American Epidemic: From First Response to Research, Social Workers Tackle Gun Violence

continental United States covered in bullets

By Courteney Stuart

When Brenda Mitchell’s 31-year-old son Kenneth was gunned down outside an Illinois bar in 2005, she took on the role of raising his three young children amid her own devastation.

“I truly learned firsthand the impact on families as well as communities of gun violence victims. It does not stop with the date of impact,” says Mitchell, who suffered a series of physical ailments induced by grief in the years after her loss.

“I think in my community at that time, we did not really have a full grasp of mental health treatment or trauma-informed treatment,” she says. “And so I did my best at that point to try to figure out how to heal. ‘Cause there was nothing there that said, ‘This is what you do, and this is how you do it, and you can get through it.’”

Mitchell, an ordained minister, co-leader for Moms Demand Action in Illinois, and senior fellow with the Everytown Survivor Network, credits a social worker with helping her process the complicated grief and trauma that surged 12 years after Kenneth’s death, as his sons reached milestones like high school graduation without their father present.

“She was the one that said healing is possible, but you have to do the work,” Mitchell said. “And she has been phenomenal in this process of grief and leading people and navigating them back to some level of normalcy.”

Mitchell is among the millions of Americans who have been directly impacted by gun violence, and that number is climbing rapidly.

“Every day in this country, roughly 110 people are killed with a gun and about double as many are injured. So that is a crisis. It’s hard to put it any other way,” says Sarah Burd-Sharps, senior director of research at Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund.

She notes that guns are the number one killer of children and teenagers, and that while mass shootings receive the greatest media attention, far more people are killed in other types of homicide. Nearly six in 10 gun deaths are by suicide, and the rate of gun deaths in the U.S. is 26 times greater than in other high-income countries.

“I think it’s hard to walk away from those statistics and feel anything other than that it really is a crisis,” says Burd-Sharps. “And I think one of the things that we’ve been trying to really make people think about is that those who are directly impacted by a bullet or direct family members of somebody who was shot or injured, certainly their lives are forever changed, but that the ripple effects go much more wide than that.”

As this ubiquitous gun violence erupts on American streets and in schools, churches and homes, social workers are among the first responders and are still there, years later, supporting victims’ family members and communities. They’re also conducting research on the subject, lobbying Congress, and promoting education on safe gun storage and responsible use of firearms.

Racing to the Scene

gun safe locker

On May 24, 2022, the phone rang in Will Francis’ Austin, Texas, office with news of a school shooting about two hours south in the small community of Uvalde. Nineteen children and two adults had been slaughtered inside Robb Elementary School by an 18-year-old Uvalde high school student armed with a legally purchased AR-15. Seventeen others had been injured in the massacre that took place in the shooter’s previous fourth-grade classroom.

The executive director of the Texas and Louisiana branches of NASW, Francis says the flood of phone calls came from social workers around the country offering their support.

“I gathered a list of people who wanted to volunteer,” Francis said. “I sort of looked at what their background was. Were they trauma-informed? Did they speak Spanish? Did they have experience working with violence? … “And then we essentially fed that over to the local mental health authority and allowed them to then connect with volunteers.”

Social workers lead the response after a school shooting, says Terriyln Rivers-Cannon, president of the School Social Work Association of America. “We’re going to a crisis team mode. The social worker is there talking with administration because, of course, this is something that you have to share with parents and guardians. How safe are our children within this environment? And understanding and knowing that they may have questions.”

Social workers disseminate information about deaths and injuries, help determine security needs and stay in constant contact with school administration.

“All of these individuals are a part of the team, but we are leading and guiding that information as to breaking up in small groups, ensuring that administration is safe and secure, that they are OK, because of course we are counting on them, especially if this is not our school that we serve,” she says. “We have to see the climate and dynamics that are going on within that building as well, and pull in these entities to ensure that we're delivering the services that are needed for this community when we come in there.”

Media attention to mass shootings generates a spike in resources in the immediate aftermath, but Francis says social workers face an ongoing challenge when the television cameras turn to another tragedy.

“How do you ensure that the community has social work services six months from now when everyone assumes that, well, they’re all back, or we’re all focused over here,” says Francis, noting that an incident like Uvalde creates trauma far beyond the community.

“I have a couple of kids in public school and both of them came back afterwards and asked me directly, am I safe? And that was happening across the country. So I think the ripples are massive in how it really impacts kids; it impacts parents; it impacts anyone who cares about safety,” he says. “Again, it just creates a huge amount of uncertainty and it throws people off. And that reverberates in people wanting change.”

Prevention Efforts

barbed wire tribute to victims of gun violence

Everytown’s Burd-Sharps says the data is clear when it comes to gun violence, whether it’s a homicide, suicide or accident.

“The simple answer is that it is an access-to-gun issue,” she says, “but the populations that are disproportionately impacted by each of these different types do vary. And it's important to understand them when you're thinking about what the solutions are.”

According to data compiled by Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Black Americans die from gun violence at nearly two and half times the rate of white Americans, and the numbers are rising. Firearm homicides of Black Americans rose 61 percent from 2018 to 2021 and firearm suicide, unintentional shooting, and police shooting deaths also increased.

Mass shootings account for less than 1% of the homicides in the U.S. each year, yet receive wall-to-wall media attention. Burd-Sharps says that’s because “they are uniquely focusing and uniquely traumatizing incidents that actually are also kind of a catalyst sometimes for action.”

