The Research Gap: How the Gun Debate Distracts Us from Supporting Survivors of Mass Shootings

A shooter terrorizes a college campus; dozens are hurt, several are dead. You can hear a pin drop as the nation realizes a mass shooting has occurred in the United States. We brace as the shock and sorrow hits our system. Soon the airwaves are filled with questions. Who is the shooter? Why did they do this? How many people were harmed? What happened in those moments? As answers emerge and victims tell their stories of terror, we sense the harm cannot be understood by numbers alone. Their stories move us, and in our distress, we strive to make sense of an incomprehensible situation.

We then ask a more difficult question, “how can this be prevented?” We are compelled to find the cause, cure the disease and prevent future suffering. Humans have excelled at this problem solving using this compassionate impulse to build a better world.

With this question comes a cacophony of reasons, many of them conflicting. It’s a gun control issue – we need to ban assault rifles. It’s a mental health issue – we need to improve background checks. Teachers should have guns. No one should have guns. The debate fills pages of our newspapers, hours of our cable news programs and minutes scrolling through posts on our feed. We disagree with our family members, our colleagues, strangers on social media.

Time, lack of agreement and lack of action dampen the whirl of debate as the camera move on to the next issue. Survivors of mass shootings are left off-screen, reeling from trauma, their lives are irreversibly altered. We ask about the cause but forget to ask about the effects. We try to prevent future shooters, but we forget to help the survivors heal.

The questions we need to ask is, “How do mass shootings affect survivors and how can we best support survivors?”

Right now, there are few answers – the research isn’t there.

According to Sarah Lowe, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Montclair State University, there have only been 49 peer-reviewed articles that studied mass shootings. In total, these articles examined 15 mass shooting episodes with three of these mass shootings occurring after 2000 in the United States. Just three episodes.

The numbers are especially jarring when compared to the number of mass shootings in that time period. In the United States, there have been 80 mass shootings since 2000 according to Mother Jones, which has compiled an open source database of mass shootings.

In total, these 80 shootings have claimed 1713 casualties with 650 people dying. The numbers don’t tell the full story. These numbers don’t include those who have been traumatized by mass shootings – survivors who feared for their life but managed to run, hide or dodge, families scarred with grief or community members whose sense of safety and trust has been turned upside down.

Without a clear understanding of how mass shootings affect survivors and their communities, we not only leave survivors behind but even when we attempt to help, we can make serious errors.

On June 10th, 2014, three days before school was out for the summer, a 15-year-old student at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Oregon brought a gun to school. While students hid in their classroom, the shooter shot and killed a 14-year-old student and injured a teacher. The shooter then turned the gun on himself and died by suicide. The students, the staff and the community, were left traumatized. Their community was robbed of a sense of safety, and the school administration struggled to find an effective way to provide support. Though they opened a mental health clinic on school grounds, not a single community member or student visited it in the entire month of June.

When the school and the State of Oregon turned to Youth ERA (then Youth M.O.V.E. Oregon), the school desperately wanted to reach traumatized youth and families. We took our expertise in youth engagement and agreed to provide support upon the condition of being able to reach out to youth on the anniversary date. Research from the Columbine High School shooting showed that survivors utilized the most resources upon the anniversary date of a shooting, not immediately after the event. This research guided our philosophy of engagement.

Understanding that students, staff and the community found the idea of returning their school – the site of the shooting – at least uncomfortable if not terrifying, we decided to take a different approach. Instead of a mental health clinic, we held a Virtual Reality ropes course on school grounds where students could utilize virtual reality to explore new worlds and participate in team building games designed for connection. The event brought in over 220 students and family members.

We knew the community needed a positive experience on school grounds to act as natural supports and help each other heal, but we also recognized that the community needed access to mental health resource. Our peer support specialists, along with therapists, were on hand at the event to talk to survivors about the shooting if survivors chose to initiate the conversation. Peer Support Specialists had 26 conversations that day with survivors about the shooting, helping them process the events in a healthy manner.

After the event, we continued to stay involved with the students through in-person peer support and social media. As the anniversary date of the shooting approached, we knew we’d need to increase our support, so we spoke with the school administration about holding another event. Instead of welcoming the idea, the administration shied away saying they feared the event would retraumatize students. The administration believed the students had forgotten and that is was best to move on.

But trauma does not just disappear. The body remembers, and survivors need to be supported on a long-term basis. Though the principal’s intention was to protect students, survivors were again left without the support they needed as the camera’s attention was directed to move on.

These mistakes and misunderstandings are costly, but they are preventable. School administrators and community leaders need best practices backed by substantial research to guide their community towards healing. We need more than three mass shootings in the last 19 years to be studied. We need more than 47 articles published. We need to help the survivors of mass shootings in the last nineteen years begin to heal. It’s time we give our attention by revisiting survivors of mass shootings and asking the right kind of questions.

So how do we get there?
The problem is great, and that calls for massive action.

What Does Massive Action Look Like?
Youth ERA is joining with Children’s Mental Health Network to create a task force on exploring the path forward for the creation of a school shooting survivor database. This effort replicates a successful model used by first responders from 9/11 and could serve as an essential backbone to further research on supporting survivors. Here are three questions you might be asking:

Why a Task Force?
There are too many councils, too many boards. We need to take massive action, and we want to attract the kind of people who might be too busy to commit to a long term commitment.

How Do I Sign Up?
Send an e-mail to TaskForce@youthera.org and let us know how you connect with this issue and if you have interest in hearing more about the task force or if you want to keep track of the massive change we are about to unleash on the world of research.

What/When/Where?
Members of the Task Force will be involved in the initial scheduling of meetings. Meetings will take place via video conferencing call.

This is what massive action on mass shootings looks like. As researchers and helpers, we need to set a new standard in the research of assisting survivors. We are starting at the very beginning. There is no protocol. There are no evidence-based practices. The deaths of three survivors in one week is unacceptable. It is unacceptable because it is preventable. We as a country have the power to change. We as a country can help survivors and communities heal from their trauma, but only if we take massive action and take a stand.

Join us.
Share your support on social media using #Research4Survivors and let’s take massive action together.

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About the Author

Gina Gervase

Gina Gervase is an Executive Assistant at Youth ERA, a nonprofit that engages and empowers transitional age youth through peer delivered services. Before immersing herself in the mental health field, she rallied voters in state and local politics, worked in education and studied Journalism at the University of Oregon where she learned to see both sides of the Oxford comma debate.

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