January 26 marks the close of the sixth annual National Gun Violence Survivors Week. Every day, 120 Americans are shot and killed, and an additional 200 are shot and injured. There were almost nearly two mass shootings per day in America in 2023.
Though men are the victims of 86 percent of gun deaths in America, women in America experience certain types of gun violence disproportionately. More than 6,000 American women die each year of gun violence, with more than half of these deaths — mostly women of color — being suicides. Women are 21 times more likely to die of gun violence in America compared to women in other high-income countries. And women are overwhelmingly impacted by the intersection of gun violence and domestic violence, which also disproportionately impacts women of color.
To mark this National Gun Violence Survivors Week, The 19th spoke with three women survivors of gun violence about how their experiences have impacted the way they have come to understand the epidemic in America.
These interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Melody McFadden, 57
McFadden was 17 years old when her mother was shot and killed by the man she was dating. Her mother’s boyfriend was a felon who had obtained an illegal firearm. In 2014, her niece was killed by a stray bullet while watching a parade on a beach, also from an illegal weapon. A U.S. Army veteran, ordained pastor and gun owner, McFadden is a senior fellow with the Everytown Survivor Network and a member of the Everytown Veterans Advisory Committee. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina.
When I was 17 years old, my mother was living in domestic violence, and her abuser shot and killed her in front of my little sisters, who were 10, 11 and 12 at the time.
I know so many things today that I didn’t understand then. I was witnessing it all with my own eyes and thinking, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ I didn’t know until after she was killed that he was threatening her every single day — that he was isolating her, that he was hiding money and her important papers. I didn’t know that every day he would come to breakfast and put a loaded gun on the table right next to his plate. That loaded gun was a threat.
We don’t know what’s going on behind anyone’s closed doors, but we have to know that if a weapon is present, someone is going to die. And that person is usually a woman.
My mother’s murder has traumatized us all. It is a situation that we don’t forget, every single day. We think about her on holidays when she’s not there. We think about her when she misses those big moments like when grandchildren are born, graduations, marriages — all those big moments that you should have your mother there to celebrate with you and in the sad moments when you just want to talk to her and get that advice that she’s no longer able to give because of a bullet, and because a felon had access to a weapon that he should have never been able to have.
A few years back, my sister’s daughter Sandy asked to go with me and my sisters to a high school reunion we had. We took her with us that night; she was just 22 years old. I remember that night she said, ‘I’m not going out tonight with my friends — I want to hang out with all of you.’ She was a light in the crowd.
The next day was Saturday, and she told us she was going to go to Myrtle Beach with her friends and her cousins to watch the motorcycle parade. Some young people started fighting on the beach, some people that had guns. They started shooting people in the crowd. And that’s how my sister’s only child was shot and killed on that beach. We were all traumatized so tremendously when my mother was killed, and then my sister’s only child was killed.
I don’t want you to know what it’s like when my sister is sitting at a family gathering and tears are running down her face because she’s looking at all the young people that are laughing and talking and knowing that her daughter would have been right there with them. But she’s not. Because of a bullet.
When my niece was killed, [State] Sen. Clementa Pinckney came. He was advocating on behalf of my niece and the other young ones that were shot. Then a year later, we were all sitting at his funeral after he had been shot and killed in such a sacred place, his church.
I live in South Carolina, where the state senate is now looking at permitless carry. We were at the statehouse a few weeks ago and it was cold and raining, but there were several hundred of us out there to let them know how serious it is.
We were all walking along the sidewalk and this man in a very nice suit and tie walked by, and I could tell he must have been a legislator, someone who was going to be going into the statehouse with all of us. He came up to me and said, ‘I don’t understand why you do what you do. It’s cold out here. Y’all should be home. You’re just wasting your time here — nobody’s going to listen.’
I said to him, ‘Would you listen if your only child had been shot and killed? Would you be out here in the cold telling people about it? What about if your mother had been killed?’ He said, ‘Well very few people can say that their mother was shot and killed.’
I said, ‘I can say that.’
He looked at me and I was able to tell him a little bit of my story. By the time we got to the guards that had to inspect our bags, he turned around and looked at me and said, ‘I’ve changed my mind. This is real.’
He said, ‘I think if we hadn’t had this conversation, I’d still be as jaded as I was before I got here today.’
That was only one person, but I got one person to change his mind about some things.
Karly Scholz, 20
Scholz was a 15-year-old student in Wisconsin when the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, took place in February 2018. Just two days after that, a student came into her own high school with a gun, threatening a security guard and sending the campus into lockdown. Four years later, she was 19 and a student at the University of Virginia (UVA) when a mass shooting took place that led to a 12-hour lockdown. She is a member of the Youth Council for Project Unloaded.
When I was a freshman in high school, there was already a lot of talk about guns and schools: How do we check students’ backpacks for guns? How do we do lockdown procedures? How do we drill them on active shooters? After Parkland, people became even more hypervigilant. There was this increased fear factor. When the incident happened at my school right after the shooting in Parkland, the school jumped into action and responded right away because there was that real culture of fear. We just had this feeling like that could happen to any of us at any second.
