How do you know you’re safe? How do you know that when you leave your house and walk out into the world that you’ll be able to go home at the end of the day, talk with your family, and crawl into bed?
We just assume everything will turn out fine.
Seconds before it happened, we were all dancing to the pulse of the thundering music from the DJ. Eric and I had just left our friends, Drew and Juan, to go to the bathroom. That’s when we heard the first gunshots. In just a matter of minutes, a man filled with hate and armed with a military-style assault weapon stormed onto the dance floor and took the lives of 49 innocent souls in the early hours of June 12, 2016.
I lost two friends that night at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. I will be forever haunted by that night, and this question: How do you ever really know you’re safe?
When I walked into Pulse on that night, I thought I was. For many in Orlando’s LGBTQ community, Pulse was one of the only places we knew we were safe — a haven where we were free of judgment and scrutiny.
Now our space stands as a memorial to the lives of 49 individuals who were murdered that night. My best friends were failed by our political system. It failed the families of the 49 people who were killed, the 53 people who were injured, it failed me and it’s currently failing all of us.
This June, America commemorated the one-year mark of the Pulse shooting where 49 souls were lost, including my friends Drew and Juan. The month before, we remembered the 32 lives that were lost at Virginia Tech 10 years prior. Members of Congress were fired upon on a baseball field with House Majority Whip Steve Scalise shot and seriously injured, requiring multiple surgeries and rehabilitation. And on Sunday night, the Las Vegas shooting rose to the top of the list as the deadliest mass shooting in modern United States history, with 58 dead and 527 innocent concertgoers injured.
These tragedies and the countless others that have taken place are now commonly known by shorthand: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and now Las Vegas.
We have come to memorize an encyclopedia of mass shootings because so many elected officials prioritize campaign checks from the gun lobby over the safety of their constituents. Gun safety and gun violence prevention are not the same thing as “gun control,” despite what outsized special interest groups like the NRA would have you believe. The NRA has spent years and millions of dollars pushing legislation onto our communities allowing unfettered access to guns and ammunition, weaponry designed for warfare and often easily purchased by people who wouldn’t pass a background check.
Virginia has an opportunity to bring some common sense to the conversation around gun safety this year without jeopardizing individual rights. Ralph Northam — Army veteran, doctor — grew up hunting on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and has been a reasoned voice on gun safety in the State Senate and as lieutenant governor. His record on gun safety is thoughtful, practical and based on what he’s seen in his career in the first Gulf War and what he’s heard from Virginia Tech survivors and their families. Universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons, and smaller magazines will help us save lives in Virginia, and if we elect him governor, Ralph will work to make those policies a reality.
There’s one thing I will always remember from that night at Pulse: 49 guns did not kill 49 people that night, just one did. Just one powerful, military-style assault rifle with ample ammunition tucked away. And on Sunday night, a man armed with 23 assault weapons he smuggled into a hotel, rained endless ammunition down from his 32nd-floor suite into a crowd of 22,000.
Several of us who survived Pulse helped form the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, a nationwide organization working toward sensible gun laws because the LGBTQ community is a visible target of hate crimes, often involving firearms. Our mission is to turn tragedy into action through common sense gun reforms like enacting background checks, restricting access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and preventing those convicted of hate crimes from purchasing guns. Pride Fund supports Ralph Northam for Virginia governor because that’s his platform too.
Elected officials, reluctant as they are to cross the NRA, can affect change. They can address the easy access to assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and the purchase of guns through the gun-show loophole. They can address our safety, rather than focusing instead on the safety of their own seats, courtesy of NRA cash.
Virginians have a choice this November, one that directly impacts them, their families, and their community. We must take steps to rein in rampant gun violence, and we can do it without infringing on the rights put forth in the U.S. Constitution. Dr. Ralph Northam — standing up to make our streets safe for Virginians — is the right choice for Virginia.
Brandon Wolf is a survivor of the June 12, 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and a member of the Board of Advisors, Pride Fund to End Gun Violence. Learn more at pridefund.org.