The findings from the focus groups illustrate the breadth and depth of the impact of gun violence trauma, as follows:
- All gun violence survivors in this study experienced trauma. To cope with the complexity of trauma, every survivor had a unique experience that was influenced by navigating multiple traumatic events, community and collective trauma, and access to services.
- Communities disproportionately impacted by gun violence experienced an ongoing and consistent struggle to cope within the ripples of trauma. Historical traumas based on racism, transphobia, and homophobia, in particular, were compounded by the added trauma from gun violence.
- After an incident of gun violence, one in three survivors lived in fear and felt unsafe. Gun violence eroded their sense of safety and ultimately influenced how people navigated their environments—leading to changes in communities.
- Nearly one in five survivors in the focus groups were directly impacted by intimate partner violence with a firearm, and all of these survivors experienced trauma as a result of this incident.
- About half of the survivors experienced post-traumatic growth or positive changes in their lives after experiencing gun violence.
- Nearly half of survivors said they needed support, services, or assistance to cope with the impact of gun violence within at least the first six months or longer after the violent incident.
America’s gun death rate is 13 times higher than that of other high-income countries.1Everytown analysis of the most recent year of gun deaths by country (2015-2019), accessed March 3, 2023, GunPolicy.org. Every year, more than 43,000 Americans are killed with guns and approximately 76,000 more are shot and wounded.2Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. WONDER Online Database, Underlying Cause of Death. A yearly average was developed using four years of the most recent available data: 2018-2021. Everytown For Gun Safety Support Fund, “EveryStat: United States,” https://everystat.org. Based on analysis of 2019 HCUP nonfatal injury data. Everytown’s nationally representative survey shows that 59 percent of adults reported that they or someone they know or care about have experienced gun violence in their lifetime, and 41 percent of these adults say it has caused them trauma.3SurveyUSA, “Results of SurveyUSA Market Research Study #26602,” October 24, 2022, https://bit.ly/3JJuwLY. See question 29 and 36. See also Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Gun Violence Survivors in America,” February 1, 2023, https://everytownresearch.org/report/gun-violence-survivors-america. This public health epidemic disproportionately impacts Black, Latinx, and other communities of color.
To better understand the breadth and depth of trauma experienced by survivors of gun violence, Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund conducted focus groups4This study is approved by the Pearl IRB Institutional Review Board, and the protocol number is #22-AUHG-102. Sixteen focus groups were conducted with 103 gun violence survivors from January to mid-March 2023. Previous studies that used focus groups as a method of data collection agree that three or more focus groups for each population of interest provides a comprehensive understanding of issues. Focus group questions explored experiences with gun violence and trauma, with a focus on understanding the ripple-effects and short-term and long-term impact of trauma. Prior to focus groups, participants also completed a demographic survey. All focus groups were audio-recorded and transcribed. All focus group data was professionally analyzed, and with Nvivo qualitative coding software. A line-by-line analysis was completed to develop theoretical codes, and focus groups were analyzed 3-4 at a time to determine themes, categories, and mapping connections across concepts and themes. with 103 survivors from January to March 2023. Participants had diverse identities, many of which have not been previously researched extensively, including bereaved parents, students over the age of 18, Latinx and Black communities, and LGBTQ+ people. Interview questions focused on survivors’ experiences of gun violence, the short- and long-term impacts of trauma, the ripple effects of trauma that families and communities experience, access to support services, and post-traumatic growth.
Survivors’ Experience with Gun Violence
All of the survivors interviewed experienced trauma from gun violence. Trauma refers to the lasting adverse effects of an event or series of events. Living through this ordeal can change how one sees oneself and the world around them. The everyday emotional and physical responses from trauma include feelings of anxiety, fear, and hypervigilance. Despite this, some survivors experienced post-traumatic growth in their healing and recovery journey by seeing positive changes in their lives, such as personal growth and appreciation of life.
Gun violence survivors may experience multiple events of gun violence and are exposed to other events, such as intimate partner violence, community trauma, and childhood trauma. This study included 40 survivors who experienced multiple incidents of gun violence, and more than half of these survivors identified as Latinx and/or Black. The accumulation and interaction of many forms of violence, including gun violence, disproportionately impacts Black and Latinx communities, which can cause community trauma. This study highlights the urgency of preventing gun violence and interrupting cycles of violence by exploring these layers of harm.
This report is divided into six sections:
- The Moment that Changes Everything: We explore trauma in the aftermath of gun violence, grief, retraumatization, and difficulties in coping with trauma.
- Impact of Trauma on Safety and Fear: Survivors discuss the trauma after certain gun violence incidents, such as hate crimes, school shootings, and domestic violence. They also discuss how they navigate their social environments as a result of fear after the incident.
- Community Trauma: We illustrate how trauma extends beyond the victims and survivors to their families, communities, and extended communities with shared identities and experiences.
- Post-Traumatic Growth: Survivors discuss positive changes following their struggles with trauma.
- Support Services: Survivors discuss the availability of support services to cope with trauma.
- Opportunities to Better Support Survivors: We outline eight recommendations to address the needs of gun violence survivors who experience trauma.
The Moment that Changes Everything
When someone witnesses or experiences a violent event, the initial impact can affect their immediate decisions and how they cope with trauma. Survivors shared that during the initial aftermath of gun violence, they felt numb, in shock, in disbelief. They disassociated and did not have strong memories of the aftermath. Their immediate responses included leaving their homes to be with family and friends, talking to someone about the incident, protecting family and friends around them, seeking therapy right away, and relying on faith and spirituality.
