"Gun violence has created a lot of anxiety": The forgotten survivors of shootings speak

Journalist Loren Kleinman talks about the forgotten victims of gun violence and their visible and invisible wounds

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 10, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor David Hogg speaks in front of reporters at an installation of body bags assembled on the National Mall by Gun Control activist group March For Our Lives on March 24, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor David Hogg speaks in front of reporters at an installation of body bags assembled on the National Mall by Gun Control activist group March For Our Lives on March 24, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Over the extended Fourth of July holiday, as has become all too normal in the U.S., there was a numbing series of 16 mass shootings in 13 states and Washington D.C. Random people were chased down in Philadelphia by a shooter seemingly inspired by Donald Trump. People were gunned down at an Independence Day festival in Fort Worth, Texas. Thirty people were hit with bullets in Baltimore at a neighborhood party. And another 11 people were shot at a block party in Shreveport, Louisiana. The bloodshed just went on and on, leaving at least 15 people dead and nearly 100 more injured. 

The damage from mass shootings is truly overwhelming. The press efforts to package the trauma in small enough bites for their audiences to understand, however, has led to an unfortunate tendency: giving focus solely to those who die. Headlines often only include the death count. Victim lists tend to only be those who perished. It's understandable to focus mainly on the worst outcomes, but in reality, mass shootings have exponentially more victims than those who died. The casualties include the injured, traumatized and bereaved. The ripples of pain are ceaseless. 

In the new book "The Forgotten Survivors of Gun Violence: Wounded," editors Loren Kleinman, Shavaun Scott, Sandy Phillips and Lonnie Phillips put the focus back on those who survive but are forever changed. Kleinman spoke with Salon about the book and the need to keep not just the fallen but the wounded in the conversation about gun violence. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

This book is especially pertinent right now, with the shootings that happened over the holiday. Many of them got minor attention because most victims survived and that's now jaded we are now. Tell me more about the book. 

"Wounded" is a short collection. It's about 20 personal essays written by survivors of both visible and invisible wounds. Invisible wounds, meaning things like PTSD related to gun violence. Visible wounds such as getting shot in a limb or ending up in a wheelchair. Of course, many people have both. 

I follow the subject of shootings, especially mass shootings, very closely. And one thing that does drive me a little nuts about the media coverage is how it focuses exclusively on the deaths. Don't get me wrong, that's obviously the most serious part. But often we only see the death toll and there's little discussion of those who were injured or traumatized. How much more damage are we overlooking when we just focus on the people who were killed in the shootings?

It's sad that we have to even ask the question. I've done this work for the last five years, interviewing both survivors and their families. There's a huge impact that goes beyond the bullet wound or the shooting. There are financial implications. There are people that become destitute because they don't have insurance or it doesn't cover the extent of their injuries.  Some people have multiple reoccurring surgeries, that they're going to have throughout their life. There's not a "back to normal" for them. This loss is catastrophic. What ends up happening is that they grow around the grief. They don't grow out of it.

"Watching this very traumatic response unfold, I wish more people would really see this, and really bear witness to this trauma. Are we really caring for the people that are grieving in this catastrophic event?"

It's the community that suffers. It's the family that suffers. The friends that suffer. The financial implications are very rarely spoken about.

People have the misconception that somebody gets shot, then they're going to the hospital, they're getting a couple of stitches and they move on with their life. But depending upon the kind of bullet, the kind of gun, where it hits you in the body, it can be a complete life changer. There are people that are in this book that will never walk again. We just had a gentleman that recently passed away, Kevin, from his wounds that were inflicted upon him years ago. It was just a random shooting coming home from a basketball game. It's way more than "here's the band-aid, move on."

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People have to live with this every single day of their lives. Their families have to live with it every single day of their lives. Oftentimes the families are the caregivers. Oftentimes the families break apart. There's a huge mental health implication. I don't think that we talk about that as often as what, as what we need to. 

We're coming off of a particularly brutal July 4th holiday. It was especially bad this year. A lot of cities, including Philadelphia where I live. The number of people killed was relatively small compared to what we're used to. But the total number of people shot was really high. So we're looking at a lot of survivors. How do you think about the media coverage of these kinds of shootings, where it's more people wounded than murdered?

