The shooting that left Tommy Williams paralyzed from the chest down was captured on Facebook Live, and eventually attracted more than 1 million views. The local newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia, reported on the incident. So did the New York Times and the BBC. He received an avalanche of well-wishing messages from people all over the world.
But after that initial surge of support and attention, Williams was left in the same situation as many of the tens of thousands of others who suffer a grievous gunshot wound each year, and survive. His recuperation has been excruciating, and his long-term prospects — financial, physical, emotional — are uncertain. He had to quit his job at the naval shipyard, leaving him dependent on his parents for financial support. A combination of his father’s health insurance and Medicaid has covered daylong physical therapy sessions, but he will soon age out of his dad’s coverage. To come and go from his mother’s second-floor apartment, where Williams lives, he relies on his cousin to carry him up and down the stairs.
Aside from those closest to him, no one is watching these daily struggles.
As a reporter for The Trace, a nonprofit news organization that reports on gun issues, it’s my job to understand the toll gun violence exacts on individuals, their families, and their communities. While gun homicide is the overwhelming focus of most news coverage — including from this outlet — there is another, even larger population with a host of critical needs. For every person killed by a firearm, two more gunshot victims survive, according to national estimates for 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. All told, more than 80,000 people are estimated to survive nonfatal gunshot wounds each year.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that between 2001 and 2015, there were more than a million non-fatal firearm injuries.
In order to shed light on the experiences of this vulnerable population, we have created a survey for anyone living with a gunshot wound in the United States. Our goals: We want to understand what services survivors need, and which of those services they have trouble accessing. We want to know if and where shooting survivors are able to find work, especially those whose injuries left them temporarily or permanently disabled. Whatever the circumstances of your shooting, wherever you are in recovery — we want to hear your story.
If you have survived a gunshot injury, please click here to take the survey.
We recognize that each gunshot survivor has a unique experience, but also that many face some of the same challenges.
For some, like Anne Marie Hochhalter, the most pressing problem is constant, agonizing pain. Hochhalter was very open about the ongoing complications she still faces, 17 years after surviving the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. While interviewing her last winter, I struggled to keep up as she listed her many chronic health problems — she described her body as a “trainwreck” — along with a litany of medical appointments and pills.
For others, like Michael Moss, there are limitations to what health insurance will cover. Moss, 15, was shot four times while walking back from a McDonald’s on the South Side of Chicago. His caregiver spoke about her struggle to afford the protein shakes Michael drinks to gain weight after losing part of his stomach. It’s also been challenging for Moss to find a local physical therapist who accepts his insurance.
There are also the common obstacles of transportation and mobility, which Tyrone Shoemake has been working to overcome since he was shot and paralyzed in Philadelphia two decades ago. In teaching other wheelchair users to drive motor vehicles with his homemade hand controls, Shoemake has granted other gunshot survivors freedom and independence.
If you’ve been shot and you want to help us spread awareness about your experiences, please take a few minutes to fill out the survey. If you know someone who’s been shot, or know of a group or organization that works closely with gunshot survivors, share this post. You can also email me directly at [email protected].