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Dealing with Gun Violence and Trauma

People place flowers
People place flowers and pay their respects at a memorial for victims of the Allen Premium Outlets mass shooting, Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Allen, Texas.
Photo: Elías Valverde II / Dallas Morning News Staff Photographer

By Ayesha Hana Shaji
Texas Metro News

Six-year-old William Cho is the lone survivor of his immediate family following a shooter’s rampage at the Allen Premium Outlets in Allen, Texas, over the weekend.

According to a GoFundMe post by the family’s friends, William had just celebrated his sixth birthday four days prior and what was supposed to be a joyful family outing immediately turned into a nightmare.

J Johnson, J the Therapist.
J Johnson, J the Therapist. Photo: Image via Psychology Today

In addition to Cho’s father, mother and three-year-old brother; there were five other fatalities before the shooter, Mauricio Garcia, 33, was fatally shot by police. William was one of seven taken to the hospital after suffering injuries from the attack.

The shooting incident at Allen mall became the 17th mass shooting recorded in Texas, ranking the state as the second-highest in mass shootings occurring this year, behind California.


In the last 130 days, America has reported 208 mass shootings, where four or more individuals are shot or killed, excluding the shooter(s), according to Gun Violence Archive; an online database that collects and tracks data related to gun violence incidents in the United States.

Licensed Professional Counselor Ardenna Downing said the United States is a “numbed-out” nation because of the number of gun violence that is experienced.

“We are becoming numb and that’s a natural response,” Downing said. “Our brains are only able to process so much before it says, ‘no, I don’t want to address that. We’re gonna put that to the side,’ so we become numb.”

But she said it’s important to be self-aware and process the emotions one feels – it’s the first step to healing.

“Sometimes we experience trauma and don’t know that it majorly impacts an area of our life,” Downing said. “Just because a person has experienced a traumatic event doesn’t mean that they’re automatically going to develop symptoms.”

Ardenna Downing
Ardenna Downing Photo: Downing

It is important to acknowledge that experiencing a traumatic event is not okay, Downing said failure to do so leads to people becoming desensitized to the trauma. “Despite telling ourselves that everything is okay, our bodies are unable to forget what has occurred.

Once a person is self-aware they can deal with the changes happening to their body or mind and soul. Therefore, healthy coping mechanisms are important.

So what are some healthy ways to cope?

It can be through a mental health professional like a counselor or a therapist but it can also be achieved by connecting through community, Downing said.

“There have been times when some communities have had what we call healing circles, where people come together [and] they’re connected with each other because they’ve had similar or the same experiences, and they talk about it and they grieve and they allow themselves to be vulnerable and cry,” she said, adding that not being isolated or stigmatized by the system can help a person from leaning toward numbing their emotions through substances.


Downing also said you don’t have to have experienced the shooting or any other act of violence firsthand to develop trauma from it. Witnessing and or hearing about a mass shooting alone can cause trauma and other related disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); which is called secondary trauma.

In the Virginia Tech shooting of 2007, Downing lost a dear friend.

“I lost a friend to a mass shooting years ago, and even to this day, sometimes when I hear and see people experiencing those things, I have strong emotional reactions to them,” she said.

If an individual is indirectly exposed to a traumatic experience, and they believe it’s a threat to their safety or their livelihood or their life, Downing said that it is going to create some stressors and it is going to reinforce trauma.

The Cho family
The Cho family Photo:

She said, living in a digital world where being able to share videos and pictures of traumatic events like mass shootings can affect a person’s mental health substantially and lead to secondary trauma.


“You don’t have to be there but just being exposed to it in different ways, it impacts you negatively,” Downing said.

Sometimes for those who are dealing with secondary trauma, she said coping can be understanding that it’s not something that you chose and it’s not your fault.

Exploring the belief patterns one has around the traumatic event, like the ‘I should’ve,’ ‘would’ve’ or ‘could’ve,’ and identifying how these beliefs do not serve you is crucial, she explained.

Licensed Professional Counselor J Johnson, also known as J the Therapist, said that being compassionate and being curious about one’s emotions can help with coping with secondary trauma.

Knowing when to stop digesting more information about a particular topic, rather than falling into the rabbit hole of details is another way to cope with secondary trauma, Johnson said, adding that self care is another step.

