Skip to content

Invisible Wounds

Gun Violence and Community Trauma among Black Americans

5.27.2021

“Our stories matter”

Some people describe the sound as a car backfiring. Others, popcorn on a hot fire. To me, though, gunshots were the soundtrack of my childhood. . . We don’t have to live like this, and this doesn’t have to be our normal. Black children shouldn’t have to grow up like I did, with gunshots a more common refrain than ice cream truck songs on warm summer days . . . Our stories matter. We’re not just dots on a map. And the continued, shared trauma of normalized gun violence in Black communities—it’s a burden we shouldn’t have to bear.

 

Joshua Harris-Till, fellow, Everytown Survivor Network1Joshua Harris-Till, “I Grew Up amid Gun Violence. We Don’t Have to Live Like This,” Tulsa World, February 2, 2021, https://bit.ly/3nO3Dtx.

Addressing Trauma from Gun Violence

The word “trauma” expresses many states and emotions. One is the everyday feeling of being extremely scared, even overwhelmed. A second use for the word is the more clinical definition—an emotional response to a terrifying, often unexpected event or events. This can include being in a serious car accident, experiencing severe combat stress from a military deployment, or surviving a natural disaster such as a major earthquake. These events all can cause trauma. In some cases, those affected have little or no lasting trauma symptoms. Research shows that surrounding those harmed by a traumatic event with physical, emotional, and social support can make a huge difference in their healing and recovery.1Judith A. Cohen, Anthony P. Mannarino, and Esther Deblinger, Treating Trauma and Traumatic Grief in Children and Adolescents (New York: Guilford Press, 2006). For others, longer-term reactions and symptoms are a natural response to a harrowing event; this response can make it difficult for people to move on with their lives. 

The term “posttraumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) was initially a diagnosis for soldiers returning from the Vietnam War.2Marc-Antoine Crocq and Louis Crocq, “From Shell Shock and War Neurosis to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A History of Psychotraumatology,” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 2, no. 1 (March 2000): 47–55, https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2000.2.1/macrocq. It has since been applied far more broadly to describe a syndrome in those who have experienced a serious traumatic event. Medical and social scientists have learned a lot about individual trauma over the past few decades, with important discoveries in terms of how it can change the chemistry in one’s brain. These professionals have made promising developments in medical treatments for the aftermath of a traumatic incident and in trauma-informed care.

But what if there is no “post” trauma in sight? What if police sirens, gunshots in the distance, and sidewalk memorials to those gunned down are a feature of daily life? How do we understand the experiences of people who have never directly experienced a terrible, unexpected event but nonetheless suffer from severe trauma symptoms? Despite scientific advances in the understanding of trauma, too little of this work also studies, or is developing solutions for, trauma from indirect and persistent violence.

Community trauma is not only the sum of the hurt and suffering of individuals who have had traumatizing experiences. It is also a collective trauma experienced in communities with elevated levels of violence.

This report is an effort to begin to address this less-studied, yet equally damaging, phenomenon, sometimes referred to as “community trauma.”3While community trauma as a theory is still under development, we want to recognize the invaluable work on historical trauma in Black communities for decades, including writing by such thinkers as Joy DeGruy, Anna Ortega-Williams, Thema Bryant-Davis, and others. And the focus for this exploration on community trauma will be on Black communities in America. This is because persistent gun violence is harming too many Black communities across the United States, contributing to individual, family, and community-level trauma. Community trauma is not only the sum of the hurt and suffering of individuals who have had traumatizing experiences. It is also a collective trauma experienced in communities with elevated levels of violence. The term “community trauma” seeks to name an effect that many in Black communities know to be ever-present and deeply problematic. 

Howard Pinderhughes is one researcher who is making crucial contributions to understanding and building a vocabulary for this concept. He and his colleagues at the Prevention Institute describe community trauma as symptoms of illness that extend beyond individuals who directly witness violence in communities characterized by high levels of violence. Community trauma results from the accumulation and interaction of many forms of violence, including gun violence. It also includes exposure to structural violence such as underinvestment in health care, schools, and housing. And it encompasses historical violence such as the legacy of slavery or predatory housing and banking practices.4Howard 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. While this work is not exclusive to Black communities, the Prevention Institute’s framework was developed based on work in predominantly Black communities in Northern California.

Some Americans live in communities where gun violence is persistent, and vigilance against it is a necessary part of surviving everyday life. Still other Americans live in communities where gun violence is exceedingly rare. These are places where children never need to cover their ears until the gunfire stops, never attend the funeral of a cousin felled by gunfire. Even so, whether gun violence is a persistent issue in our neighborhoods or not, we all hugged our children particularly closely after the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Too many endured collective trauma after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. Many members of the LGBTQ community experienced trauma from the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, even when they had no personal connection to that devastating day. And many in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community endured trauma following the Atlanta-area spa shootings. Each of these experiences brings a sense of the visceral and lasting reaction to gun violence.

Acknowledgment

Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund and the Black Mental Health Alliance are dedicated to acknowledging the experiences of gun violence survivors and to amplifying their voices.

Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, along with the Black Mental Health Alliance, are dedicated to acknowledging the experiences of gun violence survivors and to amplifying their voices, including in this report.

We are building a community of gun violence survivors for emotional support, trauma-informed programs, and much more. Both organizations also want to expand the focus of our work with survivors of every race and ethnicity to include those with no visible wounds but who bear scars from gun violence that deeply affect their well-being and ability to live to their full potential.

In February 2021, Everytown convened leading researchers and practitioners from different disciplines and backgrounds interested in broadening the conversation on trauma within the gun violence prevention field. We sought to deepen our understanding of community trauma, particularly in Black communities. The convening explored the concept, manifestations, and solutions for community trauma and this report has greatly benefited from the diverse perspectives shared during the meeting. The valuable work of those experts is highlighted throughout this report. In addition, their work is summarized in the “Researchers Consulted” section below. We would like to acknowledge in particular the contributions of Dr. Jocelyn Smith Lee, who provided valuable feedback to early drafts and helped shape and strengthen this report.

 

Why is trauma from gun violence uniquely damaging? All types of violence are distressing, whether we are direct victims or bystanders, or hear of a tragedy in a familiar place. But the shocking suddenness and higher potential for lethality of firearm violence can have particularly grave impacts. Direct victims of gun violence can experience trauma but those who witness or hear of it can also be traumatized. For those directly impacted, research shows that crimes with a gun have more severe mental health impacts than crimes with other weapons.5Rose M. C. Kagawa et al., “Distress Level and Daily Functioning Problems Attributed to Firearm Victimization: Sociodemographic-Specific Responses,” Annals of Epidemiology, December 6, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annepidem.2019.12.002. Gun violence leaves indelible marks on the memory that can alter the health, choices, and lifelong trajectory of children, young people, adults, and the collective community in serious and lasting ways. 

