With Six Dead, Including Three Children, Nashville School Shootings Again Raise Questions Around Talking to Children About Gun Violence
Four BU experts on gun legislation, and what to do next after the Nashville school shooting, including how to support traumatized children
Once Again, Our Nation Is Forced to Talk to Children about Guns, Deaths
Four BU experts on gun legislation, and what to do next after the Nashville school shooting, including how to support traumatized children
Numbing fatalism surrounds the relentless repetition of US school shootings. There have been 376 since 1999, killing 175 people and exposing a staggering 348,000 children to gun violence. The cycle continued Monday with six murders, including three children, at the Covenant School, a Christian elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee.
Police say Audrey E. Hale, a former student at the Covenant School, launched a shooting spree with two assault-style rifles and a handgun that left three 9-year-olds and three staffers dead. (Investigators said Hale used male pronouns in social media posts.) Hale, who police shot and killed, had maps of the school, bought the guns legally, and was being treated for an emotional disorder, police said. After the grim news, President Biden reiterated his demand for a ban on assault weapons, which has stalled in Congress.
On an individual level, parents should reassure their schoolchildren that adults try to keep kids safe, says Neena McConnico. She’s a Chobanian and Avedisian School of Medicine assistant professor of pediatrics who directs the outpatient Child Witness to Violence Project at MED’s teaching hospital, Boston Medical Center. McConnico told the Boston Globe, “Maybe families have had complicated relationships with law enforcement. In our work with kids, we don’t rule them out as helpers, either. … We have conversations with caregivers around how to talk about that, what feels safe, helping kids and families to understand that there are helpers, even in law enforcement,” along with teachers, coaches, extended family, and others.
Here we are again as a nation: A little more than a decade after 20 children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, BU Today reached out this week to BU experts to revisit questions around talking to traumatized children about gun violence.
Ziming Xuan is professor of community health services at the School of Public Health and has appointments at MED and its teaching hospital, Boston Medical Center. He is a social epidemiologist whose research includes gun policy. Jonathan Jay is an SPH assistant professor of community health services who studies youth exposure to gun violence. He studied the surge in gun violence during the first year of the pandemic. Rachel Martin (SAR’22, SPH’23) is project manager for SPH’s Research on Innovations for Safety and Equity (RISE) Lab (which Jay leads) and studied racial disparities among children who experienced gun violence. David J. Schonfeld (CAS’83, MED’83) directs the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.
with Ziming Xuan, Jonathan Jay, Rachel Martin, and David Schonfeld
BU Today: Given the rarity of a biological woman shooter, is it likely the killer here had a different motive than the usual male shooter?
Xuan: It is difficult to comment on the killer’s motive and whether gender has played a role in this tragedy. The police have not released information about the motives.
BU Today: How do children traumatized by gun violence ever recover? How do we help them?
Jay: It’s shocking when gun violence happens at schools, because these are typically safe spaces, even in communities that experience a higher burden of “everyday” gun violence.
Every shooting, wherever it happens, has a ripple effect through families and communities. Exposure to gun violence has lasting mental and physical health effects for children, including problems like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. It also affects other outcomes, like educational performance. Child gun victimization has gone up during the pandemic, and racial disparities have gotten even larger—see our recent work. School shootings show that even though some communities bear a disproportionate burden of gun violence, no community is immune.
Martin: Our main finding from our study was that non-White children experienced greater exposure to gun violence than White children, with these racial disparities widening even further during the pandemic. Black children in particular experienced the greatest increase in gun violence exposure throughout the pandemic.
We know that gun violence exposure has mental health impacts on children, whether this be through indirect exposure of witnessing violence or hearing gunshots, or direct exposure of being injured.
Schonfeld: Children generally don’t ever forget these major experiences; as life-changing events, they change who these children are. But they aren’t necessarily “damaged” for life. Some individuals who cope effectively with their reactions, particularly if they have sufficient internal resiliency and external support, can develop coping skills to deal with future adversity, more empathy for the needs of others, a greater sense of a calling to help others in need, or an increase in their spirituality. We call this post-traumatic growth. In fact, many people who enter helping professions–pediatrics, children’s mental health, educators, etc.–do so because of a difficult experience in their own childhood. They recognize the importance of the support they received, or the support they didn’t but should have received, and devote their lives to helping other children.
When they then help children in similar contexts, they may resurface some of their persistent feelings and memories about their own crisis and loss, which is why professional self-care becomes particularly important for those in these helping professions. Those who devote their lives to helping others and who have compassion for children in distress are most apt to feel distress and experience compassion fatigue from providing this support.
