It took a matter of minutes for Omar Mateen to purchase a Sig Sauer MCX, a semiautomatic rifle capable of firing hundreds of shots per minute, at the St. Lucie Shooting Center June 4, 2016. Under Florida law, Mateen didn't need a permit to own the rifle, and though the state requires a three-day waiting period to buy a handgun, no such requirement exists for the larger and more destructive device. Since he bought the weapon from a licensed firearms dealer, Mateen did, in fact, undergo a criminal background check, but he’d never been convicted of a felony or committed any of the offenses on Florida’s short list of reasons to deny purchase, so his criminal record came back clean. The check would also reference whether a buyer’s name appeared on any terrorist watch list, a database where Mateen’s name in fact had appeared before thanks to two separate investigations by the FBI into reported sympathies with the Islamic State, but those investigations never found anything firm connecting Mateen to extremists, and his name had been taken off those lists two years earlier. A day after buying the rifle, Mateen would return the next day and buy a Glock just as easily.
Of course, what Mateen would do with all this firepower soon gripped the attention of the world. In the early morning of June 12, Mateen forced his way past an off-duty police officer at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, and opened fire. He would not leave the club alive — police gunned him down after an hours-long standoff — but 49 other lives would end that night as well in what remains the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, the biggest hate crime against LGBT people in the nation, and the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. The aftermath saw the expected thoughts and prayers from state and national figures, but in the year since the attack, no gun laws have been passed that would have stopped or even slowed the process for Mateen to purchase his firearm of choice.
That fact still leaves Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan shaking her head in frustration. “One person should not be able to buy a firearm for less than $1,000 that can kill a hundred people in minutes,” she says. Sheehan, the out councilwoman who represents the district where Pulse once operated, considers herself a supporter of the Second Amendment and holds a concealed weapon permit herself, but she can’t fathom the need for a regular citizen to buy a gun with a killing capacity like that unleashed at Pulse.
But lawmakers' inaction on the gun control front is no surprise to her. “It’s such a red meat issue,” she says. “People are so fearful they feel the need to arm themselves with weapons of mass destruction to go to the grocery store, and that’s absurd.”
Even after Pulse, talk of furthering gun restrictions ultimately produced few to no results in the halls of Congress of in the Florida legislature, though not for a complete lack of trying. Shortly after the shooting, Democrats in the U.S. House shortly after the shooting staged a sit-in protest, where then-Rep. Corrine Brown, a Democrat representing Central Florida, called on Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to consider legislation strengthening a “no fly, no buy” law to further restrict those who have been on watch lists from purchasing weapons. But such legislation was voted down; the protest lasted 25 hours before an inauspicious end. No restrictions on gun purchases have been passed, and Congress in fact seems poised to expand concealed weapons rights through legislation like the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat representing the Orlando area in the U.S. House, says there needs to be some kind of commonsense reform of gun laws, and she suspects the vast majority of people nationwide feel the same. “It’s not just in communities like ours, but Americans across the country who see the impact gun violence has on communities,” she says. Murphy, who defeated a long-serving Republican in November, has pushed for federal funding of gun violence research. Having spoken with many of the medical professionals who treated Pulse victims, she hopes simply getting facts in front of lawmakers of all political persuasions would be useful in crafting legislation. “I don’t know how many of these tragedies as a nation we can sustain without responding,” she says.
Murphy sees little reason for high-capacity rifles like the one used by Mateen in the Pulse shooting to be in the hands of civilians. “What we learned out of the Pulse shooting is that when you have these high-capacity and high-caliber weapons, the fatality rates are so much higher because of the damage those weapons do to a body,” she says. “Battleground weapons don’t have a place on the streets of our community.” Murphy has seen in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting a more uniform fight from LGBT activists in the debate, noting the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence and other efforts to connect the gay rights movement with the fight for common sense gun control.
In Florida, gun control proponents were happy just to end this year’s legislative session without seeing any expansion of where you can bring a gun. “The gun lobby controls the legislature in every way,” says state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando-area Democrat, “and they were very aggressive this session, introducing proposals to allow guns on college campuses, in courthouses, in airports, in legislative meetings, in theme parks, and, if you can believe it, in nightclubs and bars that serve alcohol.”
