Raising the Voices of Gun Violence

By Sam Bieler

In some communities, gun violence is a rare and alarming occurrence. In others, it’s just a fact of life.

The latter is the sad reality faced by some American communities and neighborhoods. A study in Boston found that half of all gun violence was clustered in less than 3 percent of intersections and streets. In Washington, DC, a small number of schools were within a few hundred feet of a disproportionate number of gunfire incidents.

Who’s most affected? Young men—particularly young African Americans—disproportionately go to the hospital for gun-violence assaults, but the concentration of violence is even tighter than broad demographics suggest. In one African American community in Chicago, 41 percent of all homicides were concentrated in a social network consisting of less than 4 percent of the population. However, gun violence is an issue that extends beyond particular neighborhoods: domestic violence, firearm accidents, and injuries from stray bullets can affect Americans from every neighborhood and all walks of life.

Researchers are beginning to more fully understand who bears the harms of gun violence, but one crucial element is missing—the stories of those who have experienced gun violence firsthand and those who help address the fallout.

That’s why the Urban Institute partnered with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health and the Engaging Richmond community-based research team to explore the consequences of firearms violence through photovoice and interviews. Engaging Richmond interviewed victims and perpetrators of gun violence in Richmond, Virginia, whose 2012 homicide rate of 20.2 per 100,000 was several times higher than the national rate of 4.7. The Engaging Richmond team, a collaboration between university researchers and Richmond community members, brings the neighborhood perspective to research by documenting the experiences of the families, businesses, and service providers who navigate Richmond’s streets every day. What community members shared aligns with much of the research on the costs and harms of gun violence, and their perspectives offer key insights into what can be done to prevent it.

Photos in this feature were provided by Engaging Richmond PhotoVoice project.

Kids Can't Be Kids

For many community members, one of most troubling aspects of gun violence is its effect on children.

“Your neighborhood [is] supposed to be safe for you to go out and play,” said one community member. “But now, you know, with all this gun violence, parents [are] scared to let them play . . . kids can’t be kids anymore.”

It’s a valid concern. In one study of urban youth, 42 percent reported having seen someone shot or knifed and 22 percent reported having seen someone killed. Indirect exposure through the sound of gunfire is only now being explored. In DC, a small number of schools were within earshot of a disproportionate volume of gunfire, which may have important implications for the amount of violence students are exposed to outside of school.

What kind of damage does this do to young people? Exposure to gun violence has been linked to a variety of psychological challenges like anger and dissociation, anxiety and depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can also affect youth in the classroom, making it difficult for them to concentrate in class and damaging their academic performance and educational or career aspirations.

The Cycle of Violence

Many times, witnessing—or worse, being directly involved in—that first shooting is only the beginning of a cycle of violence.

“I got the concept,” one survivor explained. “You know, I’d rather get caught with [a gun] than without it . . . I was willing to hurt somebody if they tried to hurt me. Nobody was going to do that to me again.”

That’s a far too common conclusion. Young people who are exposed to gun violence or hear secondhand reports about violence have been known to obtain guns for self-defense. In areas where gun violence has become a normal part of social interactions, youth sometimes choose to acquire firearms for the power and prestige the weapons provide. The problem compounds as young people obtain guns to protect themselves from their armed peers.

Adding to this volatile mix, research suggests that youth who are exposed to gun violence—the same group likely to arm themselves—are also more likely to resort to violence.

Retaliation also contributes to the cycle. Retaliatory shootings for previous acts of violence can be a significant component of neighborhood gun violence. Victims of gun violence who are engaged in illegal activities are particularly likely to retaliate with violence, and this violence often reaches innocent community members.

Retaliatory shootings sometimes target relatives of the original shooters, leaving innocent family members caught in the crossfire. In this way, gun violence can affect communities far beyond one original incident, spreading through social networks much like the blood-borne disease HIV.

Violence Taxes Communities

For gun-violence survivors on the road to recovery, the monetary costs are high. In 2010, inpatient hospital stays for firearm assault cost $14,000 more than the average stay.

But the costs victims face extend far beyond medical treatment. “There are a lot of patients that really need crisis funds because of it,” said one service provider who assists victims of gun violence. “They can’t pay rent, they can’t pay utility bills, phones . . . there’s a lot of immediate financial things that can be impacted negatively because of it.”

More research is needed to understand both the magnitude and type of costs imposed on victims post assault, but at least one measure, lost earnings, suggests that these costs are significant.

“I missed out on life . . . I couldn’t work, I couldn’t get a job because of the severity of the injury . . . It kept me from doing a lot of things,” said one survivor.

Victims and their families are not the only ones to face a “violence tax” from gun crimes—the community at large may also pay a significant price. Crime encourages urban flight, which can impose a wide range of social costs on families who leave the city, from longer commutes to distance from family and friends. For those who stay, violent crime can impose tangible costs by reducing housing values and community investment, making it difficult to build wealth.

Violence can also affect local businesses. As one Richmond business owner noted, “You can’t service many people that you want to service if they’re scared to come in . . . and patronize your business. Because they’re afraid they may get shot.”

So far, no research has developed a precise estimate of the effect of gun violence on community business growth. But business owners in communities with high rates of gun violence certainly feel its effects. “You see a lot of businesses open up and then close a year later because they can’t survive,” one told researchers.

Bad Medicine

To cope with the stress and injury of a gun-violence assault, some victims self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

“I really medicated myself . . . I was into drugs,” said a survivor. “And I just medicated myself about it. The whole thing.”

This is not a one-off occurrence. Gun injuries and exposure to gun violence are often triggers for PTSD, and it’s not uncommon for sufferers to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. This coping strategy imposes a variety of new health risks including, most tragically, increased risk of suicide.

A Second Chance

Gun violence presents a number of challenges, but it’s important to remember that these communities are not helpless. In fact, they can be key partners in preventing gun violence and addressing its consequences.

Programs like Cure Violence work to prevent retaliatory violence, mediate conflicts, and encourage communities to rethink the normalcy of violence. They treat gun violence like a disease and use a public health approach, reducing risks and preventing the transmission of violence. This approach has successfully reduced violence in Baltimore, Chicago, and New York.

Another set of strategies supported by the National Network for Safe Communities emphasizes law enforcement–community collaboration combined with a focus on repeat gun-violence offenders. These approaches have a strong track record of helping communities reduce violence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasizes the importance of broad violence prevention strategies that engage schools, families, and the community at large.

Addressing the needs of at-risk community members—particularly young people—is another important component of tackling gun violence. Evidence-based programs, like Functional Family Therapy and Multisystemic Therapy, can help reduce criminal behavior by targeting problematic behavior early in life and preventing early violence from spiraling into serious offending.

Another key to addressing gun violence is providing survivors with the tools and resources they need to move forward with their lives. Programs like Prolonged Exposure Therapy have been found effective in reducing the harms of PTSD that can follow exposure to violence.

According to one service provider who worked with gun-violence survivors, “If a survivor comes away with the perception that they’ve been given a sort of second chance or a fresh start, that can be a coping skill.”

Looking Forward

Gun violence imposes a wide array of physical, social, and financial costs on some of America’s most vulnerable communities. Understanding these costs is the first step toward addressing them, and community members who live with the daily presence of gun violence and its fallout can serve as valuable resources. Their insights into the harms associated with gun violence closely align with established findings and offer new directions for further research and strategies for protecting America’s neighborhoods.