Children who are not directly involved in these crises are still impacted by learning about these events in the news. The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement has a guidance document for parents/caregivers and educators on how to talk with children about shootings in the news that can be freely accessed in English and Spanish. The Coalition has developed a wide range of free video-based and print resources on how to support grieving children. This includes a booklet for parents and other caregivers on how to talk to and support grieving children that is now available for free download in 9 languages.
“Exposure to gun violence has lasting mental and physical health effects for children, including problems like anxiety, depression, and PTSD.”
BU Today: How strict are Tennessee’s gun safety laws? Or does that even matter today, given that people can get guns across state lines?
Xuan: The stringency of Tennessee’s gun control environment was ranked around 29th in one of our prior studies. So, it was not considered among those that have the strongest gun control environment.
Gun control environment does matter in affecting overall gun violence, and also youth access to guns, even if people can get guns across state lines. Tennessee used to be a “shall-issue” state when it comes to concealed firearm permits [meaning authorities must give permits to whomever passes the state’s basic requirements]. Our studies found that “shall-issue” gun policies are associated with significantly higher rates of firearm homicide as compared to “may-issue” states, where enforcement officials may use their judgment in making decisions about whether to approve or deny a permit application. In 2021, Tennessee became a state that required no permit for concealed carry, becoming more lax with its firearm policy environment.
BU Today: If congressional opposition to more federal gun laws is insurmountable, is there any viable strategy—by states, presidential executive order, something else—that should be looked at now?
Xuan: Many legislative efforts are done at the state level, and the many states vary considerably in their firearm control environment, which is characterized by many gun policies as a whole. So, we should work from here. Many advocacy organizations and community groups are instrumental stakeholders in changing the norm and raising awareness in order to convince the lawmakers at the local level.
Jay: We’ve got to respond by expanding access to mental health services, like psychological first aid and cognitive behavioral therapy, in a way that makes them accessible to all children impacted by gun violence, including those who are exposed to it in disinvested urban neighborhoods.
Martin: Because of how broadly firearm violence exposure can impact children, strategies to mitigate trauma can come from a variety of places. After-school programming is a good place to start in both identifying children who have been impacted by gun violence and providing subsequent support in the aftermath of enduring a traumatic event. Psychological first aid is another intervention delivered directly after experiencing an incident of gun violence that can help to direct individuals to resources and further support. Bottom line though: If we don’t address the impacts that structural racism plays in this conversation, or implement any sort of large-scale reforms through common-sense gun regulations, these events will continue to happen and resulting trauma will continue to occur.
We can pass more laws, we can even ban all guns. We are still going to have people who hate people and want to hurt people. They’ll do it with guns; they’ll do it with something else. I know lots of nice people who own guns, but it’s the hateful ones who make the headlines.
I’ve got family and friends who are responsible owners but all of us agree laws have become to relaxed. Why should it be easier to own a gun than a car?
Or in Uvalde where police officers didn’t go save the children because they were scared of an AR-15. We don’t have to ban all guns, but no background checks or basic laws to restrict use and protect our police and families seems like a missed opportunity.
Dear Perpetual Student,
I agree, and it’s easier to explain to my kid about “hateful people” than it is to explain why we continue to supply automatic weapons to be purchased in the market and how kids die from this.
When my kid questions why the kids could not have shielded themselves from the killer, wrestled the killer to the ground, run away from the killer, and or threw something at them to distract or otherwise make some time to get away there are simply no words of assured self preservation and a safety plan.
for each of those questions posed above by my littles there is no possible way any of them would work when you have an automatic weapon that can fire rounds in seconds and penetrate walls and doors and slaughter you to the ground in the time you turn to run.
Sure, there’s going to be hateful people. To me, the hateful people are the ones who continue to allow these guns to be available; continue to harp on their Constitutional (and God given) Right to have these weapons; refuse to take action to ban this form of weaponry; and take objection at every conversation and proposal that addresses our right in this Country to have protection from harm that this weaponry is wielding upon US.
In answer to the “something else that hateful people can use”: knives, ropes, hand guns, egg beaters, or anything else one wants to use in order to kill a child can be wrestled to the ground, have something thrown at them to distract, and or otherwise, provide some TIME to get away, get to safety, find cover….