I hate to say it, but I almost expect something to happen now every Fourth of July. Somebody is going to get shot and die from that wound. Somebody is going to survive from that wound. Sometimes the people that survived from that wound might run into complications months later, and not even realize it.

I often wonder where the survivor voices are in all of this. Where is the space that we allow survivors to wrap their minds around it? There will be a press conference, or a survivor that's crying and just in complete disarray. It always breaks my heart, because I'm thinking about how many other people who have survived a shooting, and are watching this. The discussion automatically goes to the debate about the Second Amendment or gun control. These are people. These are our friends, our family, our community. This is the gritty reality these people have to live with for the rest of their lives.

There is a huge community of gun violence survivors that they can connect with. But in the moment, people are in such shock. They're often crying but are not really present, almost still trying to figure out what's going on. Watching this very traumatic response unfold, I wish more people would really see this, and really bear witness to this trauma. Are we really caring for the people that are grieving in this catastrophic event?

It is absolutely important to mourn the dead, and I don't want to take away from that. But I think the Parkland shooting felt to me like the first time that there was sustained media attention to the stories of the survivors. The kids themselves made themselves the story. What are your thoughts on Parkland? How did that change the conversation?

It's still amazing what these kids have done. I mean, they're not kids anymore, right? They're adults. It was so important that they're demanding that we know their story is vital. If you're not hearing the story, if we're not bearing witness to the story, then you're saying to me that it did not exist, you know, that we did not exist.

There are plenty of other survivor groups, such as that borne out of the Columbine community for, for example. But I think it's a different time. The Parkland survivors had the benefit of social media. Still, you're still sharing your story and there's still a huge vulnerability to that. There will be people who won't take it seriously or people dismissing it. You're pouring your heart out and sharing the most intimate details of your life. You're hoping that people will connect with it and you're hoping that the story will change the pattern.

There are definitely tons of strides, real changes in legislature. But it's still not enough. That doesn't mean that we stop sharing our story. We still need people to witness what that aftermath looks like. What Parkland did was open up that dialogue. It really brought together an incredible number of survivors from communities from, from the 90s, and even from the 60s. Survivors from the University of Texas tower shooting came out and told their story. 

When we think of survivors of shootings, we think of people who were shot or were there at the shooting. We may even think about the family members of people who were shot. How do you place other folks that are affected directly? I've interviewed surgeons who work in hospitals and have had to deal with shooting victims. Firefighters, EMTs, theses are survivors of shootings, in the sense that they have to help victims. Where do you put the helpers in the constellation of survivors?

That's a really wonderful question. I definitely think that trauma surgeons or first responders are a group that are not tapped into enough. That's definitely something that I've really been considering for a next project. There are people that gun violence will touch that you don't even think of it. I didn't think that I was going to be as affected as I was, doing these projects. Carrying the weight of that story is also going to affect you.

Those are the ripple effects of gun violence, what we read, what we see, the people that we care for. For me, it brought out a lot of different emotions. Just being scared to go to the places where the people that I spoke to were shot, or where their children were killed. Being a parent myself, I worry when I drop my child off to school. Am I gonna see them again? Gun violence has created a lot of anxiety for a lot of people, millions of people. That's also something that we don't talk about. Being exposed to gun violence even though you weren't shot, even though you weren't there that day. It touches every aspect of our life, whether we think about it or not.

Mass shootings especially are meant to be a public spectacle. The mass shooter picks people at random so that everyone in the community feels like, even if they weren't there that day, it could have been them. At this point we all have a story of someone we know who barely missed a mass shooting. It's a terrifying thing to think about. It gets hard to separate "survivor" and everyone else. 

Whenever a shooting happens, a certain part of the country goes directly towards talking about the Second Amendment. At the same time, l want to say, these are also your people. We're all breathing together. Like this is not, this doesn't exclude you. When are people going to realize that this is close to home. It's everywhere. There are a ton of emotions that come from that, and it's something that we have to really face.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Gun Safety Gun Violence Gun Violence Survivors Interview Mass Shooting Second Amendment