This report explores the impacts of community trauma on different age groups in Black communities that experience elevated gun violence and offers promising solutions for addressing community trauma. The daily toll of gun violence among Black Americans is not inevitable. Individuals and organizations are mobilizing in highly impacted communities across the nation to address trauma and strengthen our communities. 

I grew up in the crack era in Philadelphia at the height of gun violence in the 1980s and 1990s. Several young men in my neighborhood died from gun violence. Growing up in a city harmed by structural and interpersonal violence gave me a sense of fatalism. As an adolescent, I never imagined that I would live past 21 years old. Unlike many of the Black boys and young Black men that I now work with, I was not involved in a high-risk lifestyle, but the threat of violence made me vigilant. These were symptoms of traumatic stress, as I would learn decades later in my work as a gun violence researcher.

—Joseph Richardson Jr., Professor and Acting Chair of the Department of the African American Studies, University of Maryland6Joseph Richardson Jr., email to Everytown, April 27, 2021.

Understanding Community Trauma

In the late 1990s, psychologists created an index for adverse childhood experiences (ACE) and studied their impacts on health and well-being. This early research firmly demonstrated that factors such as childhood abuse and challenges in children’s home environments (e.g., if a parent was an alcoholic, incarcerated, or mentally ill) were associated with later risk factors (e.g., suicide attempts, smoking, or drug abuse), which in turn were causing premature death from such chronic ailments as cancer, heart and lung disease, and diabetes. The study recognized the extreme damage that could be caused by childhood abuse plus adverse conditions at home. It also, importantly, showed that the more of these adverse experiences a child had, the worse the later impacts on their physical health.7Vincent J. Felitti et al., “Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 14, no. 4 (May 1998): 245–58, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8

Figure 1.

Categories of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

While the ACEs framework does not explicitly include childhood exposure to gun violence, the principle of worsening impact of exposure when there are multiple forms of violence, as was shown in the ACEs study, holds for children impacted by gun violence. Today, firearms are the leading cause of death among children and teens in the United States.8Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Web-Based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Fatal Injury Reports. A yearly average was developed using five years of the most recent available data: 2015 to 2019. Children and teens are defined as ages 1 to 19. Researchers have advocated adding childhood exposure to gun violence when screening and supporting young people using the ACEs framework.9Sonali Rajan et al., “Youth Exposure to Violence Involving a Gun: Evidence for Adverse Childhood Experience Classification,” Journal of Behavioral Medicine 42, no. 4 (August 2019): 646–57, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-019-00053-0. The Prevention Institute has broadened the conversation about trauma to the community level and has built on the ACEs study. Their work has found that exposure to multiple forms of violence makes trauma that much more likely and that much more severe.10Pinderhughes, Davis, and Williams, “Adverse Community Experiences and Resilience.” Howard Pinderhughes and his colleagues have outlined three dimensions of violence that can play a role in the production of community trauma: interpersonal violence, structural violence, and historical and intergenerational violence. Some of these forms of violence are linked directly to firearms, others are not. 

Figure 2.

Three forms of violence that combine and compound to produce community trauma

Interpersonal Violence

  • gun victimization
  • witnessing gun violence
  • hearing gunshots

Structural Violence

  • concentrated poverty
  • residential segregation
  • differential sentencing
  • inadequate funding for schools, housing health care, public transportation

Historical and intergenerational violence

  • legacy of America’s painful colonial history
  • predatory housing lending
  • police violence
  • broken intergenerational relationships

As seen in Figure 2, structural, historical, and intergenerational violence take many forms. This violence includes residential segregation by race,11Racially discriminatory policies at the local, state, and federal levels—such as redlining, abuse of eminent domain, exclusionary zoning laws, and racially restrictive covenants, among others—have resulted in residential segregation by race. These policies have driven displacement, destabilization, and deprivation among Black communities and disadvantaged Black neighborhoods for decades. See Beatrix Lockwood, “The Definition, History, and Impact of Redlining,” Thoughtco, July 30, 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/redlining-definition-4157858; Federal Reserve, “Federal Fair Lending Regulations and Statutes: Fair Housing Act,” June 17, 2010, https://www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/supmanual/cch/fair_lend_fhact.pdf; “A ‘Forgotten History’ of How the U.S. Government Segregated America,” NPR.org, May 3, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-u-s-government-segregated-america. underfunded schools,12Redlining from over half a century ago has direct implications on our school systems. As Black families were systematically barred from the opportunity to buy homes due to racist lending practices, they became segregated in neighborhoods with depressed property values and a lower tax base. Today, in part as a result of these inequities, the majority of children who live in the most socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods are Black and attend schools with fewer resources. Inadequate funding for schools puts Black students concentrated in poorer neighborhoods at a serious disadvantage. See Jeff Raikes and Linda Darling-Hammond, “Why Our Education Funding Systems Are Derailing the American Dream,” Learning Policy Institute, February 28, 2019, https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/blog/why-our-education-funding-systems-are-derailing-american-dream; Janie Boschma and Ronald Brownstein, “Students of Color Are Much More Likely to Attend High-Poverty Schools,” The Atlantic, February 29, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/02/concentration-poverty-american-schools/471414/. and discrimination within the criminal justice system.13“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. It encompasses lack of access to health care and social services.14Allan 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. It also includes economic discrimination spanning generations, resulting in poverty and a lack of ability to transfer wealth from one generation to the next.15For generations, Black people have experienced higher unemployment rates, more job instability, lower pay, and fewer benefits. Today, researchers estimate that it could take more than two centuries for the average Black family to amass the same level of wealth as the average white family. See Christian E. Weller, “African Americans Face Systematic Obstacles to Getting Good Jobs,” Center for American Progress, December 5, 2019, https://ampr.gs/3ePKMd8; Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,” American Economic Review 94, no. 4 (September 2004): 991–1013, https://doi.org/10.1257/0002828042002561; Angela 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. These forms of violence—whether from generations ago or today—coupled with gun violence, combine and compound to produce community trauma. This lived experience for Black people in the United States, who have been subjected to generations of discriminatory policy decisions and investments, signals that their lives and livelihoods do not matter as much as those of others. This harm serves as a serious challenge to finding healing in environments where violence has become the norm. 

Understanding the many ways in which gun violence traumatizes entire communities makes it clear why treating a child for trauma related to one incident and then expecting them to bounce back fully healed is too often wildly unrealistic.

The current medical model of individual screening and treatment for trauma is necessary. It is, however, not sufficient for addressing persistent community violence. Understanding the many ways in which gun violence traumatizes entire communities is essential in order to develop responses that will succeed. It makes clear why treating a child for trauma related to one incident and then expecting them to bounce back fully healed is too often wildly unrealistic. Just like the ACEs study that found the level of impact from adverse experiences increases with the breadth of exposure to them, exposure to multiple forms of community-level violence causes and multiplies the trauma. 

Assessing Trauma in Black Communities

10×

Black Americans are 10 times more likely than white Americans to die by gun homicide.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Web-Based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Fatal Injury Reports. A yearly average was developed using five years of the most recent available data: 2015 to 2019. Analysis includes gun homicide including legal intervention by non-Hispanic/Latino race among all ages.

