Getting Disability Benefits for Injuries From a Gunshot Wound

People with long-term problems caused by gunshot wounds may qualify for Social Security disability.

By , J.D., University of Missouri School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney (Seattle University School of Law)

While many gunshot victims are able to make substantial recoveries and return to work within weeks or months, those who experience severe complications from the wound that keep them from working full-time for at least a year might qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

Even in the most optimistic scenario, a gunshot will cause damage to the skin, muscles, tendons, or ligaments. While these soft-tissue injuries tend to heal quickly, the resulting scar tissue can cause substantial functional limitations with range of motion, strength, or flexibility. In some cases, these impairments don't become apparent until years after the initial injury.

Gunshot Wounds and the Blue Book Listing of Impairments

Many victims of gunshot wounds experience life-altering injuries. One of the most severe non-fatal outcomes results in damage to the spinal cord, which can cause paralysis or cognitive impairments involving speech or memory problems. Such serious injuries may qualify you for disability benefits by meeting a listing in Social Security's "Blue Book" of medical conditions.

The Blue Book—also called the Listing of Impairments—contains certain disorders that you can get disability for automatically, provided you have specific evidence in your medical records. For example, a gunshot that damages your spinal cord might be evaluated under listing 11.08, Spinal cord disorders, or listing 1.15, Disorders of the skeletal spine.

Depending on the nature and extent of your injuries, other listings that Social Security may consider when evaluating your disability application could include:

Meeting the requirements of a listing can be tricky, however. Consider asking your doctor to provide a medical source statement showing how you meet (or equal) a listing.

Proving Your Residual Functional Capacity With Medical Evidence

Even if your condition isn't severe enough to meet the requirements of a Blue Book listing, you can still be eligible for benefits if your residual functional capacity (RFC), a description of your physical and mental abilities, shows that you can't perform any jobs. Social Security will review your medical records and your activities of daily living when assessing your RFC.

Your RFC will contain limitations on what you're able to do in a work setting. Any physical impairments you have, such as restrictions in movement caused by scar tissue at the bullet entrance or exit wound, will be reflected in your RFC. Social Security will address your ability to perform the following tasks:

  • reaching, handling, and fingering
  • lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling
  • sitting, standing, and walking, and
  • climbing, balancing, kneeling, stooping, crouching, and crawling.

If you're receiving mental health treatment for issues related to your gunshot wound (like anxiety or PTSD), your RFC will contain additional limitations on how well you'd function at work with regards to:

  • understanding, remembering, and carrying out both simple and detailed instructions
  • maintaining attention and concentration for extended periods
  • working in coordination with others
  • interacting appropriately with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public
  • maintaining adequate attendance and punctuality, and
  • completing a workday without substantial interruption from psychological symptoms.

Depending on the evidence in your medical records, your RFC might contain other restrictions, such as an inability to work around loud noises that could trigger flashbacks or being off-task at work for 20% or more of the day due to pain.

Social Security uses your RFC to determine whether you could return to your past work or any other jobs in the national economy. For example, if your RFC states that you'd be expected to miss more than two days of work per month due to your medical condition, it's likely that a vocational expert will find that your RFC prevents any sort of gainful employment.

Gunshot Wounds Resulting From the Commission of a Felony

Somebody who is shot while committing a felony won't be eligible for disability benefits based on that impairment. But it can still make sense in that case to file for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) in order to take advantage of the "disability freeze." Social Security doesn't award benefits during the "frozen" earnings record, but future retirement benefits or dependent payments won't be reduced due to lack of income due to your disability.

Updated July 13, 2023

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