Who Gets to Be a Victim of Gun Violence? Examining the Marginalized Trauma and Grief of Boys and Men in Black Families

Jocelyn R. Smith Lee, Ph.D.
/ Family Focus: Understanding Gun Violence from a Family Perspective

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Jocelyn R. Smith Lee

In Brief
■ Black boys and men experience the highest rates of homicide resulting from gun violence in the United States.
■ The trauma and bereavement of Black males and their families is often marginalized.
■ Family professionals can best support Black boys, men, and families affected by gun violence by using an inclusive approach to research, policy, and practice.

Gun Violence Is a Health Disparity

Gun violence is an epidemic in the United States. According to the most recent data reports from the National Center for Health Statistics (Murphy, Xu, Kochanek, Curtin, & Arias, 2017), 73% of all homicide deaths in 2015 (17,793) resulted from the discharge of a firearm. Black families are disproportionately affected by gun deaths. More than half (58%) of gun violence victims in the United States are Black, and the overwhelming majority of victims are male. In 2015, Black husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, cousins, and nephews accounted for 91% of Black victims funeralized as a result of gun violence in the United States. Compounding this bereavement are the disparate number of unarmed Black men fatally shot by police in the United States.

Despite these statistics, the stories of Black male victims of gun violence and their bereaved families and communities are rarely uplifted in the national discourse about gun reform. Even in the context of school shootings, where “Black students make up 16.6% of the student population, but they experience school shootings at twice the rate” (Cox, Rich, Chiu, Muyskens, & Ulmanu, 2018, para. 14), Black male experiences of trauma and victimization are marginalized. Their bereavement goes unnoticed and unaddressed.

Contrarily, stereotypical depictions of Black males as perpetrators of violence are hypervisible in the media and enduring in the U.S. psyche. Propagated during slavery and Reconstruction to legitimate the lynching of Black life with impunity (Grills, Aird, & Rowe, 2016), this legacy of criminalizing and dehumanizing Black men is also evident in our 21st-century responses to violent death (Embrick, 2015). When young people from Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, mobilized the Never Again movement to protest gun violence following the fatal school shooting that killed 17 of their educators and peers, surviving students were invited to the White House to meet with the president. Yet efforts by the Black Lives Matter movement to center Black victims of gun violence and police brutality in conversations about justice and reform have resulted in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (2017) labeling these activists “terrorists.”

Reflecting on this patterned, uneven response to the loss of Black and White life in the United States, Patrisse Khan-Cullors (2018), cofounder of Black Lives Matter, raised a critical interrogative that drives the heart of my research and also has important implications for family professionals: Who gets to be a victim? Specifically, Patrisse questioned:

Why don’t Black people get to be victims? And I think that’s the question that we have to ask ourselves and that’s the question that we have to be willing to answer and be bold about and be courageous about. And I think it’s a question not just for elected officials and appointed officials but it is a question for us. It’s a question for us. . . Who gets to be a victim?

Acknowledging Black Males as Victims and Survivors of Gun Violence

My program of research works to affirm the humanity of Black boys and men by acknowledging the pain and profound loss that gun violence creates in their lives and by examining how invisible wounds of trauma and grief shape their health, well-being, and family relationships (Smith, 2015; Smith & Patton, 2016; Smith, 2017). I study how race, gender, and socioeconomic status intersect to create contexts of vulnerability to violence and traumatic loss, but also opportunities for growth and healing in the lives of Black males and Black families. This work began in East Baltimore, Maryland, at a GED and job-readiness training program, where I partnered with mental health clinicians to develop a grief and loss group that was facilitated weekly in the center. From these groups, I recruited a sample of 40 young Black men aged 18–24 to complete in-depth, semistructured qualitative interviews with me about their personal encounters with traumatic loss resulting from homicide. During research interviews, I asked young men to construct chronologies of loss. Informed by gendered patterns of grief (Doka & Martin, 1998), these adapted lifehistory calendar tools offered young men an instrumental task to complete that captured the frequency, developmental timing, and intensity of homicide death experienced across the life course.

On average, this sample of young Black men disclosed losing three loved ones (range = 0–10) to homicide (Smith, 2015). The victims were overwhelmingly male (68%) and overwhelmingly participants’ same-aged peers (81%). Thirteen percent of these homicide deaths were described as occurring in the context of a police encounter, offering evidence that the homicide death of Freddie Gray in police custody was not exceptional but rather reflective of the lived experiences of young Black men in Baltimore. My findings also evidenced adolescence as a primary period of vulnerability during which participants most commonly experienced their first homicide death. A clustering of peer homicides also occurred in this developmental period, during which young men reported experiencing multiple homicide deaths in back-to-back calendar months or years, leaving little time to heal or recover from one homicide death before the next occurred. Thirty percent of participants witnessed the homicide deaths of loved ones.

When asked to articulate the impact of losing peers to gun violence, Niko (age 19; all names are pseudonyms) responded:

What does it mean to me? Well, it just makes me lose friends. I’m losing friends cause my friends is getting killed—some of my close friends—and then, it just, like, be nothing else left. If I ain’t got no friends, then, like, what I’m supposed to do? I just sit in the house now. It’s no friends that I have.

