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More than half of Americans have dealt with gun violence in their personal lives

Women pause at a memorial at a vigil honoring the victims of a shooting at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Monterey Park, Calif.
Ashley Landis
Women pause at a memorial at a vigil honoring the victims of a shooting at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Monterey Park, Calif.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 9-8-8, or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

A majority of Americans have felt the long reach of the nation's gun violence epidemic in one way or another.

That's one of the takeaways from a national poll released on Tuesday by KFF, a nonprofit that focuses on health care research.

Specifically, the poll found about one in five people report having a family member who was fatally shot. The same share say they have been threatened with a gun. One in six said they have personally witnessed a shooting.

The findings give a sense how gun violence pervades the daily lives of millions in the U.S. and shapes everyday decisions. The majority of respondents said they take at least one precaution to stay safe from the possibility of gun violence. About a third said they avoid crowded venues like music festivals and bars. More than 40% said they had sought out weapons to protect themselves or had tried to learn how to handle a gun or shoot a gun.

Of those who live in a home with a gun, a startling three in four report at least one gun is either unlocked, loaded or stored with ammunition, according to the survey.

The results come from a nationally representative sample of 1,271 adults.

NPR spoke to Ashley Kirzinger, KFF's director of survey methodology, about what the data show about public perceptions of gun-related violence.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Selena Simmons-Duffin: I was just looking at President Biden's statement about Monday's shooting in Louisville. He wrote about those killed and injured and "the survivors who will carry grief and trauma for the rest of their lives." That struck me in the context of what your new poll has found: The majority of people in the U.S. say they are worried at least sometimes about gun violence. And about 10 percent say they worry daily.

Ashley Kirzinger: Yes, These experiences have led to real worry among American families and also have changed how we act in the world. That is one of the things that's striking to me.

I have reported on life expectancy in this country, and the availability of guns is part of the reason why U.S. life expectancy lags behind similar wealthy, developed countries. And gun deaths encompass not just interpersonal violence, but also suicide and injuries.

There are accidental shootings, or instances of children getting access to guns because guns aren't stored safely. One of the things that was most shocking to me from the poll findings was the share of parents with guns in their homes that are either storing them not locked or with the ammunition or loaded.

And we know that guns are now the leading cause of death among people under the age of 20 [in the U.S.]. We hear a lot about mass shootings — and not to negate what happens in a mass shooting — but the majority of gun incidents in this country are not mass shootings. They are domestic incidents. What we sought to do in this project was to try to better capture the pervasiveness of gun violence in this country.

One in five have had a family member who's been killed by a gun. One in five have witnessed a shooting. Nearly one in five have been threatened with a gun. You put it all together and a majority of adults in this country have either personally experienced or had a family member experience one of these incidents of gun violence.

I can relate to the fears about gun violence. I live in Washington D.C. There have been daytime shootings within blocks of my house, including at the park where my kids play. It's interesting that the survey showed more than eight in ten people have changed something in their lives to protect themselves or a loved one from the possibility of gun violence.

It's impacting all of our decisions – decisions to take public transit, to go out at night, to go to festivals. One in five parents have either thought about changing where their kid goes to school or have. So it's not just the horrible news about another mass shooting, but the long tail that this has on all aspects of our lives. We're a nation living in fear.

This constant stress and worry affects people's health, too – that's another layer.

We know that one of the other major epidemics that's happening in this country is mental health. We've done a lot of polling around mental health and we know parents are more stressed out than anybody, and one of the reasons why they're stressed is because of their kids' safety.

One of the reasons why we want to embark on this type of research is because you hear a lot about gun violence, but there are really no national surveys measuring it at the individual incidence level to really understand how commonplace it is.

What [this polling] allows us to also do is to look at the disparities. One in three Black adults have had a family member who's been killed by a gun in this country. That is really upsetting. They're also, understandably, more worried – more likely to say it's a constant threat that they're worried about. Then, of course, it's going to lead to more chronic mental health issues and more stress.

I was also interested in the findings about public awareness. Only half of people surveyed knew that in the U.S. more than half of gun deaths are from suicide and that guns are now the leading cause of death for people under age 20. What are the ramifications of that limited public awareness?

[Many people] think of gun violence as these mass shootings, and they don't think of the guns in their homes as the types that would be used in mass shootings. And there's a lack of awareness that most gun-related incidents are accidents or suicides or something that's taking place in the home.

Very few gun owners say that they've had a doctor even ask them if they have a gun in their home. And if they have, even fewer say that they've spoken to them about storing that gun safely – either in locked locations or unloaded or at least away from the ammunition. This shows an opportunity for doctors and pediatricians to have conversations about gun safety with their patients.

There's so many things in this country that are polarizing, [including] which sources people trust. But, as we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic – on most health care issues, including gun violence, people trust their doctors and their pediatricians. That's the reason why they go to them. And so normalizing those conversations really is an opportunity for health practitioners to get involved.

Edited by: Will Stone contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.
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