Adults Exposed to Gun Violence Suffer Damage to ‘Socio-Emotional’ Health’

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Californians who have been exposed to gun violence suffer long-lasting detrimental effects on their socio-emotional health, according to a new study from the University of California Davis Violence Prevention Research Program (VPRP).

Gun violence is a leading cause of injury and death in the United States, and has increasingly been considered a public health epidemic. Research on how it impacts human behavior―including decisions about whether to own a gun―can therefore be a useful tool for policymakers, the study said.

To conduct the study, researchers looked at data from the 2018 California Safety and Wellbeing Survey (CSaWS), a statewide, web-based survey designed by the UC Davis VPRP researchers.

The survey involved 2,558 people who were asked about their experience with firearm violence.

The study, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, found that half of the respondents exposed to gun violence reported that the event was “severely” distressing and resulted in significant problems with family members, social networks, their job or school, or both.

“Our study highlights the pervasive socio-emotional impacts of violence exposure,” saidAmanda Aubel, first author on the study and a research data analyst at VPRP.

“It points to the urgent need to address not only the physical but also the psychological consequences of violence exposure and the unique, exacerbating influence of firearms.”

Rates of Violence Exposure 

According to the VPRP researchers, 4 percent of survey responders — extrapolated to an estimated 1.2 million California adults — would have experienced violence in their current neighborhood. Half of those responding reported that the most recent incident of violence happened to them directly, which included events like robbery, physical assault, and sexual assault.

Turning to the demographics of those violence-exposed responders, the researchers found that they were more likely to be of lower socioeconomic status, and less likely to identify as white.

To put the gravity of that in perspective, the authors observed that only 12 percent of Californian adults who haven’t been exposed to acts of violence report social functioning problems, which led them to conclude that violent-event exposure has far-reaching distorting implications.

The authors cited previous research showing a direct association between direct and indirect exposure to violence of all types and post-traumatic stress. Many also reported acute stress disorder, depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

If these emotional demons are not treated following the violence exposure, it can set “individuals on negative life course trajectories with lasting consequences for health and life chances,” the authors write.

Gun Violence and Future Gun Ownership

The authors said their survey indicated that when a weapon is involved in a violent event, the socio-emotional distress is exacerbated.

“Violence involving firearms may be particularly detrimental for mental health and social functioning,” Aubel explained.

“The mere presence of a firearm during an act of violence can increase the perceived level of threat to one’s life.”

This is consistent with previously conducted studies that have found violence involving guns have “unique negative effects on mental health” compared to violence involving other or no weapons, the report said.

Respondents in the survey were more likely to say they were exposed to violence while also living in a household with a gun, even if they didn’t own the guns themselves. The authors note that this corroborates existing research indicating that keeping a firearm at home can create an elevated risk of injury or death.

However, one-third of the respondents who were exposed to violent events said they would “consider buying a gun.” This is significant, the authors noted, because more previously victimized groups of Californians reported considering buying a firearm (33 percent) than people who did not report exposure to violence (17 percent).

Nevertheless, further questions revealed that only one percent followed through with becoming a firearm owner.

“State-level data such as these may be important for designing effective violence prevention programs and policies, and similar data collection efforts in other states should be encouraged,” concluded Nicole Kravitz-Wirtz, assistant professor with VPRP and senior author on the study.

“Interventions must include trauma-informed services and sustained financial investments in the communities most highly impacted by firearm violence.”

The study authors, Amanda J. Aubel, Rocco Pallin, Garen J. Wintemute, and Nicole Kravitz-Wirtz are all researchers at the University of California Davis School of Medicine in Sacramento, CA in the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program (VPRP). 

The full study can be accessed here. 

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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