Jessie Kwak had spent a long Saturday in July selling her science fiction and thriller books at the Mississippi Street Fair and was daydreaming about dinner as she rode home with a friend about 8:15 p.m.
As they pulled behind a car stopped at a stop sign not far from the fair in North Portland, Kwak thought she heard fireworks.
But their front windshield “exploded” and Kwak said she suddenly felt a “weird, hot pressure” in her left eye and noticed blood gushing everywhere.
Now two months later, Kwak said she’s speaking publicly about the shooting and the aftermath as a state judge prepares to hold a trial starting Monday on the constitutionality of Oregon’s gun control Measure 114.
Harney County Circuit Judge Robert S. Raschio recently barred the state from calling victims or survivors of gun violence as trial witnesses, noting that the impact of shootings is outside the scope of the narrow question he will decide: Does the measure’s language meet provisions of the state constitution?
Kwak said Raschio’s decision disappointed her.
She lost sight in her eye when a bullet fired from the car stopped ahead of her appeared to ricochet. It hit the ground and a bullet fragment pierced the windshield and flew through her lower eyelid and embedded in her retina, she said.
“As a victim of gun violence, I think it’s pretty important for our voices to be heard,” she said Friday at a news conference hosted by the Oregon Gun Safety Alliance, the nonprofit that backed the statewide measure.
Until she was shot, the 40-year-old author, who moved to Portland from Washington state nine years ago, said she used to glaze over reports of gun violence in the city and elsewhere because there were so many.
But now, having lived through such a terrifying experience, she said she wanted to put “a face to what a victim of gun violence looks like.’’
With both the “privilege of being very much alive” and as a “middle-class white lady,” she said she “wanted to call attention to this measure and how it can hopefully reduce things like this without scare-mongering.”
Measure 114 requires a permit to buy a gun, bans the sale, transfer and manufacture of magazines holding more than 10 rounds and requires a completed criminal background check before any sale or transfer of a gun. Voters last November approved the measure with 50.7% of the vote, but it has been stalled since Raschio put it on hold just before it was set to take effect Dec. 8.
Two gun owners from Harney County have challenged the measure, saying it unlawfully regulates the “mere acquisition and mere possession” of guns through a broad permit-to-purchase scheme and ban on magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
The trial will center on whether the measure violates Article 1, Section 27 of the Oregon Constitution, which establishes a right to bear arms.
‘One of the lucky ones’
When Kwak was hit with the bullet fragment July 15, she instinctively ducked down in the front passenger seat of her friend’s car and fumbled to open the glove compartment to find something to staunch the flow of blood.
Her friend, who was driving, handed her a stack of napkins and asked if she was OK.
“I knew obviously something terrible had happened,” Kwak recalled, and told him they needed to get to the hospital.
As nurses and doctors at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center worked to stabilize Kwak, she waited for an eye surgeon to examine her. She said she tried to open her eye and couldn’t.
“Yeah, that doesn’t work anymore,” she said she realized. She could tell from the ER staffs’ expressions that she had likely lost her vision in that eye.
But she was thankful to be alive. “I knew it could have been way worse, so let’s get through this,” she said she thought.
Her husband arrived at the hospital about 15 minutes after she did.
“I’m one of the lucky ones because the bullet stopped in my eye and it didn’t enter my brain,” she said.
The next morning, she underwent surgery to reconstruct her eye and was allowed to go home. She returned a few days later for a second surgery to remove the bullet fragment.
Kwak has since learned that Portland police suspect she and her friend’s car appeared to have been caught in a drive-by shooting between suspected members of two local gangs, the Failing Street gang and the Kerby Blocc Crips.
The intended targets appeared to be standing beside a car parked nearby, she said.
So far, police have made no arrests.
‘A voice as voters’
Once she made it through both surgeries, Kwak said her biggest challenge was her extreme sensitivity to light, even in her uninjured right eye.
For a few weeks, she couldn’t go outside without wearing dark glasses. Even indoors, she kept all the shades drawn and wore sunglasses. She couldn’t look at her phone or her computer. She listened to audiobooks and tried to rest.
An active Portlander who loves to ride her road and mountain bikes and run, she worried her balance would be affected by the loss of sight in her left eye.
At first, she was uneasy walking on uneven ground, she said. But that improved.
About three weeks ago, she ventured out on her road bike with friends on the streets around her Arbor Lodge neighborhood. She placed a couple of pieces of electrical tape over the left lens of her bicycle glasses – what she joked was “pirate mode,” as she headed out.
“I have to turn my head a lot farther to look left,” she said.
Otherwise, she added, riding a bike wasn’t much different than before the shooting, of which she is thankful.
“I knew in my heart I’d still be able to ride - but it’s nice to have it confirmed, and so, so good to be back out on the trails!” she wrote on her Instagram page.
Last week, she got back out on her mountain bike again.
She mostly wears a patch over her left eye to protect it and make it a little easier for her to see.
But earlier this month, she took a selfie photo without the covering and posted it to friends on her social media, describing it as “dead-eyed, sharky, ruined glory.”
Kwak expects one more surgery to repair the lower lid and remove a piece of shrapnel in her cheek.
Though frustrating, she recognizes that she must ease back into writing, exercising her right eye to bear the brunt of the work.
“It’s partly been working up to being able to look at a screen,” she said. “I have to exercise that muscle. I’m getting back there, but it’s taking longer than I’d like.”
In the meantime, she’s seeing a therapist to try to deal with the post-traumatic stress she feels when she hears a loud noise or her brain is serving up 15 different scenarios of what could go wrong during an ordinary outing.
“I don’t want to be scared to be outside, sit on my front porch or go for a run,” she said. “I’m working on that.’’
She said she chose to speak out in support of Measure 114, in part to show people the “real person behind the statistics” of those impacted by violence.
To see the gun control measure blocked by a county judge is frustrating, she said. But then for the judge to bar voters who passed the measure from testifying in support of it is even more disappointing, she said.
“Don’t we get a voice as voters?’’ she asked.
Earlier this month, she was back selling her books at the Belmont Street fair, having carried them there in her bike trailer.
While she’s mostly ghostwriting for others, Kwak said she caught herself “cataloging details” of the shooting, her medical care in the hospital emergency department and police response.
“Everything gets into a story eventually,” she said.
“I’m just recognizing I have a voice, and if anything good can come out of this, I’d like to use it.”