11 min

Every 11 minutes, a Black American is shot and wounded.

Every year, 46,240 Black Americans are shot and wounded. Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “A More Complete Picture: The Contours of Gun Injury in the United States,” December 4, 2020, https://everytownresearch.org/report/nonfatals-in-the-us/.

Before we can begin to understand the trauma wrought on Black communities by persistent gun violence, we must first acknowledge that Black Americans unduly bear the burden of gun violence itself. Statistics on shootings paint a clear picture of this persistence: Every 11 minutes, a Black American is shot and wounded.16 Every year, 46,240 Black Americans are shot and wounded. Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “A More Complete Picture: The Contours of Gun Injury in the United States,” December 4, 2020, https://everytownresearch.org/report/nonfatals-in-the-us/.  When it comes to gun fatalities, Black Americans are 10 times more likely than white Americans to die by gun homicide.17Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Web-Based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Fatal Injury Reports. A yearly average was developed using five years of the most recent available data: 2015 to 2019. Analysis includes gun homicide including legal intervention by non-Hispanic/Latino race among all ages. Each of these events causes untold pain for survivors—and they accumulate to chip away at health and the feeling of safety for the broader community. This manifests in a myriad of destructive community impacts on physical and mental health, the ability of children to concentrate and thrive in school, and the ability of adults to overcome compounded loss. Generations of systemic racism and discriminatory policies continue to drive gun violence, inflicting and deepening individual and community trauma.18Bieler et al., “Engaging Communities in Reducing Gun Violence”; Pinderhughes, Davis, and Williams, “Adverse Community Experiences and Resilience.”

Traumatic Impact on Black Children

Communities where children grow up, no matter their background, are the places where they form their sense of self, develop relationships, and learn about the world. When violence occurs in a child’s community—especially with regularity—spaces that should be positive and stable can become places of fear. This is the reality for too many Black children and teens in the United States, who are four times more likely than their white peers to die by a firearm.19Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Web-Based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Fatal Injury Reports. A yearly average was developed using five years of the most recent available data: 2015 to 2019. Analysis includes gun homicides including legal intervention by non-Hispanic/Latino race among children ages 0 to 19. 

When Ricky was 12 years old, his best friend was shot and killed. His best friend’s death completely changed the way he looked at the world at an extremely young age: “It changed a lot of things. I just started caring less about childhood stuff. You know, like playing football and all that. It made me grow up a little faster too—watch for stuff I’m not even supposed to be watching out for like stray bullets, and all types of stuff when no child should be worrying about stuff like that, you know?”20Jocelyn R. Smith, “Unequal Burdens of Loss: Examining the Frequency and Timing of Homicide Deaths Experienced by Young Black Men across the Life Course,” American Journal of Public Health 105, no. S3 (July 2015): S483–90, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2014.302535.

The trauma of exposure to gun violence, overlaid with other forms of trauma, affects children in every avenue of their lives. These symptoms are physical, emotional, and social. The response to this exposure can impact their ability to learn and hinder their school performance. It can also leave them angry and withdrawn. Other symptoms can include anxiety and sleep problems. Trauma can lower their career aspirations and prevent them from reaching their full potential.21James Garbarino, Catherine P. Bradshaw, and Joseph A. Vorrasi, “Mitigating the Effects of Gun Violence on Children and Youth,” The Future of Children 12, no. 2 (July 1, 2002): 73–85. One study found that exposure to homicide among young children impaired their impulse control and impeded their cognitive functioning.22Patrick T. Sharkey et al., “The Effect of Local Violence on Children’s Attention and Impulse Control,” American Journal of Public Health 102, no. 12 (December 2012): 2287–93, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2012.300789. Children can feel overwhelming loneliness in the face of these difficult and relentless circumstances.

Black children’s trauma from gun violence is compounded by their overrepresentation in neighborhoods with underresourced schools.23Janie Boschma and Ronald Brownstein, “The Concentration of Poverty in American Schools,” The Atlantic, February 29, 2016, https://bit.ly/2PlI2sq. These funding deficiencies mean fewer opportunities for in-school and after-school enrichment, lower overall academic performance,24Sean F. Reardon et al., “Is Separate Still Unequal? New Evidence on School Segregation and Racial Academic Achievement Gaps,” Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, September 2019, https://cepa.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/wp19-06-v092019.pdf. and a higher likelihood of exposure to gun violence.25Daniel Kim, “Social Determinants of Health in Relation to Firearm-Related Homicides in the United States: A Nationwide Multilevel Cross-Sectional Study,” PLoS Medicine 16, no. 12 (2019): e1002978, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1002978. One Georgia-based study found that economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, where financial support for schools is limited, were more likely to have children victimized by gun violence. Within their sample, Black children had the highest exposure to this violence.26Brett M. Tracy et al., “Community Distress Predicts Youth Gun Violence,” Journal of Pediatric Surgery 54, no. 11 (2019): 2375–81, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpedsurg.2019.03.021.

To address these needs, Ryane Nickens founded the DC-based nonprofit, The TraRon Center, which provides a safe, affirming space for those affected by gun violence to heal through artistic expression.

Ryane Nickens, founder, The TraRon Center in Washington DC, with a young boy.

When Ryane saw her first dead body, she was eight or nine years old. As she grew up and saw her pregnant sister shot and killed, and her mother, uncle, and other siblings become victims of gun violence as well, she remembered feeling that “hurt was around every corner, so you have to protect yourself.” Though fighting to cling to the family she had left, she “went deeper inward,” Ryane noted, reflecting on her early child and teen years. “I didn’t feel a connection to humanity at all.” Over the next 20 years, she saw at least 15 of her friends and family pass away due to gun violence.27Information and quotes from Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund phone interview with Ryane Nickens, founder and president of the TraRon Center, December 11, 2019.  

The traumatic impact on children can be far-reaching. It can affect their lives day and night. It can also affect their emotional health and ability to manage anger, their capacity to learn and thrive in school, and their ability to get a good night’s sleep.

Community trauma can hinder children’s health and wellbeing, leading to symptoms including:

  • anxiety
  • withdrawal
  • anger
  • depression
  • inability to get a good night’s sleep
  • constant stress and fear
  • problems with impulse control
  • inability to concentrate in school

Traumatic Impact on Black Adolescents

When prompted to give an account of the first time witnessing violence in his community, Nasia, 19, said with a laugh, “to be truthful with you, I’m sorry but I can’t remember…I just always witnessed violence, for real. Like I was little… Yeah, I always see violence. It’s Baltimore.”1Jocelyn R. Smith and Desmond U. Patton, “Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms in Context: Examining Trauma Responses to Violent Exposures and Homicide Death among Black Males in Urban Neighborhoods,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 86, no. 2 (2016): 212–23, https://doi.org/10.1037/ort0000101.

