Preventing Gun and Gang Violence in the Black Community: A Family Systems Perspective

Brandon Hollie, M.A., graduate student, Department of Marriage & Family Therapy, Syracuse University
/ Family Focus: Understanding Gun Violence from a Family Perspective



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In Brief
■ Gun violence could be a symptom of past intergenerationally transmitted injustices.
■ Increased access to treatment in impoverished neighborhoods could reduce violence.
■ Attachment might be important in the prevention and intervention of gun violence.

Death by firearm is a major crisis in the United States. In 2016, firearms were among the top five leading causes of death for individuals between the ages of 1 and 44 years, and accounted for the loss of 38,658 lives in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, 2016). Of particular concern is the number of homicides committed via gun violence among minorities. To illustrate, from 1999 to 2016, homicide victimization was the leading cause of death among African Americans aged 15–34, making it deadlier than heart disease, diabetes, malignant neoplasms, and HIV combined for that population (CDC, 2016). A related concern, African Americans are disproportionately imprisoned compared to other races, and in 2016 weapons charges alone accounted for 26% of Blacks who were sentenced to correctional facilities (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016). In discussions of gun violence, it is also necessary to mention economic inequality (Shapiro, Meschede, & Osoro, 2013), lack of available resources (McGuire & Miranda, 2008), and disparity in incarceration and poverty rates (Desmond & Western, 2018; U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016) between Blacks and Whites, and the influence of such imbalances on family systems. The interconnectedness of these issues suggests that gun violence is not only a public health concern but also a product of a larger systemic problem.

A search of the major family therapy journals (Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Family Process, Journal of Family Therapy, and American Family Therapy Journal) suggests that more work is needed regarding what that group of family professionals can do to prevent gun violence in the Black community. Current efforts designed to reduce gun violence in the Black community are focused on sit-downs with gang members to encourage them to choose prosocial paths or to discuss intimidation by police officers (Papachristos & Kirk, 2015). However, these methods fail to address underlying issues of grief and loss, injustices, and attachment wounds. Therefore, providing space for unexpressed trauma and grief or loss, helping heal attachment wounds between children and caregivers, and exploring gun violence as a symptom of unjust intergenerational processes is needed. As family professionals, we are especially equipped to address these initiatives. Emphasizing the role of injustices on minority families in regard to gun and gang violence through a family professional lens could meet these needs.

Gun Violence and Gang Involvement

Gang involvement is important when discussing gun violence because, in cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston, gangs are involved in 30% to 60% of all homicides annually, and those often involve firearms (Sierra-Arévalo & Papachristos, 2017). This is not surprising: Hayes and Hemenway (1999) found a strong correlation between carrying a gun and gang membership, even when controlling for other factors. Youth gang members are disproportionately male, Black or Hispanic, from single-parent households, and from families living below the poverty level (Pyrooz & Sweeten, 2015). Several other factors are associated with gang membership, such as family conflict or dysfunction, seeking a sense of support and belonging, loyalty and respect, and perceiving a sense of protection (Eitle, Gunkel, & Van Gundy, 2004; Simon, Ritter, & Mehendra, 2013). Youth who join gangs for perceived protection suffer just as much violent victimization as do those who join for other reasons. Although many youth perceive that gang membership will provide them with protection, research has found otherwise (Peterson, Taylor, & Esbensen, 2004).

