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The mental health impacts of shootings have lasting impacts on those affected; community

The ripple effects of gun violence, include the increase of toxic stress on children, which changes the trajectory of development in the brain.

A child walks past a memorial at the scene of the shooting at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York.
A child walks past a memorial at the scene of the shooting at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York.
REUTERS/Lindsay DeDario

Across the Twin Cities and nationally, gun violence is increasing. The ranges of violence, from mass shootings to gang-related shootings, heavily affect people of color, specifically Black people in lower-income neighborhoods that have been historically neglected. 

Gun violence has an astounding impact on the people who experience it and the collective community as a whole. With the increasing number of shootings, most recently, the Robb Elementary School shooting in Texas, the consequences are becoming increasingly apparent.

Shootings on the rise

In U.S. cities overall, murders increased by 33 percent in 2020, and gun homicides increased by 37 percent compared to 2019. In Minneapolis, the number of murders almost doubled from 2019 to 2020. In St. Paul, the number of firearm discharges increased two-fold from 2019 to 2020. 

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In February, three people were killed within blocks of each other in the North Minneapolis neighborhood of Willard-Hay. So far in Minneapolis, this year there have been more than 3,600 reports of shots fired. 

According to Minneapolis police – in 2019, 33 kids were shot in Minneapolis, and six of them were killed. In 2020, that number nearly doubled as 60 kids were shot. And in 2021, the total rose again, with 66 kids shot.

Disproportionate impact on communities of color

Nearly 90% of the gunfire reports since 2020 came from five neighborhood clusters: Near North, Camden, Powderhorn, Phillips and Central. The average makeup of those five neighborhoods is more than 50 percent people of color, according to data from Minnesota Compass. 

Across the U.S, Black people are disproportionately impacted by gun violence. Black people have the highest rate of nonfatal gun injuries, with a rate more than 10 times higher than white people. The Latinx rate of nonfatal gun injuries is double that of white people, according to Everytown.

Short-term effects of gun violence bleed into a person’s future behaviors and life outcomes, increasing an individual’s toxic stress, according to Jennifer Garrido Santos, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Change Inc. Toxic stress is defined as repeated exposure to stressful and adverse experiences over a long period of time without the buffering protection of a supportive adult relationship.

“The more toxic stress a child has, especially with the indirect or direct exposure to violence, the less capacity they have to cope with challenges in their life. And that impacts all kinds of things when it comes to brain development and ability to regulate their emotions and behavior, and to learn to not be in fight or flight when they get to school, so they can sit in their chair and pay attention,” Garrido Santos said. 

Having experienced gun violence, people can be on alert at all times, according to Corey Byrd, the director of youth and family engagement at Change, Inc.

“It’s like a car accident. Once you get in a car accident and you experienced the car accident, it’s kind of going to be difficult for you to get in the car again. You’re always going to be jumpy. You’re always going to be paying attention to stuff; you’re always gonna be paying attention to your peripheral, you’ll be paying attention to the speed, you’ll be paying attention to who’s driving,” Byrd said.

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Research shows that high levels of adverse childhood experiences are linked to significant health struggles, like asthma, diabetes, obesity, depression and anxiety, according to this 2019 study. 

The full toll on communities

Some want to include gun violence as one of the many adverse childhood experiences. Molly Leutz, the Minnesota chapter lead for Moms Demand Action, believes the toll of gun violence is larger than most people know. 

“To best address our gun virus crisis, we just need to recognize that full toll. It isn’t just one person who got shot. It’s that community trauma; it’s that ripple effect, the lingering trauma that our kids are taking to schools,” Leutz said. 

The ripple effects of gun violence, include the increase of toxic stress on children, which changes the trajectory of development in the brain and reduces the capacity for things like emotional regulation, ability to build relationships and positive social connections around you, according to Garrido Santos.

For Byrd, becoming involved with Change Inc. was a path to move away from the toxic stress he experienced growing up. As a kid, he got caught up in gang and drug activity but found a path away from it when he got hired at Change Inc. 

Change Inc. now has a therapeutic component in 28 schools and a specific program, Crossroads, in 13 of them. Byrd manages multiple programs, including Crossroads, which helps students succeed at new schools after being expelled and connects students with community cultural specialists and therapists.

A component of the organization’s work is also within households, offering family therapy and other resources to help address the roots of the issues families and students are having.

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Underlying issues

Healthcare, education and housing inequities, among other things, drive the disproportionate impact of gun violence. 

“We know that lack of access to opportunities is a key driver of gun violence,” Leutz said. 

That lack of access includes things like policy decisions and underinvestments that have led to Black communities being disproportionately impacted by gun violence” Leutz said.

The effects of poverty on a child’s mental health are immeasurable, Byrd said. 

“Just imagine … you got kids and you got to turn to them and tell them once again, ‘no, you can’t eat today, or no, ‘we don’t (have) lights, gas or water today, or no, you gotta go stay at your auntie’s house,’’ he said. “And then they gotta get up from that trauma and go to school and then fake it to make it.”

A child’s outcomes are reliant on the environment, Byrd said. If basic needs, like housing, food, safety and emotional wellbeing, are met, then the outcomes will increase. 

But if those needs aren’t met, for example, some kids may feel responsible for providing for their family financially. That stress can lead to decisions that can impact their lives for years down the road. 

“What about the street wizard kid that hears all the sad (things) that comes out of his mom and dad’s mouth. And they say, ‘you know what? (screw) that. I’m going to go out there. I know I can jack a car. I can steal a car and get $20,000 to help my mom,’” Byrd said. “That’s what they’re thinking. They’re not thinking about what trouble they probably may cause to somebody; they’re thinking about how do I get myself out of the trouble that we’re in?”

Byrd says this type of thinking could be prevented by addressing those root causes, but also if kids have someone to listen to what’s on their minds and ask questions. 

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“Like you woke up today, what was on your mind, why do you feel like you want to come to school and shoot up everybody?” he said. “What’s happening in your life that makes you feel like you have to protect yourself to put a gun in your backpack?”

Efforts to address gun violence

Moms Demand Action recognizes society must address the factors that lead to gun violence, like poverty and the rules and regulations surrounding gun ownership. The group has focused its efforts on creating legislation to tighten gun ownership laws. First established after the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, it originally aimed to reduce mass shootings. Since, it’s shifted some focus also to address all types of gun violence.

“A lot of attention at the beginning was school shootings and a lot of the high profile school shootings,” Leutz said. “Those kinds of shootings, school shootings, mass shootings, really sort of shock people into thinking about gun violence. But there’s that everyday toll where over a hundred Americans are killed every single day by gun violence.”