Supporting Survivors of Mass Public Shootings: Where Do We Begin?

By Jaclyn Schildkraut
The research presented in this blog was supported with funding provided by the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University. The Center works in collaboration with and is supported by New Jersey’s Office of the Secretary of Higher Education (OSHE). Views expressed in this blog are solely those of its author. For more information on the project, visit

Each June presents an opportunity to raise awareness about a pressing issue in our nation: the impacts of gun violence. During this month, many facts and figures are shared about gun violence, such as how many lives are lost and how many people are injured in both intentional and unintentional incidents each year. In reality, the toll of gun violence is far greater than these numbers convey—it also includes many individuals whose experiences often are not seen or spoken about.

One place where this is evident is among survivors of mass public shootings. These events have a broad footprint, encompassing entire communities—and even beyond in some instances. We generally understand that those who lose their lives, their families, and those who are physically injured are at the epicenter of these tragedies, yet the effects ripple outwards. There are the individuals present inside of the site of the shooting who, while not bearing physical scars, deal with the psychological trauma of what they’ve experienced. And beyond that, there are others, like first responders and hospital personnel who treat the injured, as well as members of the community who witness traumatic stimuli such as the influx of lights and sirens and the influx of the media.

Since 2017, I have worked with survivors of mass shootings trying to better understand their experiences as they work toward recovery and resilience. In 2023, I received a grant from the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center to continue this work, and just over a year ago, we launched a survey for mass shooting survivors to share their unique perspectives about their respective incidents and the events that followed. We received completed surveys from nearly 170 survivors in 48 impacted communities across the United States.

While analyses of the data collected reveal numerous important considerations, one of the most interesting—and consistent—findings is about the important role of social acknowledgment. In the broader literature, social acknowledgment has been defined as “a [survivor’s] experience of positive reactions from society that show appreciation for the [survivor’s] unique state and acknowledge the [survivor’s] current difficult situation.” Stated differently, social acknowledgment reflects unconditional support of a person’s experiences, regardless of whether others can fully understand what that individual is going through.

Of course, not all acknowledgment is positive. Survivors can—and have—experienced negative reactions, including ignoring, diminishing, or denying their impacts. It is not uncommon for survivors to hear phrases like “just move on” or “it’s in the past.” Yet the ability to “just move on” from what survivors describe as “the new normal” may not be possible, and phrases like these contribute to a further divide between where survivors find themselves after the shooting and the life they knew before the first gunshot was fired.

Receiving social acknowledgment of their experiences has protective effects for survivors against potentially negative impacts.

Our recent research shows that of the factors we studied, social acknowledgment was the most important, consistent predictor of posttraumatic growth (that is, the positive psychological change a person experiences) after a mass shooting. Notably, this finding did not differ based on how the survivor was impacted (e.g., a family member of a victim who was killed, someone who was physically injured in the shooting, or someone who was present inside of the impacted location but was not physically injured). It also did not differ based on time—social acknowledgment is just as important to the posttraumatic growth of a survivor whose mass shooting occurred within the previous year as it is to a survivor who was impacted in the 1980s or 1990s.

Receiving social acknowledgment of their experiences has protective effects for survivors against potentially negative impacts. For instance, the more social acknowledgment survivors receive, the less central the event becomes to their identity. In other words, social acknowledgment helps survivors to see the shooting as something they experienced rather than changing their worldview or allowing the tragedy to define them. Social acknowledgment can serve as a buffer against the impacts the mass shooting has on the survivor, helping to minimize intrusions (e.g., nightmares, flashbacks to the shooting), hyperarousal (i.e., heightened feelings of alertness and/or anxiety), and avoidance (e.g., not talking about the incident).