Brenda Mitchell says that’s what happened in Illinois after a mass shooting in Highland Park on July 4, 2022, when seven people were shot and killed and 48 others wounded. In the wake of that incident, the state passed the Protect Illinois Communities Act banning the sale of AR-15s and other types of assault weapons.

“Highland Park was almost kind of like a Mayberry-type situation, and it changed their everyday life,” Mitchell says, adding that communities of color live with the trauma of gun violence every day but don’t receive extensive media coverage. Despite that disparity, she sees positive in the attention focused on that mass shooting.

“It was because of that impact on Highland Park that we were able to see an assault weapons ban and people to rally around that,” she says.

Republican opposition to gun-control laws has made passing gun-control legislation at the state and federal levels challenging, if not impossible in many cases. Arkansas-based social worker Johanna Thomas says new laws aren’t the only path to greater safety.

“It’s making sure that responsible gun owners know to store their guns securely,” she says.

In addition to being a social worker, Thomas is a university professor and parent. She’s also a gun owner and volunteer with the Be Smart campaign who got involved in the gun-safety issue about five years ago after her state legalized guns on college campuses.

“We talked a lot about what secure firearms storage would look like on a college campus and why guns on college campuses was not a good idea,” she says.

As a social worker, she also connected how mental health issues, access to firearms, and the suicide risk that comes from unsecured weapons are part of the same picture. Social workers, she realized, have access to nearly every American in the country, regardless of race or political affiliation. Much of the carnage from guns could be prevented by their safe storage.

“Seventy-eight percent of school shooters got their gun from their own home or the home of a friend,” Thomas says. “More than 300 children are shot each year just because of unsecured firearms.”

Social workers themselves often haven’t realized the importance of asking clients about gun safety, she says, particularly questioning clients who have children at home.

“The onus of gun safety is always on the adult,” she says. “And so I think as social workers, just educating adults on how to keep firearms secure is our No.1 job.”

Despite living in a conservative state, Thomas says she’s never had trouble bringing the subject up. “I’m always willing to meet people where they are in their own journey as a firearm owner. And so I think that that is always helpful in understanding that you’re not going to change everyone's mind about it, but you can put that seed in there and we can talk about what secure storage looks like.”

While the gold standard for secure storage entails an unloaded and a locked firearm with the ammunition stored separately, Thomas says she’s comfortable using a harm-reduction model.

“If they’re not willing to go that far, are they at least willing to put it in a fingerprint safe? Are they willing to have it unloaded in a fingerprint safe?” she asks.

New Research and the Future

As school shootings have continued unabated over the nearly three decades since the Columbine, Colo., high school massacre, states and organizations across the country have invested heavily in efforts to identify the causes and implement strategies to prevent them.

“I think many of us feel like the shootings have defined almost all of our interventions,” says Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. “So originally people said, ‘Oh, if we take care of bullying in schools, there won’t be any school shooters because they were all bullied,’ or ‘if we took care of mental health issues.’ But these are really broad topics.”

Astor and a team of researchers recently published the findings of their research into such interventions in the state of California over the past two decades.

“To our surprise, the numbers showed that there was a dramatic reduction, a huge, huge reduction in day-to-day victimization of kids in California over this 20-year period,” he says of the peer-reviewed study results, published earlier this year in the World Journal of Pediatrics. “We’re talking about 50%, 70%, even higher reductions from where it was when we just started implementing all these interventions as social workers.”

The study found more than 50% reduction even in severe behaviors, including bringing a gun to school and threatening or injuring someone with a knife or other weapon.

“That’s an important story to get out there,” Astor says. “What social workers are doing actually matters to kids in their day-to-day lives.”

Despite this significant improvement in overall school safety for students of all races and socioeconomic levels, the school shooting phenomenon has continued.

“So this raises the dilemma,” says Astor, who has published extensively on the subject of school safety and testified before Congress. “On one hand, the country thinks everything is going horrible with the shootings, and I agree with that. I’m afraid of my own grandkids going to school, and (was concerned for) my kids when they went to school in the last 20 years.”

The study results have led Astor to see school shooters as more akin to terrorists seeking infamy rather than as depressed students driven to murder-suicide by bullying.

“They’re actually using the same societal mechanism,” he says. “So they don’t want to commit suicide, because if they do … they disappear,” he says.

He believes the media can play a role in reducing the phenomenon by keeping the focus of coverage in the immediate aftermath on the victims.

“If you don’t mention the name of the shooters or the terrorists, if you don’t put out their manifestos in their faces, if you don’t dwell forever on their motivations and their reasons, if you actually downplay kind of making them heroes or icons in the memory of other people, we see really big reductions in cluster suicides when that happens. And we see really large reductions in terrorist events when that happens. The reward structure disappears,” says Astor, praising media outlets including CNN for increasingly adhering to this type of coverage.

As for reducing gun violence of all types, he points to firearm research data from Johns Hopkins University that suggests red-flag laws, background checks and licensing could have the greatest impact at reducing gun violence.

“Those cities and states and areas that have done that have seen really massive reductions in shootings,” he says. There is broad agreement between Republican and Democratic voters on these issues, and Astor says voters in both parties must pressure their elected officials to see it as a voting issue.

Beyond changing media coverage of mass shootings and passing new gun-safety laws, Astor sees promise in the immediate role social workers play in reducing gun violence.

“What we’re good at is creating organizational alliances that are neither left or right, but are about gun education,” he says. “No banning, just align on harm-reduction strategies that could save millions and millions of lives over a period of time in the United States.”

Courteney Stuart is a veteran media professional based in the Charlottesville, Va., area.

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