Even After Gun Violence Occurs, the Government Often Fails Survivors
The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last week claimed 17 lives and resulted in 14 gunshot injuries. As a heightened national conversation around gun control unfolds, we should stay focused on ensuring that the injured students and faculty are adequately provided for. But as a new report by the Trace reveals, in addition to doing a lousy job of preventing gun violence, state governments are doing a poor job of caring for the victims of mass shootings when they occur.
Seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousand Americans were injured by gunfire in the past decade, and 430,000 survived. Surviving gun violence is expensive, and too many victims end up paying for the costs out of pocket. Dr. Robert Sege, who has studied the topic extensively, told NPR, “the direct medical costs that we found for the year 2009 alone was $148 million. But those are the hospital charges. In addition, each child had physician charges. They may have had x-rays. They may have had rehabilitation costs, and of course their parents had lost work.”
This is what happened to Jennifer Longdon, who was shot in her car one night in 2004 along with her husband while the two were leaving the martial-arts studio in Phoenix that he owned. Longdon was left paraplegic after a five-month hospital stay. Mother Jones writes that, “shortly after the shooting, her health insurance provider found a way to drop her coverage based on a preexisting condition. She would be hospitalized three more times in quick succession, twice for infections and once for a broken bone; all told, the bills would approach $1 million in the first year alone. Longdon was forced to file for personal bankruptcy—a stinging humiliation for someone who had earned about $80,000 a year.”
It’s unclear how often insurance companies shrugged off the responsibility of caring for gun violence survivors based on pre-existing conditions before the passage of the Affordable Care Act. But there are financial complications resulting from surviving a shooting that still today fall out of the scope of health insurance coverage.
A fund is set up to assist people for this very reason: The Victims of Crime Act, passed in 1984, required states to allot money to pay for the varied costs of recovering from violent crime and living in its aftermath. But as the Trace reveals, significant barriers prevent many gun violence survivors from accessing the fund:
"Victim advocates, anti-violence activists, and social workers interviewed by The Trace said that victims of violent crime face numerous hurdles in applying for the funds. They say that for traumatized victims, the eligibility criteria can be daunting, the applications toilsome, and processing times long....Most vexing, advocates say, is that state laws that govern compensation programs can ultimately exclude people at the highest risk of being shot. While black men disproportionately experience violence, they are also more likely than whites to have been convicted of a felony, which in some states can disqualify people from receiving funds."
Another major barrier: the assistance funds apply to a limited portion of gun violence victims.
“If a person has any type of insurance, even if it’s Medicaid, we can’t do a whole lot for them,” James McCurtis, manager of the Division of Victim Services in Michigan, told the Trace. “We’re limited by statute in terms of what we can do.”
When they are eligible, survivors who have gone through the process of applying for the victim’s compensation funding describe the process as demanding. “It’s like a list of 15 things that they’re asking for, and I was only able to obtain, like, six of them,” one victim said.
Experts call the failure of the fund to actually compensate victims “ironic.” “It often really adds to the pain that they are going through,” Alicia Boccellari, a clinical psychologist and founder of the UC San Francisco’s Trauma Recovery Center, told the Trace. “It puts a lot of expectations on them, when they really have so few inner resources to deal with all this. Sometimes the victim ends up feeling further victimized.”
It's the government’s job to keep citizens well-informed about their rights, but public education for resources like victim's compensation is a consistent failure among many government agencies. According to the Trace, lack of adequate education about the funding is to blame for this failing. Of nearly 25 gun victims interviewed for the Trace article, “about half had not applied for compensation in the first place.” Some were misinformed about how to access the funding or whether or not they qualified. Others who did apply said they were denied compensation because they were not deemed eligible according to their state’s criteria. Douglas Evans, a researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, confirms this in a 2014 report. “Because victim compensation is not as well-known as other forms of compensation (i.e., workers compensation), lack of awareness is often the primary obstacle that victims and survivors must overcome,” he wrote.
Whenever a mass shooting like the one in Parkland occurs, a narrow window of opportunity appears in which to discuss the complex issue of gun violence. Now is the time to demand states more proactively assist victims and their families with the exorbitant costs of recovery. The survivors of these too frequent episodes of violence deserve justice and fair compensation.