Every three hours, a young Black male dies by gun homicide in the United States.28Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Web-Based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Fatal Injury Reports. A yearly average was developed using five years of the most recent available data: 2015 to 2019. Analysis includes gun homicides including legal intervention among Black non-Hispanic/Latino children and teens ages 10 to 24. This reality can have a devastating impact. It can leave these young men feeling fatalistic about the present and hopeless about the future. Couple these curtailed dreams with other forms of violence—such as employment discrimination, police violence, mass incarceration, and inadequate funding for mental health services—and the challenges to overcome become high barriers. The symptoms of this trauma pervade every aspect of teen and young adult lives. The trauma too often inflicts a toll on self-image and worsens their physical and mental wellbeing. It impedes their ability to concentrate and learn. And it makes it difficult to maintain healthy interpersonal and intimate relationships. 

Jocelyn R. Smith Lee of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro has studied the impact of homicide on young Black men in Baltimore to show the pervasiveness of death and deprivation in their lives.29Smith and Patton, “Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms in Context”; Smith, “Unequal Burdens of Loss.” One study found that Black men knew, on average, three family members or friends who had died by homicide over the course of their young lives. As they reached school age and then transitioned into adulthood, exposure to death by homicide became more frequent.30Smith, “Unequal Burdens of Loss.” 

3 hr

Every three hours, a young Black male dies by gun homicide in the United States.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Web-Based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Fatal Injury Reports. A yearly average was developed using five years of the most recent available data: 2015 to 2019. Analysis includes gun homicides including legal intervention among Black non-Hispanic/Latino children and teens ages 10 to 24.

Prolonged exposure to the traumatic individual effects of gun violence, combined with community-level conditions and systemic racism, can fundamentally change the way a Black man sees society and himself. This contributes to what Annette Bailey of Ryerson University has termed a “trauma-altered identity.” This term is useful for describing the cumulative impacts of individual, intergenerational, and structural violence. Through a series of in-depth interviews with young Black men, Bailey found that these various forms of violence combine to result in trauma. This trauma leaves them feeling trapped in the assumptions and biases of others. These perceptions hamper their ability to chart a healthy course for themselves. One young Black man in her study expressed this powerfully:

“A lot of Black men are disconnected from who they are. They search for themselves in gang life and through an identity as someone else, someone to be feared. At the root of that is trauma, social struggles, fear. Constant fear. All we know is struggle and racism is just the worst of all. We don’t know what it means to thrive. For a lot of us we view ourselves how others treat us… Knowing yourself is the only thing that we should have control over. But how can Black men get to know themselves when the world is telling us we are nothing? Every day I struggle to free myself from the trauma of life, and from the man the world tells me that I am and should be…”1Annette Bailey, “Deconstructing the Trauma-Altered Identity of Black Men,” forthcoming.

Violence can be seen as the norm for the young Black men who are “born, live, age, learn, work, play, pray, and parent in environmental contexts” where, as Smith and Patton note, “There is no ‘post’ trauma, no lasting reprieve from the chronic stressor of neighborhood violence.”31Smith and Patton, “Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms in Context.”

When Antwon was 17 years old, four close friends were murdered in separate incidents in the same year. “It’s disturbing. It really make you think . . . like you’ll be here one second and the next second you can be gone. Like it made me think about my life, you feel me, the value of my life, and people around me, and things happening to people around me—’Cause in 2011, a lot of people had passed. . . . and I was just thinking like can one of us be next? Or somebody else in my family? Somebody I’m really close to?”32Smith, “Unequal Burdens of Loss.”

This persistent but unpredictable violence can result in trauma symptoms that disrupt young people’s mental health and hamper their ability to cope and recover. In some cases, this takes the form of attempted suicide. Research demonstrates a clear association between trauma and suicidality in young people generally.33Yong-Chun Bahk et al., “The Relationship between Childhood Trauma and Suicidal Ideation: Role of Maltreatment and Potential Mediators,” Psychiatry Investigation 14, no. 1 (January 2017): 37–43, https://doi.org/10.4306/pi.2017.14.1.37. This association holds for Black youth who have experienced trauma. They are five times more likely to attempt suicide than Black youth who do not have a personal history marked by trauma.34“Ring the Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America,” Congressional Black Caucus, Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health, December 17, 2019, https://bit.ly/2COX5Yy. A study of more than 1,600 young people in New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, found that respondents who were exposed to gun deaths in particular were much more likely to battle depression, suicidality, or psychotic episodes. Suicidal ideation was nearly twice as prevalent among those surveyed who knew someone who died from gun violence than those who did not.35Melissa E. Smith et al., “The Impact of Exposure to Gun Violence Fatality on Mental Health Outcomes in Four Urban U.S. Settings,” Social Science & Medicine 246 (2020): 112587, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.112587. 

Another symptom of trauma is the potential inability to form and keep healthy relationships. Persistent gun violence in neighborhoods can signal to young people that violence is an appropriate means of addressing conflict. This in turn can negatively affect their ability to form stable and positive relationships.36Garbarino, Bradshaw, and Vorrasi, “Mitigating Effects.” 

Drawing on experience to make a difference in young people’s lives

As a young man, Julius saw friends taken by gun violence, and he and his friends engaged in violent acts to feel a sense of safety. He said he lacked the support necessary to live a life free of violence.

Advance Peace Sacramento Program Manager Julius Thibodeaux photographed at the program’s office in Sacramento, California

Julius Thibodeaux at Advance Peace, an organization committed to ending cyclical and retaliatory violence in neighborhoods hardest-hit by gun violence, explained that seeing violence in all its forms in one’s community is painful, and you cope using whatever mechanisms you’ve been given.

As a young man, Julius saw friends taken by gun violence, and he and his friends engaged in violent acts to feel a sense of safety. He said he lacked the support necessary to live a life free of violence. Though he had the opportunity to leave the neighborhood that had seemingly entrapped him, he did not want to abandon his friends. “I’m not going anywhere,” he told his mother, who urged him to leave California and stay with family in Texas, “Tell my enemies to move.”2Information and quotes from Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund phone interview with Julius Thibodeaux, program manager at Advance Peace, December 11, 2019.

In response to trauma born out of persistent violence, coupled with distrust that police will protect them, young people too often resort to arming themselves.37David Seal, Annie Nguyen, and Kirsten Beyer, “Youth Exposure to Violence in an Urban Setting,” Urban Studies Research, 2014, https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/368047. A Chicago survey revealed that 93 percent of the young men surveyed carried guns to protect themselves. Only 6 percent carried guns to commit crimes.38Jocelyn Fontaine et al., “‘We Carry Guns to Stay Safe’: Perspectives on Guns and Gun Violence from Young Adults Living in Chicago’s West and South Sides,” Urban Institute, October 2018, https://urbn.is/3oRe0wQ. A New York City study of young people who were at risk for being victimized by gun violence showed that 81 percent of these youth, mostly Black men, had been shot or shot at. And 88 percent had a loved one or friend who had been shot. The majority surveyed said they wished guns were not in their communities, but three-fourths reported that guns made them feel safe.39Rachel Swaner et al., “‘Gotta Make Your Own Heaven’: Guns, Safety, and the Edge of Adulthood in New York City,” Center for Court Innovation, August 2020, https://bit.ly/2Jo3j4o. The result is a cycle of violence fueled by firearms. 

