Michigan State University student John Hao, who was injured in a campus mass shooting in February, attended an NBA playoff game Sunday as a guest of Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden. Hao, who now uses a wheelchair, is a reminder that mass shooters don’t just kill people; they also wound and disable people.
Hao, who now uses a wheelchair, is a reminder that mass shooters don’t just kill people; they also wound and disable people.
Hao is an international student from China who has indicated that he may return home. Who could blame him? His being shot was an awful “welcome to America” moment. The United States is on pace in 2023 to have the most mass killing events it’s ever had. According to a database maintained by The Associated Press and USA Today in partnership with Northeastern University, as of May 11, this year there have been 41 people killed in mass shootings at a public space and 74 killed in mass shooting events that took place in a nonpublic space. Ironically, because that database only includes crimes where at least four people were murdered — and the MSU shooter murdered three — the attack that left Hao disabled isn’t included in that tally.
But even if that mass shooting had met the threshold, that doesn’t mean that people like Hao would necessarily be remembered. People disabled by gun violence occupy a peculiar spot in America’s cruel epidemic. After mass shootings, we focus almost exclusively on the number of people killed. Often there are touching profiles about who those people killed were, what dreams and aspirations they had and what their grieving families will miss most about them.
Generally overlooked are the people left wounded, including those whose lives are changed by a disability that may inhibit their enjoyment of their favorite activities or derail their career plans.
Research has shown that places with higher levels of gun violence also have higher levels of functional disabilities. And America, obviously, is suffering from high levels of gun violence. We don’t have all the data we should have on the impacts of gun violence and gun injuries because, for a long time, Congress severely restricted the kind of research that could be conducted with federal dollars.
Even so, a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association that looked at mass shootings between 2012 and 2019 found that such crimes caused six times more injuries than deaths. According to that paper, more than a third of patients who survive mass shootings with gunshot wounds need surgery “and almost one-half have a disability at discharge.” In the Michigan State shooting, three people were killed. Hao was one of the five people injured.
Hao was generously hosted by his favorite NBA player the day after a gunman, who reportedly used an AR-15 type rifle, opened fire on an outlet mall in Allen, Texas. My heart sank when I heard that the shooter had killed eight people. But I also felt for the half-dozen people he wounded.
They will not be who they were before they were shot. And when they venture out into the world again, they will likely learn how inaccessible the world is to people with disabilities. They may find certain jobs that would have been available to them no longer within their grasp. Places they regularly visited they may no longer be able to go.
I know this from personal observation. A few days before Christmas in 1973, my uncles Danny and David, then 15 and 18, were shot in East Los Angeles after being mistaken by gang members as members of a rival gang. Both survived, but Uncle Danny, who was left paralyzed from the waist down, spent more than a year in the hospital learning how to function.
Uncle Danny, who was left paralyzed from the waist down, spent more than a year in the hospital learning how to function.
Uncle Danny was the person I first watched “Return of the Jedi” with, the person my sister played Brain Quest with, the person we both relied on to assemble our new bikes. Because he believed he would walk again, Uncle Danny refused various nerve blocking procedures that made it impossible to feel pain. For the rest of his short life — he died at 40 partly because of internal damage from being shot — he would let out piercing wails and moans through the night.
Though he mostly stayed in bed, when he did leave the house, I saw how labor intensive it was for him to do the things I took for granted. He grew up before the Americans with Disabilities Act, so getting shot and paralyzed meant he could no longer go to restaurants or indoor events. His social circle shrunk.
While we do have the ADA now, those injured and disabled in the Allen, Texas, mall shooting, in the shooting at Michigan State or in one of the many mass shootings will still discover how hard it is to freely navigate the world with a disability. They will also likely discover what disability rights activists have long argued: that society’s structural barriers disable people as much as their impairments do.
Though getting shot as Hao did is obviously a tragedy, too often we use language that suggests that people who’ve been disabled in gun violence have had their lives effectively ended. But it’s wrong to suggest that disabled people don’t lead meaningful lives.
“I hope to get back to my normal life and rehab as soon as possible,” Hao told reporters after Sunday’s game.
His presence at the NBA game and his determination to return to his “normal life” serve as a reminder of two big things we should commit ourselves to. We should be putting pressure on our politicians to reduce the number of mass shootings and reduce the number of people killed and injured in them. Separately, we must put pressure on policymakers to defend the Americans with Disabilities Act so that disabled people can fully participate in society. No, that won’t undo the damage caused by gun violence, but it can make survivors’ lives somewhat easier.