Like most 17-year-olds, Melody McFadden’s life lay before her. It was the summer after her high school graduation, and she had earned a scholarship to attend the University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Then gun violence upended her family. McFadden’s mother, a victim of domestic abuse, was shot in the head by her boyfriend after she attempted to escape the relationship. He was sentenced to 21 years for the killing and served 11.
McFadden’s grandmother, who cleaned houses for a living, assumed care of her three younger sisters.
“Here I was leaving home, and she was going to have now three more children to raise,” McFadden told HuffPost. “So we made an agreement: If I went into the military and had a paycheck, and she raised them, we could do this together. And that’s what we did.”
Instead of starting college classes, McFadden began her service with the armed forces. She was stationed in different parts of the U.S. as well as Germany and Belgium, and she earned her degree while providing financial and emotional support to her sisters as they grew up.
“That has always been a place of pride for me,” said McFadden. “Even though this tragedy occurred, it didn’t stop us from accomplishing the goals that we had set.”
McFadden became a mother herself, as did her sisters. McFadden’s children grew up alongside their cousin Sandy, her sister’s daughter, as though they were siblings.
When she was 22, Sandy headed to South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach with some friends to see a motorcycle parade. In front of her hotel, a fight broke out. Guns were drawn, and shots were fired into the crowd. As people tried to flee amid the commotion, Sandy’s friends lost track of her. Later that night, over the phone, McFadden helped the coroner identify Sandy’s body by a recent tattoo: a star on her thigh.
In her grief, McFadden became an activist. She is now a Moms Demand Action volunteer and a senior fellow with the Everytown Survivor Network, which connects gun violence survivors to each other and supports survivors who want to become advocates. McFadden regularly tells her story to call for increased gun control. She was among the onlookers at the White House when President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan gun safety bill into law in June. The legislation enhanced background checks and limited the ability of domestic abusers to purchase guns.
High on the agenda for McFadden and other activists is a ban on assault-style weapons, something that Biden again urged Congress to pass this year in the wake of a school shooting in Tennessee.
Why An Assault-Style Weapons Ban?
Assault-style weapons, such as AR-15-style rifles, are semi-automatic guns designed to inflict the greatest possible damage in the shortest amount of time. The bullets shot from such a weapon travel with greater speed than bullets from a handgun, so wounds are more likely to be deadly. When paired with high-capacity magazines, as they often are in mass shootings, they allow a shooter to go through many rounds very quickly. They are 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, men and women who have used the weapons in combat explain why they support a ban — just like McFadden does.
“I know what those bullets will do to a brick wall when I fired at them as a target, so I also know what they will do to a human body,” McFadden said. “Those weapons should not be in the hands of a normal civilian person. Those are weapons of war.”
According to the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, between the years 2015 and 2022, 80% of mass shootings (in which four or more people were killed) involved an assault-style weapon.
At the moment, a handful of 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 and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, which prohibited 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 would sunset in 2004 without congressional action. Congress did not act, and the law expired.
Researchers found that the total number of deaths from mass shootings decreased when the law was in effect. After it expired, mass shooting deaths began a steady, sharp rise. The researchers calculated that a person’s risk of dying in a mass shooting was 70% lower during the years that the ban was in force. The average number of deaths in mass shootings per year was then 5.3. Between 2004, when the ban expired, and 2017, the average number of deaths in mass shootings jumped to 25.
“The polls show that a clear majority of Americans favor assault weapons bans,” John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, told HuffPost. “Under NRA [National Rifle Association] pressure, Congress let the ban lapse in 2004, and we see the fallout of their cowardice every time we get a news alert about another mass shooting perpetrated with weapons of war.”
2023 is currently on track to become the deadliest year on record for mass killings. A database from The Associated Press and USA Today calculates that the country has averaged one mass killing per week so far this year.
While the majority of people killed by gun violence do not die in mass shootings, and a new federal ban would likely not impact weapons that people already own (and have been purchasing in record numbers), there is reason to believe that the ban would prevent a significant number of deaths. Researchers calculated that the assault-style weapons ban could have prevented 314 of the 448 mass shooting deaths that occurred between 1981 and 2017 if it had been in place that whole time.
A Reason To Carry On
Shaundelle Brooks understands what a semi-automatic rifle can do. In 2018, her sons were at a Waffle House in the Nashville area when someone opened fire with an AR-15-style rifle outside the restaurant. Her 23-year-old son, Akilah, was hit. His brother Abede, who was also there, initially thought that Akilah was going to live, given where the bullet went in. But it did too much damage to his body.
“What I came to find out doing research was if he was shot with a regular gun where he was shot, he would have made it,” Brooks told HuffPost. “He couldn’t survive it. And that was because it was an AR-15.”
Akilah was a lyricist. He made music with his younger brother and infused it with positive, anti-violence messages.
Abede survived the shooting, but the trauma inflicted on him that day remains. “He tries to be strong for us,” said Brooks. “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 to places. It’s hard for him to sit down to eat.”
Every time there is another mass shooting, Abede faces his trauma. These reminders are frequent and have touched close to home. His younger brother, Aldane, is in the 11th grade, and when the shooting at an area Christian school happened in March, his school went on lockdown.
Aldane has followed in his mother’s footsteps to activism, and has even met with his governor to advocate for measures that might have saved his brother’s life.
“We’re speaking on Akilah’s behalf,” said Brooks, “[and] keeping his legacy alive.”
“Akilah 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.”
Both Brooks and McFadden will be taking part in demonstrations Saturday — the day before Mother’s Day — to demand that Congress reinstate the assault-style weapons ban.
Members of the public can contact their representatives to share their thoughts on the potential ban. Everytown also has a form that anyone can fill out on its website to send messages to those in Congress.
While no single gun control measure can prevent every act of violence, Brooks and McFadden believe that an assault-style weapons ban is a crucial place to start. They understand the value of every life saved for families and communities.
McFadden recalls a recent interaction. “I spoke at a conference, and a gentleman came up to me afterwards and he said: ‘So what if you save one life? What difference will it make?’” said McFadden.
“And I held up a picture that I had displayed on the podium while I was speaking. And I said: ‘This one person right here. She is my sister’s only child and if she had come home, this one person, it would have made a difference to all of us,’” she continued.
“It’s just one bullet, but that one bullet is still reverberating and rippling out through my family.”