‘One Bullet Can Do That to You': Losing a Generation to Gun Violence in Philadelphia

More than 2,200 people were shot in Philadelphia during the coronavirus pandemic year of 2020. Another 1,200 shootings this year have left hundreds more hurt. Victims tell of lives completely upended, if not destroyed, once a trigger was pulled.

John D. Paul III uses a cane to take short, careful steps.

Twice a week, he gets strapped to a harness hanging from the ceiling, while one therapist holds his waist and two others massage each of his legs as he tries to walk on a treadmill. 

He’s just 22-years-old. And prior to April 2020, he could walk perfectly fine on his own. 

But like the other 2,221 shooting victims in 2020, Paul’s life was interrupted and changed forever by the city’s gun violence.

More than 2,200 people were shot in Philadelphia during the coronavirus pandemic year of 2020. Another 1,200 shootings this year have left hundreds more hurt. Surviving victims tell of lives completely upended, if not destroyed, once a trigger was pulled. NBC10 investigative reporter Claudia Vargas has their story.

Last year was one of the most violent years on record for Philadelphia. And this year is looking even worse-- with more than 1,200 shootings so far. 

“It's crazy in Philly,” Paul said. “It’s like it's happening every day.”

And every day, more people end up like Paul.

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He was shot multiple times last April during what he says was an attempted robbery. One bullet struck his cervical spine. 

“I couldn't move like from the neck down. I wasn't able to talk. I couldn't get nothing in my mouth,” he said. 

And this wasn’t the first time he and his family experienced gun violence. 

In 2012, two men broke into Paul’s home, and shot and killed his father, John D. Paul Jr., when he confronted the men. His mom was also shot multiple times during the home invasion. 

I was 13. My brother, yeah, we both witnessed it,” he said in a recent interview. The oldest of the two brothers, it was Paul who called 911 to get help.

Similar to Paul, his mom had to learn to walk again. 

I'm like living her life again, he said. 

Paul graduated from Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia in 2017. He doesn’t have a criminal record. He was working at a Center City law firm, while going to school for occupational therapy at Thomas Jefferson University. 

And yet, he couldn't escape the city’s gun violence.

John D. Paul graduated from Rom Catholic High School in Philadelphia in 2017. Three years later, in 2020, he was shot multiple times by armed robbers.

When he turned 21, he said, he went to a gun show to buy a gun. 

“In Philadelphia, like you need one to have protection,” he said, adding that it went a little deeper than that for him. “Because we had that incident when I was 13, so that's why I really had it,” he said. 

He would sleep with the gun under his pillow every night-- making sure the bullets weren’t in the chamber. 

On April 17, 2020, his friend had finished doing laundry at a nearby laundromat and asked to hang out, Paul said. So Paul went outside his house and was chatting with his friend when he saw three men approach them.

“As they got closer. Like, I could just tell, like, they were robbing me,” he said. 


Shooting victims in Philadelphia in 2020

Paul said he took out his gun and pointed it at the men. 

“I tried to pull the trigger, but it didn't go off,” he said. 

As he realizes what is happening -- no bullet was in the chamber -- one of the three men points another gun at him.

“He put his gun towards me, like on my side and he squeezes the trigger in a couple of times,” Paul said. 

He’s shot more times when he is on the ground. 

Police who arrived on scene rushed him to the hospital. 

When Paul woke up, he was intubated and strapped to several machines. 

Thankfully, the bullet that struck his spine didn’t completely tear through the spine. And so, a month later he started regaining some movement below the neck. 

He was eventually transferred to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital where like many other shooting victims he had to learn to walk and speak again. 

“My first word was ‘mom.’ I was like a baby again,” he said. 

Magee’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Guy Fried said they have seen the severity of gunshot wounds get worse in recent years. 

“We are seeing quite a lot of patients that are spinal cord injured, shot in the neck, shot in the back, and having paralysis or partial paralysis from the gunshot wounds,” he said. 

Fried says many young Philadelphians are no longer able to fully contribute to society because of gunshot injuries, so the violence is affecting everyone. 

“It takes your youngest, strongest members of society. And all of a sudden they're in wheelchairs, they're needing therapy, they're needing medication,” he said. “So from a society standpoint, it's very expensive and very taxing to the system.”

And some gunshot victims who survive may never walk again. 

Another victim of gun violence, Charles Horton, is trying to get that message across to the city’s youth. 

“A lot of them just don't know that gun violence, one bullet, can do that to you," Horton said.

He was shot once in the back in 1988 and paralyzed for the rest of his life. He’s now a disability and anti-violence advocate, helping other gunshot survivors adjust to their new lives. 

Charlie Horton is an anti-violence advocate in Philadelphia who was left paralyzed following a shooting in 1988.

He warns youth that they don’t want to end up like him. 

“Sometimes the pins and needles are so bad in my hands that when I touch anything, it's painful,” he said. “And I've been going through the pain for over 30 years.”

Paul thinks the pervasiveness of gun violence in Philadelphia has turned it into something that comes along with everyday life now.

“Everybody in Philly is like used to it now,” he said. It's like, uh, talking about something to eat, like it's normalized.” 

Police have not made an arrest in his shooting. But Paul says his focus is on his recovery.

“In a couple of years, I hope, like you wouldn't even know, the spinal cord [injury] even happened to me,” he said. 

He’s hoping to recover as well as his mom did. 

She's like my biggest inspiration,” he said.

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