Disenfranchised and Complicated Grief

Blacks are disproportionally at risk for homicide victimization (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016), and those who have lost a loved one to homicide are at high risk of experiencing disenfranchised grief (Piazza-Bonin, Neimeyer, Burke, McDevitt- Murphy, & Young, 2015). Disenfranchised grief occurs when a mourner’s grief response is socially invalidated, unacknowledged, or discouraged, and this has been correlated with complicated grief (CG) (Piazza-Bonin et al., 2015). CG includes overwhelming yearning for the deceased, extreme difficulties in accepting death, and dysfunction in carrying out normal life. Research suggests that being Black and losing a loved one to homicide increases the risk of experiencing CG (Currier, Holland, Coleman, & Neimeyer, 2008; Goldsmith, Morrison, Vanderwerker, & Prigerson, 2008). For example, results of multivariate analyses indicated that Blacks were twice as likely to develop CG compared to Whites, even when controlling for other factors (Goldsmith et al., 2008). In addition, CG as a result of homicide has been shown to contribute to survivor anger, feelings of victimization and unfairness, attempts to regain control, and the need to carry out punishment (Vigil & Clements, Family Focus | Winter 2018 F9 2003). Research suggests that African Americans who engage in gun violence usually do so when acting out of retaliation to unaddressed trauma (Jennings-Bey et al., 2015). The trauma caused by events such as murder leaves people with few choices for meaningful action, as well as a sense of powerlessness to organize defenses against the consequent feelings of overwhelming fear and anxiety (Pinderhughes, 2004). Blacks are at a disadvantage when it comes to access of treatment and quality of care (McGuire & Miranda, 2008). Therefore, providing space to cope with grief could be a powerful intervention.

Intergenerational Processes and Gun Violence

If one’s life course is contingent on the level of anxiety in his or her family system (Bowen, 1976), this can lead to generational hardships for some minorities. Although there is no general consensus on how trauma and anxiety are transmitted across generations, there are certain contextual factors that cannot be ignored. To illustrate, statistics show that from 1940 to 2017, Blacks have accounted for at least 30% of the prison population but have never made up more than 14% of the entire U.S. population. From 1959 to 2017, Blacks have accounted for at least 20% of all people living below the poverty line, and in that same period, Blacks have never made up less than 34% of all people living in poverty who are female householders. From 1972 to 2017 Blacks have never had an unemployment rate of less than 6.8% for any month of the year (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018).

Considering the continuing negative influence of these racial disparities and the anxiety and stress that come along with them (Pinderhughes, 2004), these injustices and the outcomes they have for family systems cannot be ignored. When gang members were asked whether their parents opposed their being in gangs, they mentioned that parents were often too worried about other things, such as finding ways to feed and clothe them, and keep a roof over their heads, to be able to express much concern (Moore, 1991). In a society in which the allocation of resources is not fair across racial groups, as evidenced by the previously mentioned injustices and inequalities, and one in which there is unfairness across generations and feelings of loss hope and trust in the world, despair is likely to occur and can lead to family dysfunction and destructive entitlement (Boszormenyi-Nagy, Grunebaum, & Ulrich 1991). Destructive entitlement, a method of “justifying” previous injustices, leads individuals to act vindictively toward others, as those previous injustices seem to them to justify callous behaviors (Boszormenyi- Nagy et al., 1991). Considering the injustices that Blacks endure, gun violence is at the intersection of intergenerational processes and institutional injustice.


There is some correlation between gun violence and gang involvement. In addition, there is evidence that individuals join gangs for a sense of belonging and protection (Simon et al., 2013). This could indicate that those who join gangs depend on gang membership rather than family members for a sense of security. In addition, many Blacks report losing a significant number of loved ones to homicide (Smith, 2015). When these traumatic responses are activated, individuals are likely to seek connection and closeness with someone who can help them regulate emotion (Cassidy & Shaver, 2008). Research suggests that most gang members use their affiliation as a substitute for family, searching for the closeness and cohesiveness that is often missing in their home environment (Akiyama, 2012). Therefore, when gang members consider retaliation, it would appear that guns and gangs may provide them with a perceived sense of safety and connection, partly because of the lack of emotional availability within the family. This suggests that strengthening the bond and attachment among family members could be beneficial.


Currently, efforts to reduce gun violence are focused on changing the operation of guns and gun ownership (e.g., background checks, safe storage, safety locks on guns, license requirement) and more community involvement (e.g., more effective policing, gang truces). However, these problems are only at the surface of looking at gun violence among ethnic minorities. Efforts may be more effective if they focus on the still-underlying problems—the process, not the content. Therefore, as family professionals we can make changes in our practices to provide space for grief and losses, heal attachment wounds, and explore gun violence as symptom of unfair intergenerational injustices.


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