Another key contributor to trauma in Black communities is police violence. Though the direct victims of police violence are disproportionately Black young men,40Frank Edwards, Hedwig Lee, and Michael Esposito, “Risk of Being Killed by Police Use of Force in the United States by Age, Race-Ethnicity, and Sex,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 34 (August 20, 2019): 16793–98, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1821204116. whole communities are traumatized by abuse from police. The nationwide protests of 2020 showed clearly how trauma from police violence affects communities of Black Americans as a whole.41While 2020 in particular saw a national outcry against police violence, the history of policing is linked to America’s suppressed racial history, starting with slave patrols in the 1600s and 1700s to enforcement of Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, and other traumatic encounters between Black people and police. This history has contributed to intergenerational trauma from police violence.   

21×

Young Black men are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than their white counterparts.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Taking Freedom: Yes, Black America Fears the Police. Here’s Why.,” Pacific Standard, May 8, 2018, https://bit.ly/2Pksq8p.

Young Black men are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than their white counterparts.42Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Taking Freedom: Yes, Black America Fears the Police. Here’s Why,” Pacific Standard, May 8, 2018, https://bit.ly/2Pksq8p. The shooting of unarmed civilians damages community trust in the police. It also reduces collaboration on issues of public safety. This in turn contributes to continuing violence that then repeats the trauma.43Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Gun Violence and the Police,” June 29, 2020, https://everytownresearch.org/report/gun-violence-and-the-police/; Bieler et al., “Engaging Communities in Reducing Gun Violence.” The manifestations of the trauma experienced by young people with exposure to police violence directly affect their school achievement. A 2021 study looked at outcomes among Los Angeles high school students in communities where police killings took place. It showed marked decreases in students’ academic performance, development of learning deficiencies related to PTSD and depression, and higher levels of high school dropouts. These impacts were most pronounced for Black and Latino students living in close proximity to police shootings of Black and Latino people.44Desmond Ang, “The Effects of Police Violence on Inner-City Students,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 136, no. 1 (February 2021), https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjaa027

By the time Tony, 18, was a teenager, he had seen police use undue force against many members of his community on many occasions: “I never really liked the police . . . because I see what they do to other people. I’ve seen them beat up people in front of my face . . . They use their authority wrong. Like their power, they take advantage of it.”45Jocelyn R. Smith Lee and Michael A. Robinson, “‘That’s My Number-One Fear in Life. It’s the Police’: Examining Young Black Men’s Exposures to Trauma and Loss Resulting from Police Violence and Police Killings,” Journal of Black Psychology 45, no. 3 (April 2019): 143–84, https://doi.org/10.1177/0095798419865152.

The traumatic impact echoes out from there. Those who have not personally experienced police violence can also experience trauma. Being barraged with repeated news of negative law enforcement interactions in your neighborhood—ranging from being disrespected, pulled over, invasively searched, or tasered, to being seriously injured or killed—can fill Black Americans with fear, anger, and terror.46Smith Lee and Robinson, “‘That’s My Number-One Fear in Life.” In totality, it affects the broader mental health of entire Black communities. These events signal that the lives of Black people matter less than others in the eyes of society, heightening the effects of previous trauma.47Jacob Bor et al., “Police Killings and Their Spillover Effects on the Mental Health of Black Americans: A Population-Based, Quasi-Experimental Study,” The Lancet 392, no. 10144 (2018): 302–10, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31130-9.

The trauma from both gun violence and structural violence can sow a deep sense of loss and disillusionment in Black adolescents and young adults. This pain can affect their view of themselves and the world at large. It can worsen their physical and mental well-being and breed distrust in their communities. In too many cases, this trauma steals lives and impedes healing. 

Community trauma can affect adolescents’ lifelong trajectories, leading to:

  • fatalism about the present
  • hopelessness about the future
  • lowered self-esteem
  • feeling trapped in assumptions and biases of others
  • inability to form healthy friendships and intimate relationships
  • higher risk of dropping out of high school
  • constant stress and fear
  • suicidality

Traumatic Impact on Black Adults

Adults who have had loved ones taken by gun violence suffer unrelenting traumatic loss in the face of persistent gun violence in their communities. As mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and siblings, they attend far more funerals than anyone should have to in a lifetime. For parents who lose a child to gun violence, the grief can be mixed with shame because of the inability to protect their children from harm. And for Black parents, an overlay of race and stigma has been found to affect their grief as well. Research suggests that when Black children die due to gun homicide, parents are often forced to grieve their loss against the backdrop of assumptions about their child’s criminal activity. This can intensify the trauma, contributing to withdrawal and a denial of grief.48Annette Bailey et al., “Black Mothers’ Cognitive Process of Finding Meaning and Building Resilience after Loss of a Child to Gun Violence,” British Journal of Social Work 43, no. 2 (2013): 336–54, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bct027; Tanya L. Sharpe, “Understanding the Sociocultural Context of Coping for African American Family Members of Homicide Victims: A Conceptual Model,” Trauma, Violence & Abuse 16, no. 1 (January 2015): 48–59, https://doi.org/10.1177/1524838013515760

Mothers in particular can feel ostracized from their social and community networks as a result of the stigma attached to having a child die by gun violence. One bereaved mother said,

“People would tip toe around me or not try to say anything. Or after the funeral, be afraid to say anything, or afraid to come by or afraid to be with me, because they don’t know what kind of reaction [I’d have], or what to do.”1Bailey et al., “Black Mothers’ Cognitive Process.”

The trauma does not stop with parents or immediate relatives. In communities where loss is all too common, each time someone in the community is felled by gun violence, the trauma is felt anew. In communities that already struggle with entrenched poverty and social and historical inequities, the daily strain of life intersects with punctuated violence to amplify this trauma. The trauma reverberates through families and across generations.

Slim, from “Life After the Gunshot,”

“The next generation is in a cycle right now. The kids that is being born in my neighborhood, they’re grown up to the beefs that we started. . . They traumatized right now. They don’t know it though. I was once them. . . I was him. I was her. I know what they about to go through.”

Screenshot of Slim from an episode of
Screen grab of Slim from an epsiode of “Life after the Gunshot Docu-series”:

Slim, a DC-based rapper,2 Life after the Gunshot, episode one, 2021, 17:49–18:18, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=De5CP839gjs. is one of the survivors interviewed in a documentary project led by Joseph Richardson, Jr. of the University of Maryland. Life after the Gunshot is devoted to understanding recovery from trauma among young Black men treated at a trauma center for violent injury.

