He survived the Pulse nightclub massacre in 2016. Six years later, the fight for gun safety and LGBT+ rights continues

Firearms


Brandon Wolf is sick of people asking him what needs to change when it comes to gun control in America.

“I’m sort of done with the ‘what would you like to see done?’ question,” he tells The Independent.

“We already know what needs to be done. We get stuck in a loop of people asking for proposals and the answer is: we know the things that work.

“I’d just like to see politicians have the courage to do what they already know is necessary.”

It’s been six years since Wolf survived the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida – an attack that claimed the lives of 49 victims and left another 53 wounded.

Among those murdered in the early hours of 12 June 2016 was his best friend Christopher Andrew “Drew” Leinonen, who never made it off the dance floor alive.

At the time it was the deadliest mass shooting in American history. But, just one year later, the harrowing death toll was surpassed when a gunman opened fire on a Las Vegas music festival.

And since then, there have been countless more mass shootings across the country.

When Wolf speaks to The Independent, dozens more families, friends and communities have just joined his community in Orlando as the latest to be devastated by horrific mass shootings which have taken place in Uvalde, Buffao, Highland Park and Tulsa.

Violence and hostility towards the LGBT+ community have also seen a revival with far-right extremists targeting Pride events across several parts of the country in June.

It’s also not long after the 33-year-old revisited the “darkest parts of trauma” as he paid a visit to the Pulse nightclub – now a designated memorial site – to mark the sixth anniversary of the massacre.

“It’s the last place I got to see my best friends. I feel them there,” he says.

“But it’s also a very painful place to be.”

‘Our safe space became a nightmare’

11 June 2016 started off like any other normal night.

It was a Saturday and Wolf had spent the day relaxing by the pool and doing laundry, when he, his partner at the time Eric, Drew and Drew’s partner Juan Ramon Guerrero decided to go out for some drinks.

The group decided to go to the same gay nightclub they always went to.

It was a place that, as four members of the LGBT+ community, they felt safe and where they could be themselves.

“We knew it like the back of our hands. Pulse was a safe space for us in a world that doesn’t have a lot of space spaces for queer people and queer people of colour,” he says.

“Pulse was a place I could be myself without having to fear discrimination and violence.

“In an instant the most normal night and the safest place for us became a nightmare.”

At around 2am, Wolf remembers washing his hands at the sink in the bathroom when he heard the shooting start.

Juan Ramon Guerrero (left) and Christopher Andrew ‘Drew’ Leinonen (right) were on the dancefloor when the shooting started

(AP)

He, Eric and other people in the bathroom decided they had to try to find a way to escape the club.

They found a side door and ran out of the building into the parking lot as the gunman continued to slaughter innocent partygoers inside.

Once outside, Wolf phoned Drew and Juan “hundreds if not thousands of times hoping they would pick up”.

He found out about Juan’s death first after a friend saw him being placed in an ambulance and rushed from the scene. Juan died before reaching a hospital.

It was more than a day later when he had confirmation that his best friend was also dead.

“I think there was a sense from the beginning that I almost knew their fate,” he says.

“Drew and Juan were in their normal place dancing under the disco ball on the dancefloor and that was the line of fire for the shooter. I found out Drew didn’t make it from the dancefloor.”

Six days after the massacre, Drew’s funeral was held and Wolf was asked by his mother to be a pallbearer.

It was that moment that Wolf vowed to fight for change.

Since then, Wolf has become a high-profile gun safety and LGBT+ rights advocate and campaigner.

He also works for the LGBT+ political advocacy group Equality Florida and is cofounder of LGBT+ advocacy organisation The Dru Project, set up in Drew’s memory.

“I made a promise to Drew there that I would never stop fighting to create a world that he would be proud of,” he said.

A makeshift memorial for the victims at the Pulse nightclub in 2016

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistribu)

That fight has taken on renewed meaning in recent months as mass shootings have rocked the nation at an increasingly alarming rate.

On 10 May, 10 Black people were killed when a self-proclaimed white supremacist decked out in tactical gear targeted people of colour shopping in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York.

Two weeks later, 19 students aged between nine and 11 years old and two teachers were murdered in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, just days away from the start of the summer recess.

On 4 July, seven parade-goers were shot dead in a sniper-style attack as they enjoyed what was supposed to be family-friendly Independence Day celebrations in Highland Park, Illinois.

Wolf described hearing about the massacre in Uvalde as especially “debilitating” to deal with as a survivor.

“It’s never binary or predictable – sometimes a tragedy will happen and like the rest of the country I’m shocked and saddened but able to process it,” he says.

“Then there’s other shootings where processing it just feels impossible and it’s debilitating for days at a time.

“I think I’ve identified in myself that I’m most likely to feel the latter when children are involved.

