We’ve Had Enough: A Guide for Family Life Educators to Navigate the Effects of Gun Violence Within Families
The Tragedy of the Commons
Tens of thousands of people are killed annually as a result of gun violence in the United States. Compared with 22 other high-income countries around the world, gun-related deaths were 25 times higher in the United States (Grinshteyn & Hemenway, 2016). Americans accounted for 82% of all deaths across the 23 countries, while comprising less than 50% of the population; 90% of women, 91% of children aged 0 to 14 years, and 92% of youth aged 15 to 24 years killed by firearms worldwide were from the United States. The report further indicated there were 31,428 firearm deaths reported in the United States in 2010 (Grinshteyn & Hemenway, 2016). Notably, there is an almost 50% greater incidence of gun-related suicide than homicide in the United States each year. Research from the National Institute of Mental Health (Wintemute, 2015) suggests that these high rates of gun-related suicides could have been prevented if there were fewer guns in homes and if guns were properly secured and out of reach for young persons living in households with firearms. In 2012 alone, 64% of all gun-related deaths in the United States were suicides.
Research Updates on Gun Violence and Resources
Clearly, there is something unique about the United States that almost nurtures gun violence. However, it may be difficult to determine what that might be. Many reported numbers of gun-related violence come from retroactive studies. Congress has barred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from conducting research advocating for gun control. This includes any research related to gun violence prevention. As Family Life Educators (FLEs), it is our duty to follow gun violence trends and work with families and communities to attack this crucial issue. If we are unable to work at the policy level with Congress, we must use our resources within the community to assist the thousands of families who encounter gun violence each year and support families in managing the trauma inevitably associated with these events.
Supporting Families Through Experiences of Trauma
Traumatic events occur when an individual’s subjective experience of an event produces significant physiological and psychological effects (Kindsvatter & Geroski, 2014). Traumatic events are marked by activation of the individual’s fight-or-flight stress response. In addition to the activation of their stress response systems during experiences of gun violence, survivors of such experiences often encounter long-term physiological effects as well. These effects are unrelated to the direct effects of the gun-related attack. Over time, survivors may feel desensitized to violence. They may lash out or seclude themselves from the outside world. As FLEs, we cannot predict how gun violence may affect individuals or families because trauma has a different impact on everyone. But we can realize that the key to supporting families is that they get help. There are many trauma centers across the country that specialize in treating those affected by violent crimes, many of which offer reduced or waived fees.
The Trauma Institute and Child Trauma Institute
The Trauma Institute (TI) and Child Trauma Institute (CTI) provide intensive therapy retreats for victims of trauma. This process involves meeting with the clinician several days concurrently for 8 hours a day using the Phase Model of Trauma-Informed Treatment, designed to help clients realize their full potential and achieve goals despite previous exposure to traumatic violence. Beyond these benefits, victims of crime are also entitled to services paid for by victims compensation funds. Many specialized treatment options are not covered by insurance, making it difficult for at-risk and low-income groups to receive the treatment they need. TI and CTI have offices in Massachusetts, New York, California, and North Carolina. Additionally, affiliated therapists are located in Colorado, Idaho, and Ohio.
Criminally Related Gun Violence
Victims of trauma perpetrated by criminals are entitled to victims’ compensations funds found in all 50 states in the United States. Practitioners and FLEs are encouraged to seek these resources when working with victims and witnesses of violence. Often, treatment centers accepting these funds do not require formal police reports and can cover the costs of family members also seeking treatment.
The Ross Center
The Ross Center provides inpatient and outpatient mental health care for those with posttraumatic stress disorder, emotional and behavioral disorders in children, and mood disorders across three centers in Virginia, New York, and Washington, D.C. The Ross Center offers a unique array of treatment options, including cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy. The clinicians are highly trained in both methods and often accompany clients in real-world situations to treat anxiety and stress-related disorders. Clinicians and psychiatrists are world-renown and tailor treatments to fit the individual needs of all clients.
The Witness Effect
Victims are not the only ones who suffer at the hands of violence. Children are often witnesses to violence in their homes. Although early childhood exposure to violence can lead to behavioral consequences, such as engaging in illegal activity, the neurological implications are equally as devastating. Aggression is one such consequence. If there are no existing means in place to escape the violence, people will engage in whatever behavior is necessary to survive (Seddio, 2017). Fortunately, most children who witness domestic violence do not go on to experience significant changes in aggression or antisocial behavior. Resilience serves as a protective factor for children exposed to violence. Children in refugee camps often witness violence within the camps or escape out of boredom or fear and become child soldiers (Seddio, 2017; Tsavoussis, Stawicki, Stoicea, & Papadimos, 2014). Although these individuals end up engaging in violence, once rescued and given proper treatment, their behavior becomes consistent with that of typically developing children.
