The Emotional Toll Of Mass Shootings On Young People

Published: Wednesday, August 7, 2019 - 11:36am
Updated: Wednesday, August 7, 2019 - 3:27pm
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Mass shootings -- whether in schools or last weekend's attacks in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio -- have become a too common part of life for young people. Trauma can certainly follow those events, and that puts even more responsibility on parents to help their children deal with it through direct conversations. How've these shootings affected how we plan our daily routines, the places we choose to go and the emotional security of children? With me to talk about all of that is Jennifer Carlson, associate professor in sociology and government and public policy at the University of Arizona. Jennifer, how have these mass shootings affected how we talk about gun violence and has their frequency made even more of a difference when it comes to that?

JENNIFER CARLSON: Oh for sure. I think that mass shootings have really changed. Obviously we think a lot about, sort of, the gun control side, right? And, we certainly think about how, for example,... Sandy Hook invigorated Moms Demand Action,... a variety of movements that advocate for stricter gun restrictions or stricter gun regulations. The other side of that though, is that it's actually really transformed the pro-gun side as well. And that's because, you know, when you think about what happens typically in the aftermath of an active shooting, there's calls for different regulations, more regulations. There's pushback on guns to protect the Second Amendment and all of that. People go out and purchase guns, so often after active shootings, gun purchases actually spike. So, all of that is sort of going on. I have researched this from a variety of perspectives and one of the perspectives, is actually talking to police chiefs. And, one thing that I found, really sort of striking, was that active shootings really changed how they thought about gun politics and how they thought about even their own guns as police officers. One of the really big findings out of that study, which I'm in the process of finalizing the book that will come out on that, is that one of the reasons why police support concealed carry is because of active shootings, is because of, sort of,... this idea that there needs to be first responders and somebody needs to be on the scene armed. So, it's really transformed the terrain of the political debate on both sides.

GOLDSTEIN: Jennifer, how do these shootings affect how parents talk to their children about gun violence and to what extent is there a difference between how white families have that conversation as opposed to how African-American families would or should?

CARLSON: It's definitely true that when we think about where gun violence is concentrated, it's concentrated in particular places. It is, you know, if you look at the numbers you know many, many times fold, African-American boys and men are more likely to be victims of gun violence, of gun crime than their white counterparts. So, there's definitely the case that if we think about who's exposed directly firsthand to gun violence, it's very uneven by race. But I think it gets really blurry when we try and think about what is, what does it mean for gun violence to be an everyday experience. And, I think that's what active shootings do, is that it weaves the possibility of gun violence into spaces that, you know, by virtue of, you know, in some ways by design, you know, the suburban movie theater, the suburban school, what have you, that these were places that were kind of the, you know, the equivalent of the white picket fence, right? They're supposed to be safe places,... where bad things, like gun violence, don't happen. And, of course there's a racial and class dynamic to that, as you've already alluded to. And, we should be talking about the back end of exposure to gun violence. If you hear gunshots, if you're in a place where gun violence has happened or happens regularly, scholars have shown that you're going to have heightened levels of psychological distress, anxiety. How is that translating as... white middle class communities in the suburbs and rural areas are increasingly seeing themselves as... vulnerable to this threat. So the point is that anticipatory trauma is a way to sort of talk about not just the back end but the front end of this.

GOLDSTEIN: So Jennifer, where do groups like March for Our Lives fit in? There a number of students who witnessed mass shootings and they've chosen to become politically involved. So, do we have an idea of whether some kids can turn the trauma toward making change, while others are less able to do that?

CARLSON: I think it's a really tricky question for a number of reasons because, obviously, there's a lot of variation in how people respond to trauma. You know, you can have everything from post-traumatic stress, post-traumatic grief, to what psychologists call post-traumatic growth, where you actually are able to look at the traumatic event as sort of a point at which, you know, you were able to experience growth in the aftermath of it. Yeah, I think that there's definitely, you know, that's... a question of that, you know, I'm certainly thinking about is, why some people exposed to similar kinds of gun violence reacts very differently and have different kinds of experiences in the aftermath, particularly with regard to how they deal with trauma. And I would say it's not just the gun violence itself, it's how victims and survivors are treated by the media, how they're treated by frontline workers like the police, how are they recognized as survivors. I think it has a lot to do, also, with our... gun debate and our gun culture. We can all think of examples about how survivors have been treated differentially in the gun debate. And I think that's also something important to point out, that it's... not that there is sort of a unilateral response to, I was in an active shooting and therefore I have this set of politics coming out of it. Obviously,... some people, some survivors disengage from politics altogether. But you also have, you know, cases where for example, the Santa Fe shooting in Texas, there's really interesting coverage on that. And, you know the kids there basically were like,... we are not in favor of gun control and we are not, you know, that's not what this community is about, i'm paraphrasing, obviously. And, so that was very much, kind of, different than sort of the Parkland narrative of, you know, in the aftermath of active shootings, you know, kids... mobilize and, you know obviously, March for Our Lives is a huge example of, the example of that. There's a lot there and I think... that's something that is, you know, as this terrain shifts, I think that, you know, we see survivors from Virginia Tech, from Sandy Hook, from, you know obviously, Parkland, becoming political, you know, very politically involved. And I think... that's something that is really unique, also, about how active shootings, to go back to an earlier question, how active shootings reshaped the debate.

GOLDSTEIN: And that is Jennifer Carlson, associate professor in sociology and government and public policy at the U of A.

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