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Sources and tips for covering the gun industry

By Jing Ren

Nick Penzenstadler from USA TODAY, Matt Drange from Forbes and Kim Smith at the University of Chicago Crime Lab discussed statistics and documents reporters covering guns should routinely gather at their CAR Conference panel.

Because of the nature of her work, Smith’s team has access to many administrative statistics on firearms. She said she and her team treat data very carefully, and she recommended journalists have the same attitude.

“We can’t just use the data for whatever purpose we want,” Smith said. She said her team always makes sure the analysis they are doing is within the scope of the agreements they have with the administration.

For illegal firearms, Smith pointed out that police data and statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives cannot capture the full supply chain of illegal gun markets. After getting ATF trace data and figure out information on first retail sales, she and her team usually conduct ethnographic interviews and jail surveys to help them analyze secondary transfers of illegal firearms.

“For the most part, people were being truthful about the circumstances of their arrests,” Smith said. Therefore, her agency normally tries to link the results from jail surveys to administrative data from the police department. Paying attention to filling the missing statistics is equally important to reporters, she emphasized.

Most of gun reporting is reactionary, Drange said: He thinks news organizations sometimes lack interest in covering guns on a more regular basis and simply react to a shooting incident after it happens.

He mentioned ShotSpotter, a real-time gunshot detection and alert system that gathers gunshots from a series of microphones throughout neighborhoods with high crime in different cities. To get the data set, reporters need to file an open records request and ask for gunshots recorded by the sensors.

Penzenstadler said he thinks firearms inspection reports from the ATF are underreported. Categories of statistics in the inspection records that are available via FOIA requests include inspection history, violations, narrative and corrective action.

Because of data restrictions, all the speakers agreed that sometimes journalists need to build up their own data sets. The statistics reporters can gather from such searches aren’t always complete, but are still valuable.

Drange recommended tracing gun sales through social media groups and online sellers like eBay. Before visiting these websites, he said it’s important for reporters to understand firearm jargon and how the online market communicate.

The three speakers also included possible records reporters should always try to get when covering firearms:

  • Local gun recovery data or paper
  • Gun sales records in states that make them public
  • Gun trafficking cases in local and federal court
  • Nspect/Nforce database.

Jing Ren is a journalism student at the University of Missouri.

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