By Marian Wright Edelman
Gun violence takes a relentless toll on our nation. Every day more than 300 people are killed or injured by guns in the United States, and most of their stories never make the news at all. But this was yet another week when multiple gun tragedies made national headlines.
One of those tragedies started out as a celebration: Alexis Dowdell’s sweet 16 birthday party at a dance studio in Dadeville, Alabama on April 15. She and her family had been planning the party for months, and the dance floor was filled with young people and a DJ when gunfire broke out. More than 30 people were injured and four were killed, including Alexis’s older brother, 18-year-old Philstavious “Phil” Dowdell.
Alexis remembered Phil pushing her to the ground to protect her in the chaos, but the next time she saw him he was lying in a pool of blood. She told an interviewer, “I got on my knees and he was laying face down. And that’s when I grabbed him. I turned him over, I was holding him… I was trying to be strong instead of panicking. And so I said, ‘You’re going to be alright, you’re a fighter, you’re strong.”
But Phil, a high school senior and star athlete who had a football scholarship to Jacksonville State University, was gone—along with another 17-year-old Dadeville High senior and two more young guests. Many of those injured remain hospitalized in serious condition.
The nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, which keeps track of mass shootings in the U.S. where four or more victims are killed or injured by guns, notes that there have been more than 165 mass shootings so far in 2023—more than one a day. On April 15 there were seven mass shootings, the most in a single day so far this year.
So, the devastating mass injuries and deaths at a birthday party that night were heartbreaking, but they were not unusual for America. But those stories about the “everyday” trauma and tragedy of mass shootings were also joined this week by the latest headlines about a series of “mistake” shootings.
On April 13 in Kansas City, Missouri, 16-year-old honors student and musician Ralph Yarl was shot in the head and arm after mistakenly ringing the wrong doorbell while trying to pick up his younger brothers from a friend’s home. The man who shot him said that when the 5’8”, 140-lb teenager came to his door, he looked out and saw a 6-foot-tall Black man and felt “scared to death.” Instead of asking any questions he immediately shot Ralph through the locked glass storm door.
Two days later in Hebron, New York, 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis was shot and killed after she and a group of friends mistakenly drove into the wrong home’s driveway. The young people, who were in a rural area with no cell phone service, had already realized their mistake and were trying to leave when the homeowner started firing on them, hitting Kaylin inside the car where she was sitting in the passenger seat.
And on April 18 in Elgin, Texas, two elite high school cheerleaders returning from practice were shot after one of them mistakenly opened the door to the wrong car in an H-E-B grocery store parking lot. Eighteen-year-old Payton Washington, who was planning to attend Baylor University in the fall on an acrobatic and tumbling scholarship and who had already overcome physical challenges after being born with only one lung, was airlifted to a hospital in critical condition with injuries to her spleen and other organs.
All of these only-in-America atrocities took place the very same week that many Republican politicians were attending the National Rifle Association’s annual convention to pledge their allegiance to the gun lobby. Reuters Pictures shared a series of photos from the convention of children as young as six and seven holding guns whose triggers barely fit their small hands as they pointed them at the camera.
Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, said afterward in an interview, “Responsible gun owners and parents would not allow a child to put their finger on a firearm’s trigger while pointing it at other people—even if they’re props… It’s clearer than ever that the NRA’s goal was never to teach children about responsible gun handling but to market guns and gun extremism to a new generation.”
But there is a large majority of Americans who favor common sense gun safety laws, who did not vote to put the NRA in charge of our national security, who are not grooming our own children and grandchildren to become gun extremists, and who do not want our children and grandchildren to be shot or killed because they attended a birthday party, recognized the wrong car in a parking lot, or accidentally drove to the wrong address.
In our nation with more guns than people, we know we need to do something about the guns.
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.