Handgun surcharge urged for research

Published: March 14, 2007  |  Source: boston.com
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Paralyzed patients, advocates make plea

MacArthur Williams was shot in Roxbury as he changed a tire on his Hyundai so he could go to work the next day. The man who shot him on that September night in 1989 was looking for revenge in a gang dispute, Williams said.

The gunshot paralyzed Williams, now a father of four living in Dorchester. Yesterday, he was among advocates and paralysis patients who urged state legislators to impose a $25 surcharge on all handgun purchases in Massachusetts to fund spinal cord injury research, so that one day he might walk again.

“It’s a privilege to own a gun,” Williams said in an interview yesterday. “The surcharge, if you know it’s going toward research for a problem caused by gun violence, most people wouldn’t have a problem.”

A man paralyzed in a motorcycle accident while serving as a Boston police cadet in 1995 and other advocates also appeared in their wheelchairs before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Health Care Financing to emphasize how critical it is to raise more money for spinal cord research.

Dr. Eric Ruby, a Taunton pediatrician who is leading the effort, said that despite world-class medical talent, Massachusetts lags far behind some other states in funding for such research.

A committee member asked Williams whether legal gun owners, who would pay the fee, are the same people who are shooting others on Boston streets.

Williams said that’s beside the point. “It’s still violence from guns, and they got the guns from somewhere,” the 39-year-old answered.

He and other advocates are backing legislation introduced by Representative James H. Fagan, a Democrat from Taunton and a friend of Ruby’s. One proposal would charge gun owners, excluding law enforcement officers, $25 every time they buy a handgun. The other would charge builders $50 for any construction costing more than $25,000.

The logic, Fagan said, is that both guns and construction sites cause a large number of spinal cord injuries and that both gun owners and builders tend to be affluent.

Ruby said he believes that, if adopted, the proposals would raise at least $3 million a year for spinal cord injury research.

In 2004, the Legislature approved a bill from Fagan that required that the state split the $25 fee paid by people reinstating suspended driver’s licenses with a spinal injury research fund. Fagan said in an interview yesterday that the bill was modeled after one supporting a similar head injury fund, which receives the entire $250 paid by drivers found guilty of operating to endanger.

At yesterday’s hearing, Fagan said that compared with the $4.1 million taken in by the head injury fund last year, the spinal cord fund raised only $125,000 and needs to be supplemented.

Christopher Diehl, a Physical Therapist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital who heads the center’s spinal cord injury unit and appeared before the panel, said in an interview that about 10 percent of his patients were paralyzed by gunshots, while another 10 to 15 percent were injured in construction site falls. The balance of injuries are sustained in car accidents and falls that occur in places other than construction sites, Diehl said.

Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said his organization believes that Fagan’s cause is worthy, but opposes such surcharges on gun owners.

“We think it’s not very fair to unilaterally impose a burden on law-abiding gun owners,” he said. “The burden ought to be on those who commit crimes or who are negligent.”

Ruby, whose son Ethan was paralyzed when he was hit by a car six years ago, said the money has to be raised somehow.

“Every day is a struggle and a challenge,” Ruby said. “My son said, ‘Dad, I just want to walk again.’ ”

Williams said he, too, wants to walk again, and he believes he will, if enough money is raised. He said his injuries are costing him and the state a great deal of money.

“There’s a lot of barriers, financially, environmentally,” he told the legislators. “Insurance only covers so much.”

Suzanne Smalley can be reached at ssmalley@globe.com.
© Copyright 20092007 The New York Times Company

By Suzanne Smalley, Globe Staff