RWJF Health & Society Scholar 2009-2011
For Gunshot Survivors, Wounds That Don't Heal
For his doctoral dissertation, Jooyoung Lee spent five years studying the lives of young black men in Los Angeles who hoped to find fame—or in their vernacular, to "blow up"—as rappers in the music industry. As Lee followed them, he was struck by “all the different ways that these young men were exposed to violence in their everyday lives, especially gun violence.”
Halfway through Lee’s research, his primary study subject, a rapper who goes by the name Flawliss, was shot and gravely injured. That inspired Lee, PhD, to seek a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program grant with which to document how gunshot victims’ lives are forever changed by their injuries.
While much previous research has focused on gun homicides, only about one in five one-time gunshot victims die, says Lee: “Most live to see another day but are riddled with injuries that transform their lives in both practical and existential ways.” As an RWJF Health & Society Scholar (2009-2011) at the University of Pennsylvania, Lee drew on his Los Angeles experience to design a research study of gunshot victims in Philadelphia.
Lee’s report on that study, “Wounded: Life after the Shooting,” was published in the July 2012 edition of Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Lee is now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto.
In Los Angeles, Lee had seen how Flawliss’ life was changed from the moment two members of a Mexican street gang shot him in the back as part of an initiation rite. Before the shooting, the mid-20s rapper was preoccupied with honing his musical style and making connections in the music industry. After the shooting, Flawliss’ life revolved around medical visits, pain management, and learning to live with a colostomy bag that he found both burdensome and shameful.
In Philadelphia doing research under his RWJF Health & Society Scholars grant, Lee found the landscape of violence was somewhat different: “In Los Angeles, gangs control pretty big turfs, where in Philadelphia, there are more small, street groups that go block to block.” But in both cities, he found the medical, psychological and practical issues for gunshot victims were much the same.
Working with the outpatient trauma clinic of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Lee interviewed 40 gunshot victims, and then followed 10 of them more intensively over two years. The victims’ ages ranged from 18 to the early 60s, with an average age in the mid-20s. All but two of the victims were male, and all but one were blacks of various backgrounds: African, African-American or Dominican. The overwhelming majority lived in high-poverty, high-crime areas and did not have private health insurance.
In his study report, Lee changed victims’ names but used their real-life experiences to illustrate the concerns common to survivors, such as disfigurement, retained bullets, and the mixture of shame and fame they felt in their communities. He especially focused on three study subjects he called Winston, Kevin and David.
In the discussions Lee had with survivors about their injuries, “what really stood out to me was the shame,” he says. “In gangster rap music, violence is glorified, and there’s a romanticized image of someone like the rapper 50 Cent who came from the streets, who had been a drug dealer and had been shot, and then ‘blew up’ to be a star. But when I talked to these victims, they were just overwhelmed by the fact that they were able-bodied one day and the next day they were transformed into this disfigured version of themselves. And it was a very traumatic and shameful experience—it wasn’t this thing that was ‘so cool.’”
In his study’s conclusion, Lee contends that “Currently, social scientific research is overly committed to studying gun homicide. While these data add to our knowledge of crime and can be useful for policy-makers, studies that identify background risk factors for homicide overlook the lives of victims who live to see another day. It is important to conduct research on gun violence that begins with the victims’ perspective,” he says, so as to better understand “the messy and unpredictable lives of victims after the shooting.”
Lee currently is writing two books, one on the careers of aspiring rappers from Los Angeles and the second on the individual and community health effects of gunshot victimization in Philadelphia. His study report, “Wounded: Life after the Shooting,” was published in the July 2012 edition of Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.