On the night of June 12, 2016, 49 people were killed and 53 injured in a shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The shooting has since remained one of the deadliest mass shootings in United States history.
Six years later, efforts to curb gun violence in America and stop the nation’s mass shooting epidemic have resumed following more recent mass shootings.
Just before noon Saturday, thousands of people carrying signs and dressed in anti-gun violence gear flooded the North Lawn of the Washington Monument.
One of those present was Jessica Mahoney, a young activist with ties to a national past littered with gun violence.
“My immediate family is from Sandy Hook and, as the sign refers, I used that sign four years ago,” Mahoney said. “It’s been a very personal issue for me since 2012 when I had to spend over an hour wondering if my cousins were alive or not. I just feel like it’s so important that people are here who haven’t been personally affected by the issue because I just think it shows that there’s a real movement behind what’s going on.
Mahoney and his fellow protesters in the crowd were among hundreds of thousands of other protesters who marched in different cities across the country that day, calling on state and federal lawmakers to pass legislation reforming state laws on fire arms.
The marches, organized largely by the youth-led gun violence prevention organization March for Our Lives, were sparked by a sustained national outcry for action following the latest mass school shootings. Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, and a Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, NY, both in late May. The organization held similar rallies nationwide in 2018 following the Parkland school shooting that led to the group’s formation.
Mahoney described his feelings of having to return to another rally four years later in an effort to resolve the same issue.
“It’s frustrating and a bit infuriating at times to be honest that we still have to do this,” Mahoney said. “But it just seems like there’s more energy every time and so I think I’m hopeful about that as well.”
The issue has been one of the torments of Americans in various backgrounds and walks of life and has affected those of a range of identities, including the LGBTQ community.
On the sixth anniversary of the Pulse shooting in Orlando, the Human Rights Campaign released a statement the day before the March for Our Lives rally.
“Gun violence remains an LGBTQ+ issue, with three-quarters of homicides against transgender people – including nearly eight in 10 homicides of black trans women – involving a firearm,” HRC Acting Chair Joni said. Madison, in the release. “This tragedy is compounded by the fact that in the six years since Pulse, we have been unable to advance meaningful federal gun reform legislation.”
But in an effort to prevent future massacres like those in Parkland, Uvalde, Buffalo and Orlando, prominent activists have since brought the issue of gun violence in America to light. Many such activists descended on the grounds of the Washington Monument on Saturday to speak to those gathered and amplify their message.
David Hogg, a survivor of the February 14, 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and founder and board member of March for Our Lives, addressed the crowd .
“We need to stop these shooters before they get to campus and stop endangering the lives of our first responders, our students, our teachers because the people of Capitol Hill don’t want to do their jobs and protect us,” Hogg said.
Alongside Hogg were a number of other activists and politicians who shared the goal of reducing gun violence in America, including DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.).
Bush described her own closeness to gun violence as she called for action, sharing with the crowd her past escape, as she fled an abusive partner who kept guns in their home.
“When I turned around for a moment, because, ‘Why isn’t he chasing me?'” Bush said. “I turned around and saw him motionless, ‘Why is he motionless?’ The next thing I knew was that I heard gunshots.
Bush thought the near-death experience was “completely avoidable”.
“Closing the boyfriend loophole could have saved me from a near fatal encounter with gun violence,” Bush said. “A red flag law could have saved me from a near fatal encounter with gun violence.”
Hogg and others have taken aim at counterarguments from pro-gun entities who have argued for mental health support rather than gun reform to address the problem.
“We also have to consider that mental health has a role to play in stopping gun violence, but racism is not a mental illness,” Hogg said. “Hate, racism, radicalization, xenophobia are not mental illnesses.”
But even at an event meant to highlight what pickers felt was a need to curb the national scourge of gun violence, the specter of fear and violence remained ever-present.
During a moment of silence for victims of US gun violence, a man at the front of the crowd began to shout and attempted to break into the main stage of the event. A source close to the scene told the Washington Blade that the man threw a megaphone into the crowd, shouting “I am God”.
Those gathered feared the worst. Due to the size of the crowd that had gathered, spectators across the lawn perceived the disturbance as an active gun threat. Hundreds of people fell to their stomachs while others fled the scene in an attempt to escape the potential violence.
After organizers and police were able to apprehend the disruptor, rally organizers attempted to reconvene the frightened crowd and move on.
“Don’t run, freeze, don’t run,” an organizer said to the sound of emerging police sirens. “There is no problem here, don’t run.”
But the moment of fear clung to many who were present.
Rallygoer Kirsten Hiera witnessed the moment of mass confusion but was unable to flee the scene despite her own fear.
“I was scared but didn’t want to run away because I’m with an elderly person and I didn’t want her to be abandoned,” Hiera said. “I felt scared and confused, but I didn’t want to give up on my friend.”
As those gathered began to rise lukewarm and return to the stage, the organizer drew attention to the rally’s goal, leading a chant exclaiming that peace was a way of life.
Leaving the stage towards the end of the rally after the crowd had gathered, the organizer left them with advice that went to the heart of the movement’s mission – a mission that, in the wake of tens of thousands of shooting deaths in shootings like Orlando, organizers like Hogg have described as not being pro-gun or anti-gun, but pro-peace.
“The other thing I want to say is let’s not give in to hate,” she said. “Let’s not give in to hate. There are more people who talk about love than hate.”