Contributing Factors for Firearm-Related Injuries

Episode 1, Understanding Firearm-Related Injury and School Violence Podcast Series

In this episode, Dr. Marc Zimmerman, co-director of the National Center for School Safety, joins us as we explore the issue of firearm-related injury and school violence by discussing contributing factors and providing some general context. Moreover, we look at the positive influences that can significantly reduce the probability of injury and violence among students.

Explore the Series

  • Access the full Understanding Firearm-Related Injury and School Violence here
  • Listen to the series on YouTube


This podcast was produced by Katy Hunter, Research Assistant at the National Center for School Safety.


Marc Zimmerman: I try to focus on it’s injury prevention, harm reduction. It’s like firearms have been taboo to study because they become so politicized. And as a scientist, as a data nerd, it’s like, that’s not what it’s about. Let’s make it boring. Let’s make it boring. And let’s not vilify people. Let’s just help them be safer. Who’s against less death by firearm? Most Americans are not, and most gun owners are not.

Katy Hunter: Hello and welcome to Progress Report. This podcast is produced by the National Center for School Safety, based out of the University of Michigan. We serve as the STOP School Violence Program’s, national training and technical assistance center, and we are focused on improving school safety and preventing school violence across the United States.

This episode is the first in our series about understanding violence related to firearms and school violence. As an introduction to the series, we will be giving context to the topic as a whole and discussing the factors at play in firearm-related violence, as well as the positive influences that reduce violence amongst students. Over the course of this series, we’ll be covering the importance of locking up firearms safely and other ways of promoting firearm safety, how firearms can escalate pre-existing issues like youth, intimate partner violence and youth suicide. How policy and research fit into this discussion and what schools can do through community engagement to combat firearm-related violence. Before we get into the interviews, this series does include discussion of mass shootings, youth suicide, and youth intimate partner violence. The content related to these issues mainly focuses on statistics, evidence-based research and actionable steps that we can take to reduce harm. Specific details or descriptions are kept to a minimum. Throughout the podcast, you’ll hear the phrases “firearm injury” and “gun violence”—what we are really referring to here is injury or violence related to or involving firearms.

So let’s start with an introduction. What are your roles, and how did you get into this work? 

Marc Zimmerman: Hi, I am Marc Zimmerman. I’m Marshall H. Becker Collegiate Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. I’m also co-director of the University of Michigan Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention and co-director of our National Center for School Safety. About 30 years ago, more than 30 years ago, I started working with a colleague at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. And we started looking at school dropout and drug use. And several issues came out that the main issue we were really looking at was, does drug use lead to dropout or dropout lead to drug use? And we didn’t really do a longitudinal study, but we found some interesting correlates. And then when I came to the University of Michigan, I followed that up and said, let’s do this longitudinally to see the lead lag relationship between dropout and drug use. And the quick answer to that question is that some drug use leads to school dropout and really school disengagement in general, and then school disengagement then leads to even more drug use. So it’s, they’re interrelated and they spin each other out of control, so to speak. 

But in that work, we started also noticing that problem behavior sort of clustered. Like if you were involved in violence, you were probably also doing some drugs. You may not have been selling them. And most of the drugs we’re talking about is actually alcohol and marijuana. And then we started noticing that violent behavior and aggressive behavior was really part of that whole situation of problem behaviors. And then I started getting interested in some of the consequences that happens and where do kids get aggressive and youth violence has been sort of an issue.

An aggressive behavior has been an issue for decades at this point. So that led to getting more and more into the issues of youth violence in general. And from there, naturally it grew to looking at violence, revolving guns.

Katy Hunter: It seems like your work deals a lot with the question of what leads to firearm-related violence. What factors would you say play a big role in that? 

Marc Zimmerman: It’s important to point out, at least in my experience and my research, that firearm violence is sort of a tip of an iceberg of a much larger issue of violence in general. And violence is root caused in other factors as well. Things like poverty, opportunity, mental health, family experiences, and all of those things are root causes that get kids to maybe act out aggressively, not learn alternative behaviors to being aggressive or violent and the spiral of violence, beginning violence, and then retaliatory violence.

And then it ups at every level of activity you’re doing, whether it’s bullying to being aggressive, to getting into fights, to using a knife, to using a gun. And this is also all tied up in structural racism. It is not an accident that in areas, for example, that have been redlined in urban centers, that those schools are not as good. Those classes are bigger. There’s less opportunity for more personalized learning, there’s more disengagement with school. And all of that gets in the way of healthy cognitive development. Tie that into poverty or lower income nutrition, sleep, all of that contributes to not as effective healthy brain development resulting in less cognitive abilities, which means you don’t really problem solve, you problem solving what’s the easiest way? The easiest way to deal with something is just punch somebody in the face and be aggressive.

