Texas Disability Groups Want A Voice At The Table In Gun Debate

Susan Nelson, author and public speaker on brain injury awareness and gun safety, at her home in Austin. Nelson survived a point blank range gunshot to the head in 1993. (Gabriel C. Perez/KUT)

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

Bob Kafka is an organizer with ADAPT and said that when gun violence happens, 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 said of her friend’s firearm.

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

“I stood up to turn to run and was shot in the back of the head,” she said. “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 and had to start her life all over.

“I was paralyzed,” she said. “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 is writing again, working as an author and speaker. 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 said.

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

“I am not against guns. And I don’t know that [for] everyone who gets shot [the ordeal is] going to turn them against guns,” she said.

This is something Kafka said he’s expecting as the survey results come in. He wants to learn how many members are in this category and their thoughts on guns, in order to educate lawmakers and testify on gun legislation. Kafka said he hopes to hear a range of perspectives on guns from the community of people living with disabilities, because it’s so big.

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

He points out that Texas’ very conservative and very pro-gun governor, Greg Abbott, has used a wheelchair since he was 26 after a tree fell on him while he was jogging after a storm.

Kafka said we should hear from people who are disabled due to gun violence because we rarely do.

“Not only do we not talk about it, it’s invisible,” he said. “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 attetion, said Noam Ostrander, with the Department of Social Work at DePaul University in Chicago. Ostrander said a lot of people become disabled because of day-to-day gun violence in major cities. For many years, Ostrander worked with gang members on 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 said.

It’s also easy to forget, Ostrander said, that among victims of gun violence, about three to five times the number of people who die from it actually survive.

This story is part of a partnership that includes KUT, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

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