Matt Fenton asked Jen and me to meet him on a pretty tree-lined street in Bolton Hill. The neighborhood is near The Maryland Institute College of Art and is home to professors, doctors, lawyers and other professionals. In a city that struggles with poverty, this is a small pocket of affluence generally protected from violence. “It happened right there,” he said pointing at a stately red brick row home. It was around 9pm on the evening of September 18, 1981, and Matt was walking to pick up his then girlfriend at her apartment to take her to the movies. Two young men walked up to him and asked him for directions to McCulloch St. Matt told them how to get to their destination. The men claimed that they were from New York City and asked if Matt could walk them to their destination.
Upon meeting Matt, one is almost immediately impressed by his kind gentle spirit. He reasoned with the young men, telling them their destination wasn’t far and easy to find. Immediately, the men changed their tone. “This is it,” one of them demanded, “hand it over.” Matt resolved long before he crossed paths with these young men that nothing was more valuable than his life and that he would hand over his wallet if challenged. One man pulled out a gun.
Matt recalls that the gunman was afraid. “His arm was shaking as he pointed the gun at me.” Matt gave the other his wallet containing about forty dollars. The man without the gun searched Matt, he thinks for a gun. When they didn’t find anything, the two men just stood there. Matt admits the impasse was likely only a few seconds but it felt like an eternity. Matt asked them, “Ok you got what you want. Why don’t you just leave?” That is when the man with the gun standing about eight feet away shot him.
“It’s a good thing he was a poor shot” Matt laughs while rubbing the left side of his forehead. He says that in his early 30s, shortly after he was shot, he was sensitive about the small indentation in his skull. A newspaper article shows Matt wearing a bandana to cover the area where he was shot. The full metal jacket bullet, from an inexpensive handgun commonly known as a Saturday Night Special, pierced his skull sending fragments of bone throughout his cranium.
The same type of gun was used less than six months before Matt’s shooting to shoot President Reagan and severely injure James Brady.
He doesn’t recall much about the evening he was shot. He remembers a bright flash, falling to the ground and struggling to stand up. A woman who lived a few blocks down the street ran to assist him. She spoke soothing words, helped him stretch out on a wall, covered him with her coat, and told him to stay still. Matt didn’t realize he’d been shot until he realized that his inability to see was because he was blinded by the blood pouring down his face.
Fortunately, there was a police officer a few blocks away that heard the shots and came to his aid. The medics put rubber pants on him to help prevent shock and rushed him to the emergency room. He waited in the triage room for three hours. On a Friday night at the tail end of summer in Baltimore, a gunshot to the head was not the most serious wound.
Matt spent a little under a week in the hospital. He credits Dr. Bellagarrigue with saving his life by preforming emergency brain surgery. Matt smiles and shakes his head in disbelief, “I didn’t realize how serious my situation was until I started looking around at the other people on the ward.”'In a Baltimore ER, 'a gunshot to the head was not the most serious wound.' #BehindTheStatisticsClick To Tweet
Matt left the hospital after a week. He’d always been a passive supporter of gun violence prevention, but the experience created a passionate new activist. He threw himself into the movement. An article published 10 days after the shooting announces, “Bolton Hill Shooting Victim Will Stay in City.” The piece from the Evening Sun, quotes Matt: “If it wasn’t for the NRA. . .this wouldn’t have happened to me.” Shortly after this interview, Matt began to experience severe headaches. His doctors found a large abscess. He was readmitted to the hospital for several weeks of IV antibiotics to thicken the wall of the abscess to prevent rupture during surgery.
Matt said those weeks waiting for the surgery were far more anxiety-provoking than the actual shooting. “The doctors made me sign these forms warning me that I may lose my vision or language skills. I’d just become fluent in French and German. I spent weeks sitting in the hospital thinking about all I could lose. With the first surgery, I had no time to think.” That wasn’t all Matt did in the hospital, he also urged anyone he met in the hospital to sign postcards to then Maryland Governor Harry Roe Hughes urging him to support gun control.
Matt was unable to work for four months and his medical bills exceeded $32,000. Another heavy weight to bear. But Matt refused to be constrained by any of this. He continued to fight to make sure no one else would experience what he did.
Lois Hess, a board member of Handgun Control, Inc., who became involved in the movement when her son was shot and killed in the mid 1970’s reached out to Matt. She’d seen Matt featured in several news stories and knew Matt’s father because she’d spoken to his Rotary Club about her work at Handgun Control, Inc. prior to Matt’s injury. Matt and Lois began working together and eventually Matt founded Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse (MAHA) in 1986.
The group was instrumental in passing the 1988 Saturday Night Special Law Referendum and the creation of the Handgun Roaster Board. Jen and I are particularly indebted to Matt as MAHA eventually evolved into Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence. Matt, like so many of the individuals we highlight on this site, has transformed trauma and pain into change and activism.
This piece isn’t just a story about an intelligent, thoughtful, courageous man who created an organization after he was shot on the streets of Baltimore. It is also a thank you note from Jen and me to the man who breathed life into the organization we now lead.
Thank you, Matt Fenton.
Written by Liz Banach, Executive Director, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence