come back. So about a month later, she calls me up, and she says, I’m ready to start again. And I swear the second incident that she started reviewing was a kid that got shot in the face. And I get a phone call, and it was like, I’m done. I’m like, OK. I understand that.
She didn’t want to do it anymore?
She couldn’t. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to. She wanted to. She really liked the job, and she really liked what we were doing and trying to achieve. But you don’t know what buttons somebody’s going to have. And apparently, we hit one of hers.
I mean, when you think about how often you end up being on the phone with people who are in so much pain and, as you sift through what is inevitably the worst kind of data on Earth, what do you think keeps you from having the experience that some of your employees do, which is just burn out?
Well, I won’t say I don’t burn out because that would be a fool’s game. There are times that I will — it’ll be time for a drive downtown just to see what’s going on, and I’ll just toodle around town. Or I live in a insanely beautiful area of the country. And I can take the convertible out and drive-through horse farm country and sort of freshen my brain up with that.
You find ways, you’re saying, to mourn this?
Maybe. I just adjust my head. But it’s how I reconcile in my head that I’m now looking at horses and foals and life and green trees or fall foliage or whatever, and I’m seeing a regeneration.
I’m curious about something, Mark. Now that the Gun Violence Archive has become, through all this very painful and painstaking work you and your team have done, this unique authority on shootings in the US. What do you start to see in the data that perhaps the rest of us don’t see or can’t see because we are not combing the internet for every shooting in this country?
What we are seeing, I think, and we’re seeing it not just in Gun Violence Archive, but we’re seeing it in bars where you used to have maybe a bar fight. Somebody got a bloody nose. Somebody got a black eye. And now a gun comes out. What we’re seeing is more anger. You’re on social media all the time. I know there are good places on Facebook because I find them. But look at the rest of it. It’s anger. Somebody pontificated that they believe this.
In the past, that would have been somebody howling at the moon. And everybody would have quietly gone around them and ignored them. But now there’s 2,000 people that decided that no, no, you have to have my opinion on this very subject, and that escalates anger. So the baseline of anger is higher. And you have more guns and more proximity to guns, more people carrying guns, more of that then — it’s inevitable what’s going to happen. And that’s the trend that I’m seeing.
It’s funny. That is not the answer I thought you were going to deliver. I mean, I thought you were going to tell me that regionally or in this gun, this age demographic. And what you’re saying is what you see in the numbers is, I suppose, what we all see right now in front of us across the United States. And you’re calling it, I guess, a root cause of so much gun violence. You’re seeing people who are furious at each other, fast to anger.
Anger is one thing. We’ve had anger forever. Proximity to deadly weapons is a different animal. You did not have 400 million guns, or whatever the current number is. More people have more guns. There are those that think, oh, you’re anti-gun, or you’re a gun grabber or whatever. And obviously, I’m not. But I akin it to what we see with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. They’re not against drinking, and they’re not against driving. They are against that lethal combination.
And we’re seeing that lethal combination with anger and proximity. That’s no different than intoxication and speed — two variables that, when they come together, people die, and they die quickly. Well, I can punch somebody in the face, and I can apologize as long as I want to. If I pull the trigger on a gun, they’re dead. Or if they’re faster than me, I’m dead.
Mark, back to the purpose of the Gun Violence Archive. I mean, we talked about this idea that, ultimately, you hoped that giving people more information would mean that the country would act on the information and that gun violence would go down. And over the past 10 years, gun violence has not gone down in a very meaningful way. And so have you ultimately concluded that data is not the solution to America’s gun violence epidemic, that it’s just a new way to understand the depth of it?
Well, it’s not going to be the solution. It was never intended to be the solution. It was always intended to raise awareness of the issue and to let people understand and then form their own opinions based upon it. I think our value is in raising the conversation. I think that’s where our value is. They may find that 17,000 killed, that’s the price of freedom. That’s the price of us having the right to have guns. That’s their philosophy. But what I just want them to do is they see the numbers. I want us to be the folks that raise the conversation and made people smarter. And I think we’re doing that.
You’ve succeeded in putting these numbers in front of people. And if you think of this as a very long-term project of putting these numbers before people year after year after year after year after year, then maybe something changes.
How many years did we have the smoking pictures of lung cancer that the surgeon general? How many years did he or she announce cancer numbers for all of that until finally it reached a point? And that’s what we’re wanting to see.
It’s a slow process.
It’s a generational process. This did not get here quickly. It is not going to leave quickly. And I know that, going forward, this is going to go on after I’m gone. And I’m OK with that. I’m very much of the philosophy of planting trees that you’re never going to enjoy the shade.
And when you say the shade of trees, what is the shade of that tree look like?
It’s still growing. It’s only a 10-year-old tree. In 20 years, it’ll be a 20-year-old shade tree. And the shade is information. It is knowledge. It is, hopefully, moving forward because of the constant message that we’re trying to give to people to educate them.
Well, Mark, thank you very much. We really appreciate your time.
Well, thank you for talking. This has been very, very good. You’ve been my counseling session for this week, so that’s a good thing.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you need to know today. Over the weekend, new details emerged about how Israeli soldiers mistakenly killed three Israeli hostages in Gaza, an incident that the country’s prime minister called a, quote, “unbearable tragedy“. Israeli officials said that the three hostages had either escaped or were abandoned by their Hamas captors and approached Israeli soldiers on Friday in an effort to be rescued. At least one of the hostages waved a makeshift white flag to signal that the group was not a threat.
Nevertheless, Israeli soldiers opened fire on all three. Their deaths have infuriated the Israeli public and deepened criticism over the conduct of the Israeli military in Gaza where its tactics have killed thousands of Palestinian civilians over the past few weeks. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems undeterred. On Sunday, he read in Hebrew from a letter that he said had come from families of Israeli soldiers killed in the war. Translated, it read, quote, “You have a mandate to fight. You do not have a mandate to stop in the middle.”
Today’s episode was produced by Rob Szypko, Diana Nguyen, Stella Tan, and Carlos Prieto. It was edited by Devon Taylor with help from Lisa Chow, fact checked by Susan Lee, contains original music by Marion Lozano, Dan Powell, and Pat McCusker, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderland.
That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.