Gwendolyn Reed of Conway, South Carolina, has not been able to sleep in the dark since 1987, when she was 11 years old. That's the year her father, Samuel Reed, Jr., was murdered. In 2013 tragedy struck again. Reed's sister, Ebony Spann Parson, 28, was killed by her estranged boyfriend, who then turned the gun on himself. Less than two weeks earlier, he'd been charged with criminal domestic violence after reportedly beating Parson. He was out on bond when he took a 20-gauge shotgun to a bingo parlor and shot Parson dead. "I lost my childhood and my best friend to gun violence," says Reed. "No one should go through this."
The United States currently has a gun homicide rate more than 25 times higher than other developed nations, according to a 2016 report. Experts say the most powerful step in reducing the death toll is a simple one: Gun sellers should be required to run background checks at the time of purchase and deny sale to convicted felons and people with certain domestic violence charges or a dangerous mental illness. States with universal background checks have 46 percent fewer women shot to death by their partners, 48 percent fewer firearm suicides and 48 percent less gun trafficking, according to the national organization Everytown for Gun Safety. Despite these numbers, all but 18 states still allow handguns to be sold without checks by individuals making "private sales," which may happen anywhere including gun shows or online. This is the dangerous loophole that survivors like Reed want to close. She is one of 3 million members of Everytown who've joined together to lobby for change.
The people featured in the following pages represent almost every state in the country. They each tell a unique story about the impact gun violence has had on their lives. Sometimes the crime occurred decades earlier, far away from their current location in a new town, and for others the pain is fresh, having happened recently in their own backyards. No matter the circumstance, they share the same goal: to have you join the fight for sensible gun regulation and better safety for us all. "You have a right to own a gun," says Reed. "But you don't have the right to take an innocent life."
In 2004 U.S. Representative Rhonda Fields's son, Javad Fields, witnessed a shooting. He spoke to the police and was set to testify against the assailant. Days before the trial, he and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, both 22, were gunned down at an intersection. After their deaths, Fields [D-Colo.], 61, fought successfully for better witness protection and sensible gun regulation in her state. "Our background checks are saving lives," she says, noting that the state has denied thousands of gun purchases since enacting more comprehensive background checks in 2013. "People joined together and said enough of the bloodshed. It's time to do something."
Nardyne Jefferies, 46, was fiercely protective of her only child. But on March 30, 2010, she agreed to let her 16-year-old daughter, Brishell Jones, attend the funeral of a young man from the neighborhood who'd been murdered. After the service, gunmen, including one with an AK-47-style rifle, fired shots into the crowd gathered outside the church, killing Jones and three others. "I'd like to see high-power military weapons, like the one that killed my daughter, regulated better," says Jefferies. "These shooters are not exercising their Second Amendment rights, they are looking for something that will spray as many bullets as possible. We can make America safer, but it's going to take all of us doing our part."
"My grandbaby Elijah was 21 inches long with a full head of hair," says Effie Steele, 67, describing the infant who died before he'd taken his first breath. Steele's daughter, Ebony Robinson, was 21 years old and nine months pregnant when she was killed by the baby's father. "We took Elijah out of Ebony's body, cleaned him up and buried him in her arms," says Steele, who successfully lobbied for a state bill that allows prosecution in the death of an unborn child.
Torrey Donnell Manuel, 29, was shot and killed on January 1, 2003. His aunt, Angela Williams, 55, will never forget the sight of his lifeless body on the living room floor. After his death she founded Mothers Against Murderers Association (MAMA) to give survivors "a place to call hope," she says. "I've been to 317 funerals. I try to help mothers move from victim to survivor to advocate. I get calls at three o'clock in the morning and talk to them until they fall asleep. This is not something any mother should have to deal with alone." For more information, visit mothersagainstmurderersassn.org.
"I was 5 years old when my mother was shot to death in front of me," recalls Pastor Lorenzo Neal, 41, of New Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jackson. Years later Neal found himself advocating against the Mississippi Church Protection Act, a bill that would allow people to bear firearms inside churches. "We know there is evil in the world," says Neal. "But I want our church to be a place of peace." Despite Neal's efforts, on April 15, 2016, Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican, signed the act into law.
Akeal Christopher died on his fifteenth birthday, after being shot days earlier on June 27, 2012. He had been struck down when he was walking from a party in Brooklyn. His 9-year-old brother, Christopher Underwood, is determined to make a change by speaking out about gun violence as the first junior ambassador for the national organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (momsdemand action.org). "Kids may be little but we are loud," he says. "I want to use my voice for my generation. Don't I deserve to grow up in a world without guns in the streets?"
Stephanie Stone's son, Paul R. Sampleton, was supposed to graduate high school this year. But on December 19, 2012, the 14-year-old freshman was shot in the head during a home invasion orchestrated by a boy he knew from school. "I miss his silliness," says Stone, 47. "He wanted to be a marine biologist, and I'd say, "Baby, you can't swim!" Gun violence takes away dreams and hopes. I'll never be a grandmother or a meddling mother-in-law. I long for my child. I have to push through that each and every day."
Krystal Joy Bennett, 19, and her best friend, Terrin Greer, 17, both kissed Bennett's mom, Sylvia Bennett-Stone, on the cheek and said, "I love you," as they left for a Fourth of July party in 2004. Later that night the girls were killed in crossfire at a gas station. "The bullet went through Krystal's body and lodged in Terrin's heart," says Bennett-Stone, 54. "I thought I had done everything right: good schools, good neighborhood, good morals. You don't have to live in a violent neighborhood. Violence can come to you."
LaTonya Boyd's two granddaughters were still in diapers when their father shot and killed their mother, 21-year-old Tyesha McNair, and her friend Terrence Clark, 21, on October 13, 2009. Boyd, 52, is raising the girls now. "People need to know how to talk to survivors," says Boyd. "I did not lose my daughter. She was taken from me."
DeAndra Yates's son, DeAndre Knox, now 15, was at a birthday party on February 1, 2014, when someone outside started shooting into the house. A bullet hit DeAndre in the head, leaving him paralyzed from the mid-chest down and unable to speak. "Sometimes I can see his frustration when I am trying to change him and I am not moving fast enough," says Yates, 34. But she can also see his light shining through. During a recent visit to the rehab facility, he was happy and bubbly," she says. She can see it in his eyes.
*Name has been changed to protect subject's identity.
The survivors in these pages are sharing their stories to remind you that the epidemic rages on. The time to act is now. For more information about how you can get involved, visit Everytown for Gun Safety at everytown.org.
To read more stories on gun violence pick up the July 2016 issue of ESSENCE Magazine!
Jeannine Amber (@jamberstar) profiled Ciara in the May 2016 issue of ESSENCE.