“Self care is more than manicures and pedicures,” Johnson said. “It’s getting sunshine, getting enough sleep, drinking water, calling friends, coloring; if that’s like something that just brings you joy.”

Connecting and speaking to a therapist or someone you trust in your family or within the community is also important. Lastly, Downing mentioned body checking –scanning our body and noticing where we’re holding distress.

“Once we’re able to identify where we hold the stress, whether it’s different physical activities we do, or meditation, or certain therapeutic interventions that can help our bodies relax,” she said. “And once our bodies are relaxed, our brains are able to process information a bit better.”

It is also important to note that people of color might also be more affected by traumatic events like mass shootings.

Downing said her primary clientele are Black and brown children and adolescents who come from neighborhoods with economic disadvantages and have witnessed or experienced gun violence along with other domestic abuse.

A pattern she found was that many have experienced dissociative symptoms where “they shut down, they feel like they’re not in their bodies or they feel like they zone out.”

Coming from Black and brown communities, they also deal with other stressors, whether it has to do with racism, economic disadvantages or lack of access to care.

“Sometimes a way that they have learned how to cope is to be disconnected because they’re lacking that connection with others; whether it’s from professionals, whether it’s just other people that they come across,” Downing said.

The stigma attached to receiving and having access to mental health care in Black and brown communities also comes into play a lot, she said.

In an interview with Fox News Sunday, in light of the Allen mall shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott said addressing mental health, not tightening gun laws, can prevent shootings.

“We’ve seen an increased number of shootings in states with easy gun laws as well as states with very strict gun laws,” Abbott said. “And what Texas is doing in a big-time way, we are working to address that anger and violence by going to its root cause which is addressing the mental health problems behind it.”

He criticized people who want a “quick solution,” by addressing gun controls; while the “long-term solution here is to address the mental health issue.”

Downing said she believes in the right of the people to have weapons to protect themselves, their homes and their families. However, she said the legislation around guns has been loosened in Texas in recent years and that poses a threat.

Texas Democrats are also calling on Texas Republicans to allow for common sense gun safety measures to be implemented in Texas. The Texas Democratic Party is demanding the following five measures: Thorough background checks with no private sale or “gun show” loopholes; Reasonable waiting periods to purchase a firearm; Raise the age to 21 to purchase any firearm in Texas; Extreme Risk Protection Orders; and Strict requirements for safe firearm storage.

Downing said one of the biggest misconceptions about the psychological impact of mass shootings that people have is that it’s one thing or the other – gun control or increased funding for mental health.

“As opposed to what is behind the person whose desire or need to use a gun,” Downing asked. “So looking at both aspects, because like when I think about like suicide, for instance, a person cannot complete suicide if we don’t have the access or the means of doing that, whether it’s pills or guns or etc.”

Taking into consideration that a person needs to have access and the means to conduct a mass shooting is important along with a person’s mental health or their mental state, she said.

The Collin County Parents Against Gun Violence (CCPAGV) will be traveling to the State Capitol in Austin on May 15, to meet with state lawmakers and demand the implementation of common sense gun safety legislation.

This grassroots organization was formed in response to the Allen mall shooting and aims to address the urgent need for stricter gun control measures and has reached out to State Representative Jeff Leach and State Senator Angela Paxton to outline their proposed reforms.

Members of That Gun Talk are also advocating for safe use of firearms.

That Gun Talk, the Philadelphia chapter of The National African American Gun Association, announced its participation in National Black Range Day on Sunday, June 18.

Jerel Crew, Sr., President of That Gun Talk said the event is an opportunity to “celebrate our culture, while also promoting responsible gun ownership and self-defense education.”

Karise Crew, Founder of That Gun Talk, said they want to provide a safe and supportive environment for attendees to learn about responsible gun ownership and self-defense and will have certified instructors on hand.

Proper use of firearms is important, agrees experts.

“But I think that most people would agree like mass shootings shouldn’t be something we have to worry about,” Johnson said. “I shouldn’t have to worry about going to school, sending my kids to school and them getting shot or sending my kid to the mall and then getting shot, or me going to a concert and getting shot.

According to Johnson, the violence is impacting children and parents need to have these conversations with their kids about how they’re feeling and how they’re thinking about what is occurring.

And when trauma hits as close to home as it did with the Cho Family; intervention is going to be important.

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