After Gun Violence, Here's How to Actually Help
It's easy to feel hopeless. But there are ways we can all make an impact.
The list of communities torn apart by mass shootings keeps growing. Updating this on August 5, 2019 we can add Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas — which suffered massive gun violence events within the span of 24 hours. With each one, we collectively go through the all-too-familiar motions (and emotions): There’s shock at how this could happen (again), anger over the senseless violence, grief and sorrow for the lives lost and families shattered. There are thoughts and prayers and calls for action that seem to go nowhere. The anxiety sets in. Fears that our workplace, our school, our place of worship could be next run through our heads. Or our movie theater. Our shopping mall. Our gas station. And then there’s the numbness, the sense of hopelessness: When will it end?
It’s natural to feel discouraged, distraught and even depressed in the wake of public shared traumas, like mass shooting events. But there are some ways to channel your feelings of despair into (hopefully) positive change.
Pause to Process (and Grieve)
Even those who aren’t directly impacted by the violence often report symptoms of depression and grief, including sorrow, trouble sleeping and a lack of concentration following a mass shooting, according to the American Psychological Association. Recognizing and embracing those emotions is key to not becoming disillusioned and jaded. “It is so important to not just gloss over when a tragedy happens,” says Shannon Watts, a leading gun control advocate and founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “[We need] to think about it, to process it and to grieve that it is happening in our country.”
Don’t be surprised if your response manifests in physical ways, too. According to the APA, you may even feel sore or off balance in the wake of a shooting. Give yourself time and space to heal and, don’t hesitate to get professional help by seeing a counselor, therapist or psychologist.
It can be hard to turn away from the wall-to-wall coverage that follows each incident. But doing so is paramount for protecting your own mental health. “While getting the news informs you, being overexposed to it can actually increase your stress,” the APA advises. “The images can be very powerful in reawakening your feeling of distress.” If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the heartbreak and sorrow filling the news cycle, turn off CNN, log out of Twitter and try something restorative that brings you joy (yoga, a bath, a walk around the park with a friend), instead.
Take Action (Even on a Small Scale)
Research suggests even the smallest acts of altruism can help you feel good. And in the wake of a tragedy, taking action can also give you a sense of purpose. Civilly inclined? Call your lawmaker or RSVP for the next gun safety march in your neck of the woods. If you want to do something more personal, you could write a condolence card to send to survivors (the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, for example, has been collecting cards for those affected by the synagogue shooting at Squirrel Hill) or volunteer for a completely unrelated nonprofit in your community. Spend a lot of time on Twitter? Report or block trolls spewing hate and threats, another unfortunate staple in the aftermath of mass shootings.
If you are in a position to contribute financially, there are typically GoFundMe campaigns and other fundraisers to benefit survivors and families of victims (just be sure to do your research to make sure they’re legit). If you think the answer lies in gun laws, give to a group or politician that supports that cause. And in cases where a particular group has been targeted — think LGBTQ individuals in the Pulse Nightclub shooting — you could also show support for members of that community by making a donation to an advocacy organization. Another option? Add a regular calendar reminder to give blood. While some studies have shown the influx of donors immediately following mass shootings or disasters can lead to surplus blood going unused, frequent donations will ensure there’s supply available when tragedy strikes.
Talk it Out
It’s important to remember that you’re not alone in experiencing these traumas. Discussing your fears and feelings can help you process them. Turn to a supportive family member, friend or therapist and open up. It’s especially important to talk to any teens in your life, given the anxiety that school shootings is causing for Gen-Z (three in four Americans ages 15 to 21 cited mass shootings as a significant stressor in one recent APA survey). Younger kids can be impacted by what they hear on the news, too. The APA advises that parents keep an eye out for signs of anxiety and stress and not shy away from broaching the subject with their children. “The conversation may not seem easy, but taking a proactive stance, discussing difficult events in age-appropriate language can help a child feel safer and more secure,” APA’s health resource center says.
Talking through the issue can also help stem fears by putting the violence in perspective. While mass and public shootings tend to dominate the headlines, they remain relatively rare. In fact, data suggest mass public shootings aren’t happening more frequently (though those that do occur claim more victims than in years past). The vast majority of gun deaths are still homicides or suicides.
Make Your Long-Term Action Plan
The most important work will happen after the headlines (and shock) of the latest shooting dissipates. So use that anger, sadness, or whatever motivating emotion you have going on to plot out how you plan to make a difference in the long-term. For Watts, the sadness she feels following a shooting often morphs into anger, which she calls a “very useful emotion” for affecting change. The day after the late-October massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, for example, Watts went out canvassing for a state candidate in Colorado. “It's easy to lose sight in times like this, but it's really important to remember that we are winning on this issue,” she says. “Everyone is waiting for a cathartic moment in Congress, so sometimes they may feel like we're not making progress. But we are.”
She points to stricter gun laws that have passed in 19 states over the past year (including 10 with Republican governors), not to mention the group’s high rate of blocking National Rifle Association-backed bills, as proof. On top of that, there's been an influx of activists running for office themselves. But in order to keep up that momentum, they need more support. Groups like Moms Demand Action (you don’t have to be a mom to join) and Students Demand Action, both of which are part of Everytown for Gun Safety, and March for Our Lives can keep you informed on what’s coming down the policy pipeline in your state — and how you can help. And if lobbying lawmakers isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other ways to act. In addition to its political advocacy, Moms Demand Action puts on gun safety trainings, campaigns for corporate policy changes, and more.
“It is it is not enough to just be sad or mad,” Watts says. “You have to get involved.”