To avoid initial feelings, some participants stated that they “immediately got busy” by using their energy to redirect behaviors that may lead to this type of gun violence and protecting the memory of their loved ones. Black and Latinx survivors specifically sought to protect loved ones from the negative racial narratives in media reports and from law enforcement officials. A Black bereaved parent whose son died by gun homicide said, “After the incident, I was protecting who my son is, so that people don’t ruin his reputation by saying things about him.” This precarity of being a Black man or child in America reflects the gendering and racialization of gun violence.5Shannon Malone Gonzalez, “Making it Home: An Intersectional Analysis of the Police Talk,” Gender & Society 33, no. 3 (2019): 363-386. Focus group participants’ remarks suggest that racial narratives of criminality and self-blame in the media and from law enforcement shape how victims, survivors, and families experience the immediate aftermath and beyond, which may compound the trauma experience.
In the immediate aftermath of gun violence, survivors also experienced grief when a loved one was killed, and often strains in other relationships. In some instances, focus group participants indicated that family members did not know how to approach survivors in their grief, which created isolation, disrupted support systems, and, in some cases, ended relationships. This is discussed by a bereaved parent whose son died in an unintentional shooting:
“My family didn’t really know what to do with me. So, for me, what’s hurtful is they don’t talk about him at all…. I think they think they’re doing me a favor because they don’t want to bring up something so hurtful…. But for me, my biggest fear is that the world is going to forget about my son.“
Survivors found that talking about their loved ones who had been killed or wounded by guns was important in their grieving process. They lived with hopes to again connect with their family members from whom they were estranged following the tragedy.
Some survivors described using alcohol and substances following the incident in an effort to numb or escape from the lasting impact of gun violence. Research shows that frequently, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorders (SUDs) are experienced by an individual at the same time.6Kathleen T. Brady, Sudie E. Back and Scott F. Coffey, “Substance Abuse and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 13, no. 5 (2004): 206-209. An LGBTQ+ survivor said, “I noticed I started drinking myself to death… it became a big problem. I’m clean and sober now and have been for 13 years.” This reality emphasizes the importance of workers and service providers responding to the variety of needs survivors may be navigating.
Focus group participants also discussed feeling guilt for surviving a shooting or not preventing an incident from occurring. An LGBTQ+ survivor whose cousin died by suicide stated, “I think, ‘Why didn’t I talk to them more about life’ and … all of the whys, all of the what-ifs.” In some instances, these incidents contributed to hypervigilance about the emotions and behaviors of those around them. The survivors found themselves looking “for any signs of any trouble or any issues that they may have, mental, emotional, otherwise.” This hypervigilance stemming from trauma became a likely coping mechanism to avoid retraumatization in the aftermath.
Retraumatization occurs when a person still experiencing the impact from a previous event or incident has heightened vulnerability to another traumatic event or incident and is impacted by that experience. Retraumatization can occur directly by experiencing the repetition of a traumatic event such as another shooting, another wound, and/or another threat. Retraumatization can also occur indirectly through caring about someone who experienced a traumatic event or witnessing an event in the media. This harm is exacerbated when individuals and communities are repeatedly exposed to gun violence. Persistent gun violence in communities and continuous news cycles about incidents of gun violence become daily reminders of their experiences. A bereaved parent whose son died by gun homicide reflected on this:
“Every time there’s a mass shooting, you know, it’s in the news. It brings back the trauma of that day. And then today there was a mass shooting right here in my own city so that… those are tough.”
Reliving this experience can heighten vulnerability and increase paranoia during the grieving process. To avoid this, survivors may practice behaviors to anticipate trauma7Madison Armstrong and Jennifer Carlson, “Speaking of Trauma: The Race Talk, the Gun Violence Talk, and the Racialization of Gun Trauma,” Palgrave Communications 5, no. 1 (2019): 1-11. from gun violence. Researchers developed the term “anticipatory trauma” to refer to the practices grounded in fear of sudden violence by those exposed.8Brian J. Houston, “Media Coverage of Terrorism: A Meta-analytic Assessment of Media Use and Posttraumatic Stress,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 86, no. 4 (2009): 844-861, https://doi.org/10.1177/107769900908600408; Betty Pfefferbaum et al., “Disaster Media Coverage and Psychological Outcomes: Descriptive Findings in the Extant Research,” Current Psychiatry Reports 16 (2014): 1-7, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-014-0464-x; Madison Armstrong and Jennifer Carlson, “Speaking of Trauma: The Race Talk, the Gun Violence Talk, and the Racialization of Gun Trauma,” Palgrave Communications 5, no. 1 (2019): 1-11. Psychologists use similar terms, such as “anticipatory stress reaction,” to describe the anxiety, stress, depression, and consistent negative thinking in individuals impacted by the fear of future events.9Tanya Hopwood, Nicola S. Schutte, and Natasha M. Loi, “Stress Responses to Secondary Trauma: Compassion Fatigue and Anticipatory Traumatic Reaction Among Youth Workers,” The Social Science Journal 56, no. 3 (2019): 337-348. To manage these stressors, people develop practices and behaviors, such as avoiding the media and public locations, both in the aftermath and beyond, as they anticipate harmful events.
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Impact of Trauma on Safety and Fear
In the focus groups, one in three survivors reported that they live in fear after experiencing gun violence, and that they are always anticipating harm or hurt in their daily lives. Gun violence can erode one’s sense of safety and impact how people navigate their environments. Survivors who witnessed gun-related experiences and lived through incidents such as hate crimes, mass shootings, and intimate partner violence saw how guns were used to inflict harm and as a mechanism of control. Each of these types of violence leaves survivors with different patterns of fear and coping.