And many in the Republican-dominated legislature remain firm in a conviction that the attack may have proved less fatal had anyone besides Mateen also brought some firepower to the club. “It’s a gun-free zone,” said state Sen. Greg Steube, a Republican who filed several gun rights expansion bills. “If law-abiding citizens had the ability to defend themselves in Pulse instead of waiting three and a half hours for the cops to come in, well, I certainly would want that ability.”
But Guillermo Smith, Florida’s first gay Latino lawmaker and chairman of the state’s Progressive Legislative Caucus, says the tragedy at Pulse did inspire a different strategy regarding gun control this year that helped combat the pro-gun narrative of this sort-of-Southern state. In this year’s legislative session, Guillermo Smith filed an outright ban on the sale or transfer of assault weapons or large capacity ammunition magazines. The doomed bill died in committee, but it effectively moved the goalposts on the gun debate from one of expansion to potential restriction. Other bills this year had the potential to increase regulations on gun storage and restricting access for the mentally ill. Such bills went nowhere, but the extreme pro-gun proposals stalled as well. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” Guillermo Smith says. “What was different this year was that rather than just resisting the extreme agenda of the gun lobby, the folks on the other side presented a platform of our own.”
Pair that with the overwhelming stories of tragedy from families of victims, many of whom testified to lawmakers this year, and gun control advocates closed out a session claiming at the least a year with no change in access to guns.
But many still wonder, Is that the best one can expect? After the murder of dozens and a tragedy affecting not just the LGBT community in Florida but the Hispanic population (the shooting occurred on Latin night) — in a region that’s suffered past national tragedies related to gun violence — many community leaders still long for an actual curb on access to guns.
David Moran, a gay Orlando activist, notes that central Florida makes headlines for gun violence far too often. “Not only is Central Florida where Pulse happened,” he says, “but this is also where the Black Lives Matter movement was born because of the 'stand your ground' shooting of Trayvon Martin.”
The inaction on gun control prompted Moran and dozens of others to conduct a sit-in at the Orlando office of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican figure who said Pulse figured in his a decision to seeking reelection but has not supported meaningful gun control legislation. Moran would become one of 10 people, known locally as the Orlando 10, arrested at the sit-in when police broke up the protest.
Also among that group was ChaCha Davis, a promoter and party planner who’d held her last hip-hop night at Pulse just a week before the shooting. Davis had recently decided to move to Fort Lauderdale, but came back to central Florida after learning of the scale of the attack and the impact on so many she knew. “The incident hit so close to home,” she says. “When I saw the pictures on the news, everyone was a face I had seen at least once or twice. I lost 49 angels.”
Even before Pulse, Davis was familiar with the effects of gun violence, having lived in multiple Orlando neighborhoods where such violence regularly shattered lives. While speaking on the phone with The Advocate, she witnessed a violent breakup at a local school end with police pepper-spraying a group of teens. “I hate it here,” she says. But she feels compelled now to stay and fight.
After the sit-in, Moran ended up in contact with the New York chapter of Gays Against Guns, and soon an Orlando chapter of the pro–gun control group would be chartered, with Moran and Davis as members.
Ida Eskamani, an Equality Florida staffer who would later become Guillermo Smith’s chief of staff in the Florida legislature, was also one of the Orlando 10. She still recalls the chill of the night of the shooting, when the first communication from Equality Florida was to find out if all its local employees were still alive. Her early days after the shooting focused on fundraising through a GoFundMe account set up for victims and families, but the political positions of local representatives soon gripped her attention and energy. “We saw so many politicians on all sides of the aisle using this horrific incident as a political prop, but they were not addressing all the various intersectional needs involved with Pulse,” she says. “This was like no other mass shooting ever because so many marginalized communities were affected — undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ people, people with low-wage jobs.”
Even what little response came from federal officials seemed to get things wrong, she said. An Iranian-American, she saw problems with “no fly, no buy,” the response actually favored by Donald Trump over the objections of the National Rifle Association. The privacy concerns raised by the gun lobby, she noted, are the same objections civil liberties advocates brought up during the post-9/11 push to pass the PATRIOT Act.
