In a Rosewood apartment complex just off South Beltline Boulevard, right around the corner from a child care center, gunshots pierced an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon.
Columbia police officers responded to Woodland Terrace Apartments just after 3 p.m. on March 19, where they found a 22-year-old man with two gunshot wounds to the leg. Police wrote in their report that two of the victim’s friends gave officers a vague description of where the shots came from. When pressed for more information, they became uncooperative, saying “they didn’t see anything and that they did not know anything about the shooting.”
The victim and his friends may not have cooperated, but two nearby residents spoke with police, who eventually charged Michael DeWayne Haggwood with attempted murder and possession of a weapon during a violent crime.
Gunshots to the lower extremities are on the rise in Richland County.
Last month, a man was shot in the leg in Blythewood in the middle of the night during what he told deputies was a Craigslist deal-gone-bad. In November, five people were arrested after a man was shot in the leg on Gervais Street in the Vista. In September, three people were shot in the lower body in two separate incidents in Richland County.
In fact, during the first three months of 2017, the trauma center at Palmetto Health Richland Hospital has treated 16 gunshot wounds to the lower extremities, compared to eight in the same time last year, according to numbers provided by the hospital.
Gunshot wounds to the leg treated during the first three months of 2017? 16. The same period last year? 8. – Palmetto Health Richland Hospital
In all of 2016, the trauma center treated 232 gunshot wounds, with 59 to the lower extremities.
When it comes to gunshot wounds to the lower extremities, experts interviewed by The State newspaper say some of the shootings are intentional, while others are a matter of bad aim, especially with younger people handling guns – or luck.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said intentionally shooting someone in the lower body may have ties to drug robberies or gang-related activity, although it’s not always the case.
If you shoot someone in the leg intentionally, you might just want to wound them, not kill them, say, for example, if you still need them to keep selling drugs for you.
And, of course, if you get caught and charged in the shooting, you’ve hurt someone – not killed someone – so you won’t be charged with murder.
Still, while it sounds “less impactful” to say someone was shot in the leg, Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook noted some gunshot wounds to the lower body can be fatal.
There’s no place that’s a good place to get hit by gunfire.”
Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook
“There’s no place that’s a good place to get hit by gunfire,” Holbrook said. “Your body is full of vital organs and arteries. If a vital organ or artery is hit, you’re in deep trouble.”
“I can’t say that I’ve had anybody tell me that they shot somebody purposely in the leg,” he said. “I’ve had plenty of people tell me, ‘I didn’t mean to kill them.’”
Police say an ongoing argument between Haggwood and the victim prompted last weekend’s shooting on South Beltline, which Holbrook said was the city’s first in nearly a month.
Bad aim, handling
Multiple law enforcement officials attributed gunshot wounds to the lower body, in part, to lack of training or poor firearm handling by the shooter.
Seth Stoughton is a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former police officer, and said one of the most difficult things to teach novice shooters is not to flinch in expectation of the gun going off. The firing of a gun usually produces one of three motions, he said: pushing the gun back, pushing it up or twisting it to the side.
To compensate for the recoil, he said, novice shooters often push the muzzle down in anticipation of the gun going off as they pull the trigger.
“It’s also possible the person firing might not have intended to shoot the person but is shooting at the ground to intimidate or scare someone,” he said. “Even if that’s the case, the bullet can skip up and hit the person in the lower body.”
Aiming for someone’s leg and shooting them there, especially from a distance, is difficult, Stoughton said. That is part of the reason most law enforcement agencies prohibit officers from shooting a suspect who is a threat in the leg and instead train them to shoot at the chest area.
It would defy expectations if civilians were, on the whole, better at shooting in the leg than officers.”
Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former police officer
“The leg is just a smaller target, and that is particularly true when the subject is in motion,” he said, adding it’s even more difficult if the intended target is running at an angle. “If part of the reason police don’t shoot at the leg is because it’s a difficult target, I don’t think it would be easier for most civilians.
“It would defy expectations if civilians were, on the whole, better at shooting in the leg than officers.”
Self-inflicted or accidental shootings
In Sumter, a majority of the shootings that leave people with injuries to the lower body are believed to be self-inflicted accidents because the victim is not familiar with how to handle firearms or carries it improperly in their pocket or waist band, according to Sumter Police Chief Russell Roark.
Normally, the injuries occur in the lower leg, ankle or foot, and police aren’t aware there has been a shooting until the victim goes to a hospital for treatment and the hospital contacts law enforcement.
‘I don’t know. I was walking down X street and suddenly I’m shot.’”