After that, I got into gun violence prevention work, but even all the work I had done did not prepare me for the way I was going to feel when there was a shooting at UVA. I didn’t feel like, even with all the advice I had, I had any idea what to expect when it happened where I was.
I had been in the library that day since 10 a.m. I had three tests the next day — it was just one of those days, like any other Sunday. It was around 10 p.m. when we got an internal communication email that there had been some kind of shooting off campus. I didn’t even think anything of it and was actually packing up my stuff to leave. Within minutes of that, everything was totally shut down.
We got the official email that there was an active shooter on the loose, that no one could go anywhere, and that the entire campus was locked down. We were on lockdown in the basement of the library now.
Young people have been putting in the work to change this culture of guns and to change gun policy and to change the way the media talks about gun violence. So many of us have been working really, really hard to change things for a long time — and after the UVA shooting I thought, ‘Wow — we still didn’t get there.’
The question about how mental health fits into all of this right now feels so impossible to answer, and that’s why it also feels so crushing. There’s a movement to be more and more transparent about mental health — women, especially, are encouraged to speak more openly about their specific experiences and to encourage others to do the same.
But then I feel like there’s also this idea carried around in this general domain that mental health is the reason that people are hurting other people. But I think we all know that no matter how much we push for an open conversation about mental health, we also have to talk about having people speak the truth about guns.
We have to continue to try to make a change so that this doesn’t keep happening. We need to flip the script: Guns make us less safe — the policy change and institutional change will come after everyone realizes that.
Marisa Marano, 41
Marano was 35 years old when she attended the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas with her sister in 2017. That day, she would also become a survivor of the largest mass shooting in American history — a shooting that reached that scale because of the shooter’s use of a bump stock, a device that attaches to a semi-automatic rifle to allow the trigger to shoot subsequent rounds faster than a shooter would be able to on their own. (The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for a case set to determine whether a bump stock effectively turns a firearm into a machine gun, private possession of which is banned under federal law. Regulations around bump stocks were first enacted after the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting.) A clinical social worker and now a mother of two children, she lives in Henderson, Nevada, and is a volunteer with Moms Demand Action.
My sister is 12 years younger than me, and she had gone to the Route 91 Festival for three years. I always really wanted to go but could never get a ticket, so my sister and her friends asked if I wanted to go with them, and I was like, ‘Oh absolutely.’ I was like the dorky big sister who got to go.
We were there and enjoying everything, and that’s when we heard what I thought were fireworks. I still use that word to this day: I heard fireworks. We all looked around like, ‘What’s going on?’
Then from the crowd, somebody yells, ‘Get down!’ and the lights all went out. We fell to the ground and I put my body over my sister and her friends, because to me, that’s what big sisters are supposed to do. And then when we had the chance, we just started running. I remember screaming, ‘Run!’ My sister’s friend who was with us was a very close family friend, and we lost her in the crowd while we were running and it was the most horrific feeling: I couldn’t save anybody. We ran for our lives with this continuous shooting.
We called my dad to come pick us up. I remember seeing SWAT cars everywhere and then walking into my house and my mom was just speechless. She let out this speechless cry as we walked in and I’ll never forget the look on her face. She could have lost two daughters that day.
When I’m in large crowds I get very drained, anytime I go to any venue I have to see where the nearest exit is. One of the biggest things is the impact it has had on my children. Today, my children are so worried about loud sounds. I know that comes from me. I always am looking around and saying, ‘What sound was that?’ and my little 2-and-a-half year old now does that too.
That’s why the biggest thing that keeps me going today is the thought of school shootings. I don’t feel that these children should ever have to live with the kinds of memories that I live with. My husband and I moved to this neighborhood because it has a very good school district, but I just can’t send my children to public school right now. I can’t send them to a school with a guard and all these safety protocols. They go to a very small private school where they are accounted for by name and it’s a locked campus. Even that doesn’t make me feel fully protected or safe.
What I will never forget from Route 91 is the sound — and what I will never let go of is the fact that if this man hadn’t been able to access the bump stock that he did, he wouldn’t have been able to rapid-fire shoot onto this venue.
Last Sunday, we wanted to take my 8-year-old to go see the Strip, because she’s never really seen it before. We somehow fell upon Caesar’s Palace and I walked straight into the SHOT Show [the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF)’s annual trade show], and I see all these people walking around with guns and I literally froze in the convention center for a minute. I had a full-blown panic attack. I have skills because I’m a social worker, and I’ve been through therapy, so I was able to calm myself down. But my heart was racing and my palms were sweaty, and even though it was freezing cold, I had to take off my jacket. I turned to my husband and said, ‘We need to go outside for me right now.’
Some days I feel like a survivor. Some days I feel like a warrior. But some days I feel like I’m back to square one. It creeps up. I don’t like that. I have to be prepared all the time. We left the convention center and I have never walked so fast in my life. For my children to see that and say, ‘Mommy, why are you in a hurry?’ when this was what I had to do right then because I felt like I was back at Route 91 — I had to hurry and get away.
We don’t have to live like this.