As a country and a community, we have lived through the effects of gun violence. Whether it is through the heartbreaking loss of loved ones or witnessing its effects in our neighborhoods, gun violence affects everyone. It leaves us struggling to understand why it happens. It is an emotional, politically charged crisis. But sometimes the information circulating about gun violence is based on myths. Regardless of how people feel about gun ownership, the community trauma from gun violence is deep and long-lasting.
Any discussion of gun violence in the United States begins with an awareness of just how many people own guns. According to the latest Small Arms Survey (smallarmssurvey.org), there are 393 million civilian-owned guns in the United States—which means there are more guns than people. A 2017 Gallup report stated that 42 percent of households in the United States contained a gun—which means that the average gun-owning household contains several guns. However, the United States is one of three countries, including Guatemala and Mexico, that has a Constitutional right to arms. The United States is the only one of those countries that has no restriction on who can own guns (nytimes.com/2013/04/05/opinion/rewrite-the-second-amendment.html). In the United States, the high rate of gun ownership is coupled with a high homicide-by-firearm rate—which is 25.2 times higher than that of other high-income countries (Grinshteyn E, Hemenway D. 2016. Violent death rates: the US compared with other high-income OECD countries, 2010. Am. J. Med. 129:266–73).
“Research has found that the overwhelming majority of people who are violent do not have an identifiable mental illness. In fact, people with mental illness are three times more likely to be targets rather than perpetrators of violence. This myth does little more than promote the stigma of mental illness and distract people from dealing appropriately with the often separate issues of violence, mental illness and gun violence.”
John “Jack” S. Rozel, MD, MSL[/pullquote]Even though the incidence of gun violence in the United States is high, research shows that incidences are still not as high as they are portrayed to be in national media outlets.
“If we look at trends over the past 30-40 years, gun homicides are down significantly,” says John “Jack” S. Rozel, MD, MSL, associate professor of psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and medical director at resolve Crisis Services (sponsored by Allegheny County and UPMC Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic).
Another common myth about gun violence is that it is mostly done by people with mental illness. Not true, says Dr. Rozel.
“Research has found that the overwhelming majority of people who are violent do not have an identifiable mental illness,” he says. “Some of the violence relates more to substance-use and intoxication. In fact, people with mental illness are three times more likely to be targets rather than perpetrators of violence. This myth does little more than promote the stigma of mental illness and distract people from dealing appropriately with the often separate issues of violence, mental illness and gun violence.”
Despite the loaded myths surrounding gun violence, its devastating effects on people are unquestionable. The grief of losing a loved one is immeasurable. Research has shown that people who live in high-stress situations or neighborhoods experience persistent activation of the body’s stress response systems (increases in heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones). This response can have a negative effect on people’s health—especially to the developing brains of children. Even losing sleep because of stress can have serious health effects.
“If you live in an environment where people are getting shot, it’s a lot harder to feel comfortable enough to fall asleep,” says Dr. Rozel. “Sleep deficits take a huge toll on health. It’s not uncommon to see people who have been exposed to gun violence showing symptoms of post-traumatic symptomatic stress disorder, which include an exaggerated startle reflex, getting angry really quickly, etc. Something as simple as the sound of a door slamming can trigger people. What we can say, quite clearly, is that any exposure to firearm violence—from being a target, victim or witness—takes a tremendous toll. Wherever you stand in the gun debate, no one should have to deal with that level of stress.”
So, what can people do to minimize the effect of gun violence in their lives? People need to take care of themselves and seek help from health care providers whenever possible because living in high-stress situations can negatively affect health. Dr. Rozel reminds people that violence between strangers is uncommon. Violence between people who know each other, to some degree, is far more common. And there’s usually a signal well in advance that someone is under a threat of violence. People may have concerns about sharing information they know; people do not want to become targets, themselves.
“One of the most important things to help decrease firearm injury is trusting and loving relationships within families and communities,” says Dr. Rozel. “Children need adults they trust to tell if they saw or are worried about something. Adults need the same. Trust takes time and effort to build and create, but it can make a really big difference. Find the people in the community you feel you can trust. Develop those relationships.
“Remember that being exposed to gun violence doesn’t mean you can’t grow from those emotional and physical scars. It takes time. It takes work to find the right relationships, therapist and, sometimes, physical health interventions, but there’s a way to live a life after gun violence. Start with a health care provider you trust and say you need help.”
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