Survivors of the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., took part Saturday in the March For Our Lives with heavy hearts as they remembered the 49 people killed that night, but they also expressed optimism about the potential for change.
Those personally affected by the tragedy — including Christine Leinonen, the mother of victim Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, and Brandon Wolf, Drew’s friend — marched as part of the contingent organized by the Human Rights Campaign.
Prior to heading out, Wolf told the Washington Blade his thoughts were on his slain friend and “the life that he deserved, that he should be living.”
“I’m marching every step for him,” Wolf said.
The group led by the Human Rights Campaign headed to the rally point in D.C. carrying signs that read, “Honor Them With Action.” Each sign bore the name of a victim of gun violence.
Wolf said he took in part in the march with hopes to “wake up the country, to energize them,” shaming Congress for what he said was inaction on gun control.
“I manage businesses for a living, and I try to imagine a day where one of my employees can have a 15 percent approval rating from me, do absolutely nothing for decades and still get their six-figure salary,” Wolf said. “So my hope is that I can wake Americans up and remind them that we’re the employers, these folks are not doing their job. They have failed us. They’re not keeping us, and it’s time for us to fire them and move on.”
Wolf said he isn’t sure why Congress hasn’t taken action on gun control, but the first step to encouraging them should be eliminating the influence of money on politics and the National Rifle Association.
“We need to start by eliminating the NRA’s campaign contributions, taking their power out of the conservation,” Wolf said. “I think that’s a start, but ultimately, this group of lawmakers has made their case. They’ve said that money is most important to them and it’s time for us to pick somebody else.”
Leinonen said taking part in the March For Our Lives reminded her of the energy surrounding the gun reform movement amid the lingering sadness about her departed son.
Recalling the protests against the Vietnam War in the 1970s, Leinonen said, “Now we have teenagers that are doing that very same thing fast-forward 60 years, and it’s incredible, so it makes me feel very hopeful for their future.”
“Whether you are marginalized because you’re a teenager, or because you’re going to a concert, or a nightclub, you’re gay, you’re Latino, you’re African-American, everyone is marching for their lives in solidarity, and it’s going to be a force that this political climate is going to have to reckon with,” Leinonen said.
Leinonen paused during the interview at one point on the way to the rally to give high fives to youths on the street and exclaimed, “March For Our Lives, March For Our Lives!”
The Pulse survivors are seeking measures they say are common-sense gun reform measures, such as expanded background checks and a ban on assault rifles.
Wolf said a number of the items on the gun reform agenda, such as background checks and increased access to mental health care, are “in the middle” and should be easy for lawmakers to achieve.
“Those are things I’d like to see done, but instead, we get so hung up on outer issues that the gun lobby pushes us to the edges of the issue that we don’t ever talk about the things that we agree on,” Wolf said. “Ninety-eight percent of Americans agree we need universal background checks. Why haven’t we moved on that? Sixty-two percent of Americans believe that a ban on assault-style rifles would make sense. Why haven’t we moved on that? The answer is the money, the answer is the gun lobby and our ineffective group of legislators.”
Leinonen said she hopes the march will send a signal “not just to the American people, but people all over the world” that the status quo is no longer working.
“The status quo is we have out of control gun laws in this country,” Leinonen said. “That’s the status quo is they’re making it easier and easier to buy more and more guns and put them in more and more places, so now we have an environment where weapons of war, semi-automatic weapons, made to be automatic in some cases, are being marketed like candy or toys, just like in the old days when Big Tobacco used to own D.C.”
The contingent for the Human Rights Campaign departed for the March For Our Lives after an event at the Renaissance in which Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign spoke and sought to energize the audience.
“Today we’re proud to be led by Pulse survivors and family members and join the hundreds of thousands of students and their supporters from across the nation in the March For Our Lives,” Griffin said in a statement. “As the tragedy at Pulse showed us, hate can turn deadly when coupled with unfettered access to military-style weapons. The safety of LGBTQ people and other marginalized communities that face disproportionate levels of hate and violence requires the adoption of common-sense gun safety measures.”
Also speaking at the event were Wolf and Leinonen in addition to fellow Pulse survivors José Arraigada and Ricardo Negron and One Pulse Foundation Board Chair Earl Crittenden.
Karamo Brown, one of the hosts of “Queer Eye,” also spoke at the event wearing a black “Never Again” sweatshirt and he revealed he’s an alum of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where the mass shooting that killed 17 took place.
“You all cannot imagine how my heart broke,” Brown said. “In one moment, 14 students and three staff members were viciously murdered by senseless gun violence.”
Ana Navarro, a Republican commentator and Trump critic, was also present at the event and hurled criticism at Trump for anti-LGBT policies she called “deplorable.”
“I have no doubt that the constant curtailing of LGBTQ rights by the Trump ‘misadministration’ has everything to do with keeping his base happy and distracting us from the fact that he cheats, he lies and has no moral compass,” Navarro said.