In the weeks since a shooter killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., survivors have been featured in a town hall on national television, visited the Florida Legislature and led a march of more than a million protesters nationwide, demanding sensible gun control.
In the weeks following the shooting at Pulse nightclub in 2016, the levels of advocacy and response were far more muted, which is forcing members of the LGBTQ community to wonder why, after a mass shooting that at the time was the deadliest in U.S. history, government officials, the media and the nation failed to rally behind the Pulse survivors with the volume and intensity that are leading millions to take action today.
“I applaud the students for using the enormous platform they have to call out how racism and homophobia impact the response to gun violence,” says Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida.”They see clearly the enormous difference in how Tallahassee responded to Parkland compared to Pulse. Legislators who had to be shamed into permitting a moment of silence for the 49 killed in Orlando quickly allocated funds for a memorial and passed legislation [following Parkland], flawed and incomplete though it is.”
Smith is referring to Senate Bill 7026, which Governor Rick Scott signed into law March 9. While it offers some minor gun control provisions, such as raising the minimum purchase age from 18 to 21 and banning bump fire stocks, the law also provides funding to arm some teachers and school employees.
Although the bill is problematic, it is the first gun control measure signed into law in Florida in more than two decades, which raises the questions: Why now? Why not after Pulse?
One theory is that a group of high school students are simply more relatable to most Americans than a group of mostly LGBTQ, Latinx victims.
“Schools and kids, young people are just more palatable to the broader community, and maybe folks didn’t care as much about the LGBTQQ+ community or people of color impacted by the Pulse shooting,” says David Thomas Moran, co-founder and organizer of the Orlando chapter of Gays Against Guns (GAG). He and nine other activists were arrested one month after the Pulse shooting during a sit-in at Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s Orlando office. Although he was willing to be handcuffed to be heard, Moran has never received an audience with Rubio. The closest he came was during a press conference where Rubio was discussing how Orlando businesses were affected by the Pulse shooting—Moran called out that Rubio has blood on his hands and failed to support Orlando’s LGBTQ and Latinx communities devastated by Pulse while accepting funding from the National Rifle Association (NRA). In contrast, Rubio voluntarily engaged with Parkland survivors on a CNN town hall discussing gun control and even agreed to support raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm, a significant concession for the Senator, who has received at least $3 million in NRA donations.
“It baffles me that our U.S. senators would hold a town hall with the Parkland community but didn’t do the same thing [following what was at the time] the worst mass shooting in U.S. history that was also a hate crime. Why didn’t they sit down and hold a forum with the Orlando community? I don’t get that,” Moran says.
He adds that although effective gun control still hasn’t happened, maybe now, because “kids and families” are turning up the pressure, instead of “undesirable people,” perhaps something will finally change.
“I honestly think that elected officials in Tallahassee don’t care about the LGBTQQ+ community, don’t care about people of color, and Pulse was an act of violence that affected those two groups substantially, so why would they do anything?” Moran asks.
Christine Leinonen, whose son, Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, was killed during the Pulse massacre, states that the response following Parkland was “totally different” and she is confident that it’s because the Pulse victims were mostly lower-income, Latino and gay. Additionally, Leinonen points out that many of the Pulse survivors faced a language barrier and spoke little to no English, which makes talking to the mainstream media more challenging.
“[Pulse survivors] were marginalized in three different areas: ethnically, income level and sexual orientation. So you take three different marginalized groups, and the legislators gave no respect or deference, because none of those are their voting constituency,” she says. “There was a much different response and I believe it was because of the demographics.”
Leinonen’s observation about the different income demographics of the groups of survivors highlights another key difference between Parkland and Pulse: the Parkland victims are students, while the Pulse victims were primarily working adults.
“Activism costs money,” Leinonen says. “Of the 284 people at Pulse [the night of the shooting], the ones that survived, they still had to work. They still had to earn a living.”
