Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP Photo

As a nation, we’re getting better at supporting the victims of mass casualty events—a skill that is tragically useful, again and again

On Valentine’s Day a 19-year-old walked into his former high school in Parkland, Florida, and murdered 17 people. The next day, the Broward Education Foundation launched a GoFundMe account “to raise money for the victims and families.” At publication time, $1.9 million has been donated from about 27,000 people — almost as many residents as live in Parkland.

It is not just the existence of mass-casualty shootings that has become commonplace in the United States. How communities react to them has become routine as well.

In Las Vegas, where a gunman opened fire on the Route 91 Harvest Festival last October, a volunteer committee is currently working through eligibility applications for the Las Vegas Victims Fund, a pool of money that originated from a GoFundMe campaign set up by Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak and Sheriff Joe Lombardo hours after the shooting. That pool of money—officially at $22 million but likely closer to $30 million—is set to begin distributing funds early next month. It will be divided between the families or estates of the 58 people murdered and anybody who was physical injured and received emergency medical treatment—potentially upwards of 500 based off media reports about patient numbers at hospitals.

After the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando killed 49 people, a similar fund distributed more than $30 million to the loved ones of the deceased and the hundreds of survivors who’d been inside the club. More than twice that amount—$61 million—was raised and distributed after the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon, which resulted in three deaths, more than a dozen amputations and hundred of injuries.

Kenneth Feinberg is the undisputed expert on victim compensation funds. His team assisted on victim funds in the three aforementioned tragedies, as well as in Aurora, Colorado, and New York City after 9/11. Feinberg calls these funds “a pretty hollow substitute for lost loved ones and horribly injured people.”

“All we can do with a fund like this is provide some small degree of financial certainty for the transition,” he said.

Star Max (via AP)

After holding two public town hall meetings and wading through approximately 1,700 submitted written comments, the Las Vegas Victims Fund committee announced in December a three-tiered eligibility system:

  • The highest tier, or those that will get the most money, consists of the families (or estates) of the 58 people who died, as well as anybody who sustained permanent brain damage or paralysis requiring continuous home medical assistance.
  • The second tier includes victims who were admitted to a hospital on or before October 10 and were hospitalized for one or more nights between October 1 and December 15.
  • The third tier includes people who were physically injured but treated on an emergency or outpatient basis on or before October 10.

The exact amounts being dispersed haven’t been released yet, but are expected to be announced next month. In other victim funds, dollar amounts in that second tier have been further broken down by length of stay inside the hospital, meaning someone who spent one night received less than someone who was hospitalized longer.

In Orlando, for example, payouts ranged from $350,000 for the families of the deceased to $25,000 for people who were present at Pulse Nightclub but not injured. People who received outpatient-only treatment received $35,000, and payouts for those requiring hospitalization ranged from $65,000 (1-2 overnights) to $300,000 (24+ overnights). In total, 300 people received money.

Boston’s payouts were much larger due to the availability of funds. The max award was $2.195 million for the deceased. People who lost a limb received $1.195 million, and payouts for those who required overnight hospitalization ranged from $125,000 (1-2 overnights) to $948,300 for (32 or more nights). Victims treated on an outpatient basis received $8,000.

How far any of that goes depends on too many individual circumstances to aggregate. Financially speaking, death is typically cheaper than a lifetime of medical care. But what numeric value can we assign to the loss of human life? Follow-up reports on individuals who received payouts vary from using their money to start new charities to getting scammed out of their cash by con artists.

Students from Stoneman Douglas High School embrace survivors of the Pulse nightclub shooting. Gerald Herbert/AP Photo

How fair any of these payouts are is a moral question.

The Las Vegas Victims Fund, like those before it, has routinely described their money as a gift. The subtext being that it is not determined based on financial need or the existence of other sources of money or resources (such as life insurance policies). It is also not based on factors like lost wages or income potential. That means a hypothetical mother of three who works as a waitress and has no health insurance would receive the same as a childless doctor with more financial resources. Age is also not a factor. In the Vegas shooting, the ages of those who died ranged from 20 to 67.

Feinberg has called this approach “rough justice.” It prioritizes getting money out as simply and efficiently as possible. If the Las Vegas Victims Fund distributes all of its money by April 1, as has been projected, that means it will be settled by the six-month anniversary of the shooting. Allotting money based on individual profiles would simply be too burdensome, and one could argue, morally gray.

The idea of these victim funds as a gift is also a reminder that receiving such money is not a right and that people will be excluded through no fault of their own.

In Las Vegas, many urged the committee to offer financial help for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental-health related issues. Commenters argued that focusing solely on physical injuries stigmatized emotional trauma, sending the message that they must be okay simply because they didn’t receive bodily harm.

The committee ultimately decided not to include that group of people, perhaps because the eligibility pool would skyrocket. More than 22,000 people were in attendance at the outdoor music festival across from Mandalay Bay.

In contrast, the Pulse Nightclub shooting took place in a much smaller venue, and some people were held hostage inside the nightclub with the shooter. For those reasons, money was distributed to people who did not have physical injuries.

In Las Vegas, elected officials and committee members have urged those affected but ineligible for the Victims Fund to take advantage of the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center, a place where they can be connected to resources and information like referrals to qualified mental health professionals and free legal assistance.

One of the resources they’re suggesting to many people is the Nevada Victims of Crime Program—a state-run operation that assists those affected by all sorts of crimes. The program reimburses people for expenses related to crime—everything from mental health counseling and insurance copays, to funeral costs and crime-scene cleanup. Reimbursement is limited to $35,000 per person, but eligibility is wider than the Las Vegas Victims Fund, so people who attended Route 91 but were not physically hurt are able to get some assistance. Officials expect the program to dole out at least $14 million.

Additionally, other entities have promised to support long-term community efforts and have stepped in to fill the gaps left by the victims fund. The Vegas Strong Fund, a nonprofit started by the Nevada Resort Association, has said it intends to support long-term community needs. That fund was last reported to be $12 million, but about half was promised to the Las Vegas Victims Fund.

On a more individual level, the Culinary Union launched an internal fund where its members could donate money to cover victims for immediate needs. Another group of survivors launched Route 91 Strong, a fund where people dealing with the mental health impacts of the shooting can apply for assistance.

In addition to these structured funds, high-profile mass shootings result in an outpouring of generosity from private companies and individuals. Las Vegas-based shoe retailer Zappos publicly offered to cover the funeral costs of the 58 killed at the Route 91 Harvest Festival. Locksmiths quietly helped concertgoers who’d lost their keys amid the chaos of fleeing get into their parked cars without charge and lawyers volunteering with Legal Aid of Southern Nevada have helped hundreds with various legal issues.

Collectively, these various funding mechanisms create an imperfect system of victim compensation and financial assistance. It’s a system that relies on the kindness of strangers and businesses, and while it will help many people navigate the aftermath of a terrible trauma, others will inevitably fall through the cracks.

It’s a system that’s also improving. The dark silver lining of the frequency of these events, is that it’s widely believed that with each tragedy and each mass shooting, victim funds are getting more streamlined, more transparent and more efficient. As a nation, we’re getting better at supporting the victims of mass casualty events—a skill that is tragically useful, again and again.

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