The U.S. gun violence epidemic leaves thousands dead, injured, and forever changed
When people are killed or injured by gun violence, a ripple effect moves beyond the individuals who were shot. It is not just those who were killed, or the survivors and witnesses to shootings who feel the impact. Also affected by shootings are the relatives, friends, and sometimes even people they did not know at the time of the shooting.
Last year, more than 14,600 people were killed by guns in the United States. Another
28,000-plus were injured in approximately 57,000 incidents, including 340 mass shootings, according to the not-for-profit Gun Violence Archive, which provides statistics on gun-related violence. (These 2018 numbers do not include the 22,000 annual suicides.)
In Tucson, Arizona, a survivor of the 2011 “Gabby Giffords shooting” says his granddaughter, who was not even at the deadly incident, still suffers from anxiety brought on by the shooting of her grandfather, Ron Barber.
Also in Tucson, the wife of a man who tackled the gunman that sunny Saturday morning, said for two years she was very afraid every time she left the house. Sallie Badger absolutely “knew” a gunman would be waiting for her after she got into her car. She was not even at the shooting that claimed six lives and left 13 people injured, including her husband Bill Badger.
A woman who was there, holding the hand of a 9-year-old girl who did not survive the shooting, has spent months and years recovering from her wounds from the three bullets that entered her body. Suzi Hileman is forever impacted by the trauma of losing her young friend. Only after she told her own family that she hoped to join activists fighting for gun reform, did she learn about the trauma her grown daughter had gone through during the long days her mom lay unconscious in the hospital.
“It’s just the ripple effect of it,” said Hileman of gun violence. “How it touches everyone.”
In suburban Milwaukee, a gunman came to a Sikh temple with the intent to kill. He murdered six people including Satwant Singh Kaleka, the temple’s president and spiritual leader, as many of the congregation hid in the pantry while gunshots exploded. Since then, Kaleka’s wife Satpal Kaleka has a difficult time concentrating on the Sunday service. She and others who were there imagine an exit route — while they would rather be concentrating on their spiritual lives. One of their sons, Pardeep Kaleka, changed his career after the shooting, becoming a trauma counselor focusing on men’s anger. He was driving his children to the temple when the shooting occurred.
And a mom who took her 21-year-old daughter to a country music festival in Las Vegas that turned into the worst mass shooting in U.S. history to date, tells of eight months later when the two hid in her closet with headphones on and their dogs at their sides, trying to block out the sound of fireworks exploding. Neither Mindy Scott or her daughter was shot, but they suffer from PTSD and will never forget the shooting.
My name is Mary Tolan, and I am a journalist and journalism professor. On sabbatical this year, I am reporting on the survivors of gun violence. I’ve interviewed people in Tucson, Milwaukee, Las Vegas, a random-shooting victim in Phoenix and a nursing student who witnessed her two professors being shot to death during her 2002 midterm exam at an Arizona university.
I will travel to other states to continue my reporting. Disturbingly, there is no shortage of places to visit regarding these tragic, all-too-common events.
I have never been at a shooting, and I hope I never am. But with the numbers of gun-related violence on the uptick in this country, I half expect that I will witness a shooting in my lifetime.
I pray my children never will.
Deaths by gun fire in the United States are among the highest in the world. In 2017, 12 people out of every 100,000 died in this country, compared to 0.2 deaths in Japan, 0.3 in the UK, 0.9 in Germany and 2.1 in Canada, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study found that “just six countries in the world are responsible for more than half of all 250,000 gun deaths a year. The U.S. is among those six, together with Brazil, Mexico, Columbia, Venezuela and Guatemala.”
Compared to 22 other high-income nations, the gun-related murder rate in the U.S. was 25 times higher in 2010, according to the American Journal of Medicine.
What I’ve discovered on this path of reporting is the bravery, insightfulness, despair and hopefulness of the survivors I’ve met. People who were interviewed by the media for many hours immediately after the shootings, and who are still willing to open up — and often open up their homes — to yet another reporter.
When a shooting happens, especially a mass shooting, journalists swoop in, often focusing on the victims who died or the actions of the perpetrator. These are important stories, of course. But too often those same journalists leave when the next big story breaks, and the tales of the survivors are forgotten.
I’m not sure why I feel called upon to share the stories of these survivors. Simply, I do.
Some survivors I’ve spoken with years after the shooting, others at the first anniversary or even earlier. Meeting with them has been inspiring, emotional, and deep. Being shot or having a family member killed or wounded by gunfire changes a person forever.
What I’ve discovered is the ripple effect of these shootings. Many survivors mention this phenomenon. Like a stone tossed into a pond that creates rippling circles, a gun shot’s impact travels from the people hit, beyond those individuals and outward into the world.
My blog, “The Ripple Effect, the Stories of Gun Violence Survivors,” will encourage survivors to express in their own words what they and their circle of friends and acquaintances have been through, and the impact on their lives months or years after the shootings.
I thank all the survivors who have so generously shared their stories with me. I welcome others to join them as I travel the country, listening.
Mary Tolan is a fiction writer and journalist. Her first published book Mars Hill Murder, a mystery set in Flagstaff, will be published by The Wild Rose Press in autumn of 2023.