Like most 17-year-olds, Melody McFadden’s life was ahead of her. It was the summer after she graduated from high school, and she won a scholarship to attend the University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Then gun violence turned against her family. McFadden’s mother, a victim of domestic violence, was shot in the head by her boyfriend after trying to escape from the relationship. He was sentenced to 21 years in prison for his murder and served 11 years.
McFadden’s grandmother, who cleaned houses for a living, took care of her three younger sisters.
“Here I was leaving home, and now she had three more kids to raise,” McFadden told HuffPost. So we came to an agreement: if I go to the army and have a salary, raise it, we can do it together. And that’s what we did.”
Instead of starting college, McFadden began her service with the armed forces. She was stationed in various parts of the United States as well as Germany and Belgium, earning her degree while providing financial and emotional support to her sisters as they were growing up.
“It’s always been a place of pride for me,” McFadden said. “Although this tragedy occurred, it did not prevent us from achieving the goals we set.”
McFadden herself became a mother, as did her sisters. The McFadden children grew up alongside their cousin Sandy, her niece, as if they were siblings.
When she was 22, Sandy headed to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with some friends to see a motorcycle show. A fight broke out in front of her hotel. Guns were drawn and shots were fired into the crowd. When people tried to flee in the commotion, Sandy’s friends lost track of her. Later that night, over the phone, McFadden helps the coroner identify Sandy’s body by a recent tattoo: a star on her thigh.
In her grief, McFadden becomes an activist. Now she’s a volunteer for Moms Demand Action and a senior fellow at the Everytown Survivor Network, which connects survivors of gun violence together and supports survivors who want to become advocates. McFadden regularly tells her story to advocate for increased gun control. She was among the spectators at the White House when President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan gun safety bill into law in June. The legislation strengthened background checks and limited the ability of domestic abusers to purchase guns.
High on the agenda of McFadden and other activists is a ban on assault weapons, something Biden again urged Congress to pass this year in the wake of a school shooting in Tennessee.
Why ban assault style weapons?
Assault weapons, such as the AR-15, are semi-automatic rifles designed to do as much damage as possible in the shortest amount of time. Bullets fired from such a weapon travel more quickly than bullets from a handgun, so the wounds are more likely to be fatal. When paired with high-capacity magazines, as is often the case in group shootings, they allow the shooter to get through many rounds very quickly. It is not designed for hunting or self-defense, but to kill as many people as possible.
In a powerful video from the group Veterans for Gun Reform, the men and women who have used guns in combat explain why they support prohibition — just as McFadden does.
“I know what those bullets would do to a brick wall when I shot them as a target, so I also know what they would do to a human body,” McFadden said. These weapons should not be in the hands of an ordinary civilian. These are weapons of war.”
According to the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, between 2015 and 2022, 80% of mass shootings (in which four or more people were killed) involved an assault-style weapon.
Currently, a few states, as well as Washington, D.C., have assault-style weapons bans.
This country has had a federal ban on these weapons before. The Public Safety Protection and Recreational Firearm Use Act, which prohibits the manufacture of assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines for civilian use, was signed into law in 1994 by then-President Bill Clinton and will pass in 2004 without congressional action. Congress did not act, and the law is out.
The researchers found that the overall number of mass shooting deaths decreased when the law was in effect. After it expired, deaths from mass shootings began to rise steadily and sharply. Researchers estimated that the risk of someone dying in a mass shooting was 70% lower during the years the ban was in effect. The average number of deaths in mass shootings per year was 5.3. Between 2004, when the ban ended, and 2017, the average number of deaths in mass shootings jumped to 25.
“Polls show that a clear majority of Americans favor banning assault weapons,” John Fineblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, told HuffPost. “Younder NRA [National Rifle Association] Pressed, Congress let the ban lapse in 2004, and we see the repercussions of their cowardice every time we get a news alert of yet another mass shooting with weapons of war.”
The year 2023 is currently on track to become the deadliest year ever for mass killings. Database from the Associated Press and USA Today shows the country’s average rate of mass murder has been weekly so far this year.
While the majority of people killed by gun violence do not die in mass shootings, and the new federal ban will likely not affect guns that people already own (and have been buying in record numbers), there is reason to believe that the ban will prevent a large number of deaths. The researchers estimated that the assault-style gun ban could have prevented 314 of the 448 mass shootings that occurred between 1981 and 2017 if it had been in effect throughout that period.
A reason to continue
Shaundelle Brooks knows what a semi-automatic rifle can do. In 2018, her sons were at Waffle House in the Nashville area when someone opened fire with an AR-15 rifle outside the restaurant. Her 23-year-old son, Aqila, was injured. His brother Abedi, who was also there, initially thought Aguila would live, given the location of the bullet. But it did a lot of damage to his body.
“What I came to find out while doing the research is if he had been shot with a regular gun where he was shot, he would have done it,” Brooks told HuffPost. “He couldn’t survive. And that was because it was an AR-15.”
Aqeela was a lyricist. He made music with his younger brother and infused it with positive anti-violence messages.
Abed survived the shooting, but the trauma of that day still lingers. “He’s trying to be tough for us,” Brooks said. “But it’s a struggle for him on a daily basis.”
“It’s hard for him to be in a crowd. It’s hard for him to go places. It’s hard for him to sit down to eat.”
Every time another mass shooting occurs, Abedi faces his trauma. These reminders are frequent and touching close to home. His younger brother, Aldan, is in the eleventh grade, and when the shooting occurred in a Christian school district in March, his school was closed.
Aldan followed in his mother’s footsteps into activism and even met with his governor to advocate measures that might save his brother’s life.
“We are speaking on behalf of Akila,” Brooks said.[and] Keeping his legacy alive.”
Akila wanted to live. He loved his family. He loved us. “He would do anything for us,” she said. “I have to do everything I can to be strong and be his voice, because he lives through me.”
Brooks and McFadden will take part in demonstrations on Saturday — the day before Mother’s Day — to demand that Congress reinstate the assault-style gun ban.
Members of the public can contact their representatives to share their thoughts on a possible ban. Everytown also has a form that anyone can fill out on their website to send letters to members of Congress.
While no single gun control measure can prevent every act of violence, Brooks and McFadden believe that assault-style gun bans are a crucial place to start. They understand the value of every life saved to families and communities.
McFadden recalls a recent interaction. “I spoke at a conference, and a gentleman came up to me afterward and said, ‘What if you save one life? What difference would it make?'” Macfadyen said.
“And I held up a picture that I had shown on the podium while I was speaking. And I said, ‘This person is here. She is my sister’s only child, and if she came home, this person would have made a difference to all of us.'”
“It’s only one bullet, but that bullet still reverberates and ripples through my family.”