Survivors of gun violence often endure a struggle that extends long after the shooting. They might face years of coping with debilitating pain, or an ongoing struggle to secure and pay for physical and mental healthcare. As gunshot survivor Sara Cusimano told Amnesty International for a new report on gun violence in America, “surviving day to day is almost as bad as the event, as being shot.”
Cusimano was one of 25 gunshot survivors Amnesty spoke with for Scars of Survival: Gun Violence and Barriers to Reparation in the USA. Through conversations with survivors and with health practitioners, social workers, public health experts, and activists, Amnesty builds the case that gun violence is a human rights crisis in the U.S.—and that victims of it should be entitled to reparations for harms caused by it. According to Amnesty, those reparations should include medical and psychological care, compensation for economic losses, including the costs of health services and time out of work, and ongoing provision of social and psychological services.
Last fall, Amnesty released a comprehensive report detailing how gun violence impacts human rights in the U.S. “One of the areas where we knew we wanted to do further research was the impact of gun violence on people who survive,” says Jasmeet Sidhu, Amnesty’s research manager on its End Gun Violence campaign. “This is a group of people who, really, nobody is counting, and through no fault of their own, their lives are permanently changed by gun violence and because of the government’s failure to adequately regulate possession of firearms.” For Scars of Survival, Amnesty focused specifically on gun violence in four cities—New Orleans, Miami, Tampa, and Baltimore—and talked to experts and victims there about how resources for survivors could be improved.
Often in the wake of shootings (especially mass shootings), reports and media coverage focuses on the people killed by gunshot. Between 2001 and 2017, at least half a million people lost their lives to gun violence in the U.S. In that same time, 1.3 million people were injured. But the people injured by gun violence, Sidhu says, are often overlooked, even though the injuries they sustain may permanently alter their lives and their mental health.
Furthermore, few resources exist for gunshot survivors. “Despite the gravity of the impact of gun violence, the state does not provide survivors with access to any specifically designed support and benefits,” Amnesty writes. “Survivors have to rely on the same mechanisms and systems to access healthcare as others in the USA and face a range of challenges in this process. Survivors of violence, especially those on lower incomes, often face numerous economic barriers while trying to access the healthcare they need. This situation is often exacerbated by the fact that they are unable to return to work until they have fully recovered.”
While states do manage compensation funds for victims of violent crimes, they often do not reach all victims in need. Amnesty cites the fact that in 2017, around 1.2 million violent crimes occurred in America, but only 294,990 applications were filed for victim compensation funds. Around 23% of those applications were denied. Furthermore, Sidhu says that data on the victim compensation funds is not disaggregated, so it’s difficult to tell how much is going directly to gun violence victims. Amnesty heard from victims that they often weren’t informed they were eligible for the fund. The amount of funding available to victims is often also arbitrarily capped or limited—in Florida, for instance, people with prior felony convictions cannot apply for assistance.
So even with this funding pool in place, gunshot survivors often face costs they can’t meet. Johns Hopkins estimates that an emergency room visit costs a shooting victim an average of $5,254; if they’re admitted to the hospital, it swiftly climbs to $95,887. If someone requires long-term care, the costs continue to compound. This all depends, of course, on the victim’s insurance status, but for people who are living on low incomes and cannot afford coverage, the impacts are especially significant.
Dr. Marie Crandall, professor of surgery at University of Florida College of Medicine Jacksonville, told Amnesty that if a patient is uninsured, they often have to turn to charity funding for care. After the October 2017 mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert, many survivors turned to GoFundMe to cover medical bills.
This, Sidhu says, should not be the case. “The United States has an obligation to protect people’s right to live and people’s right to have security of person,” she says. But because gun laws in the U.S. are failing to do that, the country has a responsibility to provide for victims. That could look like dramatically expanding state victim compensation funds by removing arbitrary caps and instead, equipping people with enough funding to support all medical bills and long-term support. It also could mean, Sidhu says, that all systems that interact with gun violence victims, from police departments to hospitals, should lead by making victims aware of this funding and offering support with paperwork and access.
Outside of improving access to good and affordable healthcare for all in the U.S.—which Sidhu says would consequently help gun violence victims—”there are things that could be done today by legislators and local and state agencies that could improve this process for delivering support and helping victims,” she says.