When we talk about the gun violence epidemic, the focus is usually on the number of persons killed or injured. But this doesn’t come close to describing the massive scope of this crisis. We ignore the ripples of grief and trauma that wash over a community and leave invisible wounds, especially devastating to children.
Growing up in a violent neighborhood not only erodes any sense of safety or security, it alters your brain chemistry. Scientists have documented how violence-based trauma and fear for one’s safety inject damaging amounts of the hormone cortisol into the brain. This is particularly damaging to the growing brains of children, and it makes it hard for them to sleep, learn and process emotions. It dramatically impacts brain development, making these young people more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.
A study published in JAMA Pediatrics looked at pediatric emergency department admissions in Philadelphia between 2014 and 2018. After adjusting for all variables, it found that kids living within four to six blocks of where a shooting took place were more likely than others to use an ED for mental health symptoms in the two months after the shooting. Unsurprisingly, it was even more likely if they had been exposed to multiple shootings or lived closer to the scene.
Communities plagued by daily violence undoubtedly bear the worst of it, but no American is immune to the trauma that guns inflict. A majority of teens worry their school could be next, and more than three-quarters of adults feel stressed about the possibility of a mass shooting. Movie theaters, malls, parades, office buildings, places of worship—wherever we go, most of us can’t shake the anxious feeling of “what if.”
There is just no doubt that a conversation about gun violence has to include a conversation about mental health. I was glad that the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, of which I was the lead sponsor, provides $13 billion to expand school-based mental health programs, train more providers, and improve access to mental health services for everyone.
But an investment in mental health won’t end the gun violence epidemic. It’s treating the symptoms, not the cause.
America faces both a mental health and gun violence crisis, but only one of them fuels the other. And contrary to the gun lobby’s talking points, it’s the guns fueling our mental health crisis—not the other way around. In fact, people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators.
We should continue investing in mental health programs that help survivors, families and communities learn to cope, but the most meaningful action we can take is to build upon the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and take steps to ensure gun violence impacts fewer people. Passing universal background checks and banning assault weapons are proven ways to save lives and keep guns out of the wrong hands.
When tragedy strikes, that community is forever changed, and the very least we can do is help them pick up the pieces. But that will never be enough. Every child deserves to grow up free from the fear of gun violence. And that future is only possible with deliberate action from Congress.