Rap music and plenty of other forms of popular culture recognize this trauma cycle in Black communities. But there is far more research on intergenerational trauma related to historical events of loss and pain among Native American populations3Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, “The Return to the Sacred Path: Reflections on the Development of Historical Trauma Healing,” Indian Health Service, accessed May 10, 2020, https://bit.ly/3tmTogT. and children of Jewish Holocaust survivors.4Tori DeAngelis, “The Legacy of Trauma,” Monitor on Psychology 50, no. 2 (February 2019): 36. Greater understanding of exposure to intergenerational trauma among Black communities would be invaluable for acknowledging this trauma and for tailoring solutions in response to collective loss.

The ripple effects of community trauma also contribute to fraying the bonds of community cooperation and solidarity. As communities face high levels of trauma, cohesion can break down and trust can erode. This results in such changes as neighbors being less likely to intervene when trouble crops up. When this happens, the community loses the essential “eyes on the street,” the informal involvement of adults that contributes to safer communities. And this community trauma can dampen residents’ capacity and willingness to participate in efforts to develop solutions. In this way, community trauma can hamper the ability of neighbors to work together to address the causes of trauma and build safer communities.49Pinderhughes, Davis, and Williams, “Adverse Community Experiences and Resilience.”

Community trauma can break the bonds of a community, potentially resulting in:

  • a sense of collective loss of a generation of youth
  • grief mixed with shame and stigma
  • the fraying of community cohesion and solidarity

A more positive outcome—the converse of this result—could also be possible. Ronald Eyerman, a sociologist who has contributed to the development of the theory of cultural trauma, has looked at the collective memory of slavery among Black people, as well as of other group traumas, such as the Holocaust for Jewish people. His research has shown that adversity and the collective memory of bondage and loss can also bring communities together.50Ron Eyerman, “Cultural Trauma and Collective Memory,” in Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), https://bit.ly/3vE4LlW. While no longer a direct experience, trauma from the enslavement of African Americans lives on through retelling in history classes, mass media, movies, songs, and family stories. Eyerman talks about the ways in which giving voice to lives lost and using narrative as a tool for coping with trauma can unite people and give rise to a strong group identity. Although Black Americans in communities exposed to violence experience suffering, these communities are also sustained through collective action, resilience, dynamism, and innovation.

A Path Forward

“Solutions and the pathway forward exist in the communities we serve.” 

—Dr. Tanya Sharpe, Founder and Director of the Centre for Research and Innovation for Black Survivors of Homicide Victims (The CRIB)51Tanya Sharpe during Everytown convening on gun violence and community trauma among Black Americans, February 2021.

Violence intervention outreach workers, survivors of gun violence, and staff of locally run organizations, who work every day to bring opportunity and healing to affected communities, have tremendous hope for the path forward. They believe that the way to stop the “journey of trauma”52Bailey, “Deconstructing Trauma-Altered Identity,” forthcoming. is through listening to and supporting young people and their communities. Young people are powerful agents of change, often at the frontlines of advocating for reform and reimagining the world with unique ingenuity, passion, and hope. We must amplify young people’s voices, empowering them to bring about lasting change that uplifts communities. By strengthening young people’s leadership skills through training and mentorship, we can help them be advocates for policies and interventions that will reduce violence and promote healing in their communities.

We must also invest in basic needs and in programs that are proven to reduce the various kinds of violence that blight their neighborhoods. This includes supporting gun violence prevention programs and policies. Support for the following evidence-informed interventions can contribute to overcoming community trauma and building stronger, healthier communities.

Mental Health Resources

Various mental health resources and techniques can be instrumental in healing communities that experience gun violence. Three types of psychotherapy interventions specifically tailored to address trauma that have been proven effective are prolonged exposure (PE), cognitive processing therapy (CPT), and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT).53Laura E. Watkins, Kelsey R. Sprang, and Barbara O. Rothbaum, “Treating PTSD: A Review of Evidence-Based Psychotherapy Interventions,” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 12 (2018), https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00258. CBT can help people learn less violent and more appropriate responses to conflict, and encourage changes in people’s behavior to reduce the potential for violence. CBT is widely used for treating patients with anger and aggression issues, depression, and anxiety.54Stefan Hofmann et al., “The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-Analyses,” Cognitive Therapy and Research 36 (2012): 427–40, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-012-9476-1.

Julius Thibodeaux and his colleagues at Advance Peace Sacramento

Julius Thibodeaux of Advance Peace commented that often the young people he mentors can bristle at the idea of receiving mental health counseling. He has to remind them that it’s okay for them to get the help they need without worrying about cultural taboos or stigma.55Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund phone interview with Julius Thibodeaux, program manager at Advance Peace, on December 11, 2019.

These techniques are promising but can be elusive for those who need them most. Studies suggest that up to 74 percent of Black men who have experienced trauma have not utilized mental health services.56Robert Motley and Andrae Banks, “Black Males, Trauma, and Mental Health Service Use: A Systematic Review,” Perspectives on Social Work: The Journal of the Doctoral Students of the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work 14, no. 1 (2018): 4–19. This is the result of a variety of barriers. These include lack of health insurance or convenient access to services57Motley and Banks, “Black Males, Trauma, and Mental Health Service Use.” and lack of trust that mental health professionals can relate to their experiences.58Michael A. Lindsey and Amaris Watson, “Barriers to Mental Health and Treatment among Urban Adolescents and Emerging Adult Males of Color,” in Strategies for Deconstructing Racism in the Health and Human Services, ed. Alma J. Carten, Alan B. Siskind, and Mary Pender Greene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 191–208. Black women also face serious challenges to receiving the care they need. Women of all races are more likely to battle depression than men.59“Mental Health among African-American Women,” Johns Hopkins Medicine, accessed May 26, 2021, https://bit.ly/3fJMEVD. But Black women—often expected to cope alone and in silence60Inger E. Burnett-Zeigler, “The Strong and Stressed Black Woman,” The New York Times, April 25, 2018, sec. Opinion, https://nyti.ms/3wA5tBn.—are half as likely to seek help compared with white women.61“Mental Health among African-American Women.” For Black trans and gender non-conforming people, the lack of resources available to serve their unique needs only worsens the trauma they endure in the face of various forms of violence.62Bethany Ao, “Black Trans Communities Suffer a Greater Mental-Health Burden from Discrimination and Violence,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 25, 2020, https://bit.ly/3yFbBtW. Professional support for trauma is tremendously promising when provided in a way that is equitable and culturally appropriate.63Roslyn Holliday-Moore, “Alarming Suicide Trends in African American Children: An Urgent Issue,” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (blog), July 23, 2019, https://bit.ly/2IpJhpZ.

Community-Based Violence Intervention Programs

The Englewood Ceasefire team meets with clients, volunteers.