“The nightmare we have lived for the last six years: being forced to grieve our loved ones really publicly and having the eyes of the world deeply interested in the ugly details of our stories but at the same time feeling like no one is there to help, the isolation and loneliness… it’s a feeling I’d wish on no one and the idea that we are subjecting children to that is heartbreaking to me.”

He adds: “I’m so angry and shattered by it. With the stories of the children smearing the blood of their friends on their faces to play dead, I can’t imagine how a country can look at that and say anything other than ‘we need to change’.”

Tragedy repeats

Almost immediately after the 24 May massacre at Robb Elementary School, parallels were drawn with Pulse.

In both, AR-15-style rifles were the guns of choice for the mass murderers.

High-powered semi-automatic rifles were also used in Buffalo and Highland Park. They were used in the 2017 massacre in Las Vegas, the 2019 shooting at a Texas Wal-Mart, the 2012 attack at an elementary school in Sandy Hook and the 2018 school shooting in Parkland. The list goes on.

Wolf slams the continued availability of a weapon whose sole purpose is to inflict as much damage as possible as quickly as possible.

“It’s a national disgrace,” he says.

Stanley Manolo Almodvar III, Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, Luis Vielma and Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo (top row left to right) Kimberly Morris, Juan Ramon Guerrero, Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera and Eddie Jamoldroy Justice (bottom row left to right)

(PA)

“I don’t think they have any place in society. Those weapons are designed with the purpose of killing a lot of people in a very short space of time.

“We as a country have to have tough conversations about why our obsession with putting those on the shelf for sale in Wal-Mart trumps our desire to make schools safe for our children.”

The bungled response from law enforcement in Uvalde also has disturbing echoes of what took place at Pulse.

A state probe into the police response on 12 June 2016 – which many felt left more questions than answers – revealed that police waited more than three hours to breach the nightclub and shoot gunman Omar Mateen dead.

Mateen was holed up inside a bathroom and officers spent precious time trying – and failing – to negotiate with him through the walls.

In that time, 13 wounded victims died on the bathroom floor.

Six years on, questions continue to mount about the police response to the massacre at Robb Elementary School as it has emerged that officers waited 77 minutes to breach the classroom and shoot Salvador Ramos dead.

During that time, Ramos continued to shoot victims inside the classroom and the wounded bled out.

The delay is believed to have cost lives with one teacher dying in an ambulance on her way to hospital and three children succumbing to their injuries after arriving at hospital.

“There’s nothing you can do to bring those children back and those families will now suffer for the rest of their lives in part because of the catastrophic failure of law enforcement,” says Wolf.

The botched police responses in both cases raise “serious questions” given the proliferation of gun violence and mass shootings across the country, he says.

“Mass shootings happen all the time in this country so I have serious questions and concerns if law enforcement agencies don’t have standard processes for saving lives,” he says.

“We heavily invest in police and law enforcement and yet we can’t rely on them to save children calling 911 asking to be saved?”

What happened also pours cold water on the long-standing Republican argument – one that was first pushed by the NRA – that “a good guy with a gun” is the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun.

“It’s utter nonsense,” says Wolf.

“[In Uvalde] 19 good guys were standing in a hallway with guns for almost 80 minutes. So is the argument that they just needed a 20th guy with a gun?

“If we as a country continue to double down on the idea that the only adequate response to gun violence is to put more cops on street corners and more armed school resources officers in hallways then we are just resigning ourselves to the fact that gun violence is inevitable.”

Family and friends of those killed and injured in the school shooting at Robb Elementary take part in a protest march on 11 July

(Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

That said, the focus on the police response and the knee-jerk reaction from the right to arm more so-called “good guys” ultimately misses the real issue the US has with gun violence.

“If any other country in the world, if 19 children and two teachers were gunned down in school, there would be an emergency session in the legislature to take substantive action to make sure this never happens again,” he says.

“It wouldn’t be this nonsensical debate which focuses on the profits of a handful of gun manufacturers who have stymied things and condemned us to continue to bury children.”

‘Nothing has changed’

Despite his frustration that more families and communities are where he was six years ago, he cautions against the rhetoric that “nothing has changed” since Pulse.

“When we say nothing has changed we do a great disservice to those who are in the fight 24/7 – the courageous families and survivors who continue to share their harrowing stories and the progress made by the advocates who are fighting for their communities every day,” he says.

“The fact that public perception in the country has shifted so dramatically. That community leaders are running for office. The fact that the president ran on a pledge to ban assault weapons.”

That pledge has so far been unfulfilled, however, with the Senate make-up and filibuster creating a headache to passing any meaningful gun legislation.

Last week, President Joe Biden signed what lawmakers said is the most significant federal gun safety bill in decades which aims to help keep guns out the hands of people deemed a danger to themselves or others and bans gun sales to those convicted of domestic violence.

But, gun control advocates have criticised the legislation as not going far enough.

