Renee White is trying to be patient and understanding as her son, James Harris, heals. He was shot alongside his best friend, Karlonzo Taylor, on a December afternoon in 2018. Karlonzo later died of his wounds.
Surviving means that James became one of the more than 80,000 people who visit the ER for gunshot wounds each year in the United States. And it means he’s become one of many survivors who struggle with mental and physical health challenges in the days, months and years following the shooting.
“He stopped going to the doctors because he was just like, ‘What’s the use?’ He stopped going to therapy because he was like, ‘What’s the use?’” White said. “He just lost a love of everything. Cutting hair, fixing cars, fixing bikes, riding bikes -- even down to, like, tightening his locks.”
On some days, James’ locks flop over his soft face. He’s shy, “not a real social person,” he says. It’s easy to get lost in the sadness of his big, brown eyes communicating a pain beyond his physical injuries. He’ll talk about those, but not about his emotional ones.
“My arm was swollen and my stomach felt really tight, I couldn’t really move, I was stiff,” said James, who was 17 when he was shot.
That afternoon, James, Karlonzo and their friends were standing in the hallway of an apartment building when a man appeared and started shooting. James ran up the stairs, not initially realizing that his arm was bleeding.
“It wasn’t really something you could scream about,” he said.
James said he remembers waiting outside until the ambulance came.
The Struggles Of Surviving
Karlonzo has visited James in his dreams before, he said. They met when they were in middle school. James remembers the first time they hung out was during the summer, on Karlonzo’s birthday at Hartford’s Riverfront Festival. Eventually, James went back to school but not for long. It wasn’t the same without his best friend beside him.
“I feel like James tried to go to school to please me, to shut me up, but he didn’t do it because it was something he wanted to do,” White said. “And it was kind of like me trying to force him to live. He probably just wanted to, like he said, lay down and sleep, not to rest, but just to cope.”
A recent study found that gunshot survivors experience chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and other physical and mental health challenges at rates higher than survivors of other kinds of traumatic injuries. And those can be compounded by emotional stressors.
James couldn’t even go to Karlonzo’s funeral.
“I had a bunch of open wounds, so I couldn’t really leave the house,” he said.
White saw a sense of fear developing inside of her son.
“Some days he would be ready and willing to go. He would get to the front door, he’d be looking out a little bit … he was energized, ready to go,” she said. “He’ll look outside at the world and he’s like, ‘I don’t really feel like it’s too safe,’ that type of look on his face. And I would just say, ‘You just go lay down.’”
This feeling of the world closing in on you is not uncommon for gunshot survivors. They can become fearful of the places they used to feel safe in: their neighborhoods, places where they used to hang out. Sasa Harriott runs Harriott Home Health Solutions, a Hartford-based home nursing company.
“We can see the physical wounds, but at times we can’t see the emotional ones,” Harriott said. “And the trauma of not being able to hear loud noises … hearing of other shootings in the community … is a trigger.”
Harriott says recovery is different for everyone, and there’s no universal timeline for healing.
“Recovery is sometimes not regaining where they were before the incident. It’s just to have control and power over what happens to them going forward. To not just feel powerless,” she said …“or believing that everyone else is moving on and going to give up on them.”
'No One Can Ever See Karlonzo Again'
White refuses to say that her son and his friends were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“It took his faith in me away also. I feel like it left an inability for him to trust me or anything, because, again, it wasn’t like it was midnight,” she said. “It wasn’t like he was selling drugs. It wasn’t like they were drinking or doing something that they weren’t supposed to be doing. They were where they were supposed to be.”
She’s upset with Bill Moore, the 24-year-old who police say shot her son.
“He injured James beyond probably what he can understand. He injured James physically,” she said. “He injured James emotionally. He broke James’ trust in me and the world. He did so much damage.” And she’s upset that Moore is the person accused of fatally shooting Karlonzo, taking away her son’s best friend, a mother’s only son, and a young man who everyone said was kind, honest and had a bright future ahead of him.
“His mom can go to jail to see him. Marvella, me, James, his father, his family, my sons, his friends -- no one can see Karlonzo ever again.”
White said James is beginning to open up, but slowly.
“He is still quietly struggling with all that happened,” she said.
Still, she hopes a better future lies ahead for her James.
“I want the best for him. And not the best according to me, the best according to him. Not because he lives in Hartford, not because he’s a young Black man, not because he’s been shot,” she said, “but because he is a person with a brain and feelings. I want him to decide what’s the best for him, where he belongs.”
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.