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Shooting Victims Face Lifelong Disabilities, Financial Burdens, Newspaper Finds


"Shot And Forgotten" is the title of a recent story in The Philadelphia Inquirer. The paper followed some of the 80,000 Americans who survive gun injuries each year. That number comes from the Brady Campaign. And some of those 80,000 briefly made the news - only some. Others simply had to adapt to lives redefined by pain or disability. Inquirer reporters David Gambacorta and Helen Ubinas argue that many shooting victims are cast off. Society is not well-equipped to help people like Jalil Frazier. Reporter Helen Ubinas says he was, at first, acclaimed as a hero for the day that he saved the lives of three children in a Philadelphia barbershop.

HELEN UBINAS: There was a robbery. Some folks came in with a gun. And he threw himself in front, basically, between the gun and the children. And he saved their lives. But one of the bullets entered his body and affected his spine. And that's why he's paralyzed today.

INSKEEP: What has happened in the months since then? - almost a year since then.

UBINAS: So when I initially wrote about him, this was a few months ago. He and his family were struggling in their home in Philadelphia. It's a row home. It's very narrow steps. They were trying to figure out sort of how to get a ramp, how to get modifications that they needed to stay in the home. He was, basically, confined to the family's dining room. So they ended up recently moving to a one-level home in New Jersey, which sounds like a happy ending - right? - except that, you know, their support system's here in Philadelphia. His doctors are here in Philadelphia. So, you know, they're out there trying to make a new life mostly on their own.

INSKEEP: What does your insurance do for you when you're a gunshot victim?

DAVID GAMBACORTA: You know, that's one of the areas that really surprised us. We sort of went in naively assuming that a lot of your basic needs would be met by your insurance company, if you happen to have insurance. But what we found from talking to experts at Magee Rehabilitation in Philadelphia - there are a lot of limitations. One example that we were given was that there's a limit into how frequently you can have your wheelchair replaced, which, you know, seems like a very basic thing. But for a lot of folks, you know, they put a lot of wear and tear on their wheelchairs. And maybe they need a new one every two years. But Medicaid will only provide one every five years. So that becomes something that you have to figure out a way to pay for.

INSKEEP: And I guess your insurance company is not going to pay for that ramp into your house if your condition is suddenly such that you need one.

GAMBACORTA: Right. That's where, I think, it sort of takes on a little bit of a Kafka-esque turn. And you have to try to learn how to navigate this very confusing array of federal and state and local assistance that could be available. There are grants that could help with things like getting a wheelchair ramp installed in your house. But a lot of those programs have backlogs. You know, you could be looking at wait times of several years, which is what we heard from some of the victims we interviewed. And you have to know how to find it. You have to know where to start. And that's something that really struck us. If you are not in this world, if you've never sort of contemplated needing services like this, how do you know where to look?

INSKEEP: Is there one place that people can go - some kind of office to find out what resources are available to them when this suddenly happens to them?

GAMBACORTA: In Pennsylvania and also nationally, there is an Office for Victims of Crime. They have a certain amount of funding in Pennsylvania. It's about $13 million annually that they are able to grant to crime victims. You know, that works out to maybe $1,500 on average. I think their cap - the most they'll give is 35,000. But again, to qualify for that, there are certain things you're going to have to be doing, like cooperating with law enforcement, for instance. And it's out there in the sense that, you know, perhaps you could find it and get some of what you need. But what we heard not only from victims in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania but across the country - they don't know about these programs. They don't know about these offices. And, you know, they're as shocked as we are, you know, that their - there's - this connection is not being made.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking of a comparison that is not perfect - a comparison to veterans who are wounded in war. We expect that society will take care of them. We get really angry when they're not taken care of. Now, it's a little different, maybe a lot different because they volunteered, in most cases, to serve. But we have a situation here where you're talking about thousands of people who are wounded year after year after year and are not taken care of. Is that a failure of society?

UBINAS: Yeah, I believe it is. And I think it speaks to how people view shootings - right? - whether it's shootings that we choose as a society to ignore or those that we choose as a society to very briefly pay attention to before we all move on. The fact of the matter is that we are not, as a society, taking care of individuals who were shot and are left on their own to try to figure out how to make their lives.

GAMBACORTA: You know, I think the comparison you make to veterans is actually very fitting. And that's what Jamie - one of the Columbine survivors that we interviewed, actually, made the very same comparison with the thought that, you know, part of the reason that we have a VA is we know we're always going to have veterans, you know? And it's sort of a silent acknowledgement that there inevitably are always going to be conflicts where we're going to have to call upon folks, as you said, you know, to volunteer but to put themselves at risk and to, you know, become physically and mentally injured. And we owe them something. We should take care of them. So her thought - and I think this is 100 percent on the mark - is we could apply that to gun violence because as we've seen now, if you want to use Columbine as an imperfect starting point, you know, we're now two decades into this.

There are no, you know, meaningful, concrete steps being taken, I think, that I could see to prevent this level of gun violence that we have from continuing. So if that's not politically feasible, then let's commit to taking care of victims. You know, whether you happen to be at a church or a school or a concert or walking down your street or standing in a barbershop, if something happens and you end up having your life changed because this is America - and we can't help it. We have to have this level of gun violence every day and every year. We should be doing a better job of taking care of those folks because it's - I mean, we're at a point now where you have to acknowledge that this could be happening to any of us on any given day. So it feels like a step that needs to be taken. But I don't know if there's a national appetite for it.


INSKEEP: Philadelphia Inquirer reporters David Gambacorta and Helen Ubinas discussing their reporting on survivors of gun violence.


Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.