Texas Disability Group Wants Victims' Voices Heard In Gun Debate

Apr 23, 2018
Originally published on April 22, 2018 1:04 pm

A disability rights group in Texas sent out a survey last month, trying to figure out how many of its members became disabled by gun violence. The group, ADAPT of Texas, says it's an effort to collect data that will help inform Texas lawmakers about how they should legislate guns.

Bob Kafka, an organizer with ADAPT, says when gun violence occurs, particularly mass shootings, the public tends to have a pretty limited discussion about what happens to the victims.

Susan Nelson was one of those victims. About 25 years ago, she was having dinner at a friend's house. Her friend had a gun.

"It was registered and everything," she says of her friend's firearm.

There was also a young man there that night. He'd been thrown out of his parents' house and was unstable. He found the gun and confronted both Nelson and her friend, saying he was going to rob and then kill them. Nelson says he first shot her in her left shoulder.

"I stood up to turn to run and was shot in the back of the head," she says. "My friend was as well and that's the last part I remember from the shooting. My friend died in flight to the hospital and I woke from a coma two weeks later."

She was 29-years-old and had to start her life all over.

"I was paralyzed," she says. "I could barely read and write. My vision was really bad so I had to spend the next seven months in therapy relearning everything and working really, really hard."

Her hard work paid off. Nelson can walk now and she's a writer. Her vision is good but she still lives with various disabilities.

"It takes me longer to formulate my sentences because my brain doesn't work as fast to make the words come out of my mouth as fast as I'd like," she says.

This experience hasn't changed Nelson's relationship with guns very much, though. Nelson grew up in southeast Texas surrounded by guns. She says she still thinks people who are responsible should be able to have them.

"I am not against guns. And I don't know that everyone who gets shot is going to turn them against guns," she says.

This way of thinking is something Kafka says he's expecting to better understand as the ADAPT survey results come in. He wants the information to help educate lawmakers and bolster the group's authority to testify on behalf of its members about gun legislation. Kafka says victims of gun violence all face different hurdles in recovery and he wants to know about those experiences. But he's not expecting everyone surveyed to hold the same views.

"We have people on both sides of the issue," he says. "There are probably NRA members in the disability community."

Kafka says we should hear from people who were disabled by gun violence because we rarely do.

"Not only do we not talk about it, it's invisible," he says. "The media loves to focus on how many people died and then they have the sort of other injured, but I've never seen where they follow the rehab of somebody."

Mass shootings also tend to garner a lot of media attention, says Noam Ostrander with the School of Social Work at DePaul University in Chicago. But there are many people who become disabled because of day-to-day gun violence in major cities who never get called by a reporter. For many years, Ostrander worked with gang members in the west side of Chicago who became paralyzed after being shot.

"The cost of that injury and that often then becomes a public cost is astronomical and I think that would be shocking to a lot of folks," he says.

It's also easy to forget, Ostrander says, that about three to five times the number of people who die from gun violence actually survive. And Kafka wants to make sure that their voices count in the debate.


This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, KUT and Kaiser Health News. You can follow Ashley Lopez on Twitter: @AshLopezRadio.

Copyright 2018 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In Texas, disability groups are asking their members, how many people became disabled due to gun violence? Their goal - to give the disability community a louder voice in the debate over guns in the state. Ashley Lopez of member station KUT reports.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: About 25 years ago, Susan Nelson was having dinner at a friend's house.

SUSAN NELSON: He had a gun. And he had a right to have that gun. It was registered and everything.

LOPEZ: There was also a young man there that night. He'd been thrown out of his parents' house and was unstable. He found the gun and confronted both Nelson and her friend. He said he was going to rob and then kill them. Nelson says he then shot her in the left shoulder.

NELSON: I stood up to turn to run and was shot in the back of the head. And my friend was, as well. And that's the last part I remember of this shooting. My friend died in flight to the hospital, and I awoke from a coma two weeks later.

LOPEZ: She was 29 years old. And she had to start her life all over.

NELSON: I was paralyzed. I couldn't - I could barely read and write. I had - my vision was really bad, so I had to spend the next seven months in therapy relearning everything and working really, really hard.

LOPEZ: Her hard work paid off. Nelson can walk now. She's a writer and her vision is good. But she says she still lives with various disabilities.

NELSON: It takes me longer to formulate my sentences because my brain doesn't work as fast to make the words come out of my mouth.

LOPEZ: This experience hasn't changed Nelson's relationship with guns, though. Nelson grew up in southeast Texas, surrounded by guns. She says she still thinks people who are responsible should be able to have them.

NELSON: I'm not against guns. And I don't know that everyone who gets shot - it's going to turn them against guns.

LOPEZ: And this is something disability rights groups in Texas are expecting as they survey their members. Bob Kafka is with ADAPT of Texas - one of those groups. They sent a questionnaire to their members earlier this year, asking how many of them became disabled due to gun violence. They want a head count, so they can educate lawmakers and testify on gun legislation. Kafka says he's expecting to hear a range of perspectives on guns from the disability community because it's so big.

BOB KAFKA: We have people on both sides of the issue. It's not like we're anti-guns, pro - you know, there's probably NRA members in the disability community.

LOPEZ: In fact, he points out Texas's very conservative and very pro-gun Governor Greg Abbott is a member of that community. He has used a wheelchair since he was 26 after a tree fell on him while he was jogging after a storm. Kafka says we should hear from people who are disabled due to gun violence mostly because we rarely do.

KAFKA: Not only do we not talk about, it's invisible. You know, I mean, the media loves to focus on how many people die, you know, and then they have the sort of other injured. But I've never seen where they follow the rehab of somebody.

LOPEZ: And the focus has also been on the victims of mass shootings, says Noam Ostrander with the School of Social Work at DePaul University in Chicago. Ostrander says a lot of people become disabled because of day-to-day gun violence in major cities. For many years, Ostrander worked with gang members in the West Side of Chicago who became paralyzed after being shot.

NOAM OSTRANDER: The cost for that injury - and that often then becomes public cost - is astronomical. And I think that that would be shocking to a lot of folks.

LOPEZ: It's also easy to forget, Ostrander says, that about three to five times the number of people who die from gun violence actually survive. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, KUT and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DEREK TRUCKS BAND'S "FRISELL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.