Gun Violence Effects Reach Far Beyond Victims: Study

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Nearly 249,000 U.S. murders since 1980 have gone unsolved. Photo of crime scene mural by Tom Hilton via Flickr.

The harm inflicted by American gun violence potentially extends well beyond those who are the immediate victims of a shooting, says a California study.

The study by the University of California-Davis Firearm Violence Research Center estimated that as many as two out of every three Californians have been exposed indirectly to gun violence in the course of their normal daily activities.

The finding, based on a “representative” survey sample of 2,870 Californians, found that 64.6 percent of adult respondents were exposed to violence in some form―even if they were not necessarily victims.

Using a wider metric than usual to gauge the impact of violence, an Experience of Violence (EV) could include hearing gunshots in the neighborhood, encountering a sidewalk memorial to a violent death, or learning about a violent event through a social network.

Most studies of the impact of exposure to violence have focused on specific traumatizing events such as being shot or witnessing someone who has been shot, that have been shown to produce long-lasting harm in individuals as well as on communities where the incidents have taken place.

Widening the definition of “exposure” to include individuals with indirect knowledge of violence could “shed new light “ on a far broader range of potential harm, the researchers said.

The survey was conducted over one week in the summer of 2020, just as major cities around the country—including in California—began experiencing a surge in homicides.

‘Living in a Cemetery’

“We had people (in the survey) who responded that they passed sidewalk memorials 25 times or more a week,” said UC Davis Prof. Garen J. Wintemute, MD, who directs the UC Davis Health Violence Prevention Research program and was lead author of the study, in a statement accompanying the research.

“And I thought, at what point does living in your neighborhood resemble living in a cemetery? What does that do to your sense of a future for your community and yourself?”

Extrapolating from the sample, researchers concluded that:

    • An estimated 3.4 million Californians may have three or more EVs over the course of a year;
    • Some five million Californians personally know multiple people who have been intentionally shot;
    • Three million know people who may be at risk of committing violence against themselves or others.

“Our main conclusion is that almost everybody is touched by this, and we’re a state with relatively low rates of firearm violence,” said Dr. Wintemute, Baker–Teret Chair in Violence Prevention and Distinguished Professor of Emergency Medicine at UC Davis.

“I would expect the situation would be worse in many other states.”

Drilling further into the figures, the researchers said their findings showed that reports of multiple EVs were most frequent among Black, Latinx and multiracial respondents, and least least common among respondents aged 60 years and over.

They also found that gender played no role in EV exposure—a “striking contrast with the much-increased risk among men for most forms of violent victimization.”

The survey also uncovered a category of what the study called “second hand” firearm ownership that contributed to exposure.

Non-owners of firearms who lived with owners reported more prevalent and extensive “social network” EVs than others did, the study reported.

“They were much more likely than firearm owners and non-owners in households without firearms to know persons they perceived to be at risk of violence. The EV burdens of what might be termed ‘secondhand firearm ownership’ in this group deserve further study.”

The study did not address the extent to which indirect exposure to violence produced more serious psychological trauma than direct victimization, or whether the number of exposures made any difference to the extent of harm.

Download the complete study here.

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