Living by the Gun and Dying by the Gun: Editor’s Reflections

Judith A. Myers-Walls, Ph.D., CFLE Emeritus
/ Family Focus: Understanding Gun Violence from a Family Perspective

See all articles from this issue


In Brief
■ Guns hold different meanings for different groups of people and individuals, complicating communication about gun violence.
■ Investigating causes of gun violence is hampered by congressional restrictions on funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
■ Recommendations for family professionals include direct interactions with individuals and families, improved training of professionals, and public policy advocacy.

Gun Violence as a Family Issue

As Schroeder, Quinn, Allen, and Anderson have pointed out in this edition of Family Focus, there are more guns in the United States than people. A logical result of gun ownership is the large number of gun-related deaths each year, whether due to suicide or homicide. An additional set of family-related statistics that was not isolated by any of the authors in these articles is the linkage between gun violence and intimate partner violence (IPV). Studies addressing that topic have shown that IPV events using a gun are 12 times more likely to be lethal than IPV using other types of weapons or bodily force (Saltzman, Mercy, O’Carroll, Rosenberg, & Rhodes, 1992), and one study found that women were five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if that abuser owned a firearm than if not (Campbell et al., 2003).

Clearly, gun violence is a family issue. Family members are being killed, they are afraid of themselves or loved ones being killed, they are mourning the death of other family members and friends, they are using guns to kill themselves, other family members, or intimate partners or threatening to do so, they are being accused of doing so, and/or they are being jailed and serving time for gun crimes. All of this affects family functioning.

Getting Our Attention

As family professionals, have we been paying attention to all of this? After the mass shooting in February 2018 in Parkland, Florida, at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the ensuing March for Our Lives, many people began paying attention. It was after those events that the Board of Directors of the National Council on Family Relations discussed having an issue of Family Focus be devoted to the topic of gun violence. This suggests that we as family scholars may be somewhat guilty of the selective vision mentioned in the articles by Hollie, Mitchell and Bromfield, and Smith Lee; that is, did we as professionals and as an organization wake up and take gun violence seriously only when it started to move into White, middle-class communities? It is incumbent on each of us to examine the signs that we may have missed in our work and the aspects of this topic that should have been better addressed in our research, advocacy, and/or intervention. Are we paying attention?

The Meaning of Guns

One thing that became clear when reviewing these contributions was that the authors revealed different meanings of guns. The meanings are not randomly distributed. They appear to be systematically linked to intersections of race, gender, income level, urban/rural residence, and history of oppression by, or inclusion by or exclusion from, those in power, including the police and military.

In their exploration of militarism and violence in popular media, Steuter and Martin discussed a cultural image of guns as representing protection, security, a response to any challenge, and a way to advance national interests. When talking about toy guns, video games, and war play, they used words like clean, sanitized, without victims or bodies, or suffering. The authors present the resulting meaning of guns for many children and young people as a way to attain media coverage and achieve celebrity. Using guns is cool, fun, alluring, and second nature. Steuter and Martin went on to describe the need to counteract these meanings.

Schroeder, Quinn, Allen, and Anderson shared the meaning held by many individuals that guns are a danger primarily in the hands of people with mental-health problems. Mental illness is viewed as a major cause of mass shootings, so increased attention to mental health services is considered a solution to gun violence, even though there are no data to support that relationship. At the same time, the close relationship between gun availability and suicide is underemphasized because of this assumption.

Hollie’s article addressed young people’s desire to be associated with guns and gangs because they see them as methods to gain power, to overcome fear and anxiety, and to enact retaliation on those who have harmed them. Although guns and gangs are not necessarily successful in such efforts, the meaning of guns for these young men is a tool to try to reach those goals.

By asking about losses due to gun violence, Smith Lee tapped into a different set of meanings. The young men in her study talked about guns as a cause of pain and profound loss and as a reason they never let their guard down. Guns left them alone and bereaved, facing a deprived future.

With all these different meanings being in the mix, discourse could be hampered in any work by family professionals. It is critical for participants to listen to one another and be sensitive to the disparate understandings that each individual brings to any discussion of guns. Any interaction regarding gun violence and any attempt to find solutions will need to begin with a search for common language and understanding of meanings.

