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
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If you have a gunshot wound that resulted in severe physical or psychological damage, you may have a successful Social Security disability claim, but it's important that the limitations you experience are well-documented by medical evidence. While many gunshot victims are able to make substantial recoveries and return to work within weeks or months, those who experience severe symptoms likely to last at least twelve months should consider applying for disability benefits.

As with any other traumatic injury such as a car accident or fall from a ladder, a gunshot wound can cause excruciating pain at the outset and a wide variety of symptoms long-term. Even in the most optimistic scenario, a gunshot will damage 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 do not become apparent until years after the initial injury.

Gunshot Wounds and the Blue Book Listing of Impairments

Of course, many victims of gunshot wounds experience life-altering or even fatal injuries. Among non-fatal outcomes, the most severe may be damage to the spinal cord, with possible effects including paralysis or cognitive impairments involving speech or memory problems. Such serious injuries will usually meet or equal a listing in Social Security's Listing of Impairments ("the Blue Book"), especially section 1.04 for disorders of the spine or section 11.00 for neurological disorders.

In fact, there are dozens of Blue Book listings under which your condition could be evaluated, depending on the nature and extent of your injuries, from listing 1.02 for major joint dysfunction to listing 1.08 for soft tissue injuries to listing 12.06 for anxiety-related disorders.

Proving Your Residual Functional Capacity with Medical Evidence

If your condition is not 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. In order to assess your RFC correctly, it's important that Social Security has the records of all medical treatment you've received related to your gunshot wound, from the initial urgent care records to the ongoing treatment by your family physician or specialist. In particular, records of surgeries, physical examinations, and x-ray and MRI imaging will go a long way toward corroborating your self-reported symptoms.

If you've experienced mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, or depression as a result of the gunshot wound, make sure you obtain regular mental health treatment and provide those records to Social Security.

In addition to the raw medical records, medical opinions from your treating providers can make a huge difference in a disability case. For physical impairments, such as those caused by scar tissue at the bullet entrance or exit wound, you or your attorney should request that your doctor complete an RFC form that addresses 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 receive mental health treatment, a mental RFC form completed by your psychologist or psychiatrist can greatly increase your chances of success. Your provider should be asked to offer his or her opinion on your capabilities 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.

Your doctor should also note whether you suffer from any environmental restrictions, such as an inability to work around loud noises or in other work settings that could trigger flashbacks.

In addition, both physical and mental health providers should address whether you would be off-task at work for 20% or more of the workday due to pain, fatigue, or other symptoms, and whether you could be expected to miss more than two days of work per month due to your medical condition. Most vocational experts will testify that these sorts of limitations prevent any sort of gainful employment.

It's critical that you receive regular treatment for the lasting effects of your gunshot wound. Even if your doctor provides helpful responses on your RFC form, the disability judge or examiner can disregard those opinions if you haven't received consistent treatment.

Gunshot Wounds Resulting from the Commission of a Felony

An individual who suffered a gunshot wound while committing a felony is not eligible for disability benefits based on that impairment. However, if that individual is insured for disability benefits, it can still make sense for him to file for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) in order to freeze his earnings record. While no benefits will be awarded, the "frozen" earnings record will ensure that future retirement benefits or dependent payments are not reduced due to lack of income.

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