A day before the second anniversary of the Pulse shooting, survivors of the deadly attack are gathering with students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
On Monday night, the two groups will convene at the Orlando City Hall for a rally calling attention to the lack of meaningful gun reform since 49 people were gunned down and 53 more wounded at Pulse nightclub in June 2016. It took 635 days for Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, to enact legislation raising the age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21. The bill also imposed a three-day waiting period on purchasing long guns.
Signed into law on March 9, the legislation does not, however, include stricter background checks or any restriction on buying or selling assault weapons. At the urging of the NRA, it also includes a provision arming teachers—which advocacy groups warned would serve to actually increase gun violence in schools.
That’s why instead of a memorial, the two groups will honor the Pulse victims, survivors, and their families with action.
“This is an opportunity for communities that have been impacted by gun violence across the state of Florida to come together in solidarity and say: ‘Enough is enough, we really need to get something done on this,” says Pulse survivor and event organizer Brandon Wolf in a phone interview with INTO.
In partnership with organizations like Equality Florida and March for Our Lives, Monday’s event will include a dozen speakers from different communities impacted by gun violence in the United States, an issue that Wolf argues touches just about every city, county, and neighborhood in the entire country. Estimates claim more than 15,000 Americans lost their lives to gun violence in 2017.
The organizers will display photos of the 49 people lost at Pulse two years ago, as well as the 17 students, teachers, and staff gunned down during the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
For Wolf, these names include Christopher “Drew” Leinonen and Juan Guerrero, his two best friends. As a survivor of the Orlando massacre, he says that building relationships with others who have been directly impacted by gun violence has helped him cope with the aftermath, including feelings of grief and loss.
“The emotional and mental trauma sticks with you forever,” Wolf says. “I can’t remember the last time that I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night crying from a nightmare. It happens every day.”
The Parkland and Pulse survivors met for the first time in March during an event held at the memorial site for the nightclub, placing a white rose on the on the gate for each of the LGBTQ people gunned down. At the time, a former manager at the gay bar, Neema Bahrami, said the gathering recognized that the two groups are “family.”
But in addition to building community solidarity and support, the groups hope to use this week’s event to call attention to an unfortunate double standard in how Florida politicians responded to the two tragedies.
After Pulse, activists with Gays Against Guns stormed Sen. Marco Rubio’s office to gain an audience with the Republican lawmaker. Ten were arrested during the action, but Rubio continued to ignore their requests. Following the Parkland shooting, the conservative held a town hall event with students like Emma Gonzalez and Cameron Kasky, who became leaders at the forefront of a national movement for gun reform.
The 49 deaths at Pulse were not enough to encourage the Florida legislature to pass even an inadequate, compromised piece of gun control legislation. That bill, though, was passed just three weeks after the Parkland shooting.
Carlos Smith, a representative in the Florida House, says the difference in how politicians responded to the two tragedies is “offensive.”
“[Gov. Scott] promised to stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community by signing an executive order protecting LGBTQ workers from discrimination,” the Democratic lawmaker claims in a phone interview with INTO. “He broke that promise. He slashed mental health funding the first budget year after Pulse, which was a punch in the gut to a community that needed resources.”
“The governor dedicated a million dollars to a Parkland memorial,” he continues. “Pulse got zero.”
Advocates say the discrepancies between the two are a reflection of the populations affected by each attack. The victims of Pulse nightclub were largely LGBTQ people of color, while the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Students are “mostly affluent, white young people from rich neighborhoods,” Smith says.
“A lot of politicians in Tallahassee responded to that,” he adds.
Since the Parkland survivors became household names four months ago, the students have used their voices to call attention to the privilege afforded to some activists, but not others. Some are invited onto a national stage to tell their stories, while the voices of others have been marginalized. The African-American students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, for instance, have been largely ignored by mainstream media publications.
“My school is about 25 percent black, but the way we’re covered doesn’t reflect that,” said Parkland student David Hogg at a March rally.
Meanwhile, as reports of the Pulse nightclub attack rolled in on the morning of June 12, many Republican lawmakers—including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and House Speaker Paul Ryan—refused to recognize that the victims were queer and transgender. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) called Pulse a “young person’s nightclub.”
Nearly all of these remembrances also ignored that 47 percent of those murdered during the shooting—or 23 people—were Puerto Rican.
But David Moran, an organizer with the Orlando chapter of Gays Against Guns, says that bringing together the voices of Pulse and Parkland survivors is a way to ensure that no one’s stories get erased in these conversations.
“There’s always a struggle with communities that don’t have as much systemic support to be listened to,” Moran tells INTO over the phone. “But so many students in [the Parkland] movement seem to have Pulse at the forefront of their mind, even if other institutions and the media do not. There’s an opportunity for both survivor communities to support each other and lift each other up.”
By bringing these two groups together, it recognizes that as much as the two communities are divided, Pulse is personal for many of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas as well. Gonzalez, the president of her school’s Gay Straight Alliance, is bisexual. Kasky is gay.
All of them, however, have grown up in the shadow of tragedies like Pulse—in which unfathomable violence becomes an commonplace facet of everyday life.
“It’s terrifying to be a Floridian today,” Wolf claims.
“People all over the state of Florida are afraid,” he continues. “Every single day they’re afraid to go to the movie theater, they’re afraid to go to church, they’re afraid to go to nightclubs, and they’re afraid to go to school because they never know when a person that we’ve allowed legally purchase an assault weapon will walk in and end their life.”
But two years after Pulse, Wolf believes the tide on gun reform is finally shifting.
More than two-thirds of Americans (67 percent) support tighter restrictions on the purchase of firearms, and those numbers are only increasing with each passing month.
Meanwhile, dozens of brands have cut ties with the NRA in recent months.
Advocates have much more work ahead of them. Currently, Florida ranks dead last in the nation in terms of mental health funding—even despite the overwhelming needs of an LGBTQ community still grappling with the impact of violent hate. At Monday’s event, speakers will be renewing the call for Gov. Scott and the state’s majority Republican legislature to pass universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons.
As more communities continue to join together to end the gun violence epidemic in the U.S., Wolf believes these changes are possible.
“The reason the NRA and the gun lobby are so vehemently opposed to these students and the reason that anything David Hogg says gets a rebuttal on Fox News is because they’re absolutely terrified,” Wolf says. “I don’t think it’s hard for people to look around and see that the tide is truly turning on the conversation around gun violence in this country.”