New Orleans: Gun Violence Epidemic Is ‘Locking Us Back in Our Room’

(KFF) Although it was not the first time gun violence had reached the then-17-year-old Brown’s social circle, that incident was different. It involved family. So it hit Brown harder, even though his cousin, then 21, survived the gunshot wounds.

Now, while Brown works toward high school graduation and a career in graphic design, he said, he stays indoors in his neighborhood, the Lower 9th Ward. The frequent accidental shootings there frighten him the most. The gunfire outside his windows makes it hard to sleep.

“We were all just quarantined, now we can’t even go outside,” said Thomas Turner, 17, Brown’s classmate at the campus of the NET: Gentilly charter school, in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood. “Just because you want to shoot and stuff, I feel like that is just locking us back in our room.”

It’s an all-too-common feeling in pockets of this city — which had one of the nation’s highest rates of homicides among large cities in 2022 — and other communities across the country where shots ring out regularly. As gun violence soars nationwide, children’s health experts are advocating for such traumatic exposure to be considered what’s known as an “adverse childhood experience.”

For decades, the definition for these adverse childhood events has excluded exposure to community gun violence. That means young people exposed to shootings outside the home have been without access to the broad range of intervention efforts and support at various stages of life given to youth facing other forms of traumatic events, such as child abuse or household dysfunction, said Nina Agrawal, a pediatrician who has researched how such experiences have been handled.

“We need to start recognizing that our children are experiencing trauma and it may not show up overtly, but we have to start recognizing it and listening,” said Agrawal, who chairs the Gun Safety Committee for the New York state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Agrawal’s young patients who have witnessed the effects of gun violence are developing chest pain, headaches, and other health concerns, a commonality among youth experiencing a lack of sleep due to gun violence paranoia, she said. The more time a child spends on high alert, the more disruptions to the immune system and brain function occur, as well as effects on mental and behavioral health, said Agrawal.

For Turner, it was the day of his grandmother’s funeral in 2021 that brought gun violence too close to home. As young children and older relatives gathered to honor her life in the Holly Grove neighborhood, shots were fired outside the church.

Turner recalled how his first instinct was to find his younger sister and mother, who were also attending the funeral. Although he is relieved that the suspect in the shooting was arrested — something locals complain is rare — Turner said he now feels as if he’s susceptible to such capricious violence while living in New Orleans.

Gun injuries, including suicides, are the leading cause of death for children and teens nationwide.