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To Hellfair and Back: Reduce gun violence by addressing the trauma that pulls the trigger

Updated: Aug 31, 2019

By Shane Sims

Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. It is an experience that is so painful that it changes the space in which we live. That change usually results in a space that is so dark that, if only momentarily, we can no longer see who we are. The real tragedy of life is that when this happens, there is nothing to show us, again, our humanity.

These were my exact thoughts the morning that I learned about the senseless murder of Auriel “Thumpa” Callaway and her unborn child on July 22 outside their home in Clarke Gardens. They became even more so as I learned about the alleged killer, and the path that her life had taken over the year since the murder of her brother.

This week, I will take a break from writing about my experiences in the state penal system and instead focus on that of our community. Not only was the murder of Ms. Callaway and her unborn child traumatizing for us as a community, it has also brought to light what can, and often does, happen when unresolved trauma wraps itself around the grip and trigger of a firearm. If convicted, the young lady that's accused of this awful crime will likely spend the rest of her life in prison. That will address her actions and ensure that she won’t happen again. But that addresses only part of the problem and does very little towards ensuring that it won't happen again.

In addition to the accessibility of guns, which I will address later in this column, we must also address the one thing that just about every person that I met during my twenty years of incarceration that has been accused of murder had in common; unresolved trauma that, if only momentarily, robbed them of the capacity to feel their humanity. I can share countless stories about good men that made some very bad decisions that ultimately stemmed from all manners of trauma, ranging from molestation to extreme poverty. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they should be excused from facing the consequences of their actions, but it does highlight a component that has to be addressed if we have any hope of curbing gun violence.

After hearing from acquaintances, including a couple of them that had violent encounters with the young woman accused of Ms. Callaway’s murder, it became obvious that the murder of her own brother about a year prior left her in a dark space. A few people that know her even said as much. One acquaintance of mine posted that he had approached her a couple of weeks before the incident to ask her about a picture she had asked him to take of her and her child. He said that he noticed that she had a certain look on her face, so he asked her if she was ok. He suspected strongly that drugs were playing a role. She responded by pulling a gun on him and saying “y’all must think that this is a game!” He had no idea who “y’all” was.

My guess is that it was indicative of the fact that she was holding the world responsible for the murder of her brother. She didn’t pull the trigger that day, but just weeks later her trauma would grip the handle and squeeze the trigger just a little tighter, robbing Ms. Callaway and her unborn child of their lives, just like her brother’s life was taken. This woman had lost her humanity, and there was nothing that would - or could - restore it. Could more have been done to save the three lives that have been lost?

While we can’t reasonably be expected to address every individual’s hurt, anger, or fears that result from some tragic life event, we can do more to address those factors that strengthen human resilience, such as education, adequate housing, and significant employment. And as the executive director of an RCO (Recovery Community Organization) - People Living in Recovery - I can say with certainty that we must also invest in our recovery organizations, which are equipped to address both addiction as well as the underlying trauma. This is important because drugs are the most widely used coping mechanism by using them to self-medicate.

However, drug abuse has the exact opposite effect of exasperating the problems. When we focus on and invest in these things that give us the tools and strength to survive the vicissitudes of life, then we are addressing trauma at the collective level. Obviously, the collective consists of individuals, such as the accused young lady, and even Ms. Callaway’s 3-year-old son whose hand she was holding when she was murdered. This approach to addressing the increasing incidents of gun violence within our community will be a lengthy process, but the only one that guarantees permanent results.

A more immediate, and obvious, need is stricter gun control and other efforts designed to reduce the availability of guns on our streets. I have seen firsthand the damage that guns cause in the hands of unscrupulous individuals. The night that my co-defendant fired the fatal shot that would take an innocent life for no reason at all, when i looked into his eyes, all I could see was hurt and confusion - what I later learned was years of unresolved trauma. If only it didn’t have the trigger to wrap itself around that night, there may have been time to address it.

Shane Sims was born and lives in Athens. In 1996 he was sentenced to life in prison for an armed robbery in which an accomplice fatally shot a store clerk. Before being paroled 20 years later he served time in Telfair, Coastal, and Jackson state prisons. Among other things, Sims currently is program coordinator for People Living in Recovery, serves on the board of The Athens Reentry Collaborative, is chairman of the nonprofit agency Feed My Sheep, and is chaplain for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department

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