Hate-motivated gun violence influences fears among survivors who hold identities that have been primary targets of hate crimes, such as LGBTQ+ people, communities of color, and religious minorities. Survivors in the focus groups who hold these identities were more likely to live in fear. In fact, one in three LGBTQ+ survivors of gun violence experienced feeling unsafe after their experiences.
One in three survivors reported that they live in fear after experiencing gun violence.
One in three LGBTQ+ survivors of gun violence experienced feeling unsafe after their experiences.
An LGBTQ+ survivor who experienced hate-motivated gun violence discussed this:
“And then just like this constant state of paranoia… just every time you… hear about a shooting or anything like, you know, you can’t go to work, you can’t go to Walmart, you can’t go to Target, you can’t go to a gas station, you can’t go to school, you can’t go to a play… We went and saw [a] comedian last weekend, and I bought tickets next to the exit row at the edge of the aisle just because it’s something that I think about now.”
Hate-motivated violence is a growing problem in the United States, and LGBTQ+ people continue to be targets because of who they are. On an average day, there are 69 hate crimes committed with a firearm.10Everytown analysis of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). A yearly average was developed using 11 years of the most recently available data: 20102021. During this period, there were 6,668,159 hate crimes, 276,308 of which involved a firearm. Feelings of paranoia among LGBTQ+ participants elevate ongoing concerns for safety and fear as survivors experience emotional distress from continuously seeing gun violence in the news and social media.11Christopher B. Stults et al., “Perceptions of Safety among LGBTQ People following the 2016 Pulse Nightclub Shooting,” Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity 4, no. 3 (2017): 251–56, https://doi.apa.org/doi/10.1037/sgd0000240.
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Due to fears of experiencing another gun-related incident, survivors can become hypervigilant in their environments, such as on school campuses. School shootings can produce fears of being wounded or killed in a place where a child or young adult is supposed to thrive. In 2022, there were at least 177 incidents of gunfire on school grounds, resulting in 57 deaths and 148 injuries nationally, according to a database maintained by Everytown. A student who witnessed a shooting on campus stated:
“I was always on a very high alert of like… it happened here [at school], it can happen again…. It’s not like a one-time thing, like, oh, you experienced this so now you’re clear.”
Fear of school shootings impacts how students navigate their campuses. Students in the focus groups echoed that they remain on high alert when walking outside on campus after dark or in similar neighborhoods or settings. While school shootings account for less than one percent of the more than 40,300 annual US gun deaths,12Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. WONDER Online Database, Underlying Cause of Death. A yearly average was developed using four years of the most recent available data: 2018-2021. experiencing a school shooting has lasting effects on communities, school systems, and individuals in schools and other public spaces.
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Intimate Partner Violence
Survivors of intimate partner gun violence also felt unsafe and fearful after the incident. Every month, an average of 70 women in the United States are shot and killed by an intimate partner,13Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, National Violent Death Reporting System, 2019. and many more are shot and wounded. Nearly one million American women alive today have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner.14Everytown analysis of the National Violence Against Women Survey (Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes, “Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey,” November 2000, https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/183781.pdf) and US Census 2020.
For those who survive intimate partner violence, immediate steps to gain a sense of safety include uprooting their lives, relocating their homes, and leaving their careers behind.
A Latinx domestic violence survivor discussed that they were in a constant state of “flight or fight.” In the aftermath of the incident, they decided that flight was the best option:
“We ended up having to sell the house because I could never live inside of it again…. I could never step back into my bedroom. I was too traumatized…. I was living in fear, thinking that around the corner, he would show up and find me somehow. I had night terrors up until—actually, for decades.”
Nearly one in five survivors in the focus groups were impacted by intimate partner violence with a firearm, and all experienced trauma due to these incidents.
This focus group participant relocated after the incident; however, decades later, they continued to feel unsafe. Nearly one in five survivors in the focus groups were impacted by intimate partner violence with a firearm, and all experienced trauma due to these incidents. One study on domestic violence found that women who were threatened or feared that their partner would use a gun against them had more psychological symptoms than women who experienced other types of abuse, such as physical or psychological abuse.15Tami P. Sullivan and Nicole H. Weiss, “Is Firearm Threat in Intimate Relationships Associated with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms among Women?” Violence and Gender 4, no. 2 (June 1, 2017): 31–36, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5467129/. The fear of firearm threat is significantly associated with PTSD—an even stronger association, compared to the link between physical and sexual abuse and PTSD.16Jennifer Mascia, “No Shots Fired,” The Trace, September 12, 2018, https://bit.ly/2QAOSg7.
The impact of domestic violence extends beyond intimate-partner relationships, impacting others, including children. Children who survive or witness the death of a parent struggle with lasting consequences, such as suicidal thoughts and severe PTSD.17Henrik Lysell et al., “Killing the Mother of One’s Child: Psychiatric Risk Factors among Male Perpetrators and Offspring Health Consequences,” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 77, no. 3 (2016): 342–47, https://doi.org/10.4088/JCP.14m0956. Domestic violence survivors in the focus group not only struggled to navigate support services for their children’s trauma, but they also prioritized keeping them safe. A survivor of domestic violence discussed this:
“My daughter is now living far away, and as much as I miss her, I at least feel like… I have some sense of safety for her there. But that’s my current anxiety is like, what are the odds… that they’re going to make it.”
