It’s hard to believe that it’s been three months since the deadliest mass shooting in American history. The lives of 49 innocent people who were simply enjoying themselves at the sanctuary that was Pulse nightclub were taken that night. As a gay person growing up in Brevard County, Florida, Pulse was one of the few places near my hometown where I felt like I could truly be my authentic self.
The night of the shooting, I was celebrating my cousin’s birthday. We discussed continuing the party at Pulse, but I fell asleep on my friend’s couch as she was getting ready, and — by a crazy stroke of luck — she decided to let me sleep rather than go out.
I had friends at Pulse that night, some of whom were shot or killed. I was almost there. I had been there so many times before. It could have been me — a fact that still weighs heavily on me all these months later.
The impact of the Pulse shooting on my community was severe, especially considering that it only added to other recent acts of violence. Just weeks before Pulse, a star football player from the high school where I serve as a social worker was shot while playing basketball in a park. He didn’t die, thankfully, but his recovery was hardly guaranteed. His family could easily have been forced to make funeral arrangements instead of nursing him back to health.
Just weeks after Pulse, another incident occurred: A mother from a family I work with witnessed and intervened in an episode of police brutality. After seeing a police officer and his partner successfully pin down a 19-year-old African-American man who had been trying to escape from them, the woman screamed, “Put your gun away, you don’t need that!” I wonder what would have happened had she not spoken up. I also wonder what would happen if we lived in a society in which guns weren’t so quickly used — or accessible — in incidents like these.
These events, which occurred in the same month as the devastating Pulse shooting, clearly show how gun violence is affecting my community. Although the other incidents received less fanfare or national headlines, all three acts demonstrate the brutality that is possible with easy access to guns.
It all weighed heavily on me, too. It was so much to process. It was so overwhelming, in fact, that I began to experience intense anxiety in bars and clubs that reminded me of Pulse. While I am now seeing a counselor to help get me back on track, it was almost too clear that I needed to do something to help stop the cycle of gun violence that was killing and injuring people in the beautiful communities I know and love.
In order to fully heal, I needed to find a way to help prevent the pain and terror that occurs when the wrong person has access to deadly weapons.
So in August I joined MTV’s Elect This campaign and supported a Change.org petition that called for the mayor and congresspeople of Orlando to pass stricter weapon legislation in our city. Over 40,000 people have now signed the petition — a surge of support that got the attention of our mayor, Buddy Dyer. Mayor Dyer responded to the petition online, but said that he did not have the power to make major gun safety reform changes.
Last month I had the opportunity to meet with Mayor Dyer and his staff. I arrived at City Hall with two friends who are members of the intersecting LGBTQ and Latinx communities — one of whom organizes a grassroots organization called QLatinx, which arose out of the shooting. Since 90 persent of the Pulse victims were Latinx and queer, and those most affected by hate violence are queer and trans people of color, my friends’ voices particularly represented and honored the intersection of identities that were most affected at Pulse. Their ability to share insight into their experiences was vital to helping city staff plan their continued response.
My friends and I were invited into the mayor’s conference room where we were greeted by the mayor’s press secretary, the director of public policy, a lobbyist, and the mayor himself. Although Mayor Dyer reiterated that he had no power to make changes on this issue, I pushed to him to figure out a way he could use his voice or lend his power to the cause. But when I asked him what he would do to publicly endorse the petition, he said that he had chosen to wait to say anything about gun control out of respect for the healing process of the community. He didn’t want to come off as though he was politicizing the tragedy or the pain it caused.
While I genuinely respect where the mayor is coming from, I have to wonder: When is the right time? Part of healing is taking steps to prevent something like this from happening again. We need to use our voices to help others heal.
I also learned, however, that the power to act really wasn’t in the mayor’s hands. Unfortunately, Florida state law uses a tactic called "preemption" to prevent local officials from enacting gun legislation. This means that all such legislation must come from the state or federal legislature, and cities and towns are not allowed to pass any of their own laws on this issue. So it turns out that the change process is much more intimidating and challenging than I hoped it would be.
But despite these frustrating realities, I refuse to be silenced. I will continue to push for meetings with Florida Senator Bill Nelson and other members of the Florida State Legislature, because the most immediate change possible will be on the state level. We need to keep the pressure on.
Please help us achieve this goal by signing and sharing our Change.org petition. But even more importantly, push for a similar conversation in your own city by starting your own Change.org petition through MTV’s Elect This campaign and calling on your local officials to enact stronger gun laws.
Use your voice to demand action now, not just because our voices matter, but because our lives — and the lives of others — matter, and may depend on it.
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