Illustration by Derrick Dent
It’s 7 p.m. on a Wednesday night, on the heels of the dinner hour. But instead of cleaning up the kitchen, a group of 15 women, mostly mothers and grandmothers, have gathered at Republic Coffee to talk about gun violence. They share dismay and frustration about the growing prevalence of gun violence in America. They want a safer world for their children, for all children. So they’ve joined Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America or more simply Mothers Demand Action (MDA), a grassroots organization campaigning for new and stronger solutions to lax gun laws.
Chapter leader Kristi Glassman leads the volunteers as they discuss calling and tweeting legislators, traveling to Nashville to meet lawmakers, and sharing the message of gun safety with parents. MDAGSA is part of Every Town for Gun Safety, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country.
Their urgency is understandable.
Consider this: From January 2015 to the present, there have been 338 shootings by children under the age of 17. Of those, 115 people have died and 223 have been injured, says the Centers for Disease Control.
Thus far in 2016, there have been 69 shootings by children. Last year, a toddler in America — a toddler — shot someone approximately once a week due to improperly secured firearms.
Memphis part of national trend
Events locally reflect this growing trend: On Christmas morning in 2012, 10-year-old Alfreddie Gipson was fatally shot in the stomach after he and his brother found an unsecured handgun in the bedroom. Four-year old Joshua Johnson died in 2013 after the gun he was playing with went off. Thus far in 2016, at least three children have been wounded by accidental gunfire.
Gipson’s life was among those chronicled in MSNBC’s ongoing series “Too Young to Die,” stories of children who have died as a result of gun violence. The series started after the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in December 2012 that claimed 26 lives. Twenty were 6- and 7-year-olds.
MSNBC reporter Michele Richinick began the series in 2013. By the end of that year, nearly 200 more children would die from gun violence. “A lot of these families tell me they’re pro-gun and they own multiple guns. So it’s not about whether you’re pro- or anti-gun with this series, it’s about gun safety,” she says. “If you are going to have a gun in the home, you need to know about safety.”
Currently, more than 2 million children live in homes where guns are not securely stored.
“We need to put the responsibility in the hands of adults per gun safety at home,” says Kristi Glassman, Moms Demand Action’s chapter leader. “It’s an adult’s responsibility to keep guns out of harm’s way, not the child’s responsibility to touch or not touch it.”
What is the impact of gun violence?
The problem isn’t just children playing with guns or getting caught in crossfire, the prevalence of gun violence in our neighborhoods casts a dark shadow of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety for families. Social worker Angie Thomason, who counsels parents at the Universal Parenting Place at Knowledge Quest in South Memphis, says just last week a beloved retiree and mentor to school children in a nearby neighborhood was killed in gun crossfire. A single mother with several school-aged children came to talk to her about the incident.
“This mother was angry, especially because it happened to someone so important to the children,” says Thomason. The mother was also worried, wondering how the loss would impact not just her children but others, too, since the man was someone neighborhood kids looked up to and trusted.
The chronic stress of worrying about safety can negatively impact children. “Moms won’t let kids ride their bikes, they can’t go outside without supervision,” says Thomason. “And that alters a child’s ability to make friends, to have the freedom to be themselves.”
For Glassman, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area before relocating to Memphis, worrying about guns has been something new. “It wasn’t until I had small children that I realized how prevalent guns are here. Now I ask if guns are in the home and whether they are safely stored.”
At the Wednesday night meeting with MDA, volunteers discuss how to raise the question of gun safety without offending others. All agree, it’s a conversation that must take place.
Trauma as a public health issue
I later attend a meeting coordinated by the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department that focuses on helping social workers and nonprofits who care for children understand how trauma and stress can affect a child’s behavior.
Timothy Moore, a reading specialist and creative writing teacher at GRAD Academy Memphis says the discussion of traumatic stress resonates. After watching Wounded Places, a film that examines the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among crime victims, he says in his group, two teens out of six have lost parents to gun violence.
“The area we live in is one of the poorest in Memphis,” he notes. His students face the typical issues of adolescence in addition to the stressors of living in poverty. To help them cope, Moore’s students use journals to explore their feelings. He tells me a popular student at Wooddale High School had died just weeks before in a shooting. Since it was on the minds of his students, they discussed the teen’s death in class and talked about choices.
“These kids often feel like they don’t have a lot of choices,” Moore says. “But your surroundings don’t have to dictate who you become. If we can teach them how to make better choices, they can create a different narrative for themselves, one that’s wider than the two blocks of their neighborhood.”
The state is working on several fronts to address adverse childhood experiences and how stressors such as gun violence and trauma negatively impact children’s health and well-being. “We don’t look at what’s behind the story of the crime on the 10 o’clock news,” notes Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell. “Seldom do we focus on the pain that’s happened in their youth.” By not recognizing trauma, it becomes normalized, he says.
The aim is making trauma a public health issue and providing professional training to shift how children are treated, by moving away from addressing bad behavior to learning what has happened in the child’s life and treating them more holistically.
“Most parents don’t correlate behavior with events,” says Thomason. “We want to make them more aware of how events or chronic stress can impact a child’s physical and emotional health.”
What Can You Do?
Get Help in the Community
Universal Parenting Place (UPP) offers free counseling to parents with children experiencing behavioral issues. They also offer meditation and support groups. Find out more on Facebook.
UPP at Baptist Women’s Hospital, 227-9558
6225 Humphreys Boulevard, 5th floor, 38120
UPP at Knowledge Quest, 207-3694
990 College Dr., Suite 104, 38126
Get Help Online
• Be Smart campaign (Besmartforkids.org) - Launched by Every Town to help parents talk about responsible gun storage
• Network for Overcoming Violence & Abuse (NOVA) Shelbycountynova.net has quick links to a host of Memphis agencies that assist families and kids
• National Child Traumatic Stress Network – Nctsn.org, information to help understand what trauma looks like and how best to help someone manage
Provide Help at Home
When a child has experienced gun violence or other forms of trauma:
Remain calm and reinforce a stable and safe environment
Keep a regular routine for meals, quiet time, playtime, and bedtime
Help your child prepare for changes and new experiences
Spend more time together as a family
Be patient and let your child identify and express his or her feelings
Provide extra attention, comfort, and encouragement
Source: Defending Childhood, Department of Justice
• Moms Demand Action – Meets first Wednesday at 7 p.m. For location, join MomsDemandAction.org
• Everytown.org – Learn how you can take action