The Devastating Ways Kids Can Be Indirectly Harmed by Gun Violence

Children Under Fire cover

Children Under Fire author John Woodrow Cox talks about the irreparable harm of America’s gun problem

The thousands of children who are killed or wounded in the U.S. each year from gun violence dominate headlines, but they represent only a fraction of the problem, John Woodrow Cox writes in his new book, Children Under Fire

“The scope of this is so much bigger than most people believe,” Cox told KCM.

Kids who witness shootings in their schools and neighborhoods, or who have lost friends and family from gunfire, often struggle alone with trauma, Cox says. Children like Tyshaun McPhatter, whose father was gunned down when he was 8, and Ava Olsen, whose best friend was killed by a gunman who opened fire at her South Carolina elementary school. 

The book explores the heartbreaking ways Tyshaun, Ava and others have been irreparably harmed by these experiences. Tyshaun’s grief would manifest in angry fits at school. Ava’s would also result in explosive outbursts, leading her to be home-schooled and medicated with antidepressants and antipsychotics. She’d wear headphones outside the house to guard against loud, sudden noises and cover the “scary” woods in her books — gun, fire, blood — with stickers, Cox writes. 

“I felt like I had read about kids, who have been shot and killed,” Cox said. “Very rarely had I read about these kids who just suffer indirectly, but whose pain is just enormous.”

We spoke to Cox, a Washington Post reporter whose series on the haunting effects of gun violence was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He discusses his new book, the alarming scope of this problem, and how few resources there are to help the children affected. 

KCM: In your book, you look at how gun violence can indirectly damage children for years. Can you talk about when you first realized this was an issue that you wanted to further explore?

John Woodrow Cox: There were two pretty definitive moments. The first piece of gun violence coverage I did in 2017 was about a little boy named Tyshaun, who was central to the book. His father was shot to death in the middle of the day while Tyshaun was in school. I realized in reporting on his trauma and all his struggles in the aftermath of that — here was a kid who was not considered a victim legally of anything. And he was dealing with the debilitating trauma, loss and anguish because of his father’s death. He represented in my mind millions of kids, who have lost parents to gun violence. 

The other was when I went up to South Carolina to write about a school shooting. I realized in the course of reporting on the kids at that school, that some of them hadn’t been out there and couldn’t hear the shots. So many of these kids were struggling in a really profound way. They hear loud noises and they hit the ground and have nightmares. And again, none of these other children were considered victims.

For me, it was this revelatory thing that we don’t understand the scope of gun violence in this country, in part because we only think about the people who get shot, even when it’s so much bigger than that.

Can you explain how just being in the vicinity of gun violence can affect children, according to the psychologists and therapists?

I think it’s important to say that most kids who experience something like a school shooting or a shooting down the street, will be OK. We have really no way to predict who will be OK and who won’t. Certainly, the kids who live in communities where there is chronic gun violence, many of them exist in a state of hypervigilance. It’s not dissimilar at all from what happens to people who go to war and come back and they still deal with PTSD and are constantly on guard. And for kids, that can mean they’ll often lash out more, deal with more depression and anxiety. And it will literally shorten their lifespan, because of the heart disease that causes, or the cancer that can cause just from all that enormous stress. 

There was a researcher I talked to in Philadelphia who made this fascinating discovery. That kids inside these schools would constantly have their back to the wall and when you would ask them why they couldn’t even explain it. It was an instinctive reaction just because of their everyday life because they didn’t know when someone would pull a gun or when a stray bullet would strike them. They were on guard all the time. 

There was some research out of Chicago that showed that a week after a homicide they saw that in the neighborhood kids had lower test scores. We don’t account for how widespread this problem is.

What kinds of resources do children affected by gun violence have access to? And in your view is it enough?

It’s really limited and it’s not nearly enough. The therapy that these kids often need is very expensive, and parents are pretty much left alone to find treatment for their children. Only in these high-profile cases do you see this influx of outsiders who come in to offer therapeutic services and things like that. Most kids, especially in Black and brown communities, are left to deal with this on their own, and it’s often prohibitively expensive. 

Tyshaun’s mother tried really hard to get him to care, and just really couldn’t do it. And in that rural area in South Carolina, there just weren’t that many people with the expertise to help those kids. 

Kids, especially in these cities where gun violence is chronic, they do not have support. Maybe they have some from their teachers and peers, but these people are not professionally trained to deal with the child who’s suffering from trauma. We’re failing in a really devastating way. 

You interview several children for the book, but you focus on two in particular — Tyshaun and Ava. Why did you choose to center the book on these two kids?

In part, it was because they had not been physically wounded but their trauma was as extreme as I had seen. And frankly, both of them are still struggling with pain and anger and loss. I felt like I had read a great deal about kids who had been shot and killed, largely in school shootings but some other places as well, very rarely had I read about these kids who just suffer indirectly, but whose pain is just enormous. 

I was also really drawn by their relationships. Here you have a Black from Southeast Washington D.C., a pretty liberal place. And a white child from rural South Carolina, which is very conservative. And they are now dear friends, who write each other letters and FaceTime. And the only reason they have a relationship is because of gun violence and to me that was just totally remarkable.

You write about school lockdowns and how they can impact the mental health of children in ways that even the duck-and-cover drills during the Cold War didn’t. Why is that?

I hear that comparison constantly, especially from the baby boomer generation who grew up with that. The first distinction I always draw, and why it’s such a terrible comparison, is because kids of that era were not seeing nuclear bombs dropped on other kids every single week. And that is something that kids who are going through lockdown actually see. They’re preparing for something that is not theoretical. They’re preparing for something that is real, and they know it’s real because of events like Parkland and El Paso. They’ve seen children die. So why shouldn’t they think that it could happen to them as well?

You have more than 4 million kids, likely closer to 8 million kids, who go through actual lockdowns, not the drill, every year. The significant portion of those kids are going to think, at least for a few seconds, I might die in my school. That’s where we are as a society.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?

I hope that they understand that the scope of this is so much bigger than most people believe. Also, I hope that they realize that this is not hopeless at all. There are small things we can do like having universal background checks or like offering resources to children who have been traumatized. That would make an enormous difference. We’re not going to go from 40,000-plus dead a year to zero, but if we go to 30,000 and if we can cut the number of kids killed in half, that would be worth it. It’s attainable.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Written and reported by Rachel Uda.