Gun Violence Is Taking a Toll on Our Mental Health

70% of people are anxious in public because of the potential for a shooting.

By Josh Hall

In a recent story on why gun violence is making us afraid to leave home, we wrote about secondary trauma and the impact it has on our brains. As it turns out, psychological stress as a result of watching footage or hearing audio from disturbing events is actually an expected response. It’s cognitive wiring that plants that seed of fear inside each of us.

But the other thing we learned about secondary trauma is that when it’s significant enough, it can cause us to alter our lives and passions. Some people might feel compelled to constantly scan for threats when in public, sit closer to exits, or even skip out on their hobbies or favorite events altogether.

On the heels of several closely clustered mass shootings, we wanted to learn more about the public’s opinion on the topic, so we asked 1,200 people how gun violence has changed their behavior. Here are their answers.

There have been a number of mass shootings in America. Has news of these shootings made you more anxious in public spaces?

Very early in the survey, we noticed that secondary trauma—perhaps intensified by the recent run on mass shootings—continues to play a part in the psyche of many Americans. When asked if the shootings made them more anxious in public spaces, more than 65% said yes—a trend which we would see manifest again in follow-up questions.

Do you think about the potential for a shooting when you are in public?

Again, here we see how past gun violence has shaped our views on the potential of what could happen to us in the future. In this question, nearly 70% of respondents said they think about the potential for a shooting when in public. Despite that overwhelming sentiment, the likelihood of dying in a mass shooting is quite slim.

Reports place the risk of death by mass shooting at 1 in 110,154. To put that into context, it’s about as likely as dying from a dog attack. Also worth mentioning, you have a 1 in 113 chance of dying in a car crash and a 1 in 7 chance of dying from heart disease or cancer.

Do you avoid crowded spaces because of the potential for a shooting?

Here, we find our first potential inconsistency or variance in the data. Despite the fact that the majority of people we spoke to said they think about the potential for a shooting, only 33% of total respondents said they avoid crowded spaces because of the threat.

There are two ways to look at this data:

  1. It’s reassuring to know that most people aren’t allowing secondary trauma to force them into missing something they love; and
  2. If you extrapolate this data broadly, you can assume that one-third of our country is no longer going to places they either went to before or may like to go again. And that’s really, really sad.

Because of mass shootings, are you more aware of exits in public places?

We learn here that almost 70% of respondents are more aware of exits in public places. This data supports the anecdotal facts we provided in our last piece, specifically how there have been reports of parents sitting with kids in aisle seats at the movies to facilitate a quick exit if needed.

Have you changed your habits in recent years because of news of mass shootings?

We see a similar pattern with these answers to what we saw in the question about avoiding crowded spaces. About 60% said they haven’t changed anything, which is very positive to hear, but that means nearly 40% have.

Do you know someone who has been affected by a mass shooting?

I think we can all just say that we’re relieved this number isn’t higher than it is.

Do you think you, or someone you know, will one day be affected by a mass shooting?

Another reflection of the doom and gloom that permeates our society as it relates to gun violence, more than half of our respondents said they think themselves or someone they know will one day be affected by a mass shooting.

Generally, does reading or watching the news make you anxious?

Last time, we talked about how a research study in England found that 18% of people who viewed visually disturbing scenes or images were left with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—which often exhibits as anxiety. So, we weren’t surprised to see that nearly two-thirds of our respondents said that reading or watching the news makes them anxious.

Do you think there are steps our leaders can take to end mass shootings?

As the number of mass shootings and the subsequent death toll continues to rise, a debate over how to eliminate these events from our society rages on.

While political partisanship tends to shape one’s belief on the appropriate actions here, our respondents overwhelmingly believed that there are steps our leaders can take to end mass shootings.

Do you feel safer in a world with guns or without guns?

In what came as a bit of a surprise to us—given the answers to previous questions—respondents were just about split down the middle when asked if they would feel safer in a world with or without guns.

Do you worry more about a domestic mass shooting or an attack from a foreign adversary?

This one also surprised a bit, given the heartache that still lingers almost two decades after the events of 9/11. Almost three-quarters of respondents said they worry more about a domestic mass shooting than a terrorist attack from a foreign adversary.

Parting words on our survey on gun violence

If we could summarize the results of our survey on gun violence, it would be with this: People are most definitely anxious in public spaces because of their fear of being involved in a mass shooting—so much so that they want our country’s leaders to do something about it—but at the end of the day, they still don’t know if they’d be safer in a word without guns.

As the 2020 election inches closer and closer, we’ll be curious to see how the topic of gun violence defines the race and what candidates vying for the Oval Office have to say.

Methodology and Limitations

We surveyed over 1,000 respondents using the Amazon MTurk service, focusing on how news of gun violence has affected their health and behavior. These data rely on self-reporting, and strict statistical testing has not been performed. Potential issues with self-reported data include but are not limited to exaggeration, selective memory, and attribution errors on the part of respondents.

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