Sumter Police Chief Russell Roark, quoting uncooperative victims
“We get to the hospital (and ask) what happened,” Roark said. The victim usually responds, “‘I don’t know. I was walking down X street and suddenly I’m shot.’”
The gunshot wound usually indicates what happened, he said.
“The entry of it, the angle of it suggests that they were shot by their own hand,” Roark said. “And because they won’t cooperate, because we don’t necessarily have a scene, it’s very difficult to take that to its fullest extent.”
A victim with a self-inflicted wound may be too embarrassed to say they accidentally shot their self, which is one reason they don’t cooperate with police, Roark said.
“It could be the person wasn’t of age to carry a weapon,” he said. “It could be they’re forbidden to carry a weapon because of a previous history on the criminal side.”
Blood loss, bone damage main concerns
Whatever prompted the shooting, Dr. Mark Jones and his team are often the ones who patch the victims up, since Palmetto Health Richland hospital is the area’s only Level One trauma center.
With gunshot wounds to the leg, doctors are usually concerned with vascular injuries – those causing damage to major arteries – or bone damage, according to Jones, who is the hospital’s trauma medical director.
Vascular injuries can quickly become fatal if the victim bleeds out, Jones said. The only major blood vessel in the thigh is the femoral artery, which is commonly about the thickness of a Sharpie marker and branches into smaller vessels as it crosses below the knee.
“If there’s a direct injury, that can be fatal in minutes,” he said. A majority of a person’s lower extremities are muscle connected to bone, meaning a bullet is less likely to injure a major blood vessel, he said.
Gunshots that damage bones are another chief concern for doctors, Jones said.
A lot of these folks will end up with rods or plates on their bones to put the bones back together.”
Dr. Mark Jones, Palmetto Richland’s trauma medical director
“It’s like any broken bone, and it depends on the severity of the fracture,” he said. “A lot of these folks will end up with rods or plates on their bones to put the bones back together.”
Rarely are gunshots to the leg fatal, Jones said. He estimated that of all the lower-extremity gunshot patients brought to the hospital, less than 5 percent died from their injuries. If the injuries are not serious, the person could be discharged the same day.
“These are injuries to younger folks who don’t have a lot of medical conditions,” he said. “They have probably a better outcome as far as wound healing because they’re young and healthy individuals.”
‘The blood shot all over the floor’
A gunshot wound to the leg isn’t always easy to recover from.
An accidental shooting by another person in 2013 left Danny Boozer with both vascular injuries and bone damage. A hollow point bullet, fired at close range, severed the femoral artery in Boozer’s right leg and fractured his femur.
Boozer, a transportation employee at Richland School District 2 and a jazz drummer, immediately fell to the floor.
“The blood shot all over the floor. It filled the floor in no time,” said Boozer, 65. “This guy took his belt off and put it around my leg to stop the bleeding.”
Boozer said he went into shock at least twice from the blood loss, but that the paramedics “shook me out of it.”
“When it severed that artery, it was like a dull, hard feeling,” he said. “I had no feeling at that point.”
He chuckles remembering how after he called 911, he made another important phone call.
“I had a job to play that night at the club,” he said. “I was on the phone, calling and telling the guys, ‘Look, I can’t play tonight. You guys got to get another drummer.’”
On a more serious note, Boozer said he thought at the time that he was going to die.
“The main thing is, pray that you make it,” he said.
At the hospital, Boozer underwent a six-hour surgery. During a 12-day hospitalization, he would have two more operations before being discharged on Thanksgiving Day with more than 60 stitches and staples in his leg.
He was unable to walk for four months.
‘Stop the Bleed’
If people are going to continue to shoot each other, including in the leg, Jones and other physicians want people to learn some basic first aid.
Jones said knowing how to respond to shooting injuries, particularly those with large blood loss, can mean the difference between life and death.
If they get them to us and they’re still alive, their chance of dying is very small.”
Dr. Mark Jones, Palmetto Richland’s trauma medical director
“If someone has the sense to hold pressure on the wound or put a tourniquet on the wound, the bleeding rate goes tremendously down,” he said. “If they get them to us and they’re still alive, their chance of dying is very small.”
In the aftermath of mass shootings around the country, including those in Newtown, Conn., Orlando and Charleston, a nationwide campaign was born to educate the general public about how to respond to gunshot wounds in the seconds and minutes after a shooting, Jones said.
The campaign, called “Stop the Bleed,” is still in its early stages. It seeks to educate civilians on applying pressure to a wound or creating a tourniquet.
Physicians from Palmetto Health and other hospitals have plans to go out into communities around the state to help educate people.
Staff writer Cynthia Roldan contributed.