Children from violent families are often used as tools in the court systems either to provoke emotional responses from juries or by defense attorneys who portray them as unreliable witnesses because of their young age (Tsavoussis et al., 2014). The use of witnesses as a courtroom decoy can cause long-term psychological effects. Witnesses often repeat their stories many times, which can increase traumatic experiences; they view photographs of the incidents, often provoking physical symptoms such as vomiting, labored breathing, and feelings of panic. Because poverty is often a risk factor for family violence, resources exist to assist families in navigating the court systems. They offer training for FLEs in working with children who were witnesses to ensure safety throughout the court system and help in getting witnesses the proper treatment if needed.
The National Center for Victims of Crime
The National Center for Victims of Crime is a nonprofit organization advocating for victims’ rights and training professionals who work with at-risk populations. The organization pairs with the National Crime Victim Bar Association, which provides legal services and resources to victims navigating the criminal justice system. Victims in need of an attorney referral can call (202) 467-8716 for assistance. The Center is based in Washington, D.C., but offers confidential referrals for crime victims across the United States.
Prevention and Protection
For families, poverty is a key aspect in identifying risk factors for gun violence. Education can be a protective factor, where more highly educated people tend to have fewer encounters with gun violence. Education is associated with higher income, making this a critical factor when identifying at risk families. In 2010, the Census Bureau reported that the U.S. population comprised 306 million people (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). That same year, the Congressional Research Service estimated that Americans owned 310 million firearms, excluding military weapons. Pew Research Center estimates that 30% of the U.S. population owns guns (Parker, Horowitz, Igielnik, Oliphant, & Brown, 2017). With knowledge about proper gun safety, keeping firearms away from children and teens, and storing bullets separately from any weapons, gun-related accidents and intended violence is drastically reduced. Unfortunately, many families who experience violence at the hand of a family member or confidant live below the poverty line and do not have the resources to control access to firearms. Several states have passed laws making it easier for family members to temporarily remove weapons, including guns, from the hands of persons at risk for committing violence on themselves or on others.
The Coalition to Stop Violence
The Coalition to Stop Violence (CSGV) uses a data-driven approach to identify behavioral risk factors to develop evidence-based legislation across the United States. They put forth the Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO), legislation allowing law enforcement and families to temporarily remove firearms from loved ones in crisis; such legislation has been passed in California, Washington, and Oregon. This law focuses on the behavior of individuals, rather than stigmatizing those with mental illness, most of whom will never become violent. CSGV advocates for background checks, disarming domestic abusers, preventing suicides, and a host of other preventative issues that can be addressed at the policy level.
Our purpose as FLEs is to assist all families, regardless of class, race, age, or creed. One thing we must remember is that these victims, survivors, and witnesses are all part of a family. Whether they are tied to immediate families or to the nationwide family of individuals who have also encountered violence, there are resources available for everyone. Ensuring families that they are not alone in their struggle is quintessential to recovery and refining how survivors respond to stress or violence.
To fully serve our roles, we must pledge to foster support systems, create sustainable resources, and offer reputable referrals for mental or general health-related care. Working with researchers is a crucial element to provide evidence-based care. Use the CFLE network to connect with FLEs who are also researchers or in academic positions. Although the CDC may not currently receive funding to help prevent gun violence, it is our responsibility to help curb family violence— for the health of both the people it affects and for our country as a whole.
Kaylee Seddio, Ph.D., CFLE, is a Postdoctoral Fellow and Data Manager in the Child Developmetn Lab at the University of Maryland-College Park.
Wendy Middlemiss, Ph.D., CFLE, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Psych ology at the University of North Texas.
Grinshteyn, E., & Hemenway, D. (2016). Violent death rates: The US compared with other high-income OECD countries, 2010. The American Journal of Medicine, 129(3), 266–273. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amjmed.2015.10.025
Kindsvatter, A., & Geroski, A. (2014). The impact of early life stress on the neurodevelopment of the stress response system. Journal of Counseling & Development, 92(4), 472–480. doi: 10.1002/j.1556-6676.2014.00173.x
Parker, K., Horowitz, J., M., Igielnik, R., Oliphant, B., & Brown, A. (2017). The demographics of gun ownership. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2017/06/22/the-demographics-of-gun-ownership/
Seddio, K. R. (2017). Trauma, psychopathology, and the refugee crisis: A call to action. American Journal of Public Health, 107(7), 1044. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2017.303857
Tsavoussis, A., Stawicki, S., Stoicea, N., & Papadimos, T. J. (2014). Child-witnessed domestic violence and its adverse effects on brain development: A call for societal self-examination and awareness. Frontiers in Public Health, 2, 178. doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2014.00178
United States Census Bureau. (2010). Decennial Census of Population and Housing. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/decennial-census/data/datasets.2010.html
Wintemute, G. J. (2015). The epidemiology of firearm violence in the twenty-first century United States. Annual Review of Public Health, 36, 5–19. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031914-122535