Why Gun Violence is Making Us Afraid to Leave Home

By Josh Hall
Max Kleinen, Unsplash

As of yesterday, August 15, at 1:38 p.m., there have been 9,202 reported deaths in the United States due to gun violence this year. We thought it was important to include the exact time and date since that number will likely be outdated when you read this. On Wednesday, August 14, there were 19 separate incidents and a total of 22 deaths. The day before, Tuesday, August 13, had 22 incidents and 25 deaths.

These stats probably aren’t surprising to many of you, given what’s slipped into the public consciousness the last few decades. The carnage unleashed at Pulse Nightclub, Sandy Hook Elementary, Stoneman Douglas High School, Route 91 Harvest music festival, Sutherland Springs Church, and most recently, the Gilroy Garlic Festival, Wal-Mart in El Paso, and the Oregon Historic District of Dayton, have left a deep-rooted and indelible stain impossible to scrub clean.

Aside from being the site of a mass shooting, what does a nightclub, school, concert, church, food festival, department store, and an entertainment district have in common? They’re all places where one should conceivably feel safe and free from harm. But as Childish Gambino (that’s actor/musician Donald Glover for those of you who don’t know) rapped, this is America. And perhaps more than ever in America, the threat of gun violence is contributing to anxiety and a fear of public places.

The kids aren’t all right

Citing an annual publication produced by the American Psychological Association, Time magazine reported that young people ages 15 to 21—a group commonly referred to as Generation Z—have the worst mental health of any generation of Americans. Of the segment of Gen Zers interviewed for the study, only 45% said they were in “excellent” or “very good” mental health. Worse, 27% referred to their mental health as “fair” or “poor.”

While stress levels were prevalent for each generation that was studied, 75% of the Gen Z participants said they shouldered a considerable amount of stress because of mass shootings—and 21% went as far as saying that the thought of a potential shooting at their school was a regular source of stress.

False alarms, real terror

On the afternoon of March 16, police in Ann Arbor, Michigan, received dozens of calls from frantic and horrified University of Michigan students reporting what they believed to be gunshots on campus. Driven by adrenaline, students fled for safety in droves, with some fearfully seeking refuge for an hour in the corner of a classroom. For the students—who, coincidentally, were taking part in a vigil for those killed in two New Zealand mosque shootings—this was nightmare fuel.

It also was a false alarm.

Police found no evidence of a shooting, cleared the scene, and confirmed the “gunshots” that prompted some 20 people to call 911 were actually balloons popping nearby as part of a school sorority event.

Less than two weeks ago, a similar scene took place in New York City as a backfiring motorcycle caused mass hysteria and hordes of people to flock to the nearby Shubert Theater for a place to hide. Gideon Glick, one of the actors in “To Kill a Mockingbird”—the show that was interrupted by what Glick called “screaming civilians”—Tweeted after the event: “Stopped our show tonight due to a motorcycle backfire that was mistaken for a bomb or a shooting. Screaming civilians tried to storm our theater for safety. The audience started screaming and the cast fled the stage. This is the world we live in. This cannot be our world.”

Even the sound of a falling sign was enough to send shoppers at a Utah mall running for their lives from what they thought was an active shooter.

Secondary trauma and the impact on our brains

It turns out there’s a pretty good reason why we panic about stuff like balloons popping, motorcycles backfiring, and signs falling: We’re cognitively wired to do so. You’ve probably heard of the fight-or-flight response, but according to one trauma therapist, something called “secondary trauma” may be just as important in this case.

Meghan Riordan told Cosmopolitan that it’s not uncommon for someone to have a psychological stress response to watching or hearing something like a mass shooting. According to Riordan, that response is enough to make many of us forgo our favorite activities—or, at the very least, to be so concerned about finding exits or visually scanning for shooters, that we aren’t able to enjoy them.

Arthur Evans Jr., CEO of the American Psychological Association, told the Detroit Free-Press recently that he knows of people who tell their kids to sit in an aisle instead of a center seat at the movies. “Anecdotally, what you hear people saying is that when I walk into a building now, I’m looking at the exits, I’m sitting closer to the exits,” he said.

People who fall into the bucket Evans describes may not have a clinical diagnosis, but the emotions they’re experiencing is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—they just don’t know it. In fact, one lecturer in psychology at a university in England found that about 18% of people who viewed visually jarring scenes or images of suicide bombings, mass shootings, and terrorism had symptoms that were consistent with PTSD.

For a lot of us, it’s a vicious cycle that we can’t seem to shake. We won’t stop watching news coverage of a tragedy because we’re afraid it will happen to us and we’re engrossed in it—but watching that coverage ultimately breeds more fear. We’re also more likely to fall victim to spells of depression, a feeling that’s compounded by the brain’s desire to remove ourselves from social settings. That means we don’t want to leave the comforts of our couch, so we miss out on the things that make us happy. Like we said, it’s a vicious cycle.

Stay positive and keep perspective

Psychological trauma experts caution that this type of extreme fear can be both mentally and physically damaging. For instance, people who refused to fly after the events of 9/11 simply failed to acknowledge that the odds of one dying in a car accident are far greater than dying at the hands of a terrorist in the air. While there’s no way to confirm a correlation, it’s interesting to note that there were an estimated 1,600 more automobile-related deaths than were expected in the year following 9/11.

Part of keeping that perspective is modifying how and what media you choose to consume, says Barry Glassner, a sociologist and author who also talked to Cosmopolitan about the topic. Don’t broadly read or view everything you can find, but, rather, narrow in on the facts that pertain to your specific situation or interests. As in most cases, knowledge is power.

If you find yourself struggling with PTSD or anxiety and aren’t sure where to turn, we suggest you speak with your primary care physician. There are a variety of treatment options that can help you fight the negative feelings that may be swirling around inside you.

In light of the death toll and gun violence that permeates our culture today, it’s crucial that we find peace and solace in the things that make us happy. Remember the survey in Time on the status of mental health among the different American generations? Even though each age group reported they felt some level of stress, 75% still said they were hopeful about their future.

And sometimes a little hope goes a long way.

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