Opinion | How To Fix the Debate Over Guns

In the span of a week, two acts of public violence have stolen the lives of 18 people and provided a stark reminder of the mass gun violence that characterized the pre-Covid United States — and that looms with the end of the pandemic. In the first, a gunman, acting within a broader context of anti-Asian misogyny, went to three Atlanta-area massage businesses, taking the lives of eight people. The second, in Boulder, Colo., occurred at a grocery store — one of the few places people still congregate during the pandemic — as some went about their shopping and others eagerly waited to be vaccinated.

Gun violence did not go away during 2020. Gun homicides jumped 25 percent from the year before, apparently fueled in part by a rise in intimate partner violence. Some people have approached the possibility of becoming a victim of violence, including anti-Asian hate crime, with what could be characterized as an act of anticipatory trauma: purchasing a firearm. This isn’t unprecedented. Americans have long turned to firearms as both a last (if not first) resort for addressing uncertainty, precarity, and insecurity in a country that largely lacks a collective social safety net.

It is also not uncommon to find victims of gun violence turning to precisely the tool of their victimization — the gun — to cope in the aftermath. In the U.S., people often reach for more guns as a response to mass shootings and in anticipation of needing a method of home protection, but also — as we saw in 2020 and into 2021 — in response to presidential elections, political unrest and mass-scale infectious disease.

Gun violence entails immediate physical trauma, but it also elicits forms of trauma that can ricochet far beyond its initial target. If we understand trauma as social, psychological and physical responses to experiences that cannot be assimilated into an individual’s existing understandings of themselves and the world around them, then gun trauma goes far beyond the roughly 40,000 lives taken by gun violence every year and the approximately 115,000 people harmed by guns.

Those figures are strikingly inadequate for understanding the reach of gun violence. Having someone taken through gun violence, surviving gun violence oneself, even hearing gunshots tears at our basic sense of safety, of security and of self. Research has found that surviving or being exposed to gun violence survival is associated with an increased risk of symptoms linked with PTSD (including anxiety and depression) in both urban and rural contexts, short-term decreases in reading ability, vocabulary, and impulse control, unemployment and substance use and even shifts in friendship formation — toward protection-seeking and avoidance.

This trauma has a broad toll, unevenly borne. More than 240,000 students (including a disproportionate number of Black students) have experienced gun violence at school since the 1999 Columbine shooting, while socioeconomically underserved communities of color disproportionately bear the brunt of gun violence, with Black boys and young men age 15 to 34 more than 20 times more likely to die of gun homicide than their white counterparts.

While gun trauma most certainly shapes the aftermath of shootings, it also shapes our day-to-day decisions and sensibilities far beyond specific acts of gun violence. Gun trauma is part of the fabric of American society, intersecting with the cruel rules of racial inequality and prejudice to shape where we choose to live (if we are lucky enough to have that choice), how parents talk to their children about the possibility of gun violence, how kids think about their schools as places of learning and places of danger and whether the police are viewed as protectors or yet another source of gun violence.

Many people recognized that the lull in mass public shootings during 2020 brought on by the pandemic response would eventually end. The violence that we have seen in the past two weeks in the Atlanta area and Boulder points us to a different kind of gun debate — one that recognizes the cyclical nature of gun trauma while also recognizing that many gun policies are also counterproductive. Policies that purport to end the trauma of gun violence by increasing the punitive surveillance of individuals with mental illness, increasing police presence and surveillance of students at schools, or bringing more people into contact with the criminal justice system may ultimately create more, if different, trauma.

This trauma-violence cycle cannot break itself — but certainly has the power to break us. Between the two of us, we authors have spent nearly a decade and a half researching guns in America, studying the media that cover guns, the police who enforce gun laws, the gun sellers and instructors who make a living from firearms, the gun carriers who embrace guns as tools of safety and the gun violence survivors whose lives are irreparably remade through gun violence.

Whether we were researching gun violence, gun culture or gun policy, we have found ourselves returning repeatedly to the same theme: Gun trauma is implicated in how guns harm us, why we turn to guns, and — to the extent that we depend on punitive criminal justice approaches to address it — how we attempt to solve the problem of gun violence.

We must dismantle this trauma-violence cycle, and the first step is centering gun trauma within the gun debate and addressing gun violence accordingly. On the edges of the gun debate, and often outside the purview of public attention, exist examples of what this might look like: the Community Justice Action Fund and Revolve Impact’s By Design campaign, which aims to “change the conversation” on gun violence by elevating leaders of color to “interrupt systems of violence and ultimately build power for communities most impacted by gun violence”; the Gun Shop Project, a collaboration between gun sellers, instructors and mental health and public health practitioners to address gun suicide by increasing awareness about suicide prevention and destigmatizing mental illness; the Khadafy Washington Project of Youth ALIVE!, which brings trauma-informed resources to families and friends of homicide victims to “prevent retaliation and promote healing.”

Each of these initiatives opens space for recognizing trauma as central to understanding and addressing gun violence without reliance on punitive apparatuses (such as the criminal justice apparatus) that may exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, people’s experiences of trauma.

Approaching guns from the perspective of trauma will require some imagination — and some courage. In the days and weeks to come, we will be tempted to double down on our usual agendas and party lines. We should embrace evidence-based policies to reduce gun violence. But we can’t stop there. Addressing gun violence in the spaces where we live our lives — our grocery stores, our workplaces, our schools, our streets and our homes — requires addressing the damage gun trauma inflicts on our souls, retooling our familiar agendas, letting go of partisanship and remembering that we share a basic vulnerability as humans that can unite us — or, if we choose, divide us further.

Madison Armstrong is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Arizona. Jennifer Carlson (@jdawncarlson) is an associate professor of sociology and government and public policy at the University of Arizona and the author, most recently, of “Policing the Second Amendment: Guns, Law Enforcement, and the Politics of Race.”

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