The Impact of Gun Violence

Published on 31 October 2022 at 21:08

Miss Mary Johnson’s pride is unmistakable as she tells me about her 17 year old grandson, Tre’ Vontae Gray, who passed away on September 21 after being shot on September 19, close to her home on Ashley Avenue and Baltimore Road, in Washington, Georgia. “Everybody called him Big Man” she said as she smiled through tears and pointed at a memorial that included several photos and his Washington Wilkes High School football jersey that has been framed, all arranged in the corner or her living room. She told me it brings her comfort and that she knows Tre’ Vontae is now with his father, Travis Gray, who passed when Tre’ Vontae was only 10 years old. “I pray for them every day and for the other boys too” she says.

The other boys, Cornelius Burley and Kiwanis Curry, both also 17 years old and students at Washington Wilkes High School at the time of the shooting, have been charged with aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. The young men had known one another since they were boys. She said that Tre’ Vontae thought they were his friends.

When I asked her what happened on September 19 she said she believed her grandson had gone with Curry and Burley “to get food or something” as that wasn’t unusual for them to do. A while later she heard what sounded like a gunshot but didn’t hear another so she didn’t pursue trying to find out where it had come from or what it was. A little while later, she was called by a family member and told of the shooting. She said she doesn’t know why her grandson was shot. She cried as she told me she thinks about that moment over and over and wonders what Tre’ Vontae was thinking, knowing he was so close to home. She told me about the heartbreaking decisions that had to be made when doctors at the hospital told them the hard truth about the seriousness of the injuries from the shooting. It has been devastating to her family and so many who loved “Big Man.”

She misses the time they spent together and at times the grief seems unbearable.  She told me about the time Tre’ Vontae made banana pudding and how proud he was and that it tasted so good he ate all of it. “He was really home most of the time until recently” she said.  He would flop down on her bed and show her videos on his phone and they would laugh together. “He was a good boy” she said. When I asked her if he talked about what he wanted to do in the future, she said Tre’ Vontae’s dream was to play football at Clemson as his father had. “He just loved football, it’s all he wanted to do.”

She is thankful her family and friends look in on her especially since she has several medical issues and was recently in the hospital. After Tre’ Vontae’s death, she was overwhelmed and wasn’t able to sleep and sometimes missed taking her medications. While she was in the hospital she was able to talk to professionals about her grief and learn ways to cope such as writing her feelings in a journal. “I know I have to let it out” she said. She has learned that not talking about what happened, not talking about the pain she is feeling will only make it worse in the long run. “it’s hard but it’s the only way” she said.

Sadly, Mary Johnson isn’t alone in her grief. As of October 31, 2022 and according to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 768 gun deaths in the state of Georgia. That includes homicide, murder and unintentional death by a firearm. 21 children age 0-11 have been killed as have 60 teens aged 12-17. While the total number of gun deaths has decreased from 910 to 768 in 2021, Georgia still has the 12th highest rates of gun violence and gun death in America and gun death rates have increased in the state by 31% from 2015-2020. Experts are trying to find out why the increase has occurred and there are several factors to consider one being that gun sales have increased with the rates of gun violence and death. In fact gun sales increased by 39.5% from 2015-2020 as rates of gun violence were on the rise but more guns purchased is only one factor to consider in combatting the rise in gun violence and death in Georgia.

In 2021 the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published results of a study that found 62% of the more than 67,000 firearm-related deaths that occurred among youth between the ages of 5 and 24 from 2007 to 2016 occurred in counties where the percentage of residents who lived below the federal poverty level was 15% or greater. The rate of gun-related deaths was more than four times higher among young people living in counties with the highest concentrated poverty than with youth living in counties with the lowest concentration of poverty. The study defined counties with the highest poverty level as those where at least 20% of the population earned below the federal poverty threshold which is a salary of less than $12,880 for an individual and $21,960 for a family of three. According to the 2021 census, Wilkes County has 20.2% of the population living below the federal poverty threshold and that fact alone creates a higher risk of gun violence and death for it’s youth. Certainly efforts to create jobs that pay higher than $12,880 per year for an individual and education and training for those jobs and other career opportunities would be a significant step in helping reduce the number of citizens living in poverty that leads to gun violence.

Some of the other predictors of violent behavior by youth are more complex. The American Psychological Association commissioned a report in 2013 that found there is no single profile that can reliably predict who will use a gun in a violent act. Gun violence is associated with many individual, family, school, peer, community, and sociocultural risk factors that interact over time during childhood and adolescence. While the most consistent and powerful predictor of future violence is a history of violent behavior, research is ongoing to discover more definitive measures of prediction.

What can we do to prevent and lower rates of gun violence in our community? Prevention efforts guided by research on developmental risk can reduce the likelihood that firearms will be introduced into community and used in family conflicts or criminal activity. Prevention efforts can also reduce the relatively rare occasions when severe mental illness contributes to homicide or the more common circumstances when depression or other mental illness contributes to suicide. Wilkes County has limited access to mental health services to effectively treat depression and other mental illnesses that research shows, makes someone more likely to resort to gun violence. Initiatives such as threat assessment teams have been successful in communities, schools and workplaces to recognize behavior that may escalate to violence and intervene with proven strategies that include professional mental health support, peer support and law enforcement properly trained and with a collaborative approach. Many such programs are proving to be quite successful in communities around the country. Another impact on reduction of gun violence and death also includes laws that prevent individuals with a history of violence or likely to commit violence, from getting access to guns in the first place.

Gun violence and losing young citizens to it, whether it be through the loss of life or leading to a life of incarceration is devastating to a community. Miss Mary said “all three of the boys lost their life in a way, Big Man is gone and on the other side but the other two are still here but they lost too.” It is a loss of promise and of hope and it is a symptom of a bigger problem that doesn’t seem to have a proven solution, yet. However, we can come together as a community and recognize it is a community problem. We can look at what is working and implement initiatives that are known to have an impact and maybe discover new solutions to protect our youth and support them in reaching their full potential.


Written by Michelle Chaffee

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