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Disaster Unfolding in Slow Motion – Drastic Effect of Gun Violence on Resilience

Resilience conversations often refer to humans’ extraordinary ability to cope, adapt and thrive in the face of major shocks and disasters, both man-made and natural. Across the United States, however, communities are facing significant challenges to building resilience on a daily basis, and are experiencing an increasing inability to bounce back.

Trauma Resilience
Trauma, Equity, and Resilience convergence (Source: George Washington University)

Urban gun violence in the context of adverse community environments, high rates of incarceration and limited economic mobility has a drastic effect on resiliency – robbing entire communities of hope and vitality. Seemingly minor, often overlooked, yet consistent resilience shocks distress our neighborhoods in similar or even more significant ways than singular, major events. Researchers at Moving Health Care Upstream suggest that, “Numbing [from the gun violence epidemic] has been a disaster unfolding in slow motion”, and Dr. Emily Wang from the Yale School of Medicine writes that, “violence results in chronic community-level trauma and stress, and undermines health, capacity, and productivity in these neighborhoods”. Thus, the goal ought to be to combat the effects of living with persistent gun violence, and government, law enforcement and media attention needs to shift to empowering communities to do so.

Research suggests that being a witness to a shooting, whether at school, in the community, or at home, puts children at increased risk of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, difficulty in school, engagement in criminal activity, and abuse of drugs and alcohol. In the United States, someone under the age of 25 is killed by gunfire every 70 minutes. It becomes increasingly unrealistic to expect children that need to cope with the trauma of gun violence to be able to grow up and contribute to their communities in a meaningful way. According to Futures Without Violence, young people who witness gun violence experience similar psychological and physical harm as those who have had direct exposure. A recent Washington Post investigation found that more than 228,000 children in the US have experienced gun violence at school since the 1999 Columbine massacre. As the newspaper points out, “beyond the dead and wounded, children who witness the violence or cower behind locked doors to hide from it can be profoundly traumatized”. Moreover, guns are often used in response to fear as many children and youth living in violent neighborhoods feel at risk, and without nonviolent conflict-resolution skills, they depend on guns as means of protection.

This inability to balance uniquely American principles and ideals, such as the promise of the Second Amendment and the hopes expressed in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence recognizing equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, undermines our collective resilience. Vibrant communities provide buffers and support that nourish hope, health and prosperity. However, too often, our communities experience gun violence in the context of adversity such as unemployment and lack of affordable housing, which hinders their opportunity to bounce back. If large swaths of the population remain disproportionally affected, there are fewer individuals contributing to a viable workforce and thriving economy. Communities with higher rates of gun violence show slower growth in new retail and service businesses, as well as slower home value appreciation. Families of victims and survivors of gun violence often experience financial crisis, including an inability to pay rent, utility bills, and phone charges because of lost earnings and high medical bills.

According to researchers at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars Program, neighborhoods bound by strong social bonds can help shield community members from the effects of gun violence. Dr. Wang further suggests that, “disaster preparedness principles like community resilience can be used to improve a community’s ability to band together and use resources to respond to, withstand, recover from, and even grow” from shocks like gun violence. It is time for cities to adopt safety plans that include initiatives focusing on youth unemployment, neighborhood economic development, restoring vacant land, rebuilding abandoned infrastructure, and creating safe parks. Studies find that sharp and sudden surges in gun violence can significantly reduce the growth of new retail and service businesses and slow home value appreciation. Thus, education and job training programs aimed at economic development ought to include approaches that focus on educating young adults on gun violence prevention. As Rev. Gregory Boyle of East Los Angeles puts it, “nothing stops a bullet like a job”. While a lack of employment opportunities increases the risk of gun violence, economic opportunity protects against it, and is a key part of increasing the resilience of any community.

Sources and Further Readings

Emotional and Behavioral Impact of Exposure to Community Violence in Inner-city AdolescentsThe National Center for Biotechnology Information 

More Than 228,000 Students Have Experienced Gun Violence at School Since ColumbineThe Washington Post

A Neighborhood-Level Analysis of the Economic Impact of Gun ViolenceUrban Institute

Raising the Voices of Gun ViolenceUrban Institute

Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a JobThe Guardian

Strong Neighborhood Ties Can Help Reduce Gun ViolenceYaleNews