Hurt people hurt people: the trauma behind gun violence

“Gun Violence doesn’t happen from nowhere, and it's not somebody who is uninjured acting out with a gun. It's really important to see the people behind what’s going on in our community." Kristen Ruggles, Occupational Therapist at Roots and Wings Therapies.

In order to stop gun violence, you have to learn to love your shooters. 


This sentiment was expressed by Mike Wilder, a Group Violence Intervention (GVI) coordinator in Kalamazoo. Wilder and his team at GVI work with the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety to speak with perpetrators of gun violence, and show them another path. 


Gun Violence has been on the rise in the Kalamazoo community for the last decade and continues to make headlines. Gun Violence ended 13 lives in 2020, and numbers have increased in 2021. Recent victims include a 9-year-old, a 16-year-old, and a Kalamazoo County deputy.


Michael Wilder

Wilder has been working with shooters for years, and says it is important to understand what makes people pull the trigger. 


From personal experience as a career criminal and in his current role at GVI, Wilder has begun to grasp the root of the problem. The answer to what makes a person pull the trigger, Wilder says, is trauma. 


“It's like trauma, upon trauma, upon trauma,” Wilder said.


The GVI office has a meeting room called “The War Room.” On the wall is a mural of a young boy shooting a gun, with tears in his eyes. 


In very simple terms, this mural illustrates the point that ‘hurt people, hurt people.” According to Occupational Therapists Kristen Ruggles and Palin Spradlin, from Root and Wings Therapies, this age-old phrase rings true. 


“Gun Violence doesn’t happen from nowhere, and it's not somebody who is uninjured acting out with a gun. It's really important to see the people behind what’s going on in our community,” said Ruggles.


Kristen Ruggles

What is meant by ‘hurt people’?


In this case, ’hurt people’ refers to individuals who have experienced some type of serious trauma in their young lives. The ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) framework, first coined by researchers Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda, identifies traumatic events that can have a lasting impact on an individual before they turn 18. These include: physical abuse; emotional abuse; physical neglect; emotional neglect; a household member suffering from mental illness; a household member suffering from addiction; sexual abuse; incarceration of a household member; loss of parent due to death, divorce or abandonment; and witnessing domestic abuse against mother.


Trauma can even have lasting effects while in the womb, says Ruggles. 


“If mom is not feeling safe in her community or in her home, that shapes a baby’s regulatory system even before they are born,” Ruggles said.


There are developmental windows when children are most vulnerable to being impacted by trauma. One significant window being from birth to 3-years-old.


“It's not just one time and it's not just in the birth to 3 age unfortunately,” Spradlin said. “So it gets passed down from family to family and we call that intergenerational trauma.”


Palin Spradlin

Experiencing trauma doesn’t necessarily mean you will experience lasting effects later in life. Spradlin and Ruggles say there are resiliency factors that help a child avoid the effects of trauma. These include having strong relational ties, and ties to your community. 


Children are more vulnerable to trauma, however, if they lack strong relationships to anchor them. Lacking a safe environment, and access to necessities like food, clothing, and shelter can also increase vulnerability to trauma. 


Trauma can have a lasting impact on your brain. According to Ruggles and Spradlin, heavy exposure to trauma can cause your brain to divert more energy to survival-driven behaviors.


“For kids that are constantly in that survival state, that becomes (their brain’s) automatic pattern,” Ruggles said. 


When your brain is in constant stress, it produces the hormone cortisol, which is actually neurotoxic, and stunts the part of the brain that should be getting stronger. This includes impacting IQ, executive functions, and the ability to regulate and tolerate intense emotions.


Essentially this means environmental stress is stunting healthy brain growth while dedicating brain power to survival responses, like fight or flight.


“Essentially, your brain gets stuck in fight or flight mode all the time,” Spradlin said.


When your brain is stuck in fight or flight mode, it changes how you see the world, and how you react to it. A neutral face could be interpreted as a nasty scowl, or a shoulder bump might seem like a threat. Seemingly small interactions become a serious slight while seeing the world through this lens. Your environment appears mean and unsafe, and your brain is more likely to respond with fight or flight.


Survival driven behaviors, like stealing, lying, or hoarding food, become more common while in this mindset. 


The impact of trauma is not equal on all communities. In the United States, 61 percent of black children and 51 percent of Hispanic children have experienced at least one ACE, compared to 40 percent of white children, according to the Center for Child Counseling


Wilder says that in-practice, trauma has a lasting effect on entire communities. High rates of gun violence in minority communities has conditioned people to normalize violent crime in their community, Mike says.


“The normalcy of reaction to murder would frighten you. There were occasional shootings, now we’re having shootings every day,” Wilder said. “So what happens is, subconsciously it becomes normal; everybody is zoned out numb, to heinous murders.”


Not only have communities accepted the presence of gun violence, potential shooters are accepting that they are prison bound. Wilder says that as a child, he accepted the possibility that he would one day end up in prison. 


Wilder fights that same notion in potential shooters he comes across, convincing them that they don’t need to pull the trigger. 


“I’m here for any young man that I can breathe on, and make them see they are worth so much more than the gun,” Wilder said.


However, one obstacle Wilder faces is people involved in gun violence are getting younger and younger. Wilder wants to start educating 10-12 year-olds about the dangers of guns. 


“Their minds are so impressionable... We’re gonna have to jump back some years and reshape the mind and the imagination of our young people,” Wilder said.


The good news is that damage done by trauma is not permanent. The key to undoing it, Ruggles says, lies in supporting families.


The high presence of ACES in minority communities can be attributed to the uneven distribution of services and opportunities. With more services and resources to lessen the effects of poverty, minority communities should be able to build up more positive resilience against trauma. 


“When parents have the resources, safety and stability they need in their own lives to parent kids; supporting the family system itself is so key to providing the stability and healing that kids need,” Ruggles said.


Ruggles adds that a solution also lies in training trauma-informed teachers and clinicians to make sure children are seeing their needs met both inside and outside the home.


“No kid just wants to be naughty,” Spradlin said, “so we need to ask ourselves ‘What need isn’t being met?’”


Raine Kuch