Unlike the Pulse survivors, she says, the student activists from Parkland are “not making car payments and mortgage payments and raising kids,” as most are presumably still being supported by their parents. And that means the Parkland activists have more time and better means to speak to the media, travel to events and ensure their voices are heard.
It’s not just who the victims are; it’s the sheer volume. There were 284 people in Pulse during the massacre. 102 were shot, and of those, 49 were killed. That leaves 235 survivors, many of whom were injured, to carry the torch for gun control. More than 3,000 students attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, resulting in many more survivors and their families, all potential gun control advocates.
Riding the Resistance
There are additional, external factors to consider when contrasting the political and media response following Parkland against the more subdued response following Pulse.
One is simple logistics: the Parkland shooting happened during February, when Florida’s legislature was in session. Pulse happened during June, when the legislative session had recessed. On Feb. 20, less than a week after the Parkland shooting, student activists appeared in the Florida House of Representatives in support of a semi-automatic gun ban. Of course, the lawmakers infamously voted against discussing the bill, but it did appear, and the presence (and disappointment) of the students did raise the volume of their movement.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, who sponsored the bill, points a finger directly at Republican lawmakers when asked about the lack of any legislative action at all following Pulse.
“I think Republican lawmakers who control Tallahassee, they need to explain why,” Rep. Smith says. “They’ve never given a full explanation and I think that’s because they feel guilty about that the fact that 49 LGBTQ people of color were murdered and they pulled out the page from the same thoughts and prayers playbook, they diverted attention somewhere else, they delayed and then they did nothing.”
Rep. Smith says it’s Republicans’ “standard response” to every mass shooting, but notes both Pulse and Parkland happened in Florida. “The fact that there’s such disparate responses from state leaders in Florida to Parkland versus to Pulse actually demands a more serious explanation from leaders in charge, and there’s any number of things that I can point to that are dramatic differences that have major impacts and that are subtle, but underscore how they just turn their backs on the Pulse community,” he says.
In fact, Rep. Smith says Florida lawmakers arguably made things worse after Pulse, because the Legislature promised increased support for mental health services, another common tactic for Republican lawmakers following a mass shooting. Instead, Florida went from 49th to 50th in the nation when it came to mental healthcare funding.
“Governor Scott, in the first budget year after Pulse, actually signed a budget into law that cut funding for mental healthcare and specifically cut funding for mental healthcare in Central Florida, which was a huge slap in the face for the Pulse community that desperately needed those services,” Rep. Smith says.
Through a broader lens, it is worth considering the national political climate during both shootings, as well. The presidential election of Donald Trump has sparked a nationwide resistance, which means the nation has a bigger appetite for activism and protests.
“Having someone in our executive branch who is so contrary to any common sense our country is trying to move forward, that helps too,” Leinonen says. “You have all this anger in the air. People have been motivated. When my son was killed, it wasn’t in the air yet.”
A Building Wave
Finally, the response to the Parkland shooting might be more significant simply because, sadly, it is the latest in a long line of mass shootings.
“I do believe that one mass shooting does build on the other ones and there is a tipping point,” Leinonen says.
Jason Lindsay, executive director and CEO of Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, says he doesn’t think the difference in responses after Pulse and Parkland was because of the demographics of the victims.
“I think momentum has continued to build because the problem has continued to get worse,” he says. Lindsay argues that the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012 mobilized parents, Pulse mobilized the LGBTQ community, the Las Vegas shooting in October of 2017 affected a more conservative group of victims and the Southerland Springs, Texas, church shooting in November 2017 hit home for the religious community.
“And then Parkland happened, so what we’ve really seen is over these last five years is a building momentum where more and more sections of our population have been impacted heavily by gun violence, and it’s been very personal,” Lindsay says. “Each time, it’s mobilized a different portion of the electorate. With three of the 10 worst mass shootings in our country’s history in the last six months, people are fed up and people are demanding action.”