This post has been updated since it was first published.
The cover story for Sunday’s Washington Post magazine took a compelling look at the lingering effects of violence. The story, by reporter Neely Tucker, takes a reader back 46 years to the night of Friday, Jan. 20, 1967 — the night Edward Kenneth Vessels shot his wife, Fran, with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Tucker deconstructs what led to the events of that night, but perhaps more importantly, what happened in the aftermath. How did it affect the Vessels family? What happened to the couple’s six children?
The Vesselses’ story could easily be ruled an extreme case, but a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in five Americans has a connection to a victim of gun violence. As noted by Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff, the same poll revealed that Americans are more worried about being a victim of gun violence than losing their jobs — a striking statement on the heels of an economic downturn.
The idea that many Americans are touched by gun violence is the theme of another article in the March 10 edition of the magazine. (Read: How many people do you know who have been shot?) Articles editor Joe Heim drew on a personal experience to examine the lives of people affected by gun violence. After a grad school acquaintance of Heim’s was shot and killed, a friend took to Facebook to say that they now knew nine people who had been shot (either killed or wounded). Then he posed an interesting question: What’s your number?
People responded with their own stories of how they or their loved ones had been affected by gun violence. “It was a powerful thing to read,” said Heim, who took the idea to his fellow magazine editors. One suggested that Heim go around the Washington area to find out how many times locals’ lives had been touched by gun violence.
Heim said that while stories on gun violence are often policy-driven or focused on the immediate aftermath of an incident, Post editors wanted his story to be different. “We wanted to take it out of the political debate and put the focus back on the lives of people who had been affected by gun violence,” Heim said.
Both Tucker’s and Heim’s stories struck magazine editors as relevant, particularly in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. “Newtown is such a national conversation,” said Lynn Medford, editor of the magazine and the Post’s Sunday Style section. “Between the two [stories], you cover a lot of territory on gun violence, from suicide to domestic violence.”
Heim said he interviewed between 50 and 60 local residents to find out how they had been affected by gun violence. And while he never mentioned Newtown, the majority of people he talked to brought it up. “It was certainly something that was on everyone’s mind,” he said.
Tucker said he began working on his story well before the Newtown shootings. He began research for the article last year, after one of the Vessels daughters, Lynnie, reached out to him about a book she’d written, detailing how the incident had affected her life. Something Tucker wrote had resonated with Lynnie — his two-part story, “Life After Death,” explored the despair his wife Carol Smith experienced following the murder of her daughter, Erika, who was shot and killed in 2002 at the age of nine. The article also chronicled Smith’s multi-year fight for justice.
From these and other stories about people affected by gun violence, there emerged a theme, Medford noted: “Your life changes, and it never changes back.”