What Happens to Those Not Shot: The Social Consequences of Gun Violence

Ray Williams
5 min readApr 8, 2024
Image source: New York Times

Mass shootings have tragically become a frequent headline in American society, signalling a disturbing trend where ordinary locations transform into sites of violence.

These incidents are not limited to the realms of the hypothetical or the rare; they have infiltrated spaces once considered safe havens — concert venues, movie theatres, places of worship, educational institutions, and dining establishments now bear the scars of gun violence. This phenomenon reflects a broader societal issue that transcends the immediate tragedy of the events themselves, shedding light on the pervasive sense of insecurity that has seeped into the fabric of everyday life.

The discourse surrounding mass shootings often pivots to the mental health of the perpetrator, sparking debates between those who view it as a central issue and others who argue it distracts from a critical examination of gun control laws and the accessibility of firearms, many of which possess capabilities that dramatically increase their lethality.

Yet, what frequently remains underexplored is the profound impact these events have on the broader community: survivors, bystanders, first responders, those who have lost loved ones, and even individuals who learn of the tragedy through media coverage.

For those who directly survive such harrowing events, the psychological aftermath can be severe and enduring. Like other animals, humans can experience intense stress or terror when exposed to life-threatening situations. This can manifest in various ways, including an aversion to places or situations reminiscent of the trauma, such as avoiding the neighborhood where the incident occurred or shunning specific social gatherings.

In extreme cases, this exposure can lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition that affects approximately 8% of the American population. PTSD can develop following exposure to a range of traumatic events, including but not limited to armed conflict, natural disasters, violent assaults, and, pertinent to this discussion, gun violence.

PTSD is characterized by a spectrum of symptoms, including heightened anxiety, evasion of trauma reminders, emotional numbness, an increased state of alertness, and recurrent, intrusive memories of the traumatic event. Sufferers may find themselves in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight, bracing for the next catastrophe. The impact of man-made traumas, such as mass shootings, can be especially profound, with rates of PTSD reaching as high as 36% among survivors. Additionally, depression, another significant mental health condition, is prevalent in up to 80% of individuals with PTSD. Survivors may also grapple with survivor’s guilt, tormenting themselves with thoughts of perceived failures to protect others or simply for having survived when others did not. While some individuals may naturally recover from PTSD, many require therapeutic interventions, which can include psychotherapy and medication. The longer PTSD is left untreated, the more severe its impact on the brain and the more challenging it becomes to address.

The psychological toll extends beyond the immediate survivors to those who were in proximity to the shooting or involved in the aftermath, including first responders. Humans are acutely attuned to the emotions of others, and witnessing severe trauma can be enough to induce PTSD, even in those who were not directly threatened by the event.

The sight of chaos, suffering, and death can profoundly affect those nearby or those who arrive later to provide aid, including police officers, firefighters, and paramedics. For these individuals, repeated exposure to such scenes can lead to significant psychological distress, with reports indicating that up to 20% of first responders to incidents of man-made violence experience PTSD.

Moreover, the ripple effects of mass shootings reach those who are not physically present but are exposed to the events through media coverage. Survivors of shootings may also experience survivor’s guilt, the feeling that they failed others who died, did not do enough to help them survive or just because they survived. The constant barrage of news reporting on such tragedies can induce feelings of distress, anxiety, and even symptoms of PTSD among the wider population. This phenomenon underscores the profound impact of media coverage, which can oscillate between informative and sensationalistic, potentially exacerbating the climate of fear and insecurity.

Children and adolescents are in a developmental stage of forming their worldview and how safe it is to live in this society. Exposure to such horrific experiences or related news can fundamentally affect the way they perceive the world as a safe or unsafe place and how much they can rely on adults and society to protect them. They can carry such a worldview for the rest of their lives and even transfer it to their children.

The effect on those close by or who arrive later

PTSD can develop not only through personal exposure to trauma, but also via exposure to others’ severe trauma. Humans are evolved to be very sensitive to social cues and have survived as a species particularly because of the ability to fear as a group. We therefore learn fear and experience terror via exposure to trauma and fear of others. Even seeing a black-and-white scared face on a computer will make our amygdala, the fear area of our brain, light up in brain imaging studies.

People in the vicinity of a mass shooting may see exposed, disfigured or burned dead bodies, injured people in agony, terror of others, extremely loud noises, chaos and terror of post-shooting, and the unknown. The unknown — a sense of lack of control over the situation — has a very important role in making people feel insecure, terrified and traumatized.

In a world where newscasts frequently resemble compilations of disaster footage, the role of the media in shaping public perception and emotional response becomes a topic of critical importance. The sensationalization of violence can contribute to a pervasive atmosphere of fear, affecting how individuals view their safety and the safety of their loved ones in what were once considered secure environments. It can also influence societal attitudes, fostering community division and mistrust by amplifying fears and stereotypes.

As mass shootings continue to cast a long shadow over American society, it is imperative to acknowledge and address the wide-reaching impact of gun violence — not only on the direct victims but on the collective psyche of the nation. Understanding and mitigating this impact requires a comprehensive approach that includes addressing the roots of gun violence, providing support and treatment for those affected by trauma, and fostering a media environment that prioritizes responsible reporting and sensitivity to the psychological effects of exposure to violence. We can only begin to heal the wounds inflicted by this grave societal challenge through a demand for significant changes.



Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others