Notably absent are tighter regulations around background checks, red flag laws and assault rifle bans.

“Two things are true at the same time,” says Wolf.

“The first is that for the first time in over 30 years, a bipartisan group of senators have shown willingness to do something in the wake of the mass murder of innocent children.

“But it’s also true that the framework is woefully insufficient. It will save some lives but not solve the crisis.”

Wolf says that he isn’t “naive” to the struggles the Democrats face in passing meaningful gun reform in the Senate.

President Joe Biden signs the National Pulse Memorial bill into law

(Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

But, he says Florida’s response after Pulse and then the 2018 school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman High School in Parkland is proof of what is possible.

In the years after Parkland, Florida passed legislation including raising the minimum age to buy a firearm to 21.

It was passed by a Republican-led legislature and signed into law by a Republican governor.

“These are things we were able to do in Florida with a Republican governor and Congress. So it is possible,” says Wolf.

His message to lawmakers is simple: “Just do your job. We need lawmakers who can look in the eyes of the Uvalde families and say ‘this time has to be different. We have to do better.’”

For Wolf, Drew, Juan and the others killed that night were his “chosen family”.

“In the LGBTQ community, blood family is not always particularly safe or affirming for us and so our chosen families can be our lifelines,” he says.

“My best friend was one of the first people who told me it was okay for me to love me for me and that I should be proud – not ashamed – of who I am.”

While investigators did not label the Pulse massacre a hate crime, it is to date the largest targeted attack against the LGBTQ community in US history.

LGBT+ community under assault

Now, in 2022, there’s been a revival in anti-LGBTQ sentiment from Republicans, spearheaded somewhat by Florida Governor (and the man rumoured to be considering a 2024 presidential run) Ron DeSantis who has been pushing through a raft of anti-gay and anti-trans measures.

Last year, he signed into law an anti-trans bill that bans transgender students from participating in sports in secondary schools and colleges under the gender they identify as.

This March, he then signed his “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law, banning instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade in schools in the state.

In June, he suggested that parents who take their children to drag shows should be investigated by the state’s child protective services, branding it “child endangerment”.

The rights of the LGBTQ community are “under assault”, says Wolf – and not just in Florida but across the entire country.

“For Republican lawmakers, it seems to be a race to the bottom to assault the rights of LGBTQ people and all marginalised people,” he says.

And the current scapegoat chosen by the right for their attack is transgender people, he says.

“That is the way authoritarianism works,” says Wolf.

“They find a scapegoat which in our case is transgender people. Republicans are using transgender people as a political punching bag in the fight against freedom and justice.

“In an effort to rationalise the assault on our civil liberties, they are dehumanising transgender people. It’s incredibly dangerous rhetoric and before you know it, it’s an assault on sexual autonomy, on what history lessons you’re able to learn and what books you can read.”

Protesters rally against Florida’s Dont Say Gay bill in March

(AP)

He warns: “We are on the precipice of something extremely dark. The urgency of the moment is yesterday.”

It’s not just a policy issue, says Wolf, as the “bigoted rhetoric” from Mr DeSantis and other lawmakers fans out into “social wars that are waged on the community as well”, creating “potentially deadly consequences”.

During Pride month, there was a surge in anti-LGBTQ hate and many event organisers upped security protocols amid fears about far-right extremism.

At one Pride event in Idaho, a disturbing plot was foiled when police were tipped off about 31 armed members of a white supremacist group hiding in the back of a U-Haul truck.

Over in California, members of far-right hate group the Proud Boys invaded a drag queen event where they hurled transphobic and homophobic abuse at participants and spectators.

“This community is no stranger to what militarised hatred looks like,” says Wolf.

“I think there was a sense around 2015 where folks could be forgiven for thinking that the community had arrived.

“There was a moment in this country where people exhaled, where the White House lit up in rainbow colours, where marriage equality became the law of the land and people felt their was significant progress in LGBTQ rights.

“But the opponents to our existence didn’t simply walk away. They went back to the drawing board and tried to scheme about how to erode the progress we had made.”

The overturning of Roe v Wade has now further led to fears that the Supreme Court will come after same-sex marriage and same-sex relationships next.

“An attack on the rights to privacy and obliteration of Roe v Wade is a direct assault on people’s sexual autonomy,” he says.

“I’m concerned about what the ripple effects could look like.”

Despite his fears around where gun safety and LGBT+ rights are headed, a couple of things help him keep striving to keep his promise to Drew.

“I’m knowledgeable about how long this journey really is,” he says.

“The reality is I may never see the world that Drew would be proud of. I may never see the gun safety reform fight come to fruition.

“I may never see a world where LGBT people have the same rights as everybody else. But I have a responsibility to get where we can.”

Secondly, he stays focused on who he is fighting for, he says: “Every day I try to make my best friend proud.”



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