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Gun Violence Victims Often Have to Jump Through Many Hoops to Get Compensation

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AP Photo / Shafkat Anowar
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The problem of gun violence is leaving a huge death toll. But what about survivors of gun violence?

Lisette Johnson of Midlothian is a survivor of gun violence.

"In 2009, I was shot four times by my husband in the presence of my children. And he then took his own life with that gun," Johnson says.

She says she was traumatized by what happened, and then re-traumatized by what happened next.

"We have so many shootings where more people live than die, and the media and everyone is focused on the people who died, which is tragic," she explains. "But as a survivor, we are forgotten."

She says getting money from the Virginia Victims Fund was a nightmare of filling out application forms and dealing with uncooperative providers and being put on hold. And then she had multiple surgeries and breezed through the maximum amount available to her, which was $25,000.

"My first hospital bill in 2009 from the shooting was around $99,000," Johnson says. "What a bargain because I just had a surgery related to the shooting in January, and it was $72,000 for an outpatient two-hour surgery."

Her story and the story of survivors of gun violence is often one of pain and frustration. There was the trauma of being a victim of gun violence in the first place, and then there are systemic barriers survivors face in getting federal money administered by the states. The maximum amount here in Virginia is now $35,000, although many times that money is never collected.

"Gun violence survivors are losing out on millions of dollars of victim compensation every year," explains Michael-Sean Spence at Everytown for Gun Safety. He helped put together a report that shows the average processing time here in Virginia for victims of gun violence to receive compensation is 202 days.

"Obviously waiting almost a year for support following a shooting is not ideal, and of course we would like it to be better," he says. "But the good news is that Virginia is doing better than most."

In Kentucky, victims of gun violence have to wait almost three years to get compensation. Another potential hurdle is eligibility. Here in Virginia, victims of gun violence are required to cooperate with the police investigation into the shooting if they want access to compensation funds.

"We’re aware of some unwillingness in communities that have experienced high levels of gun violence with engaging with law enforcement," Spence says. "And in addition to that lack of trust we know that some survivors fear law enforcement cooperation out of fear of retaliation or even overpolicing if they've been abused by a loved one."

The bottom line, he says, is that victims of gun violence should not have to wait 200 days to receive compensation. And victims who are reluctant to cooperate with police should not be prevented from accessing support.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.