Preventing Gun Violence & Reducing Trauma in the United States

“Mental health professionals bring a particular perspective that is needed to reduce trauma and prevent shootings.”

Susan B. Sorenson, PhD, Professor of Social Policy, Professor of Health & Societies, and Senior Fellow in Public Health at the University of Pennsylvania

Gun violence is a public health crisis in the United States. Every day, over 100 Americans die from gun violence, and more than 200 survive a gunshot wound. More young people die from guns than from car crashes. The ripple effects of gun violence profoundly impact families, institutions, and communities. A 2019 Gallup poll found that nearly half of all Americans fear becoming a victim of a mass shooting. More than half of all gun deaths in the country are suicides. 

The links between mental health and gun violence are complex. People with severe mental illness do not perpetrate most gun violence. But both the antecedents and the effects of gun violence have strong links to mental health, and mental health professionals have a crucial role in treating the trauma of survivors, witnesses, and victims. 

The year’s National Gun Violence Survivors’ Awareness Week runs from February 1 to February 7, 2023. It’s a time to honor the stories of survivors and take stock of the massive toll gun violence takes on America. 

Read on to learn more about gun violence in the US and how mental professionals play an important role in its prevention and treatment.

Meet the Expert: Susan B. Sorenson, PhD

Susan B. Sorenson, PhD, is a professor of social policy, a professor of health & societies, and a senior fellow in public health at the University of Pennsylvania. She also served as faculty director of the Ortner Center on Violence & Abuse, an interdisciplinary center that involves nine of Penn’s twelve schools.

Dr. Sorenson has published widely in the epidemiology and prevention of violence, including homicide, suicide, sexual assault, child abuse, battering, and firearms. She helped establish violence against women as a public health issue and furthered the study of firearms as a consumer product. A primary focus of her work is the social context in which violence occurs, specifically, the norms that shape whether and how violence is tolerated.

Preventing Gun Violence in the US

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there is no single profile for the person who will commit an act of gun violence. Instead, gun violence arises from a confluence of risk factors that can combine and change through childhood and adolescence. For many, it can seem to be woven into the fabric of American life.  

“Firearm violence permeates society,” says Dr. Susan B. Sorenson. “Whether the street, churches, nightclubs, homes, and, of course, schools, we’re seeing some of the highest ever numbers of firearm deaths and injuries. The losses are painful.”

Prevention on the individual level involves identifying individuals at risk for committing acts of violence and needing assistance. But violence is nuanced, and the distinction between impulsive violence and targeted violence is important when crafting intervention strategies; most gun violence falls under the impulsive category, while mass shootings are targeted and predatory. Crisis counselors, in particular, have an important role in preventing gun violence, with some singled out for praise by the White House in the past. 

In preventing acts of targeted violence, behavioral threat assessments performed by mental health professionals can help discern whether an individual has access to firearms and the inclination to use them. In preventing acts of impulsive violence, mental health professionals help individuals to develop de-escalation skills and coping mechanisms; they will also work with any underlying mental health issues like depression and anxiety, and provide treatment as necessary.

Reducing Trauma in Survivors, Victims, and Witnesses

Mass shootings are the lethal lightning strike of gun violence. Frightening and unpredictable, they occupy an outsized portion of the American mind. The victims of these incidents of gun violence extend far beyond those who are hit with bullets, resulting in trauma that can have tragic and cyclical effects. Notably, the number of accidental gun killings surged after the school shooting at Sandy Hook in 2012.

“Shootings, even when no one is injured, reverberate throughout a community, increasing fear and mistrust, which motivate more people to obtain guns,” Dr. Sorenson says. “It’s a loop we need to break.”

One set of studies on school shootings found that exposure to shootings resulted in an increase in the likelihood of youth antidepressant use and suicide risk; notably, ‘exposure’ was not defined as being physically present for the shooting itself, but instead living in the community or going to the school where the shooting happened. People who live in a county where a mass shooting has occurred can experience lower community well-being and mental and emotional health, even if they didn’t witness the shooting. 

“Mental health professionals bring a particular perspective that is needed to reduce trauma and prevent shootings,” Dr. Sorenson says. “Responding after something horrible has happened is important, but there’s more. An article by a colleague identified five roles: as a clinician helping people repair from trauma, as a manager of fear, as a researcher, as a policy advocate, and as a leader.” 

The Future of Gun Violence in the US

Mental health professionals can help advocate for a more compassionate and intelligent approach to gun violence in the US. That advocacy can take several forms: working to dismantle toxic stereotypes around gender and aggression; lobbying for more funding for mental health initiatives; broadening the definition of survivor and victim; and fighting against the marketing of firearms as a consumer good.

But the most effective method of reducing gun violence remains reducing the ease of an individual procuring a gun: firearm prohibitions for high-risk groups have been shown to reduce violence. Background checks, close oversight of gun sellers, and the licensing of handgun purchases reduce the likelihood of violent-prone individuals acquiring firearms. In this way, mental health professionals can help reduce gun violence by advocating for more data-driven gun control legislation. 

“It’s easy to set up false dichotomies —Is it because of this, or because of that?—when, in fact, so many things enter into gun violence,” Dr. Sorenson says. “Yes, poverty, racism, sexism, and more are relevant but, to say the obvious, we wouldn’t have the gun violence problem we have if we didn’t have so many guns.”

Additional Resources on Gun Violence in the US

To learn more about how to prevent gun violence and reduce its trauma, check out some of the resources below. 

  • Coping with Mass Shootings, Understanding Gun Violence (APA 2022)
  • Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy (APA 2013)
  • Mass Shootings In The United States: Population Health Impacts And Policy Levers (Health Affairs 2022)
  • Public Health Approach to Gun Violence Prevention (EFSGV 2021)
  • Speaking Psychology Episode 145: Preventing Gun Violence (APA 2021)
Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog


Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2020, he’s written extensively about how counselors and other behavioral health professionals are working to address the nation’s mental health and substance use crises, with a particular focus on community-driven and interdisciplinary approaches. His articles have included detailed interviews with leaders and subject matter experts from the American Counseling Association (ACA), the American Mental Health Counselor Association (AMHCA), the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).