Finding the Sources of the Violence

A common theme in much of the attention given to gun violence is identifying its causes (Hemenway, 2016). As Stark and Shah (2017) have reported, the 1996 congressional appropriations bill that included this restriction—“none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] may be used to advocate or promote gun control” (Kellermann & Rivara, 2013)—has had a measurable negative affect on the amount of research done in this area. The authors determined that “gun violence research has been substantially underfunded and understudied relative to other causes of death” (Stark & Shah, 2017, p. 85). Although that means that there is an inadequate body of literature on the causes of gun violence, several of the authors in this edition have explored that issue.

Four articles identified factors that are often assumed to be causes and have been shown to be misrepresented or misunderstood. Shafer reviewed the evidence regarding fatherlessness and concluded that it could not be regarded as responsible for gun violence. Schroeder and colleagues debunked the connection between mental illness and violence toward others using firearms, although they supported the connection between firearm ownership or availability and suicide. Mitchell and Bromfield, as well as Smith Lee, challenged the stereotype that Black people are strictly perpetrators of violence and not victims.

There were also some factors suggested to be accurate causes. Steuter and Martin made a case for militarism and what has been called “killology” in popular culture having created a fertile field in support of gun violence. Hollie discussed the desire among young Black men to use guns to achieve power and some kind of status or payback, although they did not always achieve those goals through using guns. And others (e.g., Smith Lee; Hollie; Mitchell & Bromfield) emphasized overall societal inequities contributing to power imbalance in minority communities, such as racism, residential segregation, unequal job and employment structures, poverty, educational inequities, and other related factors, that contribute to higher gun use and higher rates of gun fatalities in those communities.

Responding as Family Professionals

The solutions recommended by the authors in this edition of Family Focus range from directed actions in one-on-one settings to broad, population-based policy initiatives. Some concentrate on building awareness of the issues related to gun violence or countering frequent misinformation. Another theme is preventing future violence, either by helping those who have suffered its consequences to grieve and heal or by tackling its initial causes. The recommendations are summarized here:

  • Direct interaction with families (Family Life Education, family therapy)
    • Build awareness in parents of the military entertainment complex (Steuter & Martin)
    • Encourage peaceful expression; provide peace education (Steuter & Martin)
    • Explore how racism interacts with families’ experience of gun violence (Mitchell & Bromfield)
    • Help families cope with grief and loss (Hollie; Mitchell & Bromfield)
    • Facilitate attachment relationships (Hollie)
    • Positive, problem- and solution-focused strategies for coping (Mitchell & Bromfield)
    • Facilitate resistance of injustice (Mitchell & Bromfield)
    • Teach how to use data to evaluate policy decisions (Schroeder et al.; Shafer)
  • Training and preparation for professionals (Family Life Educators, therapists)
    • Include special training for Black grief concerns (Smith Lee)
    • Awareness of how gun violence affects people of color and distinguishing between experiences of Black and White populations (Mitchell & Bromfield)
    • Education on the complex relationship between mental health or illness and gun violence (Schroeder et al.)
  • Public policy advocacy
    • Ban war toys and games celebrating violence (Steuter & Martin)
    • Promote policies that ban gun ownership after identified violent behavior, not only mental illness (Schroeder et al.; Shafer)
    • Reduce social inequities for minority families (Hollie; Mitchell & Bromfield; Smith Lee)


Campbell, J. C., Webster, D., Koziol-McLain, J., Block, C., Campbell, D., Curry, M. A., . . . Laughon, K. (2003). Risk factors for femicide in abusive relationships: Results from a multisite case control study. American Journal of Public Health, 93, 1089–1092.

Hemenway, D. (2016, Fall). Off the cuff: What don’t we know about the causes of gun violence? Almost everything. Harvard Public Health Magazine. Retrieved from    

Kellermann, A. L., & Rivara, F. P. (2013). Silencing the science on gun research. Journal of the American Medical Association, 309, 549–550.

Saltzman, L. E., Mercy, J. A., O’Carroll, P. W., Rosenberg, M. L., & Rhodes, P. H. (1992). Weapon involvement and injury outcomes in family and intimate assaults. Journal of the American Medical Association, 267, 3043–3047.

Stark, D. E., & Shah, N. H. (2017). Funding and research on gun violence and other leading causes of death. Journal of the American Medical Association, 317(1), 84–85.