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America's best hope for tracking gun deaths is a mob enforcer's daughter

A former New York Times Gun Report researcher is reviving her daily gun violence reporting at Everytown for Gun Safety

NEW YORK – Every day for 18 months, Jennifer Mascia scoured the Web for gun deaths. She searched “shooting,” “woman shot,” “child shot,” “man shot,” “accidentally shot” and then waded through the daily carnage in pages and pages of search results. For each fatal bullet, she wrote up a brief description for the The New York Times' Gun Report, a blog born out of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, and with the lofty goal of documenting every gun death in America.

“We know the victims of mass shootings,” said Mascia, who was the blog’s lead writer and main researcher. “But on an everyday basis, nobody really knew who these people were. And we had a chance to fill in who these people were – your neighbor, your aunt, your uncle. These people had names and they had stories.”

Mascia counted bodies for an average of four hours every weekday. On weekends, when the violence spiked, it was more like 10 hours. During her tenure at The Gun Report, Mascia estimates that a staggering 50,000 Americans lost their lives due to gun violence.

Tallying tragedy

Jennifer Mascia figures she covered 50,000 Americans' firearm-related deaths while writing for The New York Times' Gun Report blog from January 2013 until June 2014.
America Tonight

Mascia expected gang- and drug-related violence would be the leading cause of gun deaths. Instead, she was surprised by the number of killings in which a passing flare-up of emotion – anger, jealousy, fear, sadness – became the final chapter in someone’s life by adding in the deadly efficiency of a gun.

“Until the bullet leaves the chamber, they don't understand the repercussions,” Mascia said. “But it ends up being catastrophic, and that is not understood until you have a bleeding person in front of you.”

Mascia says combing through tragedy after tragedy numbed her to the violence, but every so often a story stood out.

“The most disturbing story I ever covered in the Gun Report was a 79-year-old man who had been diagnosed with cancer,” she said. “And his wife and her sister were in the house and he was bedridden, depressed, and he had a gun and he was going to kill himself. And his wife, who was also 79, walked into the room, and her sister heard her through the door. [The wife] was begging him, ‘Please don’t do this. I love you.’ And he shot and he killed her.”

The man turned the gun on himself, but it misfired. He died in a hospital three days later.

But the ubiquity of gun violence in America didn’t truly become personal for Mascia until Nov. 13, 2013. That's the day she pulled up the Times' homepage and discovered that Ali Eskandarian, a musician she knew, had been shot and killed in Brooklyn, along with two members of the Iranian-American band The Yellow Dogs.

“He was in his living room and a shot came through the window,” Mascia said. “Never in a million years did I think that he would be a victim of gun violence. Never would have crossed my mind.”

A dark secret

Mascia chronicled her family's history, from her parents' love for her to her father's secret life as a mob enforcer in her 2010 memoir, "Never Tell Our Business to Strangers." In the childhood photo at center, Mascia's father holds her while keeping firearms within easy reach.
courtesy Jennifer Mascia

In spite of the daily drudgery involved with the Gun Report, a secret from Mascia’s own past helped keep her going: A family history of gun violence that began in 1963 in Owl’s Head Park in Brooklyn. It was there that her father, John Mascia, shot and killed a man for the first time.   “His name was Joe Vitali, his nickname was Joe the Fish, he was a heroin addict,” Mascia said. “My father lured him into the park with the promise of some heroin. And he and an accomplice turned around and shot him to death.”

Mascia discovered later in life that her father had been a mob enforcer. He killed Vitali because he was a suspected police informant. John Mascia was convicted for murder and served 12 years in prison before being paroled. He met Mascia’ mother just before his release.

“My mom was part of a Quaker group that was visiting prisons as a part of the prison-reform movement, which was very big in the late '70s,” she said..

Mascia didn’t find out her father was a murderer until she was 22 and he was dying of cancer. After he passed away, she learned an even darker secret from her mother.

“She said, 'You know how you always asked me, "Did he shoot more than one person?" Well, he did.'”

Her mother confessed that her father had killed up to six other people over drug deals after he got out of prison, crimes for which he was never arrested, never convicted, never paid the price. The weight of her father’s sins helped drive Mascia’s work at The Times.

“I really feel like the Gun Report is my way of atoning for his crimes, or giving back in some way,” Mascia said. “I know I can’t undo the carnage, but if writing about gun violence saves just one life, then it was worth it."

'You know how you always asked me, "Did he shoot more than one person?" Well, he did.'

Jennifer Mascia, quoting her mother

But then, the project was cancelled in June 2014. In a two-paragraph final column, Joe Nocera, the project's mastermind, said that while the blog had served an important purpose, he “began to feel that we had made the point already" and that there was a “numbing sameness to the shootings.” He made no mention that two days before, Mascia's union representative had a grievance meeting with the newspaper to discuss whether she was being underpaid.

The sudden death of the blog made Mascia feel like her voice had been taken away. New York Times readers also emailed the paper in droves, saying that killing the feature was "a simply terrible idea."

“Two days after we pulled the report, two officers were killed in Oregon. There was a shooting at Seattle Pacific University, and I thought, 'I can’t believe that I can’t write about this,'” Mascia said. “People need to know this happens every day, and I want this drumbeat to continue.”

She'll soon get to restart that drumbeat. Mascia was recently hired by the gun-control advocacy organization Everytown for Gun Safety – started and funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg – to help launch a digital newsroom and website devoted solely to tracking gun violence in America.

“We're going to focus on victim stories, especially because putting a face to these crimes really helps drive it home for readers,” Mascia said.

The new site will launch in the coming months, with the aim of keeping everyday victims of gun violence in the media and in people’s thoughts.

“This is going to be everything I imagined for the Gun Report that I wanted to do” she said. “This will hopefully keep the conversation going. It will be a steady drumbeat. We're not going to let this fall out of the media.”

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