The Costs of Gun Violence and How Gun Violence Survivors Navigate Those Costs

By Jennifer Carlson

Gun violence is an immeasurable tragedy that entails bewildering financial hardships. Scholars estimate that gun violence costs the US as much as $557 billion each year—that’s over $1,600 per American per year. Americans don’t directly pay that cost—there isn’t a “gun violence” line item on your annual tax forms to pay a share of the related hospital and counseling bills, the lifetime of lost productivity, the costs associated with the criminal justice system, and other financial burdens that gun violence entails. A great deal of this collective cost is absorbed by employers, the healthcare system and insurance companies, and the criminal justice system, and then passed down to many Americans in the form of fewer benefits, larger premiums, and higher taxes.

But much of it isn’t. Gun violence survivors—those who are navigating one of the most traumatic experiences they will endure—often have to figure out on their own how to shoulder the immediate financial fallout of gun violence. This includes: paying for a funeral no one budgets for; keeping up with expenses once covered by a now-injured or deceased family member, from basic living expenses to college funds for now-orphaned children; covering months, if not years, of therapy for aggrieved loved ones; and even figuring out how to make it through the workday under the weight of trauma, bereavement, and grief. The costs can be crushing, especially for the most vulnerable survivors who may find themselves scrambling just to make it through the immediate aftermath of gun violence. The racial disparities are stark, with gun violence often concentrated in communities already disproportionately bearing the brunt of poverty and marginalization. According to 2020 CDC data, Black Americans were over 12 times as likely to be murdered by gun violence as compared to white Americans, Hispanic (twice as likely), and indigenous people (over 3.5 times as likely) were also disparately represented among the 19,000 murdered that year by gun violence.

Even victim’s compensation programs—applauded as a means of putting victims at the center of crime response—often require survivors to wade through a confusing, and sometimes demoralizing, process only to receive fewer funds than requested or even outright denial. Indeed, one investigative report found that fewer than 40 percent of Illinois gun violence survivors who applied for victim’s compensation actually received it. But what’s worse is that the same report found that only 1 in 50 eligible gun violence victims even applied in the first place—likely because they didn’t know they were eligible or found the application process all too cumbersome.

The costs can be crushing, especially for the most vulnerable survivors who may find themselves scrambling just to make it through the immediate aftermath of gun violence.

Consequently, many people turn to crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe, where at least at the onset, the barriers to setting up a campaign to support gun violence survivors seem far lower than pursuing other kinds of support. Gun violence survivors aren’t alone in turning to the crowdfunding site: since GoFundMe’s founding in 2010, over $15 billion has been raised for people campaigning for causes as diverse as vet bills, college tuition, and tattoo removal. In the absence of accessible and adequate public resources, as with victims’ compensation funds, it’s no wonder that well over 100 million people have campaigned and donated on the site. But not all campaigns fare equally. Our forthcoming study, coauthored with Catherine Burgess, in the August 2024 issue of Gender & Society examines GoFundMe campaigns started to support those impacted by gun homicides of women and girls.

Our study aims to understand how the politics of victimhood impact the financial ramifications of gun violence, as survivors turn to private help amid inadequate public support. Perhaps because boys and men are more likely to be victims of gun violence, far less attention has been focused on women and girls as gun violence victims and how both gender and race shape how survivors are both understood and are able to cope in the aftermath. We looked at two states—California and Florida—using the National Gun Violence Memorial Project to identify murdered women and girls, whose names we then searched in GoFundMe to locate campaigns. Focusing on 2016–18, our sample included 127 active campaigns on behalf of people—primarily family members but sometimes friends or witnesses—impacted by gun homicides involving women or girls. This allowed us to trace disparities across different kinds of gun violence and varying demographics of victims and survivors. Specifically, we were interested in whether or not a campaign was started, which kinds of support were asked for, and how campaign organizers framed gun violence and the victims and survivors it impacted.

Among the campaigns we analyzed that were started in response to women and girls murdered in Florida and California from 2016 to 2018, we found that people turned to GoFundMe for support at a relatively consistent rate regardless of race as compared to their representation among female gun murder victims (35 percent of campaigns were on behalf of white women and girls versus 37 percent white women and girls among female murder victims; 23 percent versus 24 percent for Black Americans; 29 percent versus 34 percent Latinx). However, we found that campaigns on behalf of white women and girls garnered six times more funds than campaigns for Black women and girls, and three times more funds than campaigns for Latinx women and girls—the average campaign for white women and girls received over $33,000 as compared to $5,457 for Black women and girls and $10,178 for Latinx women and girls.

