Black Children Are Disproportionately Hurt By Gun Violence—How Did We Get Here and What Do We Do Next?

Black children experience gun violence at higher rates than others, but this didn't happen overnight. It's time we considered the causes.

Mother and daughter embracing

As the mother of a multi-racial teenager of color living in New York City, it's a fact of life: gun violence happens all of the time. When there was a recent random shooting in a Jamaica, Queens subway station near our home, I panicked trying to ensure that my teen got home sooner rather than later. He told me everything seemed normal at the subway and made the decision to sit and talk to a friend near the platform where the shooting had happened a few hours earlier. The subway shooter was still at large.

"I'm telling you to get home as soon as possible," I yelled at him hysterically during our second phone call, anticipating there would be a higher police presence at the station. "Everything's normal here," he said, not understanding the urgency of the situation. "I'll be home soon."

I ugly-cried when I heard the news about the Uvalde, Texas shooting where 21 people, including 19 school children were shot and killed. At the time of the mass shooting, some of the children had been watching a Disney movie and were just waiting for their summer vacation to start. While I've never visited the community in-person known as the "Crossroads of America," the city with an estimated population of over 16,000 people is a close-knit community where everyone knows each other. I, myself, was born in a small town an hour away from Montreal—Quebec, Canada. As a young child, I had virtually no exposure to gun violence during my earliest years.

pamela appea

The worst situation happened, up-close and personal, with someone who I knew and considered to be a friend. The man pulled out his handgun and pointed it at me for several agonizing minutes because I was 'talking too much.'

— pamela appea

All that changed once my family moved to the United States in the 1980s and we lived in low-income neighborhoods that had seen significant increases in crime and drug use. While looking at a book at a Police Athletic League (P.A.L.) Queens summer camp, I suddenly heard what sounded like loud firecrackers through the open windows of our classroom.

Within seconds the other kids dropped to the ground. I stood frozen not knowing what I was supposed to do. I hadn't ever experienced anything like that before. "Get away from the window," one of the other children quietly hissed at me, exasperated at how I was making myself an easy target. When additional adults came into the classroom soon after, their worried faces made me understand this was serious. I learned that day that sometimes random shootings happened. And you might never know who was shooting or why.

As I got older, the personal gun exposure anecdotes continued. My oldest brother was held at gunpoint. News stories dominated my early years in the United States with constant gun violence alerts. When I moved to Chicago to attend college, hundreds of people of color in my adopted city died every year due to gun violence. Acquaintances and fellow classmates were occasionally robbed or menaced at gunpoint. My anxiety about gun violence went through the roof.

The worst situation happened, up-close and personal, with someone who I knew and considered to be a friend. The man pulled out his handgun and pointed it at me for several agonizing minutes because I was "talking too much."

Urban areas including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Miami became flooded with guns throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Different AR-150 type models became incredibly popular in the 1980s. These kinds of guns could shoot at least 45 rounds per minute–often more. Regardless of whether a gun is automatic or semi-automatic, or if it's classified as a military or civilian assault rifle or not, many easy-to-use gun models have been consistently used to kill people in mass shootings for decades—including within communities of people of color.

With the rise of high numbers of gun violence, people may look to politicians, academics, and others for answers. Some may point to loose 1980s-era gun control, the War on Drugs, extreme inequality and post-Civil rights fraught socio-economic dynamics, the collapse of the country's poorly-funded state-run residential mental health facilities, joblessness, and other factors. But at the end of the day, what resulted was that American gun violence—and specifically gun violence that impacted people of color—grew into a pandemic that no one is able to control or predict.

As a Black parent, the complicated history between Black families, gun violence, and high mortality rates is unconscionable. I want every child, teen, and youth to know they deserve a basic human right to be safe from gun violence within their communities.

Empathize with Our Children About Their Experiences

Following the 1999 Columbine and 2012 Sandy Hook school shootings, many schools regularly hold mandatory school "active shooter" practice drills, so your kids have already talked about this in school. Meet your child where they are and listen to what they are thinking and feeling.

When it comes to teens and youth, they often already know what is going on. But just because they're older, it doesn't mean that they don't want to talk about gun violence. Mental health experts like Clarissa Wadley, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker who sees patients at Melanated Women's Health in downtown Philadelphia, says caregivers must strive to listen more than talking or lecturing to their loved one. (Yes, don't do what I did. #parentingfail)

"You can also ask about their schools' plans for dealing with active shooters and if they feel prepared or not. Then discuss what they think needs to happen to reduce gun violence," said Dr. Erlanger Turner, Ph.D., licensed psychologist in California and founder of Therapy for Black Kids. "Ask your teen how they're feeling in processing highly-publicized mass shooting events. Collectively develop and review home-, school-, and community-based safety plans."

Educate Ourselves About the Origin of Gun Violence in Our Communities

Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by gun violence, experiencing 10 times more gun homicides and 18 times more gun assault injuries than white Americans. Statistics show that 52 African Americans die every day from gun violence, and 104 more suffer gun-related injuries.

For hundreds of years, many white Americans could easily obtain legally-owned guns. But these gun ownership laws didn't apply to formerly enslaved Africans for a very long time. Following slavery, Black Americans seeking legal gun ownership for practical purposes, including subsistence hunting or for farming-related purposes, were criminalized or told they had no right to own guns.

Dr. Mara Ostfeld

Gun violence in Black communities is very much rooted in the municipal, state, and federal institutions that have failed to protect Black Americans and often actively harmed them." 

— Dr. Mara Ostfeld

"For a large part of our nation's history, Black Americans were denied the right to own guns—even when they were actively being threatened, lynched, and terrorized," says Dr. Mara Ostfeld, associate faculty director and director of communications and Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan. Dr. Ostfeld is also an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

During the post-slavery Reconstruction years to the mid-20th century, there were uneven and inconsistent criminal trials if a Black American individual was injured or killed during a gun violence incident. In this same time frame, many ad-hoc state laws and much of the proposed legislation continued to restrict or react aggressively to African-American ownership of guns. These miscarriages of justice continue.

One recent example is when Philando Castile, a much-beloved supervisor in nutrition services at St. Paul's School District, was shot and killed in 2016. In the widely-circulated video of the traffic stop, Castile, a registered gun owner, politely told the police officers there was a gun in the car and he had a concealed carry permit. Nonetheless, moments later, Castile was shot and killed in front of his partner and young stepdaughter. It can be hard for children to understand and process deep-rooted racist ideologies, but it is incredibly important that parents help them to understand.

"This context is important because it highlights that gun violence in Black communities is very much rooted in the municipal, state, and federal institutions that have failed to protect Black Americans and often actively harmed them," Dr. Ostfeld says. "To address gun violence in Black communities [today], we need to first ensure that we are providing all Americans equal protection under the law."

Be Proactive About the Mental Trauma that Comes with Exposure to Gun Violence

Mental health experts know that children of color often are at greater risk of experiencing and/or witnessing gun violence. In fact, an Everytown For Gun Safety report says "Black and Latinx children and teens are impacted by gun violence at higher rates than their white peers, in part because of deliberate policy decisions that created segregated neighborhoods and underinvestments in their communities."

That same report shows that, annually, over 3,500 children and teens (ages 0 to 19) are shot and killed and goes on to state that 15,000 children and teens are shot and wounded—that's an average of 52 American children and teens every day. But there aren't accurate records that let us know about children who have witnessed or been exposed to gun violence.

According to Melanated Women's Health Philadelphia social worker Clarissa Wadley, it is essential for caregivers to check in with their young children about any kind of gun violence exposure trauma. Whether the trauma happened years ago or more recently, follow-up conversations are essential.

"A young child may not be able to articulate, 'Hey I am scared,' or 'Hey I'm anxious,'" she says. Perhaps something triggered the child, like walking past the playground where they were exposed to community gun violence a year ago. For example, Wadley says, a child could have a panic attack halfway home from the park and not fully understand why. That's why it's up to the parent or caregiver–and mental health professionals– to try and help children process their feelings.

Find ways to ground your child at the moment if it seems they are experiencing a panic or anxiety attack, Wadley says. "Let's say your child's favorite color is purple. To take them out of the moment, try and engage them with a let's find everything purple game," she says. Other options would be to have your child journal, draw, color, or do an on-the-spot grounding activity to help them in the moment. When your child is ready to talk, find a private safe space and focus on listening to their experience, she says.

Wadley is no stranger to witnessing community gun violence. Born and raised in North Philadelphia, when she was 12 years old she experienced a painful gun violence incident. "I've known and lost people to gun violence," she says. For a significant chunk of her childhood and teen years, Wadley could not attend July 4th events and family gatherings that featured firecrackers because the sound triggered her childhood trauma.

Everytown For Gun Safety Report

An average of 52 American children and teens are shot and wounded every day.

— Everytown For Gun Safety Report

As an adult and mental health professional, Wadley started doing exposure therapy. "It can be done," she says, noting that healing may take time. Exposure therapy is typically under the supervision of a mental health professional, she says. One common issue Wadley has seen as a mental health professional is when teens or adults are afraid to leave the house after witnessing, or personally being injured, by community gun violence. Wadley notes that a gradual approach is best practice and advises "taking baby steps."

"Offer to walk together with your loved one around the block and practice deep breathing techniques together if necessary. Don't rush things, particularly right after a traumatic gun violence experience has happened," she says. "The eventual goal is to show that you can go outside and nothing will happen. The idea is to try and cultivate a positive and healthy outlook for the future, even after trauma."

Remember To Practice Self-Care

In addition to Wadley's work at Melanated Women's Health, Wadley also operates Black Girls Healing Space, an online portal focusing on trauma and healing.

At the end of the day, parents intuitively know that kids need to feel secure, says Dr. Erlanger Turner of Therapy for Black Kids, "I think that it is necessary to help the child feel some sense of safety. This can be done by discussing a plan for what to do if they are in a similar situation. Planning is helpful to reduce some anxiety or fear. Try to instill a sense of hopefulness," he says.

There are also different ways to get older children and teens involved in self-advocacy. "Although it may be difficult given continued incidents of gun violence, identify how people are fighting to create laws to reduce gun violence. For older kids, you may even want to help them write a letter to a local [politician] or national [leader] to ask them to "do something to protect them and their community," he says.

Following that parenting fail of being too honest with my older son, I remember a time when I decided the right choice was to be creative. My younger son, then age 4, was experiencing both active shooter drills and fire drills at his elementary school. He started to initiate frequent conversations about monsters, vampires, supervillains, and "bad guys" who he believed were all trying to get into our home. So, I told him there was an invisible force field that would make it impossible for anyone with a gun to come inside our apartment. When your child gets older, obviously, you should provide factual age-appropriate information, if possible.

Every Black parent should remember to practice self-care. When parents are available to have these difficult conversations, it's important to find trusted adults or mental health professionals for yourself as well. There is nothing wrong with asking for help.

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