Community-based violence intervention programs apply a localized approach to preventing gun violence by working with individuals at the highest risk of shooting or being shot to heal from trauma. One important characteristic of all of these programs is that they draw expertise and experience from within the community. Many of these programs have been proven to reduce gunshot victimization in the neighborhoods most impacted by gun violence, in part by addressing the underlying trauma so often woven into these tragedies.64Andrew V. Papachristos and David S. Kirk, “Changing the Street Dynamic: Evaluating Chicago’s Group Violence Reduction Strategy,” Criminology & Public Policy 14, no. 3 (2015): 525–58, https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-9133.12139; Catherine Juillard et al., “A Decade of Hospital-Based Violence Intervention: Benefits and Shortcomings,” Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery 81, no. 6 (2016): 1156–61, https://doi.org/10.1097/TA.0000000000001261; Jason Corburn and Amanda Fukutome, “Advance Peace Stockton 2018–2020 Evaluation,” January 2021, http://healthycities.berkeley.edu/uploads/1/2/6/1/12619988/advance_peace_stockton_eval_report_2021_final.pdf. Three of the most common types of community-based programs are as follows: 

  • Cure Violence deploys street outreach workers and violence interrupters to identify—sometimes through signs of trauma—and mediate conflicts and to work with those most at risk to address longer-term social and economic obstacles that may be contributing to involvement with violent conflict. 
  • Hospital-based violence intervention programs, typically located in hospital trauma centers and emergency departments, partner with patients and their families following a violence-related injury, including gunshot wounds. These programs provide in-hospital support and subsequent community-based case management necessary for survivors to process their emotions,65Steven Affinati et al., “Hospital-Based Violence Intervention Programs Targeting Adult Populations: An Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma Evidence-Based Review,” Trauma Surgery & Acute Care Open 1, no. 1 (September 28, 2016), https://doi.org/10.1136/tsaco-2016-000024. heal, prevent retaliation, and remain safe. 
  • Group violence intervention programs, also referred to as focused deterrence programs, involve law enforcement, community-based organizations, and individuals at risk of being involved in violence. They come together to acknowledge that existing approaches to violence prevention have not worked, they send the message that stronger enforcement will be applied if the violence persists, and they offer extensive social services and community support if the individual chooses to move away from violent crime.66Anthony A. Braga et al., “Street Gangs, Gun Violence, and Focused Deterrence: Comparing Place-Based and Group-Based Evaluation Methods to Estimate Direct and Spillover Deterrent Effects,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 56, no. 4 (July 1, 2019): 524–62, https://doi.org/10.1177/0022427818821716

Local, state, and federal institutions should make meaningful investments in these evidence-based programs. Funding obtained from the federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), for example, provides an important opportunity to invest in gun violence victim services and interrupt the cycle of gun violence.67Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “A Fund for Healing: VOCA Grants for Violence Reduction,” January 29, 2020, https://everytownresearch.org/report/voca/. Very recent developments hold great promise for adequately funding these programs, which have struggled with obtaining steady funding in the past.68Lois Beckett, “How the Gun Control Debate Ignores Black Lives,” ProPublica, November 24, 2015, https://bit.ly/2v1Ftou. In April 2021, President Biden called for additional funding for violence intervention programs through various federal institutions. The Biden administration carved out $350 billion in American Rescue Plan funding for states and local governments, allocating $200 million in discretionary funds for violence intervention.69Public Law No. 117-2 § 9901; Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “American Rescue Plan for Gun Violence Reduction,” April 5, 2021, https://everytownresearch.org/report/american-rescue-plan-for-gun-violence-reduction/. The president also requested that Congress allocate $5 billion over an eight-year period to fund community violence intervention programs through the American Jobs Plan.70White House, “Fact Sheet: More Details on the Biden-Harris Administration’s Investments in Community Violence Interventions,” April 8, 2021, https://bit.ly/3nUtZtY. This new financing will allow local programs to benefit from more predictable and steady funding streams and to serve additional participants.  

Crime Prevention through Environmental Design

The physical environment in which we live can greatly influence our individual actions. Understanding this is key for reducing gun violence.71Gregory N. Bratman et al., “The Benefits of Nature Experience: Improved Affect and Cognition,” Landscape and Urban Planning 138 (2015): 41–50; Eugenia C. South et al., “Neighborhood Blight, Stress, and Health: A Walking Trial of Urban Greening and Ambulatory Heart Rate,” American Journal of Public Health 105, no. 5 (2015): 909–13; Eugenia Garvin et al., “More Than Just an Eyesore: Local Insights and Solutions on Vacant Land and Urban Health,” Journal of Urban Health 90, no. 3 (2012). Fixing abandoned buildings, planting flowers in parks, cleaning vacant lots, and lighting unsafe spaces make a huge difference in empowering communities. All of these efforts to improve neighborhoods and reduce blight can help increase healthy activities in these spaces and healing from the violence of years of underinvestment in public spaces and services. A number of these programs have been established in cities, an effort called crime prevention through environmental design. A Philadelphia-based program organized by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society saw the participation of community members in the cleanup of nearly 16 million square feet of vacant land. The community has seen a 29 percent reduction in gun violence in neighborhoods below the poverty line.72Charles C. Branas et al., “Citywide Cluster Randomized Trial to Restore Blighted Vacant Land and Its Effects on Violence, Crime, and Fear,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 12 (March 20, 2018): 2946–51, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1718503115.

Fixing abandoned buildings, planting flowers in parks, cleaning vacant lots, and lighting unsafe spaces make a huge difference in empowering communities. Credit: LandCare

Restorative Justice Programs

Restorative justice is an approach that emphasizes listening to victims and holding those who hurt them accountable. Restorative Justice programs, sometimes called circles, bring together those who have been directly harmed by crime with those who have caused this harm. The purpose of these circles is to address the impact of the crime, hold offenders accountable, and make things as right as possible for those who were harmed.73Daniell Sered, “Restorative Justice: Why Do We Need It?,” Common Justice, September 13, 2016, https://www.commonjustice.org/restorative_justice_why_do_we_need_it. It is an opportunity to invite more voices to the table beyond law enforcement, government institutions, and the offender, sometimes including members of the community at large. The focus is more on healing and preventing future crimes than on punishment.74Daniel Van Ness, “What Is Restorative Justice?,” Prison Fellowship International, Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, November 2008, http://restorativejustice.org/am-site/media/what-is-restorative-justice.pdf.

The process, which is built on a human rights framework, requires five key elements:

  1. Taking responsibility for one’s actions 
  2. Acknowledging the impact those actions had on others 
  3. Expressing genuine remorse 
  4. Taking actions to rectify the situation 
  5. No longer causing damage 

This allows survivors to have their pain recognized, to shape the outcome of what happened to them, and to develop a sense of safety.75Sered, “Restorative Justice.” A systematic review of 10 restorative justice programs showed a reduction in repeat convictions or arrests by offenders involved in face-to-face restorative justice sessions by between 7 and 45 percent.76Strang, Heather, Lawrence W. Sherman, Evan Mayo-Wilson, Daniel Woods, and Barak Ariel. “Restorative Justice Conferencing (RJC) Using Face-to-Face Meetings of Offenders and Victims: Effects on Offender Recidivism and Victim Satisfaction. A Systematic Review.” Campbell Systematic Reviews 9, no. 1 (2013): 1–59. https://doi.org/10.4073/csr.2013.12.

