Fear, Guns and Trauma: As American as Apple Pie

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I was born and raised in Southwest Atlanta, GA. I take time to specify the part of the city I was raised in, because that upbringing and the experiences that came with it have shaped the majority of my biases and opinions, for better or for worse. I am a black male, from an upper-middle class family, with what most (myself included) would consider a very healthy and stable dynamic. Two loving, supportive, college educated parents, a nice home and strong community support system. Despite these facts, for which I am grateful, the dynamics of my childhood are actually quite complex. Many families and households in my community were just like ours. They raised children who were privileged enough to have standards and expectations for their lives, hopes and possibilities for a future without limits, and a sense of security that was rarely threatened. Many more families still, both inside and neighboring communities, had completely different dynamics. From those families, many of the children who would become my classmates, teammates and very dear friends were born.

I frame this to say, my upbringing provided me with a unique perspective on the way people behave, and how their background affects them. I am keenly aware and boundlessly fascinated by what motivates us to act in one way or another and what experiences and values inform those decisions. I cannot help but believe that my childhood drives these curiosities. In my life experience, three prevailing themes have made themselves apparent to me in varying contexts. Those themes are fear, trauma and gun culture. In this context, I will do my best to discuss how these themes impact the way we view the causes of, and react to violent criminality in America.

What role does fear play in influencing our reactions, and often times our approaches to other people, situations and events? You don’t have to look very far to find modern popular news examples of people either making or claiming fear informed decisions. George Zimmerman argued that he was afraid of Trayvon Martin. Michael Dunn argued that he was afraid of Jordan Davis and his friends. Darren Wilson is presumed to have been scared for his life during his encounter with Mike Brown. Jonathan Ferrell was shot ten times by an officer out of an alleged fear. It’s obvious now that my bias is showing, but I do pose the question, how are we characterizing fear in these contexts? Why is fear such a readily accessible and acceptable tool to leverage for defense of unforgivable behavior in very specific circumstances? In each of these cases, “fear” triggered confrontation. Is it safe to assume that fear is an element that motivates us to act in violence and hyper vigilance? For me, it appears that fear is versatile enough to be both motivator and excuse. How perpetually afraid of other American citizens are we, if we’re ready to accept the notion that those who are trained and paid to protect us are equally afraid? Just how dangerous is Blackness? One thing I can say with absolute confidence is that fear is an emotion that is relatable. That holds especially true when discussing fear of a culture’s de facto boogieman. Of course those men, who in each of those cases happened to be the only ones armed and still breathing, were afraid.

Now, I’m not one to argue against protecting yourself or the people you love. I find this to be both necessary, and admirable. I do question the appropriateness of using the term “fear” loosely. I speculate on how much easier it is to hate something or someone you fear. I also contend that the presence of an actual threat has long been unnecessary for fear to rule the day, and served up as a plausible explanation for preemptive strikes of violence. Fear is a product sold better than any other in American culture.



Gun Ownership

What does this have to do with guns? Well recent surveys suggest that gun owners tout protection as the primary reason they own firearms.  Protection from what exactly? A pervasive culture of crime and violence, no doubt. Who can blame us? It’s a crazy world we live in, and it seems to be more violent and unpredictable by the day. Except it isn’t.  According to the FBI, violent crime rates were nearly cut in half from 1993 to 2012. So as crime rates plummet, private gun ownership remains robust and police militarization sky rockets. What is the driving factor? The power and effectiveness of fear as a motivator to act. Fear is not the only thing that motivates our behavior, but it’s undeniably one of the most potent influencers. Without grabbing my tinfoil hat and traveling down conspiracy theory lane, I will say that there are a lot of people who profit greatly from an adequately startled general public.

So what role do gun culture and trauma play in my life? This is where we go back to the complex dynamics of my childhood in Southwest Atlanta. I graduated from Westlake High School in 2005. As I’m writing this, in October of 2014, I can readily name 12 different young men who have lost their lives to gun violence since my high school graduation, in most cases over petty cash, petty arguments or petty ego bruises. These are young men I knew personally. We took classes together. We competed with and against each other in little league, middle school and high school sports. We shared jokes, laughs and some degree of familiarity and respect for one another. I can name countless others who either have, or are serving time in prison. Unfortunately, the number of people I can name is dramatically dwarfed by the numbers others can. At a relatively young age, I had to reconcile the very black and white concepts of good and evil with the very gray concept of good people doing bad things. I learned to reserve judgment in reading headlines or watching news stories about yet another shooting. Yet another robbery. Yet another person bringing irreparable damage to someone’s life, family and community, as well as their own. I learned to do this, because I recognized some of those faces. I knew some of their stories; and without making excuses for them, I could understand that there was always more to the story than the headlines. In the same way that the media and general public tend to clamor for a plausible explanation in a white male mass shooter’s past that may have impacted his mental health, I speculate on instances and circumstances of trauma that lead to nearly every violent crime I hear of.

Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. I reached out to Yveka Pierre, B.S. J.D Candidate 2015, for her thoughts and experiences in working with children and adolescents in the criminal justice system, to help clarify some of my thoughts. Pierre has an undergraduate degree in Interdisciplinary Social Science and Criminology from Florida State University.  One of the first things that Ms. Pierre clarified for me, is the difference between acute and complex trauma.

“There’s a lot of research on the impact of complex trauma on the social and emotional development of those who experience it. The bulk of my trauma research and work has been focused upon complex trauma. In short, continual exposure to trauma changes the way the brain works when exposed to stress, and in the youth, it changes the way the brain is formed. Howard Bath wrote an article in 2008 called The Three Pillars of Trauma informed care in which he explains some of the reactions those who live through complex trauma may have. These symptoms are, but are not limited to repeated cue triggered involuntary re-experiencing of terror and helplessness, hyper-arousal, hyper-vigilance and exaggerated startled responses. When someone has lived through complex trauma they’re in a sense rewired. Their fight or flight instinct never turns off. Imagine that life, to never turn off. Emotionally, you are not in control, socially, you can never adjust.”

Sounds terrifying, no? It makes me wonder how many of the people I grew up with and encountered everyday have experienced, or are experiencing this sort of trauma. Even at varying degrees of perceived extremes, if it impacts our behavior that deeply, I believe it’s worth discussing. When we reduce someone’s behavior and personality to inherently evil, bad, or even crazy or foolish, I feel we dismiss their history and their humanity.  As the often used saying goes, hurt people do hurt people. I asked Pierre about her personal experiences working with children who have lived through complex trauma and how she has seen it play out.

“Personally I’ve seen complex trauma play out really sadly in youth that I’ve worked with in a variety of capacities, from Guardian ad litem work, to juvenile justice mentoring, to after school programs with second through fifth graders. People outside looking in seem to think trauma only comes in the form of what you see in an episode of SVU. It does. It happens much more often than we like to think, but it also comes from continual exposure to violence, and a variety of other possibilities. When a child’s fight of flight response doesn’t turn off due to continual exposure to trauma, they enter a state of hyper-arousal in their hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis and their sympathetic nervous system…In short you end up with children where the two halves of their brains are not communicating well. Kids who end up in more fights, aren’t able to properly control their emotions, or communicate effectively about their feelings. What’s worse, these endocrine changes, aren’t met with trauma informed trained caretakers who know how to help children with these needs. You end up with this cycle of children being re-traumatized because the systems they’re enrolled in don’t know how to deal with their needs, or that they do have to deal with them. And the more punishments are stacked, the more trapped these kids feel, until they give up. It’s like when you have a lit scented candle, and someone puts a cover on top, and you can see the light slowly snuffed out due to lack of oxygen, we have to learn how to help our kids breathe.”

That insight gets pretty scientific, admittedly, but isn’t that sort of the point? That there is a concrete explanation for the way people behave that goes beyond the surface observation of whether what they’ve done is good or bad, and universally applying that characterization to their being? This leads me to wonder just how pervasive complex trauma is, and how under diagnosed it is in our country. While Yveka Pierre may not be able to quantify this for us off the top of her head, she does have perspective from working directly with children in the system.

“When I was a social work minor at Florida State University we learned about how to do psychosocial history. Talking to family members, teachers, neighbors, friends, to get a full view of who our clients are and what they’ve experienced. Many public defender offices work with criminally trained social workers for this reason. Though this is usually used in sentencing to paint your clients as human for judges who have not had a chance to know your client as well as you do, many attorneys use it to frame their cases. Many clients who end up in the criminal justice system have experienced some sort of trauma. If all jurisdictions began asking during pretrial after arrest we would be shocked, appalled and saddened at how large that number is.”

What can we do with this knowledge? Having the conversation is a start, but I think we’re all aware that conversations are had about any number of issues without much work and action being put behind the words. Fear is now, and always has been an effective and profitable tool to leverage in motivating the general public. It is less time and energy consuming to convey fear than it is understanding and practical solutions. Gun usage and the right to carry are boxes that are now open, and cannot be closed. United States citizens own nearly one gun per person, which is 50% more than the next two countries. Perhaps discussing how pervasive fear and trauma are, and how they impact the most gun obsessed country in the world is a decent place to start. Improving the conditions in which the children of this country are raised in, regardless of skin color or socioeconomic background is a lofty goal. So much so, that we have resigned to dismissing its relevance with idioms like “Life isn’t fair”.  What I would like to know from the readers, is what type of programs are in place to strengthen, nurture and educate your community? Please use this platform as an opportunity to spread the word and good works of proactive programs that are striving the impact the youth in your community. Their causes need to be championed and celebrated.


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