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The trauma of gun violence affects all children, not just the ones who were there


After a school shooting like this week's in Uvalde, Texas, we immediately focus on the people who were physically harmed - the children and adults killed and injured. Our next guest spends a lot of time thinking about the broader impact of that violence, how it damages children who were not physically hurt but were at or near the incident.

John Woodrow Cox is a reporter for The Washington Post and author of the book "Children Under Fire." John, thank you for coming on the program.

JOHN WOODROW COX: Thanks so much for having me.

PFEIFFER: John, for about the past five years, you have almost exclusively covered children who are affected by gun violence in the United States. That made me wonder whether when you hear about a shooting like this week's, you react to it differently than the rest of us do because you are so immersed in it.

COX: I - Tuesday was a hard day. You know, it - I felt nauseated. I really did in those early minutes. I think for me, the weight of everything that I've written about, all the stories that I've done, the kids I've interviewed through all these years comes back. And time after time after time, you realize that the scope of this epidemic is so much broader than we think because we do only think of the children who die, the children who are maimed. But the reality is that there are hundreds of thousands, even millions of children who are directly impacted by gun violence in this country. And their lives are fundamentally changed because of it.

PFEIFFER: And tell us more about those ripple effects. What have you found?

COX: So the origin really of that line of reporting that's defined the last five years of my career, much of it began in a little town in South Carolina where there was a school shooting that no one remembers. This was the basis of much of my book. A teenager pulled up to a playground, opened fire on a group of first-graders. And he killed one little boy, and then his gun jammed. And that's why people haven't heard of him.

But I spent a lot of time with the children who were just on the playground that day, and that shooting was six years ago. And those kids are still struggling profoundly. One of them in particular could never go back to school. She's on anti-psychotics and antidepressants. She's harmed herself. You know, when she heard the news about what happened this week, she broke down completely.

And, you know, I know survivors from Columbine who are still - in their 40s - and they're still dealing with enormous amounts of trauma and PTSD. And again, none of these people were physically harmed. So we just have not grasped how far this extends in this country.

PFEIFFER: Well, you're making me realize, I mean, it's certainly devastating for adults even to read or hear about it. But when you're a child and this happens, you're at a more formative stage of life.

COX: Right.

PFEIFFER: And that's - I imagine that's partly why you're finding that this impact is so enormous.

COX: Yes, that's absolutely true. And the younger that the kids are and the more their sort of sense of the world is shattered, the harder it's going to be to recover. Another thing that many of them deal with is guilt. I've talked to so many young children, elementary-age kids who've been through shootings, who think that they should have saved the kids who died. They should have done something to save their friend, and they couldn't do it. And they deal with survivor's guilt. And it's really hard to talk them out of that. It's hard to convince them that this wasn't their fault.

PFEIFFER: John, at the Washington Post, where you work, there's a database you've created that tracks gun violence. And I believe the current tally is that since the shooting at Columbine in 1999, more than 300,000 students have experienced school shootings at school during the school day. That gives us a sense of how exponential the impact is because those 300,000 may have siblings, family, parents, and all of those people are affected.

COX: Yes, it's an enormous group. And it was really Townville, that little school in South Carolina, that inspired me to launch this database. There was one child in particular who stuck with me. He was a fifth-grader. He was in the upper floor of this school and had not heard the shooting, hadn't seen it, didn't even know it was going on when he went into lockdown. But in the months afterward, he became convinced that the shooter had come to the school to kill him personally. And that is not an unusual reaction. In all these years I've covered this, kids - that fear can linger with them for a very long time. And so of that 300,000-plus kids who've been through this, a meaningful percentage of them will deal with the trauma of those incidents for the rest of their lives.

PFEIFFER: We often hear people say children are resilient; they will ultimately be OK. Is that your experience?

COX: You know, that is a phrase that I've come to despise, that children are resilient, because I think it's a way for adults to be dismissive of what children have gone through. And it's also because children have a hard time articulating their struggle. If a kid is suddenly having outbursts, they can't link that to the fact that they just survived a school shooting. They struggle to say, here's why I'm feeling what I'm feeling.

What I like to say is that children can be resilient, but it is incumbent on the adults in their lives to make that possible - to provide therapy, to provide help, to provide support, to be patient. Because it can take children years to work through events like these.

And, you know, I think, too, there's an important thing to understand that even that 300,000 number is not really capturing the scope because there's a whole other group of children who have been through lockdowns in this country - and that's not lockdown drills, actual lockdowns. We did an analysis of one school year and found that between 4 and 8 million children in a normal year go through a lockdown. Most of those - vast majority of those are caused by the threat of a gun, either somebody saying, I'm going to come to your school and shoot it up or a shooting down the street. Those children are deeply affected by what they endure. They've soiled themselves. They've wept. They've texted their parents goodbye. One child I interviewed wrote a will saying who he wanted his toys to go through when he died in his school. These kids are not legally considered victims of gun violence by any measure because there wasn't even gun violence on their campus. But it speaks to how this looming threat reaches virtually every student in this country in one way or another.

PFEIFFER: You mentioned that adults need to help children be resilient and try to get through this. What did you learned that adults can possibly do to try to help a child recover after they've experienced this?

COX: Well, we know that the most important thing for a child to overcome trauma is having an adult in their life who loves them. Research shows us that. And that doesn't have to be a parent. It doesn't have to be a grandparent. It can be a teacher or a coach. It can be anybody, any adult in their life who loves them. So that's the starting point.

They also need access to therapy. That is a thing, after these shootings, that everybody thinks, oh, well, surely they're going have therapists and access to therapy. That is often not the case. So it's incumbent on the state and these cities and towns and all of us to make sure that any child who needs access to therapy has it.

And, you know, one thing I hear a lot is people will ask the survivors, well, what do you need? Kids don't know what they need. Not even the adults know what they need. So people who - from other places that have endured this have to come in and say, here's what we think you'll need. And that's one thing that I wish there was more of, is a network where when these schools go through this, they hear from other schools and they hear from even, you know, children like the kids in Sandy Hook, who are finally reckoning with what they went through to say, here's what helped us.

PFEIFFER: John Woodrow Cox is a reporter for The Washington Post and author of the book "Children Under Fire." And John, thanks for your reporting on this. It's a beat, I'm sure, that can take a real toll on the reporter covering it, which is you. So thank you.

COX: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.