As Luther (age 20) transitioned to adulthood, he deeply mourned the loss of an imagined future with his younger cousin:

Him being taken out the future—that’s what messed me up. That’s what hit me the hardest. He’s not going to be there. . . . ‘Cause I really thought my cousin was going to be there like . . . way down the line, we was gonna see each other’s families and everything.

Participants’ experiences of homicide bereavement interacted with ongoing exposures to violence and injury in young men’s Baltimore neighborhoods and produced symptoms of traumatic stress among study participants. Using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (5th ed.; American Psychiatric Association, 2013) diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), my colleague and I (Smith & Patton, 2016) analyzed young men’s narratives for symptoms of intrusion, avoidance, arousal, and alterations in mood and cognition. Every participant in this Baltimore sample described experiencing at least one symptom of PTSD, with 19% of participants reporting all four symptom types. Most commonly reported was hypervigilance, which young men described as being “on point.” As Adam, a 21-year-old participant, described:

I stay on point. I never let my guard down. Anywhere you go. Have to stay alert at all times. Doesn’t matter where you go, anybody can just go at you for real, and just take your life for real. . . . I’m just like, “Adam, you have to stay on point cause anything could happen, for real.” I don’t want to lose my life. I want to live, you know.

The desire to live expressed by Adam complicates a predominant narrative of fatalism constructed about young Black men in urban contexts. In full view of his vulnerability to the unpredictable gun violence in his Baltimore neighborhood, Adam’s resilient hope persists. As family professionals, are we poised to partner with Adam in his efforts to heal and live?

Implications for Family Professionals

How the Family Science discipline responds to Patrisse Kahn-Cullors’s (2018) question of who gets to be a victim will critically determine the influence of the profession on understanding, preventing, and healing gun violence in the United States. Research with Black families affected by homicide suggests that losing loved ones to violence is associated with increased risk for PTSD (Smith & Patton, 2016), substance abuse (Zinzow, Rheingold, Hawkins, Saunders, & Kilpatrick, 2009), social stigma (Hertz, Prothrow-Stith, & Chery, 2005), and complex bereavement (Kaplow et al., 2018). If our conceptualizations of gun violence victims are inclusive of Black males, then we should apply our interdisciplinary training as family professionals to develop innovative, culturally relevant, community-based grief interventions to support Black families affected by homicide. If our preparation as family professionals values a strong foundation in sociocultural contexts (Sharpe, 2015), then our research should work to eliminate racial disparities in gun violence victimization as well as the root causes (e.g., dehumanization, racism, residential segregation, unequal job and employment structures, poverty, educational inequities) that perpetuate them and complicate healing for Black males and families. If we truly embrace the full humanity of Black males, we should leverage our expertise in research and policy to advocate alongside Black communities for resources, policies, practices, and effective prevention strategies that reach those most vulnerable to gun violence victimization in the United States: Black boys and men.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Cox, J. W., Rich, S., Chiu, A., Muyskens, J., & Ulmanu, M. (2018, July 30). More than 215,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine. Washington Post. Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/local/school-shootings-database/?utm_term=.bfe36aae483e

Doka, K. J., & Martin, T. (1998). Masculine responses to loss: Clinical implications. Journal of Family Studies, 4(2), 143–152.

Embrick, D. G. (2015). Two nations, revisited: The lynching of Black and Brown bodies, police brutality, and police control in “post-racial” Amerikkka. Critical Sociology, 41(6), 835–843.

Federal Bureau of Investigation, Counterterrorism Division. (2017, August). Black identity extremists likely motivated to target law enforcement officers. Washington, DC: Author.

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Kaplow, J. B., Layne, C. M., Oosterhoff, B., Goldenthal, H., Howell K., H., WamserNanney, R., . . . Pynoos, R. (2018). Validation of the persistent complex bereavement disorder (PCBD) checklist: A developmentally informed assessment tool for bereaved youth. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 31(2), 244–254. doi:10.1002/jts.22277

Khan-Cullors, P. (2018, February). Benefit of being bold. Panel discussion hosted by Huffington Post Black Voices, New York, NY.

Murphy, S. L., Xu, J. Q., Kochanek, K. D., Curtin, S. C., & Arias, E. (2017). Deaths: Final data for 2015. National Vital Statistics Reports, 66(6). Retrieved from www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr66/nvsr66_06.pdf

Sharpe, T. (2015). Understanding the sociocultural context of coping for African American family members of homicide victims: A conceptual model. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 16(1), 48–59. doi:10.1177/1524838013515760

Smith, J. R. (2015). Unequal burdens of loss: Examining the frequency and timing of homicide deaths experienced by young black men across the life course. American Journal of Public Health, 105(S3), S483–S490. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2014.302535

Smith, J. R. (2017). A trauma-informed approach to affirming the humanity of African American boys and supporting health transitions to manhood. In L. M. Burton, D. Burton, S. M. McHale, V. King, & J. Van Hook (Eds.), Boys and men in African American families (pp. 85 – 92). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Smith, J. R., & Patton, D. U. (2016). Posttraumatic stress symptoms in context: Examining trauma responses to violent exposure and homicide death among Black males in urban neighborhoods. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 86(2), 212–223. doi:10.1037/ort0000101

Zinzow, H. M., Rheingold, A. A., Hawkins, A. O., Saunders, B. E., & Kilpatrick, D. G. (2009). Losing a loved one to homicide: Prevalence and mental health correlates in a national sample of young adults. Journal of Trauma and Stress, 22(1), 20–27.