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Widespread gun threat exposure among Black Americans linked to elevated disability rates, study finds

A recent study conducted by Rutgers Health has uncovered that approximately 60 percent of Black Americans experience some form of gun violence, and such exposure is strongly correlated with higher rates of functional disabilities. The research, which surveyed 3,015 Black Americans, identified specific disabilities—ranging from trouble concentrating to difficulty dressing or bathing—linked to various types of gun violence exposure, including being shot, being threatened with a firearm, knowing a shooting victim, and witnessing or hearing about a shooting.

“Traditionally, the majority of efforts related to gun violence have focused on reducing homicides, but this study indicates that we need to provide more support to those who face such exposures to violence beyond homicide,” said Daniel Semenza, an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health’s Gun Violence Research Center and the lead author of the study.

The study – Firearm Violence Exposure and Functional Disability among Black Men and Women in the United States – published in the Journal of Urban Health, highlights that more than 40 percent of survey participants knew a shooting victim, and 12 percent reported experiencing at least three different types of gun violence exposure. Men reported higher direct threats and shooting incidents than women, with 30 percent of men versus 15 percent of women experiencing direct threats, and 4 percent of men versus 2 percent of women being shot.

“These numbers are striking because this was a nationally representative sample, matched to all Black Americans as a whole by age, sex, income, education, and area of residence,” noted Semenza. His co-authors included Nazsa Baker, a postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers’ New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center.

The findings indicate that exposure to gun violence predicts higher disability rates in both sexes, with men and women experiencing different types of disabilities based on the exposure type.

Men who witnessed or heard about shootings had a 53 percent higher rate of functional disability than those who reported no exposure, and they were more than twice as likely to report trouble concentrating, walking stairs, dressing, or bathing. Women who faced direct gun-related threats had a 48 percent higher rate of functional disability and a 75 percent greater likelihood of difficulty concentrating. They were also at least twice as likely to report difficulty walking, climbing stairs, or running errands.

Furthermore, exposure to three or more types of gun violence predicted even higher disability rates. Women who reported such exposure were nearly six times as likely to report difficulty running errands compared to those with no exposure.

“This kind of survey-based study cannot prove causation, but it suggests that exposure to gun violence might shape functional disability and everyday well-being through mental trauma, even when it doesn’t disable people directly via physical injury,” Semenza stated. “We need to continue efforts to reduce gun violence, but we also need to make sure that when gun violence does occur, there are resources available where affected people can go to help manage the trauma that such exposure creates.”

Dr. Iain Overton, executive director of Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), said of the research: “This study underscores the profound and lasting impact that gun violence has on communities. It is imperative that governments not only address the immediate threat of gun violence but also provide long-term support for those who suffer from its psychological and functional aftermath.”