SUMMARY: We have read many books on gun violence– one that details a prophetic Christian call towards gun violence (Beating Guns), one that tells a personal shooting survivor’s story (When Thoughts and Prayers Aren’t Enough), and one that details the enormous mental, economic, and physical cost of gun violence (Collateral Damage). Children Under Fire carves a different path by telling the heartbreaking, intimate stories of two seven year old children, Ava Olsen and Tyshaun McPhatter, who form a profound friendship after being deeply traumatized by gun violence.
While detailing the two children’s stories, author John Woodrow Cox paints a picture of America that is content with the detrimental psychological effects of school lockdown drills, underfunded or non-existent research into gun violence deaths, a lack of education around gun safety in the home, and an apathy in Congress to pass any meaningful gun legislation despite, on average, one child being shot every hour in the United States.
“And since the 1990s, the country has made no progress in its limited efforts to curb the rates at which children die,” Cox writes. “On this issue, America stands in isolation.”
The consequences of those decisions lead to families being torn apart by gun violence, kids struggling in school, and mental illness caused by both gun violence and school lockdown drills.
“Such chronic exposure can disrupt a child’s brain development and inflict profound mental and emotional harm that, in some cases, clings to them for decades,” Cox says. “Years of research show that kids in these environments are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, and uncontrollable anger. “
Cox chose to profile Ava and Tyshaun because they represent the hundreds of thousands of kids that are affected by and/or witness gun violence, but don’t make the headlines. Ava was traumatized in 2016 when a 14-year old boy opened fire with a .40 caliber handgun on the Townville Elementary playground, killing Ava’s best friend Jacob Hall. Tyshaun’s father, Andrew, was murdered with a handgun in Washington D.C. in the same year.
“The children who are killed or maimed dominate headlines, but they represent only a fraction of the problem in the United States, where not thousands, but millions of children are affected every year,” Cox says. “These are mostly the Avas and Tyshauns—the kids who weren’t shot and aren’t considered victims by our legal system but who have, nonetheless, been irreparably harmed by the epidemic.”
Ava and Tyshaun suffer from depression, anxiety, rage, and have difficulty sleeping. Loud noises, popped balloons, or a car backfiring trigger them both. Both struggle in school – if they go at all. Ava is on a heavy dose of drugs to keep her calm. Both undergo bouts of rage. Trauma from gun violence has consumed their lives.
One of the most moving parts of the book was Jacob’s funeral. Jacob was a big superhero fan so his parents asked everyone coming to the funeral to dress up in superhero outfits. Jacob was dressed as Batman in his small gray coffin. As a reader, that shook me, and many parents can relate. Most parents see their child dress up all the time, so it’s not difficult to envision our own children lying in that coffin. What Children Under Fire does well is put a name and face to those that are suffering and affected by gun violence.
“How many children have to die or witness a killing or watch a family member be lowered into the earth before we say, enough?” Cox writes.
While Children Under Fire is not penned specifically from a Christian worldview, Cox calls for many of the same changes that Shane Claiborne (Beating Guns), Taylor Schumann (When Thoughts and Prayers Aren’t Enough), and James Atwood (Collateral Damage) call for. Universal background checks for all gun sales, funding for gun violence death research, and education on safely storing guns in the home are just a few items Cox mentions. While an emotionally heavy read, the book does end in hope – a call to get involved to save lives – something that should be easy for Christians to get on board with.
“This book does not call for revolution or a repeal of the Second Amendment. Included here are true stories about children who have either died or endured tremendous pain because of gun violence that society has allowed to continue. I did not write this as an appeal to Democrats or a condemnation of Republicans, but instead, as a call to action for anyone in this country who cares about their children. The proposals outlined in these pages are based in reporting and fact, and they will, unequivocally, save lives.”
KEY QUOTE: “The most vulnerable bearers of that burden are our children, and yet, in the world’s wealthiest nation—one that claims to cherish its youngest above all else—this uniquely American crisis rages on.”
BONUS: Make sure to watch the PBS News Hours segment below. After reading about the scenes in the book, especially Jacob’s funeral, and then seeing them on the screen was harrowing.
DID YOU KNOW? Sunday to Saturday has a Good Reads page where we post all of the books we have read – even the ones that didn’t make the cut.
DIG DEEPER: We curated four guided learning paths on guns and gun violence to help you learn about the subject through a distinct Christian lens.
More curated books on guns/gun violence:
Few Christian books can integrate and appeal to Scripture without sounding preachy, pretentious, or perfunctory. Even more so when an author takes on a polarizing subject such as guns. And yet this is what Michael W. Austin’s God and Guns in America excels at. Biblically rooted as well logically sound Austin’s approachable writing style is like sitting with a friend telling you how and why they arrived at a conclusion – in this case his view on guns/gun violence through a Christian lens.
Pastor James Atwood, who passed away in 2020, called gun violence the most important theological issue for the American church. His conviction is rooted in Mark 12:28-34 where Jesus says the most important commandment is to love God and love your neighbor. Atwood says you cannot love God and not love your neighbor, they are fundamentally connected. Collateral Damage is a prophetic call for the church to get involved and not remain silent when 40,000 fellow image bearers are being killed each year while hundreds of thousands more are psychologically and emotionally damaged from the effects of gun violence.
As humans, most of the time we want complex issues to be solved easily. For instance, if individuals with guns are targeting churches, then members of churches should carry guns to counteract the threat. While on the surface that may seem like the logical thing to do, and certainly a good portion of Americans would agree, as Christians we must consider what the Bible has to say. In Whom Shall I Fear? author and pastor Rosalind C. Hughes doesn’t say whether a church should hire armed security or not, but invites the reader to take a step back and answer the question, “What is the church and what is its mission” before deciding how to deal with the violent culture we live in.