Survivors of domestic violence strive to protect their children against the “odds”: nearly one-third of children under age 13 who are victims of gun homicide are connected to intimate partner or family violence.18Katherine A Fowler et al., “Childhood Firearm Injuries in the United States,” Pediatrics 140, no. 1 (2017): e20163486., https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2016-3486. And research from 16 states shows that nearly two-thirds of child fatalities involving domestic violence were caused by firearms.19Avanti Adhia et al., ”The Role of Intimate Partner Violence in Homicides of Children Aged 2–14 years,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 56, no. 1 (2019): 38–46, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2018.08.028.
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Feeling unsafe and living in fear extends beyond those who are shot and wounded to those who witnessed gun violence, who were threatened, and who cared for someone that experienced gun violence. Survivors continue to live with these lasting impacts daily, longing to feel safe.
“We have families dealing with it, schools dealing with it, communities… we have the whole (city) dealing with the gun violence….So the trauma, I think, is just beyond numbers.”—Bereaved parent of a daughter who died by domestic violence with a firearm
Community trauma, an understudied area, is a product of persistent exposure and interactions of many forms of violence, including gun violence. Community trauma is not only the sum of trauma that individuals experience; it is also the collective trauma experienced in communities with elevated levels of violence. There are three dimensions of violence that combine to produce community trauma: interpersonal violence, structural violence, and historical and intergenerational violence.20Howard Pinderhughes, Rachel Davis, and Myesha Williams, “Adverse Community Experiences and Resilience: A Framework for Addressing and Preventing Community Trauma,” Prevention Institute, 2015, https://www.preventioninstitute.org/sites/default/files/publications/Adverse%20Community%20Experiences%20and%20Resilience.pdf. Each of these forms of violence can be linked to firearms.
Trauma from gun violence reverberates through the nation of survivors as collective trauma. Collective trauma refers to the psychological reactions to a traumatic event that affect an entire society. In this case, after an incident, a collective traumatic memory is produced that is remembered and recollected by community members through various times and spaces.21Gilad Hirschberger, “Collective Trauma and the Social Construction of Meaning,” Frontiers in Psychology 9, August 10, 2018, https://doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01441. For example, an LGBTQ+ survivor whose friend died in a mass shooting discussed the collective trauma among LGBTQ+ survivors by drawing on their experiences from the Pulse shooting:
“The ripple effect from the Pulse shooting… It was the thousands of us who were friends with the people who were lost. It’s the queer community in general that is afraid to go to gay clubs because there are so many people out there who are working to legislate against our lives. People are afraid to go to drag shows… And all of that is a ripple effect from Pulse… it widens out to the entire community in the wake of the shooting being afraid to go out and be themselves.”
Trauma extends beyond the victims and survivors to their families, communities, and extended communities that share the same identities as the survivors and victims of gun violence and people with similar experiences. Gun violence instills trauma responses such as hopelessness, fear, numbness, and hypervigilance in communities across the nation—permeating through social and interpersonal systems and creating lasting effects.
Disproportionate Impact on Communities of Color
Black, Latinx, and other communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of gun violence, and they struggle to cope with the impacts. Trauma from gun violence is compounded with other forms of violence, such as structural violence, which includes under-or-disinvestment in health care, the education system, social and protective services, and housing. Structural violence also encompasses historical violence, such as the legacy of slavery, predatory housing practices, and banking practices.22Howard Pinderhughes, Rachel Davis, and Myesha Williams, “Adverse Community Experiences and Resilience: A Framework for Addressing and Preventing Community Trauma,” Prevention Institute, 2015, https://bit.ly/3na6R95. Therefore, it is essential to recognize the layers of trauma experienced by communities with high rates of gun violence.
Black and Latinx survivors or someone they cared about were more likely to experience gun violence by law enforcement officers compared to other respondents. A key contributor to trauma in the Black and Latinx communities is police violence.
Every year, police in America shoot and kill more than 1,000 people.23Everytown analysis of 2018-2022 Mapping Police Violence data, accessed February 22, 2023, https://mappingpoliceviolence.org. Black Americans are 2.77 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than white Americans,24Everytown analysis of 2018-2022 Mapping Police Violence, accessed February 22, 2023, and population data from the US Census. National Violent Death Reporting System 2009-2012 (17 states participating) and also shows Black Americans killed by police at a rate 2.8 times higher than white Americans, see DeGue et al., 2016. CDC’s data on 2010-2014 deaths categorized as legal intervention shows a rate of police killing of Black males aged 10+ 2.8 times higher than white males 10+ years old, see Buehler, 2017. and, in an average year, police shoot and kill over 180 Latinx people, a rate higher than white people.25Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund analysis of Mapping Police Violence 2018–2022, accessed February 22, 2023; US Census Bureau, accessed February 22, 2023, https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?hidePreview=true&tid=ACSDT1Y2019.B03002. On average, police shot and killed 181 Latinx Americans per year; this is a rate of 3.1 fatal police shootings per million Latinx Americans. During the same time, police shot and killed an average of 430 non-Latinx white Americans each year; this is a rate of 2.2 per million non-Latinx whites. Survivors in the focus groups shared experiences of physical assaults and threats by law enforcement officials who were armed with guns, and loved ones who were killed by a law enforcement officer with a gun.