Eskamani worked on the assault weapons ban Guillermo Smith introduced in the Florida House, but she’s also rallied LGBT people in the state to take on gun control as a cause.
The Pulse tragedy also made activists of many in the region who never participated in politics in the past. Sonia Parra, a member of the Gays Against Guns steering committee, lost seven friends in the shooting. If her daughter Tonya hadn’t begged that night for her mother to stay home and watch Moana, then Parra and her wife, Andrea, would have been in Pulse with Amanda Alvear and Mercedes Flores for a birthday celebration. Now, Parra regularly participates as an “angel” at Pulse-related events, wearing a white robe with large cloth wings originally intended to block the image of protesters at victims' funerals.
Parra never cared for guns before, but losing so many friends in a single night to gun violence galvanized her. “Now I know why I was always scared of guns,” she says. “You can get away with so much in one moment. It made me instantly say, ‘I need to do something.’” She’s become one of the principale voices for the local chapter of Gays Against Guns, speaking with media and participating in demonstrations, hoping to elevate the issue not just among LGBT people and the Puerto Rican population, another major part of Parra’s world impacted dramatically by the shooting, but in the broader Florida electorate.
The gun control isn’t one necessarily inherent to an LGBT identity, and of course there remain vocal gun rights supporters who also work in LGBT activism. Mike Shipley, chairman of the LGBT-focused Outright Libertarians political caucus, says Pulse might have seen fewer die if someone else in the club had the capacity to stop Mateen sooner. “Renormalizing defensive capability as an empowering and responsible choice is a more sustainable and effective pathway to freedom from prolonged exposure to an active threat,” Shipley says.
But through much of the LGBT community nationwide, calls for more gun control have been embraced. The New York chapter of Gays Against Guns will host a fundraiser at the Stonewall Inn June 12 to raise money to fight pro-gun legislation such as reciprocity, the recognition of one state's gun permits by other states. The group will use the occasion of the Pulse anniversary to also encourage LGBT people nationwide join the cause and start a Gays Against Guns chapter in their home communities or organize rallies telling their own lawmakers to back restrictions, not gun rights expansions.
Moran notes with pride that shortly after the Orlando chapter of Gays Against Guns formed, he got to speak with Gilbert Baker, creator of the original iconic rainbow flag, and the legendary San Francisco activist made a special Gays Against Guns flag that now gets unfurled regularly at events in Orlando. This particular flag would be one of the last Baker made before his death in March.
But even as Orlando’s LGBT community rallies literally around this flag, the cause has been a tough one to push in a state like Florida. Rubio hasn’t been willing to support any gun control legislation, though he has called for keeping names of terrorist sympathizers on no-buy lists for a longer period of time, something that would have ensured that Mateen’s background check failed and he could not have purchased a firearm when he did.
Sheehan, though, still feels the problem remains in the power of the weapon Mateen held. She notes that less than 36 hours before the Pulse shooting, Orlando experienced another gun-related that made national headlines, when a shooter killed singer Christina Grimmie while the Voice star met with fans at the Plaza, a local music venue. But that shooter used a 9mm handgun, and Grimmie’s brother Mark charged that gunman and disarmed him before anyone else could be killed.
Sheehan notes that Akya Murray, the youngest victim at Pulse, tried to do exactly the same thing and might have succeeded, except that Mateen had far more killing ability at the ready. “She tried to stop him as he was reloading and he shot her,” Sheehan says. “Eighteen years old and she tried to save everyone.”
She notes that beyond the loss of life, Mateen did millions of dollars worth of damage, not just in physical destruction but hurting the brand of Orlando, a top tourist destination around the world now known as the site of the worst mass shooting in the nation. “I just don’t feel these weapons belong in city streets,” Sheehan says.
Most of the energy of the gay community after the tragedy, Sheehan said, has gone toward helping victims' families and supporting the injured. She wouldn’t want that to stop, and notes that many survivors are still undergoing surgeries and physical therapy. But she also wants to see LGBT people work to direct political conversation toward sensible firearm regulation. For all the tragedy, the Pulse shooting has brought parts of Orlando together that didn’t interact before. Maybe eventually, she hopes, some commonsense reforms in gun laws will rise from the tragedy as well.