How the trauma of mass shootings fundamentally change American communities

This week's mass shootings in California, plus two others in just eight days, left 25 people dead and wounded 15 others. They also left many people to cope with the trauma of these attacks. Jennifer Carlson is studying the impact and aftermath of gun violence for the National Science Foundation. She joined Geoff Bennett to discuss how these shootings fundamentally change communities.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Over the course of eight days, mass shootings in California have killed at least two dozen people. They have also left at least 15 other people injured and many residents coping with the trauma of these attacks.

    We're going to spend some time talking now about the wider toll of gun violence on Americans.

    For that, I'm joined by Jennifer Carlson, associate professor of sociology at the University of Arizona. She's currently studying the impact and the aftermath of gun violence for the National Science Foundation.

    Thanks for being with us.

    There have been 40 mass shootings in this country since the start of the year. Help us understand the collective impact on those communities and the nation as a whole.

    Jennifer Carlson, University of Arizona: Yes, thank you so much for having me to have this very important conversation.

    One of the ways that we often talk about gun violence in this country is through the numbers, as you just did, the number of mass shootings, the number of people who have been killed, the number of people who have been shot.

    And one of the — I mean, those numbers are staggering, but they actually really just scratched the surface in terms of the impact of gun violence on communities, families, friendship circles, the workplace.

    And so this idea of gun trauma is really helpful in understanding the notion that gun violence is never just an isolated incident. It has ramifications throughout families, friends, communities. And so most certainly in the case of mass shootings, these are events that are experienced by a community like what happened for lunar new year for — in Monterey Park.

    We hear the words Parkland, Uvalde, Highland Park, Buffalo, and now Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, and that becomes part of the identity of what that place is. And this is something that is — then unfolds for individuals within that community. There's individual coping, the trauma of — from PTSD, and there's many ways that survivors are impacted.

    So, you actually have community-level dynamics of hopelessness, withdrawal, depending on how communities come together or fall apart, or actually sometimes both at the same time, in the aftermath of these kinds of events.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    When we talk about gun violence, it's often easy to lose sight of the fact that most shooting victims survive. What have you learned about how acts of gun violence shape the lives of survivors?

  • Jennifer Carlson:

    Yes, so that's something that's really important to really emphasize, is that, even though the numbers, in terms of the people who are killed by guns, are just unimaginably large in the United States, that barely — that barely gets us thinking at the scale of the people who are impacted, whether they're shot and survived, whether they are present at a mass shooting, but aren't shot, whether they are impacted by having a loved one killed by gun violence.

    And so even kids who are — who grow up in neighborhoods where hearing gun violence and knowing gun violence is happening in their neighborhood is part of their awareness growing up, we see that they're impacted in terms of sort of the PTSD symptoms of anxiety, sleeplessness, depression, higher rates of suicidality, disengagement at school, difficulties with reading and math, lower graduation rates.

    We see even beyond that health disparities, physical health disparities, later on in life with people who are exposed to gun violence or survive gun violence.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    If a tragedy like a mass shooting befalls a community, what resources do they need to provide? What are the best practices?

  • Jennifer Carlson:

    So, mass shootings tend to really capture the public attention, capture public sympathy.

    Donations for — to support victims, resources involving therapy tend to come out in the aftermath of a mass shooting, and to support victims and survivors. And I think it's important to recognize that that is very unusual, in terms of the community and sort of broader even national support that gun violence victims often receive.

    Oftentimes, gun violence victims do not have their stories — their stories heard. They do not experience this outpour of — outpouring of sympathy and support.

    I think that some of the — some of this is being worked out by organizations like Youth ALIVE! in Oakland, like Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, which is a national organization, that have looked at providing wraparound trauma services that recognize that, when gun violence impacts a person, it impacts the community, it impacts the multiple — multiple dimensions of their lives.

    So, therapy is part of that, but so is support for housing. So is support for employment, if they can work, if they need space to process their grief and their trauma. And so really recognizing that, this is not just even in terms of therapy, that individual, but the family, the friends, that this is actually much more than just, again, an instance of violence that people — quote, unquote — "get over."

    That's just absolutely not how this — that's not how people experience gun violence, even though, in the media and sort of public discourse, given the attention span even for tragedies like what happened in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, the public attention span is woefully short.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Jennifer Carlson is associate professor of sociology at the University of Arizona.

    Thanks for your time.

  • Jennifer Carlson:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And our "NewsHour" team has produced a special report hosted by William Brangham on the wider, often unseen effects of gun violence in America.

  • Watch “Ricochet:

    An American Trauma" online at, or check your local listings.

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