These are not guns for “sport”. These are not guns for “hunting”. These are not guns for anything but warfare and killing on the spot, in short order, and without a second to lose. And the folks out there who do not want to have THAT conversation and refuse to ban these weapons are complicit in killing our kids!…
I find the title and brief summary/introduction (in the bu today email) to be a little facetious. Yes, many of us have a kind of resigned tiredness to more news about gun violence, particularly in schools or incidents that impact children, but the kind of “oh look it happened again; yep another one!” feels deeply inappropriate to me.
These are terrible tragic events and it can be unbelievably frustrating when it seems the majority of the country wants to pass common sense gun laws to stop these deaths, only to be stopped by a few in power, but think about those in communities who have been impacted directly by these tragedies. To have gone through this kind of event, only to read “Stop if this sounds familiar (actually don’t stop, it’s too important): there was another shooting, at another school, and more children are dead. And, once again…”. It’s a little dehumanizing, frankly. It’s a reminder that even to those with the best intentions, we turn into little more than statistics for either political party to recite to make a point.
I agree, I found it to be a very flippant description of a great tragedy. The high frequency of school shootings does not make each event any less devastating.
I completely agree. Inappropriate.
I agree 2
It’s a worthy watch how police officers can mitigate a tragic situation.
We should not be here in this time and place. Yet, here we are. Who and what is keeping US in this place? Look at the folk who do not and will not discuss and make a decision about these AR-15s, and other weapons of war that can slaughter children and people in seconds without a pause and without a doubt.
All these children dead, slaughtered, killed and still we have folks who can make a difference about what goes on with US stall, refuse to talk about bans of any sort, and use Constitutional Rights to absolve them of any responsibility what so ever! It’s alarming, it’s sickening, and it’s ignorant.
Be sure to listen to these folks who you are voting for and who you support because this is not going to change as long as this group of Party boys and girls who support keeping things status quo with guns and keeping what is on the market to buy freely. Kids and people will continue to be slaughtered and killed.
Of course, these Party boys and girls will come up with lots of ways to keep the status quo of guns and glory by offering ideas on mental health, police installed in schools, prison built school grounds, –the list goes on… All in the name of keeping their weapons of war.
These Party boys and girls are good at gas lighting. So, once mental health; police; bullet proof metal school walls, etc. are in place, they can blame them for what is going on, They can point and yell and scream that “they” (usually those who want protection from harm, equity, and equality) are not doing their job!!. These Party boys and girls are good at turning up the gas and igniting it in order to be sure the flame does not touch them. And then fan the flames liberally towards those who care, want protection from harm, and seek equality and equity….
Watch, Listen, and VOTE responsibly for our children and all of US!…
Okay, so let me try this again since my last comment must have been offensive to some group and or individuals:
The tile and content of this article is: “Once Again, Our Nation is Forced to Talk to Children about Guns, Deaths.”
Why are we being “forced again”? Does anyone ever wonder why we are here once again and “forced” to talk to our children about guns and death? What makes this so hard for US? Who are the folks, the group, and or the leadership in this Country forcing US to once again talk to children about guns and deaths?
Martin states in this article, “…Bottom line though: If we don’t address the impacts that structural racism plays in the conversation or implement any sort of large-scale reforms through common-sense regulation, these events will continue to happen and resulting trauma will continue to occur.”
President Biden announced to the Nation that he wanted to proceed with a conversation and forward action towards banning AR-15s and automatic assault weapons in this Country. Who does not want to address this? Why do we (they?) not want to address this in this Country? Have we all been blinded by something; some group; or someone; that we refuse to open this conversation up and take clear, decisive, “common-sense” action towards this problem in US now –once again, and for all? Who is holding this up? Who are these folks who keep the status quo of systemic racism operational and uphold their loyalty to weapons of war as “free” objects to have and to hold –and kill? Who calls these weapons: “objects of sport”? Whose afraid that their freedoms will be tampered with? Who is forcing US to talk to our children about guns and death over and over again?
Lots of questions here on just, WHY, are we here once again to talk to children about guns and death. What should I say to my kids when they ask why people have these guns that have caused so much pain, so much tragedy, so much loss? Out of my abject grief, WHO, what group, and or which leader is it that I should I be angry with? Who (and or what group/leader) should I make feel a little “uncomfortable” about their reprehensible irresponsibility as indicated by their refusal and objections to open the conversation up and take decisive, common-sense action to stop this idiocy –now and once again for all of US!
My kids are waiting for an answer while they are practicing Lock Downs, Lock Outs, and Building Evacuation…