Carlos Guillermo Smith marched through the streets of Orlando as part of the annual Come Out With Pride parade Saturday as a symbol of Florida’s diversity: the first gay Latino ever elected to the state’s legislature. But he’s already looking toward the legislative session, in which he plans to champion a ban on assault weapons, representing a community still healing from a gun tragedy aimed squarely at everything he represents.
“I know for me, this assault weapons ban is going to be my top priority this session,” Guillermo Smith said.
But it’s no easy feat to pass this type of legislation in a Southern state. He tried in the 2017 session, his first in office, to pass similar legislation but the ban never got a vote in Florida’s Republican-dominated state House, and that was just months after the attack at Pulse, where 49 people were murdered in the Orlando gay bar, in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history up to that time.
Tragically, a shooter in Las Vegas broke that record earlier this month, but Guillermo Smith wonders if an event across the country will move his colleagues when one so close to home could not. “It’s frustrating,” he said. “The stranglehold the [National Rifle Association] has over Tallahassee and Washington is obvious.”
But it’s a fight the LGBT community in Orlando has joined furiously. After the Pulse tragedy unfolded, a chapter of Gays Against Guns formed, and it has become increasingly vocal. The group earlier this month could be seen holding a Gilbert Baker-made rainbow flag banner at a press conference announcing Guillermo Smith’s legislation.
“We are here to connect like-minded people who are sick and tired of prayers and thoughts and thoughts and prayers and who want to see real policy change,” said David Moran, a founding member of the GAG chapter.
The Florida Coalition to End Gun Violence had organized a press conference with Guillermo Smith for early October, which turned out to be days after the Las Vegas shooting. Patricia Brigham, cochair of the coalition, said gun control activists in Florida for too long have found themselves on the defensive about legislation, and efforts like Guillermo Smith’s legislation put the movement on the right posture. “We are now on the offensive,” she said.
Guillermo Smith’s legislation, filed October 3, would prohibit the sale of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines and require certification and conditions for possession of weapons bought before a certain date.
Orlando’s Pride event Saturday also feature gun control advocates and other political groups in booths to rally supporters, and organizers encouraged public involvement with the Pride Takes Action initiative, according to Jeff Prystajko, marketing director for Come Out With Pride Orlando. But organizers said there was a conscious decision not to turn the entire event Saturday into a protest on any single issue.
“We saw around the country some Resistance marches,” said Prystajko, “but that’s something as a board decided we were not that interested in doing. There’s still a lot of healing in this community that needs to be done.”
The theme of Orlando Pride, though, did connect to a shooting. The #KeepDancingOrlando message stemmed from a meme that became popular after the Pulse massacre and represented the desire of LGBT people to live their lives without fear of danger.
Guillermo Smith notes plenty of civil rights fights lie ahead in Florida and elsewhere. He expresses frustration that even a bill prohibiting workplace and public accomodation discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity couldn't get a committee vote last year; that’s despite the fact that it at least got heard in committee in 2016 (where it was defeated in a tie vote).
In Guillermo Smith’s eyes, gun control in the wake of recent shootings should be viewed as an LGBT issue itself. “I’ve traveled around the country and spoken to LGBTQ groups, and the passion and energy behind supporting gun legislation is very obvious,” he said. “And the reason why is because we've learned LGBTQ people are disproportionately hurt by gun violence.”
Guillermo Smith notes Connecticut lawmakers banned high-capacity magazines after the Newtown shooting that targeted children, but marginalized populations don’t inspire such swift action from lawmakers. But many groups started coming together, he said, after a Charleston white supremacist targeted a black church congregation in South Carolina.
“Hatred and bigotry,” Guillermo Smith said, “can be even more deadly when combined with unfettered access to firearms.”