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Behind the Lens
We need to build a culture of peace to fight gun violence
By Annette Bailey (with Divine Velasco)

Annette Bailey is an Associate Professor at the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing at Ryerson University. Her research explores gun violence prevention and survivorship, with a focus on understanding the grief and trauma experiences of survivors of gun homicide.

In the documentary Year of the Gun, we watch images of youth brutally gun down other youth on closed-circuit cameras. It's easy to think that these youth are a menace to society, but how many of us ask: Who is the human behind the gun and what would make a young person think that shooting another is their best option?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Gun violence is a complex and multifaceted public health issue; one that is well-entrenched in social, political and economic conditions.

Gun violence is a social disease

Gun violence can be viewed as an infectious disease. It is widespread, deadly and carries devastating consequences. This modern epidemic is killing Black youth more than anybody else and has inflicted trauma on family and friends. Gun violence disables community safety, vibrancy and growth; it ignites waves of economic consequences for municipalities and robs society of the legacy of youth. As one of the deadliest social viruses of our time, gun violence has not yet received the same concerted, intense, and deliberate efforts that have traditionally worked to eradicate other deadly infectious diseases. What will it take for us to become equally galvanized on this issue?

Unravelling gun violence requires that we first understand it. My research over the last ten years has focused on understanding the grief and trauma experiences of adult and youth survivors of gun homicide. We talked with youth who lost friends and families to gun violence in 30 neighbourhoods and found that over 80 per cent of them were racialized or Black. These youth told us that they struggle with intense traumatic grief from losing multiple loved ones to gun violence. Many have witnessed the murder of their friends, and grapple with a lack of access to social and psychological services. 

These youth live in homes with grieving Black mothers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and prolonged depression from losing other children to gun violence. These mothers told us that their trauma is made worse by limited access to victim services, job loss, and marriage breakdown following the loss of a family member to gun violence.

The trauma is expressed as anxiety and feelings of hopelessness and leads a domino of more gun violence. 

Gun violence is a product of a youth’s environment

“We did not cause gun violence; we were born into it,” said one of the youths we interviewed. This statement suggests that gun violence cannot be solely blamed on youth delinquency, because youth are products of their environment.

Gary Newman, a Toronto youth advocate says, "if picking up a gun was the mechanical robot, trauma is the battery. It is what gives gun violence life." 

The report, Roots of Youth Violence looked at the social causes of violence in Ontario and found that gun violence is prevalent in marginalized neighbourhoods that struggle with social inequities and have less access to community resources. Poverty, racism, health issues and a lack of opportunities all contribute to the problem.

In Year of the Gun, former gang member Adam Ellis shares his experiences and says, "the majority of us are actually running from violence."

Understanding this, our research shows that the trauma that these youth experience changes their identity and way of thinking. Gary Newman, a Toronto youth advocate, says, "if picking up a gun was the mechanical robot, trauma is the battery. It is what gives gun violence life."

Who is responsible for solving the problem?

Gun violence is not just a youth issue, it is a social issue, and we are all affected by it.

Healthy communities are key to solving the problem of gun violence. When communities are unable to flourish, the whole city suffers. They thrive when people are at peace, when families are no longer burdened by trauma and when they have sufficient resources to succeed.

"Creating a culture of peace for the youth who are often blamed for gun violence begins with a more constructive narrative about their worth as equal contributors and citizens of our city."

It will take a concerted and deliberate effort from governments, public health, educators, religious organizations, community leaders and other stakeholders to help facilitate community healing, recovery and resilience.  A strong community harnesses the strength, skills and energies of their youth — who would otherwise be drawn to the promise of community offered by gangs — by giving them opportunities of entrepreneurship and leadership in their own neighbourhoods.

Toronto's youth have told us that combatting gun violence requires long-term, community programs and services, committed mentorships, support in schools, mental health support, and environments that feed them positively and nourish them socially. These are foundational to any strong, unified and resilient community.

How do we create a culture of peace?

Creating a culture of peace for the youth who are often blamed for gun violence begins with a more constructive narrative about their worth as equal contributors and citizens of our city. Citizenship means that people share equal success and access to resources and that their voices are equally important. We need to acknowledge the root of their anger and implement strategies to help them deal with the years of trauma they have experienced. We cannot talk about a culture of peace among racialized youth without understanding how historical, cultural and present-day factors shape their interactions with society.

Gun violence emerges out of, and exist within a pandemonium of hopelessness. When we build a culture of peace, we are transforming hopelessness. As sociology professor Dr. Jooyoung Lee pointed out in Year of the Gun, the presence of guns and crime in communities casts a dark cloud over our daily interactions and relationships. How do we promote hope in communities that have been deprived and distressed by gun violence? Instilling a culture of peace requires revitalizing their communities, enriching their resources, and bolstering their options.

We can all be a part of building a culture of peace and a legacy of hope against gun violence.

Watch Year of the Gun on CBC Docs POV.