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For series on rising gun accidents among Florida kids, families’ stories bring data to life

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For series on rising gun accidents among Florida kids, families’ stories bring data to life

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Mackenzie Piascik, then 2, was flown to a hospital after she accidentally shot herself. (Tampa Bay Times file photo 2010)
Mackenzie Piascik, then 2, was flown to a hospital after she accidentally shot herself. (Tampa Bay Times file photo 2010)

Mackenzie Piascik, 9, greeted me with a hug.

I had come to her house to observe her family’s Thursday evening routine: homework, karate class, dinner, bedtime. I was no longer a stranger there. I had been stopping by regularly, often to sit with her mother and discuss the worst day of their lives.

The hug from Mackenzie was an important reminder: This was a story about people.

I met Mackenzie’s family while reporting on children and guns in Florida. I had the sense that firearms incidents involving kids were on the rise and so I pulled hospital discharge records to see if my hunch was correct. After crunching more than 60 million records, Tampa Bay Times data reporter Connie Humburg and I were able to show that child gun deaths had increased nearly 20 percent between 2010 and 2015. Child gun injuries, meanwhile, had increased about 36 percent.

On average, a child in Florida was shot every 17 hours.

We combed the data for trends. Black boys, we found, were two times more likely to get shot than white boys in 2015. We also used the data to understand how guns were hurting kids. Accidents were just as common as assaults. But accidents were growing at a far faster pace.

The data alone told an important story. We were the only ones who had it. The state Department of Law Enforcement doesn’t know how many gun incidents involve children. And the Florida Department of Health doesn’t publish detailed statistics on the issue.

But in order to truly explain the toll, we needed people who had experienced it firsthand.

Finding sources wasn’t easy. We started by combing through news clips from across the state. We identified children who had been shot in Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Tallahassee and Jacksonville, and reached out to their parents. In some cases, the parents were willing to talk me. But for every one parent that invited me over, another four rejected me or didn’t return my calls. We tried some support groups, too, but they mostly connected us with parents who had lost adult children.

We tried physicians next. That’s how we connected with Mackenzie and her mother, Jessica. Their story was both harrowing and heartbreaking. In 2010, when Mackenzie was a toddler, she found a handgun in her home and shot herself in the stomach. The Tampa Bay Times wrote a breaking news story at the time of the accident, and followed up when Jessica’s then-boyfriend was sentenced to jail time for having made his weapon accessible to a child. But the newspaper had never gone back to document Mackenzie’s recovery.

At first, Jessica had mixed feelings about another story. In many ways, both she and Mackenzie had moved on since the shooting. Jessica had gotten married to someone who wasn’t involved in the incident, and had another daughter. She wasn’t eager to relive what had been the worst day of her life. But she saw value in sharing their story. She wanted to show the world how far Mackenzie had come. And she wanted to discourage other parents from leaving their firearms within the reach of a child.

We met a half-dozen times over the next few months. Sometimes, we would sit around her kitchen table and talk about the accident. Other times, we would talk about family, her love of football, her feelings on firearms. Videographer John Pendygraft and I were at the house as Jessica and Mackenzie got ready for the first day of third grade. We later sat in on a karate class and hung out during their bedtime ritual.

Other sources helped round out their story. I listened to the 911 call Jessica made the day of the accident. I worked with the physicians at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital to better understand the injuries Mackenzie sustained and the medical procedures she underwent. Jessica’s ex-boyfriend did not my return calls. But I read hundreds of pages of police reports and court records to better understand his side of the story.

When it came time to write, I looked to the best practices outlined by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. I wanted to avoid sensationalizing Mackenzie’s story; both she and her mother were survivors of trauma. What’s more, I wanted to put my readers in Jessica’s shoes. I wanted them to understand how, on a busy morning, a gun could be left within a toddler’s reach.

My approach to describing Mackenzie’s injuries was deliberately clinical. I described where the bullet entered her body, how the tissue expanded, what organs were injured.

The psychological piece was equally as important. For the two years after the shooting, Mackenzie screamed, kicked and flailed her arms in the middle of the night. Her mother’s life changed, too. Despite having grown up in a family that enjoyed hunting, Jessica developed an intense fear of firearms. She once had to leave her office because a client came in with a concealed weapon. Fireworks gave her anxiety.

Mackenzie and Jessica became the focus of our second-day story. The package also included archive photographs from the day of the accident, as well as new photos of the family getting ready for school, having dinner together, and watching TV before bed. We did a video interview with Jessica, too. Some readers said the story about Mackenzie and her mother was the most powerful part of our series.

The takeaway: While it was important to quantify how many kids in Florida were hurt and killed by firearms annually — and to help readers understand why it was happening — it was just as important to show what the trend has meant for real people. Readers related to Jessica and Mackenzie. Their story helped a broader audience see how easily gun accidents can happen, and how serious the consequences can be.

What’s more, it was an important reminder to be empathetic and understanding when writing about children and adults who have experienced trauma. As reporters, we must remember to give these subjects the time and space they need to tell their story. We must listen more than we speak. And we must portray them with respect, dignity and sensitivity.

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Read the stories in Kathleen McGrory’s fellowship series here.

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