Being emotionally intelligent controlling emotions, that takes some learning and training. And then if you’re growing up in an environment where you see it all the time, you might see in communities that have been redlined or are typically also where more gun violence occurs, more street violence occurs. And so it becomes part of your narrative. There’s a theory called script theory where you learn your scripts as a child from what you see adults doing around you and your friends and other people. And all of that just feeds into the bottom of that iceberg that starts building up aggressive behavior.

Katy Hunter: That’s interesting. I’ve never heard of script theory. I feel like script theory and this idea that factors in kids’ lives can hinder healthy cognitive development works hand in hand with generational trauma and how that can influence kids’ lives in a lot of unseen ways. Have you found trends in what can be positive influences for kids to combat these obstacles? 

Marc Zimmerman: My work was always guided about not everybody who is exposed to those kinds of poor educational opportunities, poverty, less food, less sleep, all those things. Not all of them, in fact, probably half or more, do not end up aggressive. Do not end up in trouble, do not do drugs, do not do any of those kind of negative things. So my career, my whole career has been trying to understand, well, what is it about them that helps them overcome these exposures to risk for these kinds of behaviors and ultimately firearms. 

And so I’ve kind of helped develop, I mean, it was already developed, but I’ve added to the empirical literature on resilience theory and understanding resilience. And that concept is the same concept from physics. The properties of a material that’s resilient is, it can take, some pressure without breaking, glass is not very resilient. It breaks pretty easily, it’s pretty brittle, but rubber is very resilient, and you can have so many insults and eventually all of us break, but there are things that help us not break, so to speak. And I’ve really dedicated my career to try to understand what those things are. 

And I, and just real quickly, I can tell you that one of the things that we find is that adults matter in kids’ lives. As they age, as they get more independent, as they get more influenced by their peers, adults still matter. Parents are our role models and mentors in their lives who are engaging and in helping them sort of navigate life, helping them get into college, helping see benefits and strengths that they bring to a situation, encouraging them, helping them problem solve is really important in human development and adolescent development in particular. So that’s idea of support, cognitive material, emotional support is really important. 

Secondly, we find that when kids are involved in activities after school, whether it’s sports or the chess club or some kind of after school programming first it keeps them busy, but it also helps them potentially develop skills that would help them in all the ways I was talking about before, that they may have missed or may miss or may not have the same opportunities in schools. They learn how to maybe work with other people. They learn a little bit about themselves. They learn and have role models of positive behaviors from both their peers and adults. Creates an opportunity for them to develop a relationship with an adult outside the family in positive ways. So this idea of engaging in positive behaviors is really important. Extracurricular activities, and sometimes we call them meaningful instrumental activities, that they help them build skills and they may build specific skills like leadership skills or gardening skills or other kinds of problem solving skills. If they’re playing on a sports team, they learn about the importance that there is no I in team. And you work as a community, as a group, as a team. 

Another piece that we have found pretty consistently, when we’re working with African American youth is that if they have a sense of pride in their African American identity, and we usually define that as personal pride in their own self-image that they see having an African American background is central to their, their sense of self. Those kinds of attitudes about their ethnic identity are also very positive for their wellbeing, their mental health. And we find that it’s also associated with less substance use and less aggressive behaviors. And we focus specifically on African American kids. But that’s probably true for all of us if we have a sense of being something bigger than ourselves and if we’re proud of who we are, whoever we are and whatever we look like that those are positive things for development, for human development in general.

Katy Hunter: What is the Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention’s goal as it relates to reducing firearm-related injuries?

Marc Zimmerman: One of the goals of the University of Michigan Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention is to start developing the data and the research and doing the research in a much more systematic way that goes beyond policies about what is allowed and what isn’t allowed to understand what is effective training, what are effective strategies. And so that’s one of the reasons why this has been created and why we’re trying to advance this research that has been taboo for far too long. Every day, eight children under the age of 18 are killed by a firearm in the United States every day. We have to, and we can do better than that.

Katy Hunter: In the next episode of Progress report:

Marc Zimmerman: That’s the idea of locking them safely, making sure that you only have access if it’s your gun, that other people can’t get access to it. And then there’s a different issues need different attention for prevention. We would do something very different in a school that we might do for intimate partner violence.

Brent Miller: Thank you for tuning into this episode. For more information about the National Center for School Safety, visit our website You can also check us out on Twitter and Facebook. This episode of Progress Report was produced by the National Center for School Safety at the University of Michigan. Additional resources and information can be found in the show notes. And music is thanks to Makaih Beats. This project was supported by Cooperative Agreement number 2019-YS-BX-K001, awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the US Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing Monitoring, apprehending Registering and tracking. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.

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Comprehensive School Safety Plans

Crisis Timeline

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School Personnel