Focus group participants also experienced stigma, racism, and discrimination from law enforcement during the post-incident investigation process. A Latinx survivor whose brother died by gun homicide stated, “[The police] already had a theory and assumption and a bias. And that’s what led their work.” During the investigation process, Black and Latinx survivors reported experiencing less attention, yet more blame from law enforcement. They also experienced law enforcement’s disbelief as they were persistently questioned about the validity of their experiences with gun violence. Black and Latinx participants were also more likely to report that their cases were less prioritized than white survivors. As a result, Black and Latinx survivors were more likely to have a loved one whose homicide remains unsolved. A Black survivor whose son died by gun homicide reflected on this:
“I feel when it’s a Black or non-white [victim]… it’s just… not enough urgency to solve the case, to work on the case… from what I’ve seen in these past 14 years that the people who can do something about solving cases really aren’t that interested when it’s a Black male or when it’s a Black person.”
Unsolved cases in Black and Latinx communities can further fuel community mistrust of law enforcement officials. Research consistently shows that homicides committed with a gun take longer to solve, and are solved less often than when committed with other weapons.26Lauren Korosec, “The Changing Nature of Homicide and its Impact on Homicide Clearance Rates: A Qualitative Analysis of Two Trends from 1984-2009.” Additionally, cases are less likely to be cleared when the victim of gun violence is Black27Murders with Black victims are 23.2% less likely to be cleared. Jeffrey Fagan and Amanda Geller, “Police, Race, and the Production of Capital Homicides,” Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law 23, no. 3 (2018): 261–313; Alonzo DeCarlo, “A Reason for Reasonable Doubt in Social Justice: The Weight of Poverty, Race and Gender in Lopsided Homicide Case Clearances Outcomes,” Contemporary Social Science 11, no. 4 (October 1, 2016): 362–72, https://doi.org/10.1080/21582041.2014.997275; Lauren Korosec, “The Changing Nature of Homicide and Its Impact on Homicide Clearance Rates: A Quantitative Analysis of Two Trends From 1984-2009,” Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository, April 4, 2012, https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/etd/422. and/or male.28Case closure is 2.5 times more likely when the victim is female. Tom McEwen and Wendy Regoeczi, “Forensic Evidence in Homicide Investigations and Prosecutions,” Journal of Forensic Sciences 60, no. 5 (2015): 1188–98, https://doi.org/10.1111/1556-4029.12787; and Korosec, “The Changing Nature of Homicide and its Impact on Homicide Clearance Rates: A Qualitative Analysis of Two Trends from 1984-2009.” As a result, survivors are left with no closure, no accountability for the deaths of people they care about, and no justice. When this lack of justice is compounded with experiences of trauma, survivors have difficulty coping for not just years but lifetimes.
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Another effect of gun violence on communities described by survivors is generational loss. Survivors described themselves as “being in the ripple” as family members died by guns. Many did not get a chance to meet family members who died, and bereaved parents are raising the grandchildren of a missing generation. Survivors have a heightened concern about the generational loss for the youth in the United States. A Black survivor whose son died by gun homicide stated:
“It just seems that gun violence is the worst that it has ever been in my lifetime that I’m aware of and the perpetrators seem to be so young. We’re losing generations. Generations. We’re not only losing the lives of the victims, but the ones who are… convicted, their lives are lost as well.”
Firearms are the leading cause of death for children and teens in the United States. Every year, nearly 4,000 children and teens (ages 0 to 19) are shot and killed, and 15,000 are shot and wounded.29Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. WONDER Online Database, Underlying Cause of Death. A yearly average was developed using four years of the most recent available data: 2018 to 2021. Children and teens aged 0 to 19. Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “A More Complete Picture: The Contours of Gun Injury in the United States, December 2020, https://everytownresearch.org/report/nonfatals-in-the-us/. This generational loss impacts communities witnessing the death and wounds of their friends and classmates. A bereaved parent whose son died by gun homicide stated that when youth die by violence, “we never know what their full potential would have been.”
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Loss of Community
A loss of community is also felt among survivors as networks and structures in their environments erode due to trauma and gun violence’s ripple effects. One factor that influences this breakdown of community as a result of trauma is the normalization and desensitization of gun violence. A Latinx survivor whose brother died by gun homicide stated that people in a neighborhood with gun violence “just chalk it up as, like, another incident of violence that happens in the community, right?”
Participants and their communities feel “numb” to gun violence. Feelings of numbness also stem from the lack of investment and attention to their realities of gun violence from policymakers and the media. As a result, some people may ignore or avoid talking about gun violence in their area, which leads to fewer chances for solidarity to create safer communities and fewer outlets to rebuild trust.
Participation in advocacy for policy changes and gun violence prevention presented survivors with new possibilities to “change things” as they cultivated new interests and new perspectives.
The horrors and heartbreak of gun violence cannot be overstated. As this report outlines, the adverse effects of trauma from gun violence can be profound and far-reaching. For some people who experience the trauma from gun violence, there may be an additional component of their experience that illustrates the phenomenon of “post-traumatic growth.”
Researchers Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term “post-traumatic growth” (PTG) to examine the positive changes some individuals experience following their struggles with trauma.30Lawrence G. Calhoun and Richard G. Tedeschi, “Beyond Recovery from Trauma: Implications for Clinical Practice and Research,” Journal of Social Issues 54, no. 2 (1998): 357-371. This type of growth can be measured by introduction of new possibilities for one’s life, improved relationships, a greater sense of personal strength and spiritual development, and a greater appreciation for life.31Richard G Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun, “The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: Measuring the Positive Legacy of Trauma,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 9, (1996): 455-471.
This can also occur as a paradox; individuals may experience both a heightened sense of vulnerability and valuable gains at the same time.32Lawrence G. Calhoun and Richard G. Tedeschi, eds., Facilitating Posttraumatic Growth: A Clinician’s Guide. Routledge, 1999. Some people may never experience post-traumatic growth.
Nearly half of the focus group participants mentioned experiencing elements of post-traumatic growth in their lives after experiencing gun violence.
Forty-six survivors, or nearly half of the focus group participants, mentioned positive changes in their lives after experiencing gun violence. Many survivors reported feeling stronger and gaining confidence. Living through trauma(s) from gun violence created self-reliance, especially for survivors isolated from friends and family. Participants said that they gained greater confidence in handling difficult situations and doing so with assertiveness. This confidence extended to all kinds of situations, including future traumas.
An LGBTQ+ survivor whose friend died by gun homicide stated that they now face their traumas “head-on” by seeking out trauma-specific therapists and sharing their experiences with others. A Latinx survivor whose brother died by gun homicide also stated that they now have the confidence to take risks in their life, “When something that you’re really scared of happening on a consistent basis actually does happen so young… I’m more [likely to] risk everything.” Such confidence also shaped their growth and appreciation of life. A Latinx survivor of domestic violence stated:
“As I started to… go through my journey… I just enjoy my little walks around town, and I’m like, oh, the sun is out, there’s the mountains, a blue sky… I love it so much. I’m so appreciative of where I am right now.”
Some survivors developed an appreciation and gratitude for life. These feelings also extended toward their family, friends, and community, as well as to their journey. For example, a student survivor who witnessed a shooting on campus stated that, after the incident, “I’m more appreciative of my relationships that I have.”
Gun Violence Prevention Advocacy
Survivors also joined the gun violence prevention movement in a variety of ways, such as mentoring and working with youth in their communities, developing community-based organizations to advocate for gun safety and create support services, and joining Moms Demand Action, Students Demand Action, and the Survivor Network at Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. A Latinx survivor who was threatened with a gun by a law enforcement official discussed how joining the gun violence prevention movement helped their growth:
“Being a volunteer in the gun violence prevention movement has really given me an outlet to do something and feel like I’m not helpless and that I don’t just need to sit around and hope that it ends and that I have a way to change things.”
Participation in advocacy for policy changes and gun violence prevention presented survivors with new possibilities to “change things” as they cultivated new interests and new perspectives, and as they were open to new ways to honor their loved ones, their experiences, and other survivors of gun violence across the nation. A Black domestic violence survivor stated that she experienced post-traumatic growth by educating others about the different types of domestic violence, including “digital control, stalking, and by taking advantage of opportunities with Everytown and sharing [my story on] Moments That Survive.”
These new life possibilities were intertwined with advocacy and research for gun violence prevention and support for other survivors of gun violence. A bereaved parent whose son was killed in a homicide sums up these experiences by citing a famous quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” demonstrating the growth of hope and resilience.”
Survivors of gun violence play an important role in trauma care and post-traumatic growth.
Mental Health Services
Nearly half of survivors in our focus groups said they needed support, services, or assistance to cope with the impact of gun violence within the first six months or longer after the incident of gun violence. Access to mental health services, peer support, legal help, and logistical and financial support such as relocation costs and funeral arrangements is instrumental in a survivors’ path to recovery and healing.
Survivors Expressed the Following Needs:
The need for trauma-informed mental health services was not only discussed for short-term care but also for long-term assistance to cope with trauma’s lasting impact. An LGBTQ+ survivor whose friend died by gun homicide and cousin died by gun suicide discussed the importance of counseling and long-term support:
“I feel like I’ve had a lot of positive growth… after years and years and years of therapy have also really evolved and grown as a person and from these things. And I feel like I’ve been able to really understand myself better and my needs, my concerns, and my emotions.”
More specifically, nearly one in three focus group participants indicated that mental health counseling services were their largest unmet need. Gun violence survivors needed trauma-informed counseling for both short-term and long-term support. Without it, the trauma of gun violence does not end when the shooting stops. This reflects the reality of gun violence survivors across the nation, as various mental health services and resources are instrumental for healing and growth for individuals, families, and communities that experience gun violence. However, several barriers prevent survivors from accessing services and trauma-informed care.
Nearly half of survivors in our focus groups said they needed support, services, or assistance to cope with the impact of gun violence within the first six months or longer after the incident of gun violence.
Nearly one in three focus group participants indicated that mental health counseling services were their largest unmet need.
Survivors who identified as Black or Latinx in the focus groups were less likely to have access to short- and long-term support from mental health services. Even with access to services, they experienced stigma and discrimination, and providers who were not culturally attuned to their communities. A Latinx survivor whose uncle died by gun homicide discussed the stigmatization of mental health in their community:
“In our culture, we don’t seek help. You know, we keep everything within. I mean, even personally. But if we do share, it’s within the family, and we don’t let others know what’s going on. I mean, that’s something that I was always told, and it was modeled in my family as well, so whenever I was hurting… I didn’t share it, kept it in… I needed to be strong.”
People’s access to mental health services can be uniquely stigmatized in some communities, leading to isolation and an inability to share their experiences. As a result, individuals who need mental health services are reluctant to seek help because of the potential rejection by others.33Patrick Corrigan, “How Stigma Interferes with Mental Health Care.” American Psychologist 59, no. 7 (2004): 614. Moreover, communities that already confront economic discrimination,34Angela Hanks, Danyelle Solomon, and Christian E. Weller, “Systemic Inequality: How America’s Structural Racism Helped Create the Black-White Wealth Gap,” Center for American Progress, February 21, 2018, https://ampr.gs/2JqzLmG. lack of access to health care and social services,35Allan S. Noonan, Hector Eduardo Velasco-Mondragon, and Fernando A. Wagner, “Improving the Health of African Americans in the USA: An Overdue Opportunity for Social Justice,” Public Health Reviews 37, no. 12 (2016), https://doi.org/10.1186/s40985-016-0025-4; Samuel Bieler et al., “Engaging Communities in Reducing Gun Violence: A Road Map for Safer Communities,” Urban Institute, the Joyce Foundation, and Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, April 2016, https://bit.ly/3jYdg58; “African Americans Have Limited Access to Mental and Behavioral Health Care,” American Psychological Association, September 2017, https://bit.ly/3k6wENi. discrimination within the criminal justice system,36“Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System,” Report of the Sentencing Project to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, The Sentencing Project, March 2018, https://bit.ly/3tm4oet; Margaret Kovera, “Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System: Prevalence, Causes, and a Search for Solutions.” Journal of Social Issues 75, no. 4 (2019): 1139-1164. and prejudice, suffer from double-stigma. The combination of experiencing stigma to seek mental health services and discrimination because of race, ethnicity,37Gary, Faye A. “Stigma: Barrier to mental health care among ethnic minorities.” Issues in Mental Health Nursing 26, no. 10 (2005): 979-999. sexual orientation, and identity can impede treatment.
Peer Support Groups
Peers are uniquely positioned to support survivors by drawing on their lived experiences. Studies have shown that peer support programs positively impact survivors by providing psychological and emotional support through community building, the credibility of lived experiences, and positive changes in acceptance of self and quality of life.38B.M. Haas, L. Price, J.A. Freeman. “Qualitative Evaluation of a Community Peer Support Service for People with Spinal Cord Injury,” Spinal Cord 51, (2013): 295-299. Goregens T. Davis et al., “Making Meaning in a Burn Peer Support Group: Qualitative Analysis of Attendee Interviews,” J Burn Care Res 35, (2014): 416-425. Mary R. Hibbard et al., “Peer Support in the Community: Initial Findings of a Mentoring Program for Individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury and their Families,” The Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation 17, no. 2 (2002): 112-131. However, no research examines the effects of peer-to-peer support among gun violence survivors.
Survivors of gun violence play an important role in trauma care and post-traumatic growth. Everytown’s Survivor Network played a critical role in empowering many of the focus group survivors to process their experiences and gain a support network. Peer support groups became especially helpful for survivors who were isolated from their communities and families and/or who had experienced strains in their relationships after an incident of gun violence. A bereaved parent whose son died by gun homicide discusses this:
“With my son’s death and the isolation from some of my friends and family who didn’t know what to say… it gave me a place to put the empathy. I could contact someone else who lost a son… knowing that not everybody understands.”
Peers play an important role in trauma care and post-traumatic growth by enhancing collaboration, building trust, establishing safety and hope, and sharing stories of lived experiences to promote recovery and healing. As a result, respondents in this study who participated in peer support groups were more likely to experience post-traumatic growth as they saw improvements in their quality of life, general outlook, and their ability to cope with trauma. The Everytown Survivor Network and other programs that support survivors of gun violence serve as an important resource to connect survivors with one another and promote healing and resilience.
While support may be offered to those directly affected, family members also experienced difficulty accessing care. Parents whose children died by gun violence struggle to navigate their identities as parents. A Latinx survivor described this feeling after their teenage daughter died from intimate partner violence with a firearm:
“We don’t have a word for ex-parent. We have widows, widowers. We have orphans. We don’t really have, ‘used to be a parent but is no longer.’”
Bereaved parents echoed these feelings throughout the focus groups: They struggled with their identity as parents because support services and systems did not recognize their need for care and support. In addition, family members are tasked with navigating social service agencies, the criminal justice system, and court proceedings. A bereaved parents shared that, “there weren’t enough resources to support them” in navigating myriad systems. This involved maintaining communication with law enforcement officials; completing logistical tasks, such as arranging flights for loved ones; preparing documents for life insurance; funeral arrangements; arranging the care of children whose parents died; and ensuring that media outlets published correct information about the incident.
Financial burdens placed on families serve as an additional barrier when navigating systems and services of support. In the United States, the economic cost of gun violence is high. Survivors need financial support to cover the direct costs of gun violence, such as assistance with medical bills, funeral expenses, legal fees, loss of income, and compensation for job loss and relocation of their homes. This need was conveyed more frequently by Black and Latinx survivors than by survivors who identified as white. A Latinx survivor whose brother died by gun homicide reflected on this, saying, “When you don’t know about financial resources available to victims, you’re… overwhelmed at the same time as you’re overwhelmed with your own emotions.”
Many focus group participants stated that they lost their businesses and jobs due to their struggles. A bereaved parent said that they could not maintain their business after their son died by gun homicide; as a result, their business of over 15 years closed. An additional expense that families and survivors accrue after gun violence is the cost of relocating. Survivors and families moved their homes to “avoid persistent reminders” of the incident. These financial burdens also remain long-term. A bereaved parent whose daughter died by gun homicide stated, “I’m no longer head of household, I have no surviving children, and now I have to pay more taxes.” The death of their daughter impacts their financial stability.