While restorative justice has its roots in indigenous peacemaking, today’s practices are mostly rooted within systems, such as schools and criminal justice institutions, that can and have caused harm. Recognition of and healing from these harms must be part of the restorative justice process. Communities in a number of states are allocating funding for restorative justice practices that aim to make the justice system more equitable, effective, and responsive to victims. They also focus on reducing crime, decreasing recidivism among offenders,77Latimer, Dowden, and Muise, “Effectiveness of Restorative Justice Practices.” and divesting from a legal system marked by deep racial disparities. 

Economic Opportunities

Employment opportunities, especially for young adults, can serve as a critical protective factor in disrupting cycles of violence and trauma among Black youth. A job is much more than a paycheck, important as that may be. Jobs help give meaning to a young person’s life. They provide youth with experience with work and the norms of the workplace, and serve as an anchor in their week. A job also represents an important milestone in the transition to adulthood.78Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis, “More Than a Million Reasons for Hope: Youth Disconnection in America Today,” Measure of America, Social Science Research Council, March 2018, https://bit.ly/2vYjxKS. And jobs of course provide for basic needs such as food and housing. Limited job opportunities can be a factor in young people engaging in other strategies to survive. Conversely, investment in the training and support programs that enable young people to build sustainable livelihoods pays tremendous dividends in terms of community health and safety. 

Summer youth employment programs are associated with substantial reductions in violent crimes and victimizations.79Alexander Gelber, Adam Isen, and Judd B. Kessler, “The Effects of Youth Employment: Evidence from New York City Summer Youth Employment Program Lotteries,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series, , December 2014) https://doi.org/10.3386/w20810; Alicia Sasser Modestino, “How Do Summer Youth Employment Programs Improve Criminal Justice Outcomes, and for Whom?,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 38, no. 3 (2019): 600–628, https://doi.org/10.1002/pam.22138; Sara B. Heller, “Summer Jobs Reduce Violence among Disadvantaged Youth,” Science 346, no. 6214 (December 5, 2014): 1219–23, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1257809. A feature of many violence intervention programs is support for job readiness, offering the tools to build more stable lives. An evaluation of CeaseFire-Chicago, a Cure Violence program, found that more than 80 percent of participants received assistance in developing their interview skills and resumes and finding job opportunities.80Wesley G. Skogan et al., “Evaluation of CeaseFire-Chicago,” March 20, 2008, https://bit.ly/32lrQfT. Advance Peace provides resources such as job readiness programs, counseling, and mentoring.81Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund phone interview with Julius Thibodeaux, program manager at Advance Peace, on December 11, 2019. Funding for job readiness and workforce development programs are beneficial in helping young people get a foothold in adult life. Giving incentives to businesses that employ youth in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors can also expand employment opportunities. This economic support can help reduce the negative impacts from young people struggling to meet their basic needs.

Much like local gun violence intervention programs, these economic programs are too often starved of sufficient and consistent funding.82Shayne Spaulding et al., “Expanding Economic Opportunity for Young Men and Boys of Color through Employment and Training,” Urban Institute, February 2015, https://urbn.is/3pddauo. Financial support is more pressing than ever in the economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Local and state governments must commit to developing and funding these programs in order to take steps to address the violence of economic disparities that fuel and exacerbate gun violence and its traumatic impacts.

Police Accountability

There is an urgent need to reduce gun violence by police. This form of violence has a traumatic and disproportionate impact on entire Black communities83Black people in the United States are nearly three times as likely to be shot and killed by police than white people. The rate of fatal police shootings of Black Americans is 6.2 per million (247 victims per year on average), and for white Americans it is 2.3 per million (453 victims per year on average), Everytown analysis of Mapping Police Violence 2013–2019 and US Census Bureau, “National Population by Characteristics, 2010–2019.” and a corrosive impact on crime more broadly. Any strategy to reduce police violence must include these five fundamental reforms: 

  1. A legal standard barring unnecessary police use of force and requiring officers to intervene and stop law enforcement abuse
  2. A commitment to building positive community-police relationships through procedural justice
  3. Warning systems to identify officers who pose a risk of serious misconduct
  4. An independent system for reviewing shootings and other use-of-force incidents
  5. Transparency about use-of-force procedures and policies84Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “Gun Violence and the Police.” 

Policies and programs that build trust between the police and local communities help reduce shootings of civilians and law enforcement officials. This can be accomplished with no negative impact on crime.85DeRay McKesson et al., “Police Use of Force Policy Analysis,” Campaign Zero, September 20, 2016, https://bit.ly/2QtKexR.

Conclusion

The conception of trauma has evolved over time as a result of historical, cultural, and political forces. Now is a time to better understand trauma that results from indirect and persistent violence occurring in all communities characterized by high levels of gun violence. The original ACEs study of the late 1990s showed us that multiple traumatic experiences in childhood accumulate and compound to damage physical health later in life for young people of all backgrounds. More recent research is demonstrating the ways that gun violence, combined with violence driven by structural racism, is resulting in community trauma that reverberates across ages, genders, and generations. Black communities in the United States have long suffered from gun violence at disproportionate rates. Intergenerational trauma from this violence and the impact of broader community trauma can manifest in symptoms affecting both physical and mental health. This trauma can also hinder children’s learning and the development of their identity. Trauma interferes with a healthy ability to regulate emotions and build healthy relationships. Intergenerational trauma also negatively impacts neighborhood efforts to improve safety.

We must heal the loss and pain experienced by Black communities in our country by supporting interventions that reduce gun violence directly.

We must also expand our understanding of and ability to offer culturally affirming means to cope with the trauma of direct and indirect victimization. In working to support and uplift Black communities in the United States, we must invest in the essential work of rectifying the ills of economic, social, and structural inequity to build resilient, safe, and vibrant communities. 

Researchers Consulted

The theory of “community trauma” is still under development. But through the course of preparing this report, we benefited from the excellent research of a number of scholars across a range of disciplines dedicated to better understanding the impact of community violence and community trauma and to developing and studying solutions. We hope this information will help to elevate the study of community trauma and those contributing to it.

Desmond Ang

Assistant Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Annette Bailey

Associate Professor at the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing at Ryerson University in Canada

Ronald Eyerman

Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Yale University and is currently a researcher at the Department of Sociology at University of Lund, Sweden

Noni Gaylord-Harden

Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Texas A&M University

Michael Lindsey

Executive Director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York University

Howard Pinderhughes

Professor and Chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco

Sonali Rajan

Associate Professor of Health Education in the Department of Health and Behavior Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University

Joseph Richardson, Jr.

Acting Chair of the African American Studies Department and the Joel and Kim Feller Endowed Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology at the University of Maryland

Patrick Sharkey

Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs

Tanya Sharpe

Associate Professor and Chair of Social Work in the Global Community in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto

Melissa E. Smith

Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work

Jocelyn R. Smith Lee

Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro

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.

In partnership with

The Latest