As we commemorate National Gun Violence Awareness Month, we must consider how we support survivors of mass shootings not only in June but every day. And as our findings show, that can begin with social acknowledgment. Within this project, we asked survivors of mass shootings what social acknowledgment meant to them, why it was so important to their posttraumatic journey, and how it would be most helpful for them to receive it. Here are a few ways, based on their unique perspectives, in which we can incorporate social acknowledgment into our interactions that can have immeasurable and lasting impacts on survivors of mass shootings:

  • Avoid assumptions about who a survivor is.

As noted, victims who lose their lives in these tragedies, their families, and individuals who are injured often are the focus of conversations about survivorship, particularly among policymakers, the media, and the broader public, and rightfully so. It is important, however, not to discredit or diminish those whose injuries we cannot see. Indirect exposure, such as seeing or hearing aspects of the shooting, not being able to locate friends or loved ones, or knowing someone who was directly affected can be deeply impactful, although different, just as a physical injury is and requires the same acknowledgment and validation of experience.

  • Listen.

Like so many others, survivors want to feel that they are heard. Create spaces where they can share their stories, whether formally (e.g., inviting survivors to share their stories in a speaking engagement) or informally (e.g., in day-to-day conversations). Be prepared to listen, without judgment, and recognize that asking questions may feel invasive to the survivor.

  • Recognize that your experiences may not be comparable with theirs.

While we all may experience traumatic events or losses in our lives, they often are not comparable. Losing a loved one to natural causes or even an accident, for example, is not the same as having them taken from you in an act of premeditated, predatory violence. Saying “I know how you feel” or “I experienced something like that when my family member died from cancer,” even when well-intentioned, actually can create a further divide because the experiences are qualitatively different. Similarly, avoid phrasing such as “this is what I would have done,” as without the lived experience of a mass shooting, it is all but impossible to predict how we as individuals may respond if faced with the same or a similar situation. Instead, acknowledge survivors’ experiences with phrasing such as “I can appreciate what you are going through” or “I can understand how that would have impacted your life.”

It is also important for survivors of mass shootings—and even gun violence more broadly—not to draw comparisons between themselves and other impacted persons. While the media and the broader public may rank tragedies using phrasing like “the worst” or “the most lethal,” the reality is that all experiences are valid and should be considered and supported in their own contexts.

  • Appreciate that support is only support when it meets the needs of the receiver.

Often after mass shootings, particularly in the immediate aftermath, there is a flood of support that manifests through numerous outlets, including flowers, teddy bears, and financial donations. While coming from a desire to help, this actually can add stress to an already taxed community and the individuals within it. Instead, it is better to ask individuals what they need or how you can help. Importantly, this may not be a question that is easily answered shortly after the shooting, but as time passes, survivors will be able to articulate what their needs are. It then is incumbent upon us to listen to those needs and work to meet them.

Similarly, when only offering support in the immediate aftermath but not considering the long-term, such as when the glare of the media spotlight has faded and broader public interest has all but moved on, this can lead survivors to feel forgotten or left behind. Recovery does not work on any specific timetable and survivors are always survivors after their incident, so it is critical that we work to actively support these individuals all the time. This can be something as simple as commemorating year marks (not anniversaries, as this term connotes a celebration rather than a remembrance) alongside them, or routinely checking in, especially as additional mass shootings occur that may pose as a reminder of their own experience.

  • Remember who is supporting who.

It is almost unconscionable to think that someone who listens to a survivor’s story would not be moved. But it is important to remember in those conversations that we are there to support the survivor and, as such, should manage our reactions accordingly. Creating situations where survivors feel guilty for sharing their story because of how it affects others or those where they feel they have to offer comfort to you because of your adverse reaction removes the focus from the survivor.

Recovery from a tragedy like a mass shooting does not exist on anyone’s timetable other than the survivors’, and that can look different for every single impact. Yet as our research shows, something as simple as acknowledging their experience can help to make that journey more manageable. As we move forward as a society through National Gun Violence Awareness Month and beyond, we must remember that a key to mass shooting survivors feeling supported is to actually be supportive and validating of their experiences.


Jaclyn Schildkraut is the executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the Rockefeller Institute of Government.