Opportunities to Better Support Survivors of Gun Violence
Participants discussed what was helpful and harmful in the aftermath of their exposure to gun violence. Participants said that they are seeking safety in their communities, legislative changes, tangible resources, and better access to services. The breadth and depth of the needs survivors face require comprehensive and intentional action across various systems. Recommendations for opportunities to support survivors of gun violence and trauma include:
Developing More and Better Trauma-Informed Services
- Educate workers across systems interacting with survivors on the impact of trauma and trauma-informed best practices with a culturally responsive lens. After an incident of gun violence, victims and survivors interact with a large number of workers across many systems including healthcare, law enforcement, mental health, victim services, the courts, and the media. Unfortunately, a lack of understanding on trauma and trauma-informed best practices for actors across these systems results in further harm to victims and survivors. Additionally, it should be a priority to provide culturally responsive services based on the needs of the community being served in order to mitigate harm. Workers across various systems should be educated on historical race-based traumas in order to better serve survivors and mitigate harm caused by discrimination and racism.
- Expand the trauma recovery center model. Trauma Recovery Centers were created to restore the mental and physical health of trauma survivors who have been historically underserved by traditional mental health programs. The model was explicitly designed for survivors of violent crime and allows victims to access integrated services including mental health services, assistance filing victim compensation claims, liaising with law enforcement and more. Expanding these programs to communities experiencing the highest rates of gun violence will strategically invest resources and support and help disrupt cycles of trauma, violence and re-victimization. Trauma Recovery Centers currently exist or are under development in Illinois, California, Ohio, New Jersey, Iowa, and Georgia.
- Build on investments in trauma awareness and mental health services in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA). Nearly one in two survivors in our study said they needed support, services, or assistance to cope with the impact of gun violence. Access to mental health services is instrumental yet survivors discussed that this was their largest unmet need. In addition to historic provisions addressing firearms and education, BSCA appropriated millions of dollars to support community or school-based mental health treatment and trauma-informed behavioral health services across the country. As these programs are implemented, addressing trauma for victims and survivors with an understanding of historical race-based traumas is key when meeting the needs of all survivors of gun violence and people of color seeking services.
- Expand access to trauma-informed peer support programming. The overwhelming majority of participants in the focus group study credit much of their healing to peer support services and finding community in organizations. Expanding access to programs like Everytown’s SurvivorsConnect peer support program can boost resilience and post-traumatic growth for survivors of gun violence. SurvivorsConnect is a national program for survivors of gun violence that matches gun violence survivors with trained, trauma-informed leaders who are also survivors of gun violence.
Addressing Police Violence and Unsolved Gun Crimes
Increase efforts to solve gun crimes and address police violence. Solving gun crimes increases community trust in law enforcement, breaks cycles of violence, and helps address trauma and promote healing among survivors of gun violence. Addressing unsolved shootings can be complex, as much of this work is occurring at the local level, and every city and town has a different combination of considerations and factors that may impact the rates at which shootings are solved. However, it is essential that our solutions to unsolved shootings center on —and do not negatively impact—the communities most impacted by gun violence. Any policing strategy must include strong guardrails for when police may use force against civilians and ensure police are held accountable when force is used. It must prioritize de-escalation, dignity, and respect.
Conducting Original Research
Conduct ongoing research on the needs and experiences of gun violence survivors at the local, state and national levels. This study illustrates the breadth and depth of how trauma from gun violence has shaped the needs and experiences of survivors. However, variations among communities exist based on access to resources, gun violence trends, and demographics. The more research we conduct, the better we can support gun violence survivors.
Training for Local Violence Interventionists
Expand technical assistance programs on trauma for Community Violence Interruption (CVI) practitioners. The trauma of experiencing violence can change how individuals respond to threats. It can increase their fear and desire to protect themselves, as well as their likelihood of engaging in violence. When an individual is victimized by or exposed to violence, the likelihood that they will be victimized again, resort to carrying a gun, or engage in retaliatory gun violence increases. More must be done to disrupt cycles of trauma and violence. Elevate the critical work the Roca Impact Institute is doing to train CVI practitioners to use brain science young people at the center of violence to understand why they do what they do and how they can change their behaviors over time.
Emphasizing the Importance of New Legislation
Pass legislation to address the trauma survivors experience from gun violence. Congress should pass the Resources for Victims of Gun Violence Act (H.R. 1560 / S. 556) sponsored by US Rep. Dwight Evans (D-PA-03) and US Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA). This bill establishes the Advisory Council to Support Victims of Gun Violence. Among other things, the advisory council must assess the needs of victims of gun violence and disseminate information about helpful resources.
Gun violence has lasting traumatic impacts on survivors. Every survivor has their unique experience of coping with trauma, which varies depending on the frequency of gun violence in their communities and their access to support networks and support services. Trauma interferes with survivors’ ability to thrive and live healthy lives in safe and sustainable communities. This research expands our understanding of trauma by illustrating the short- and long-term impacts of gun violence, the ripple effects of trauma, and experiences of post-traumatic growth. The reverberations of trauma from gun violence are felt across the nation as other survivors of gun violence, people who share similar identities with the victim or survivor, and people who bear witness through the news and social media continue to cope with daily gun violence.
The results of this study add to the urgency of preventing gun violence and interrupting cycles of violence by demonstrating the breadth and depth of the impact of trauma for our country’s individuals, families, communities, and support systems. It is vital to conduct research, advocate for laws, and ensure access to resources to prevent gun violence and help those in its aftermath. To support survivors, there needs to be more availability of trauma-informed care, access to peer support networks, police accountability, and legislation that addresses the trauma survivors’ experiences with gun violence.
Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund would like to gratefully acknowledge the work of Aurrera Health Group for their work to analyze the focus groups findings and their expert review of this report. We also honor the gun violence survivors for their willingness to share their stories.
Everytown Research & Policy is a program of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence. Everytown Research & Policy works to do so by conducting methodologically rigorous research, supporting evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge to the American public.