Analyzing the text of these campaigns, we found a great deal of variation in how people framed their campaigns and, ultimately, how the problem of gun violence was differently constructed as people justified the often awkward, and sometimes downright stigmatizing, act of asking for money. Sociologists Erik Schneiderhan and Martin Lukk discuss in their book GoFailMe that campaigns may convey need, but the extent to which they successfully do so is dependent on the ability of campaigners to tap into dominant discourses surrounding worthiness and charitability, alongside a willingness to divulge personal and often uncomfortable, embarrassing, or traumatizing details about an already difficult situation. Likewise, we found stark differences in how gun violence was framed: campaigns for people impacted by mass shootings were most able to tap into narratives of gun violence that framed victims as innocent, while victims of community gun violence and domestic gun violence often downplayed or even omitted mention of gun violence altogether. Further, campaigns for mass shooting victims disproportionately involved white women and girls, effectively rendering white victims as more visible—and grieve-able—as compared to women and girls of color, even though the latter disproportionately experience gun violence.

Our qualitative analysis also showed stark racial differences in the kinds of restitution campaigns solicited. Campaigns for women and girls of color were more likely to ask for funds to cover immediate expenses, like funerals and medical expenses. In contrast, campaigns for white women and girls generally did not solicit funding for medical expenses and asked for funeral expense support less often. Instead, these campaigns disproportionately asked for support that memorialized victims through charity and, more rarely, gun violence prevention and political action—a difference that not only reflected material inequalities among gun violence survivors but also reinforced divergent constructions of gun violence as a social problem. GoFundMe campaigners navigated the discomfort of asking for money for one of the most tragic experiences a family can face through the available cultural narratives for asserting victims as worthy of compassion and support. As they did so, they confronted the weight of disparate constructions of gun violence as a social problem: as public grief (for white victims) or private trouble (for victims of color), a framework we develop in our study by critically expanding the concept of the “sociological imagination” to the issue of gun violence. The vast disparities in funding outcomes we observed both reflected and reinforced this bifurcation.

Private channels of support for financial resources, like GoFundMe, may be appealing in the face of cumbersome, inadequate, and even unresponsive public support systems.

Gun violence is, however, a public problem, a fact that can get distorted not just by the disparate media coverage of gun violence, including mass shootings, but also by the options available to survivors to seek out support in its aftermath. Private channels of support for financial resources, like GoFundMe, may be appealing in the face of cumbersome, inadequate, and even unresponsive public support systems. However, our research suggests that private initiatives reproduce, rather than ameliorate, already existing inequalities for survivors—not just in terms of financial support needed to move through the aftermath of gun violence but also in the gender-racialized discourses of worthiness that render some victims grieve-able and others invisible. Similar to GoFundMe campaigns for educational expenses or healthcare needs, the experience of gun violence is unconscionably unequal and so are the social supports in its aftermath.

Hundreds of thousands of people become gun violence survivors every year: people who are shot and survive, people whose loved ones are wounded or killed by guns, and people who live in communities impacted by gun violence. Historically, most of the debate surrounding gun violence has revolved around prevention—a crucial conversation. Alongside that conversation, however, we must talk about how to support those who are now living in gun violence’s aftermath. According to the advocacy organization Everytown for Gun Safety, at present, only nine states use federal Victims of Crime Act funds specifically for gun violence survivor support and/or gun violence intervention. But, as awareness of the broader ramifications of gun violence continues to grow, states are considering and implementing other types of programs and resources. For example, following California’s lead, a handful of states are considering bills that would fund resources for gun violence survivors by taxing guns and ammunition sales; California’s new law is set to take effect in July 2024. The extent that which these initiatives may effectively support survivors—as opposed to replicate the shortcomings of existing systems—is an open question. But one thing is clear: rather than leaving survivors to bear the burdens of gun violence alone, supporting gun violence survivors—including and especially financially supporting those most vulnerable—must be part of the policy conversation.


Jennifer Carlson is a sociologist and director of the Center for the Study of Guns in Society at Arizona State University. She is the author of Merchants of the Right (Princeton University Press, 2023), Policing the Second Amendment (Princeton University Press, 2020), and Citizen-Protectors (Oxford University Press, 2015) and is a 2022 MacArthur Fellow. Carlson also is an affiliate scholar with the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium.