The Truths about Stress, Trauma, and Gun Violence

The Truths about Stress, Trauma, and Gun Violence

Note: I originally wrote a shorter version of this article this in February in response to the Parkland school shooting and posted it on Facebook. The arguments about gun violence in the United States still stand, regrettably, so I’m reposting it here. I especially wanted to post this on Memorial Day, since this year more American children died in school shootings than military personnel in active combat zones. This is a major human rights issue we need to keep speaking up about.

These shootings and the national responses to them really hurt me both as a human and as someone who studies and teaches about stress, trauma, and conflict communication, so here’s my current bit to add to the national conversation about this topic. It’s past time to assertively counter the many social media/media/personal narratives that are simply harmful:

Is It about Being Rejected?

It’s regrettable when people are rejected by their peers.

But the large majority of people who are rejected by their peers don’t pick up a gun and shoot someone.

Are Fight Responses the Threat?

We all have fight or flight responses when we feel rejected and threatened. That’s just physiology. It has nothing to do with mental illness except in extreme forms.

Nor does it usually lead to gun violence.

Is It about Mental Illness?

Many suffer from mental illness in the United States. We do need better healthcare for this, and substantially less stigma about it.

But the large majority of mentally ill people don’t make up their minds to kill themselves or others.

Is It about a Lack of Value for Life?

We do need more value for life in this society. The problem is that we have a ton of stress in our society, and high brings on natural physiological urges toward fight or flight. This comes from a wide range of sources, but it’s going up, according to the national stress report from the American Psychological Association.

Both burnout and trauma contribute to dehumanization of others and negative views of others.

Still, only a small subset of those suffering from burnout and trauma actually make the decision to kill someone.

Is It about Gender?

Women have mental health issues and more stress than men (according to the latest stress report from the APA), but they only committed 3.8% of mass shootings from 2000-2013, according to one FBI statistic.

Ironically and sadly, we train many men in this culture that all emotions other than anger are feminine and weak and shameful. We don’t teach them how to manage their anger.

The broad majority of these men still by some miracle somehow don’t go out and kill someone (though we see too many that do, and plenty of other harms from this problem).

What about the Guns?

The thing is that many men are trained this same way in other countries (because toxic masculinity standards are regrettably widespread).

But even when they decide to take a life, those men in those countries don’t have access to machines that can take the number of lives that were lost this past Wednesday in a school in Florida.

We’re the only country that loses this many lives to mass murders. And all sort of research shows that the biggest contributing factor is our policies about guns.

What about the Responsible Gun Owners?

It is also true that the large majority of gun owners do not decide to kill others and pick up their weapons to do so.

But statistics about gun deaths show that a ridiculous amount do every year, and we need to work together to fix this problem.

Is It about Traumatized People?

When people are traumatized by violence or by hearing about violence (secondary trauma), as many of us are this week and this year and whenever we see scary traumatic things in the news, some snap into flight responses and some snap into fight responses and others snap into freeze responses to deal with the felt threat of violence in our society.

The large majority of these people don’t pick up guns to kill people.

We Need to Channel Our Stress Responses to Call for Reasonable Changes

As I said, we all snap into fight or flight or freeze, including when we hear about scary events. That’s natural. And many of us are trained into the flight or freeze response.

It’s natural to think we’re too small to do anything about gun violence. It’s easy to get burned out on hearing about these kinds of events.

But we can work together to make change. And when some of us get tired, we can give each other a break. But please keep going. Please come back when you’re able. Do what you can with what you’ve got where you are.

The truth is that as long as the flight instinct prevails against dealing with this problem at all levels—but especially regarding reasonable solutions to restricting access to guns for those who have major anger issues—we will keep having this cycle of trauma and secondary trauma from gun violence.

I believe we can all direct our fear and anger into healthy responses to fight the problem together.

Go team humanity. We can do better. Let’s do better.

Let’s Not Scapegoat and Demonize Other Groups, Please

(Oh, and not incidentally, by only drawing attention to mental health because the man happened to be white and “Christian” and downplaying any white supremacist ties while dehumanizing those of other creeds and skin colors by snapping to “thug” or “terrorist” frames for those modes, we add to the stress of non-white people and those of other religions as well as immigrants while excusing the sins of the group with the most societal power. It’s an incredible miracle that the non-white populations statistically manage their stress responses as well as they do to not commit more crimes. We can and need to do better at this as well.)


What narratives do you hear about this topic? How have you been assertively speaking up about it? What assertiveness advice might you need? What healthy disagreements with this content might you have? How can we support you in your assertiveness efforts? Let us know in the comments section, at our FB page or on Twitter, and/or email us at

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The Truths about Str…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 4 min