Published on Psychology Today
A few weeks ago, an 18-year-old gunman shot and killed 19 children and 2 teachers in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. This event happened ten years after another gunman killed 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. And these are just the elementary school shootings that have gotten a lot of press. According to NPR, there have been 27 school shootings in the United States just this year. So, parents are once again beside themselves about how to keep their children safe, particularly in the place where they should be safest—their schools. Unfortunately, exposure to gun violence affects children in many ways that go beyond the direct impact of mass shootings in schools.
First, gun violence impacts children through their parents. Indeed, mothers who are exposed to gun violence experience more mental health problems like depression when compared to mothers who aren’t exposed (Leibbrand, Rivara, & Rowhani-Rahbar, 2021). Importantly, mental health problems in parents are a strong predictor of mental health problems in children, so the stress of violence exposure on the parent can have indirect effects on the child. In fact, very recent work has shown that mothers who are exposed to violence while pregnant have fetuses with weaker brain connectivity when compared to pregnant mothers who aren’t exposed to violence (Brady et al., 2022), suggesting that the impact of violence on children begins even before they’re born.
Second, children who have direct exposure to gun violence experience more mental health issues than other children, including psychological distress, depression, and suicidal ideation (Smith et al., 2020) and anxiety (Shulman et al., 2021). They also experience more symptoms of trauma and posttraumatic stress. Perhaps most importantly, children exposed to gun violence are more violent themselves, and more likely to carry guns (e.g., Slovak & Singer, 2001).
But the problem of gun violence isn’t common everywhere in the world. In fact, gun violence is much more common in the United States than in any other country. Indeed, reports have shown that 87% of all children killed by firearms in high-income countries are from the US (Tomlinson et al., 2022). This is likely due to do the fact that the number of civilians that own guns in the US far exceeds any other country. And even though Americans seem to be at odds about most political issues these days, a 2019 Suffolk University and USA Today poll showed that 90% of registered voters support background checks for gun purchases. The number is the same among gun and non-gun owners. Further, the majority of Americans—about 60% according to a 2022 poll by Politico—think that gun laws should be stricter.
However, despite some agreement about requiring background checks and stricter gun laws, Americans are at odds about whether they think restricting gun purchases would actually help stop gun violence, with only about half of Americans according to Pew Research claiming that stricter gun laws would be helpful in curbing the problem. The science of gun violence is a lot less split. According to a new report that examined the role of firearm legislation in reducing the number of gun related homicides and suicides across the 50 states, gun control policies do indeed prevent gun related deaths. In other words, states with more gun laws and gun restrictions have fewer gun related homicides and suicides when compared to states that have fewer laws (Gunn et al., 2021). A similar study found that higher gun ownership and more lenient gun laws were associated with more gun related deaths in children (Tomlinson et al., 2022). So, the research is quite clear: stricter gun laws are effective in eliminating gun violence.
Unfortunately, legislators don’t always heed the science. For example, Congress recently let a 1994 law banning assault weapons and large-capacity magazines (LCMs) lapse, and now only a handful of states ban or limit the sale of assault weapons. Further, while the Bipartisan Background Checks Act which would require universal background checks for gun purchases passed in the House in 2021, it has been sitting on the Senate floor without a vote for over a year.
So, the bad news is that gun violence has negative consequences for children and families, even without the tragedy of mass shootings at elementary schools. The good news is that this is a problem with a solution; legislators just need to enact it.
For more information on how to reduce school shootings: https://theconversation.com/5-ways-to-reduce-school-shootings-183965
Photo by Creative Commons/Ggreidcao/sandbox
Brady, R. G., Rogers, C. E., Prochaska, T., Kaplan, S., Lean, R. E., Smyser, T. A., ... & Smyser, C. D. (2022). The Effects of Prenatal Exposure to Neighborhood Crime on Neonatal Functional Connectivity. Biological Psychiatry.
Gunn, J. F., Boxer, P., Andrews, T., Ostermann, M., Bonne, S. L., Gusmano, M., ... & Hohl, B. (2021). The impact of firearm legislation on firearm deaths, 1991–2017. Journal of Public Health.
Leibbrand, C., Rivara, F., & Rowhani-Rahbar, A. (2021). Gun violence exposure and experiences of depression among mothers. Prevention science, 22(4), 523-533.
Pew Research Poll: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/09/13/key-facts-about-americans-and-guns/
Politico Poll: https://www.politico.com/f/?id=00000180-f932-d853-abc4-fbf26d6b0000
Slovak, K., & Singer, M. (2001). Gun violence exposure and trauma among rural youth. Violence and Victims, 16(4), 389-400.
Shulman, E. P., Beardslee, J., Fine, A., Frick, P. J., Steinberg, L., & Cauffman, E. (2021). Exposure to gun violence: associations with anxiety, depressive symptoms, and aggression among male juvenile offenders. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 50(3), 353-366.
Smith, M. E., Sharpe, T. L., Richardson, J., Pahwa, R., Smith, D., & DeVylder, J. (2020). The impact of exposure to gun violence fatality on mental health outcomes in four urban US settings. Social Science & Medicine, 246, 112587.
Suffolk University and USA Today Poll: https://www.suffolk.edu/news-features/news/2019/09/09/12/58/suffolk-university-usa-today-poll-guns-sept-2019
Tomlinson, A., Paul, M., Zhang, R., Liu, B., & Coakley, B. A. (2022). Firearm-related juvenile death rates correlate with gun ownership rates, measures of guns in circulation and leniency of existing firearm laws among US states.