Report on Town Hall – Gun Violence Through the Lens of Disability

On Thursday March 2nd, my office held a Town Hall on Gun Violence Through the Lens of Disability. We organized this event with the office of District Attorney Larry Krasner and Chuck Horton, a longtime Disability Rights advocate. Chuck first approached me about this idea about a year ago. He wanted to hold a public forum where survivors of gun violence (victims, perpetrators, and police/first responders) could come together to talk about the physical and mental health impacts of gun violence. Our Town Hall included the District Attorney, myself, and Captain Maria Ortiz-Rodriguez, head of the PPD Community Relations Unit; but we spent more time listening and less time talking. The real focus of the panel were survivors like Chuck, paralyzed at age 17; Kareem Tilghman a returning citizen who was paralyzed as a bystander in an incident after release; and Charity James who was injured in a shooting where her cousin killed her brother.

Our goal was to give voice to the disability community to hear their perspectives on how gun violence is shaping our society and what we can do to help heal and to prevent further violence. Too often we look at gun violence in a one-dimensional, head-on way that focuses on enforcement and punishment in the aftermath. We do not take time to stop and recognized the shattered lives left behind. These people did not wake up that day thinking they would end it with permanent disabilities. My hope was to change the discussion to include the lived experiences of all survivors, and in the process, find out more about how we can respond to ease their pain and make sure it doesn’t happen to others. 

Everyone on the panel shared lived experiences. The DA spoke of his own father spending the last 25 years of life in a wheelchair. Police captain Ortiz-Rodriguez spoke of going to too many funerals, never feeling completely safe and knowing that every shift could be their last. We spoke frankly of the different experience people have with the police. For some people they represent safety and security, but for others they can represent trauma or oppression. Charity James spoke of traumatic triggers like being around guns at all, “police officers are triggers because police officers carry guns.” Rev. Richard Harris shared how deeply rooted these issues are, going back several generations.

Kareem Tilghman spoke of one of the central issues, for both victim survivors and returning citizens: secure and affordable housing. He said housing should be available, affordable, and accessible to anyone. This is important for returning citizens and reducing recidivism. Better housing options provide them with access to tools to turn away from the violent environment that landed them in jail. For victims, getting supports to make their homes accessible after a gun violence incident eases the recovery process. I can personally attest that one of my neighbors, who has been left disabled with a broken leg and fractured pelvis since an incident last May, still struggles with getting around her own home and with getting reliable transportation.

According to the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, close to 2 in 5 of all incarcerated people have a disability and almost 1 in 4 told investigators that they had been placed in special education classes as children. This was another theme of the night, focusing on education. It can be a tool for teaching children at early ages to stay away from guns. A good school can also provide a space to talk about the hidden disabilities of mental health and neurodivergence. In a recent visit I had at Memphis Street Academy we talked about having kids checking in on a regular basis with teachers and trusted adults to talk about how they are doing. It is important that maintaining mental health – and not just responding to trauma – becomes an element of a regular educational system.

Charity James also spoke of the resources available in this area from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Again, this is particularly important because all survivors, including our police officers and other first responders, experience trauma, again and again, and we need to develop tools to engage those survivors in order to prevent future events.

We had several organizations that spoke about the resources they provide such as the DAO Victims Services Office, New Kensington CDC, Impact Services, and Liberty Resources.

This Town hall will not solve gun violence, but my hope is that it provides a spark for how to break down what feels like an impossible problem. I believe we can make a change if we make efforts to ensure that we are listening to the voices of those we normally ignore – disabled survivors and perpetrators; children; people from the 57 blocks most directly impacted; and residents of middle neighborhoods that often feel overlooked. I appreciate DA Krasner for helping us to organize this, because it is in listening that we will find better solutions.