‘Ricochet: An American Trauma’ explores unseen impacts of gun violence

Premiering Wednesday night on PBS, a special report from NewsHour explores the often unseen impacts of gun violence. It delves into the trauma from mass shootings, community violence and firearm suicides. The documentary is produced by Sam Lane and Sam Weber. William Brangham hosts and joined Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Premiering tonight on PBS is a special report from our own "NewsHour" team that explores the often unseen impact of gun violence. It delves into the trauma from mass shootings, community violence, and suicides.

    The report is produced by Sam Lane and Sam Weber and hosted by William Brangham, who's back to tell us more about it.

    So, William, this is a very powerful program that you and your team have put together. When you started out, what was it that you wanted to convey?

  • William Brangham:

    We all know the statistics about gun violence. It's hundreds of people being shot every single day, tens of thousands of people dying every year.

    And those numbers are appalling, but they're also numbing, to some extent. And we always have these debates about health — of mental health care or gun control, but we rarely talk honestly about the long-term real trauma that all of that violence does to people.

    And all of the researchers we talked to said that gun violence changes people in fundamental ways. And because this violence is escalating, that trauma is escalating.

    This is Jennifer Carlson. She's a sociologist at the University of Arizona.

    Jennifer Carlson, University of Arizona: At some point in our lives, almost every single American is going to know someone who has been impacted by gun violence.

    So that right there should have us all sit back and say this is not something that happens out of sight, out of mind. This is not something that only happens when the headlines grab us. This is something that is threaded through society and that touches all of us, if we're willing to hear it and willing to acknowledge it and willing to witness it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I think, as people will see, this is a film where you talk to people who've been directly impacted by this. How did you decide — I mean, given how widespread gun violence is, how did you decide who to speak with?

  • William Brangham:

    We wanted to convey three ways in which people die by guns in this country, suicides, which is the leading cause of gun deaths in America, the seemingly everyday shootings and homicides that happened in cities all over this country, and then mass shootings.

    And so we start the film with a woman named Ryane Nickens here in southeast Washington, D.C. She has lost three different members of her family to gun violence. And we know gun violence is not spread equally in this country — blacks are 12 times more likely to die in a gun homicide than whites are — and that just being exposed to violence in your community can be a traumatic.

    So, Ryane now runs a center in Washington for kids who have experienced similar trauma. But she told us that, back then, when this violence happened to her, it almost broke her. This is her describing what happened after her sister Tracy was killed by a neighbor.

  • Ryane Nickens, President, The TraRon Center:

    It's like, OK, who protects me at this point? Because my sister Tracy was my protector. That sense of protection left for a long time when she died.

    So, 15-year-old me, 22 days after my family was attacked and my sister was killed, on Christmas Day, drank a bottle — a whole bottle of NyQuil, some pills prescribed to my mother, I don't know what they were, and laid and prepared myself for my death, because I did not believe life was worth living anymore, that that bullet, that gun took everything from me.

    And so, when I woke up, I was pissed. I was pissed at God. I was pissed at everybody, because it's like, if pain is all I'm going to be dealt, I simply just don't want to be here. I don't want to be here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is such a tragic story. And, thankfully, she survived the suicide attempt.

    But we know, when people try with a gun, it's a very different ending.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    As I mentioned, suicide is the leading cause of gun deaths in America. And, as researchers kept telling us, this is incredibly important. It's not that the gun causes someone to try to take their life. It's that, if you are experiencing a temporary mental crisis — and almost all suicidal episodes are temporary. It goes away.

    But if you have access to a gun, it is very likely that, when you try to take your life, you will die and you will not have a chance to get through that episode and try to get better.

    So we spent some time in Wyoming with a man named Danno Hedrick. He lost his brother David to a gun suicide years ago. And he's still are wrestling with all these what-ifs about what he could have done differently and how he might have done something to save his brother's life.

    This is Dan talking about his own son Jed (ph), who now lives in the house where David took his life.

    Danno Hedrick, Brother of Suicide Victim: Whenever Jed gets married and has kids, and I go over there for a barbecue, that spot in the yard is still going to be there.

    And no matter how flat he has it, I will see that it's had a little divot there that it had before David took his life, and I saw him laying in that spot.

    You settle into this sorrow, and it's — I think I'm at that point. He comes up every once in a while. And it's kind of like, hey, dude, how you doing? You screwed up. I still love you, kind of.

  • William Brangham:

    In addition to Dan Hedrick and Ryane Nickens, we also talked with a really remarkable couple, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips.

    They lost their daughter Jessi 10 years ago in that terrible mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. And they have turned that trauma and the grief and all of the sort of emotional exhaustion that they have gone through. Now, every time there was a mass shooting in this country, they get in their R.V., and they drive to that site to counsel other parents and family members, and try to pass on some of the hard-earned wisdom that they have earned.

    And so they're also in this documentary tonight.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That is just so hard to even think about and to think that they take it that next step to try to reach out to others who are going through the same thing.

    And so hard for all of you to have to spend a lot of time thinking about this and talking to these people. We're so grateful. Thank you, William.

  • William Brangham:

    Thank you so much, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we want to remind you that this will air tonight. It's "Ricochet." It will air at 10:00 p.m. Eastern on most PBS stations. You can also watch it online at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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