Wave Of ‘Red Flag’ Gun Laws Shows Power Of The Parkland Effect

In the four months since a mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school, the number of states with so-called red flag laws has doubled, expanding the ability of courts around the nation to temporarily remove guns from people who are found to be dangerous.

Amid a reinvigorated debate about firearms in the U.S., the most recent state legislative sessions have delivered a resounding win for gun safety groups, who see red flag laws as a critical legal tool to get firearms away from potentially violent people before they can use them to harm themselves or others.

In most states, a person must be convicted of specific crimes before losing his or her right to possess firearms, even if the behavior sets off alarm bells. In Florida, the young man charged in the Parkland high school deaths had a history of making threats and even bringing bullets to school before the attack. Though local police were made aware of his disturbing behavior, without criminal charges and a conviction, they had no legal remedy to disarm him.

Red flag laws seek to close that loophole.

Under a typical red flag law, concerned parties, most often law enforcement officers or family members, can ask courts to temporarily remove guns from a person who is showing signs of violence. If a judge finds sufficient evidence that the individual is dangerous, a “gun violence restraining order” or “extreme risk protection order” can be issued, which would require the person to remain away from all guns for a period of time. Judges can also authorize police to immediately confiscate firearms in the individual’s possession.

Before the Feb. 14 massacre in Parkland, only five states ― California, Washington, Oregon, Indiana and Connecticut ― had red flag laws on the books. Florida, Vermont, Maryland, Rhode Island and New Jersey have since joined their ranks, often with bipartisan support from legislators. Notably, three Republican governors have signed recent bills into law. A bill in Illinois is awaiting final approval from the governor, also a Republican, and a handful of states appear poised to consider such laws before the end of the legislative session.

Another sign of the growing momentum for red flag laws: Texas could be among the next states to consider legislation, after the governor, a Republican with an A rating from the National Rifle Association, called for a study on the initiative in the wake of the May school shooting in Santa Fe, south of Houston.

Gun safety advocates say the policies have emerged as a rare point of agreement between the parties as politicians face aggressive calls to respond to a string of bloody mass shootings and other gun violence.

“Lawmakers are feeling pressure to do something,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, calling the laws a moderate step forward. “It is really difficult to argue with removing guns from someone who poses a danger to themselves or others.”

Even the NRA has claimed to support red flag laws. But, in practice, the organization approves only of measures that allow individuals to have their day in court before guns are removed. That undercuts a core tenet of the laws, which are designed to quickly ― and temporarily ― disarm individuals on an emergency basis. Gun safety advocates say these laws contain adequate due-process protections because individuals are granted a hearing, scheduled one day to two weeks after the order, at which they can contest the evidence against them. The decision can also be appealed.

Protesters rally outside the Florida Capitol on Feb. 21 to urge state lawmakers to reform gun laws a week after a mass s

Colin Hackley / Reuters

Protesters rally outside the Florida Capitol on Feb. 21 to urge state lawmakers to reform gun laws a week after a mass shooting killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Just weeks after Vermont enacted its red flag law in April, police pulled over a vehicle for a malfunctioning headlight. When officers questioned the driver about his expired registration, he said he didn’t have to comply with the laws of the land. He then got out of his vehicle and began threatening the police, warning that there would be trouble if they tried to tow his car.

“I’ve got an AR-15 right fucking here,” he said, according to court documents obtained by HuffPost. “Do we need that?”

After the driver tried to get back into his car, police arrested him. In the backseat, they found a loaded AR-15 assault rifle. The safety was off. The man’s behavior concerned police enough to file an extreme risk protection order under the state’s new red flag law (only law enforcement can file these petitions in Vermont). A judge granted the order, and the man was immediately required to surrender his guns.

Vermont courts have issued only a few extreme risk protection orders so far, with the first being granted in the case of an 18-year-old accused of plotting a mass shooting at a high school.

Florida’s red flag law went into effect less than a month after the Parkland shooting and began to be used almost immediately. The first known order was obtained by Lighthouse Point police, who responded to a welfare check on a man acting erratically at his condominium building.

The man told police that he was being targeted by a neighbor who could shapeshift and resembled Osama Bin Laden. He told officers that he had to turn off the electrical breakers in his home because they were electrocuting him through his legs. Officers requested an order to seize his guns, which included two pistols, a revolver and a 12-gauge shotgun.

In another case, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office sought a risk protection order against a court bailiff who was accused of making threats against his co-workers. He allegedly stated that he wanted to burn them with a blowtorch and told one bailiff, “I’m going to exterminate you.” Others reported that on one occasion he leaned over the atrium inside the courthouse and mimed as if he were shooting people with a long gun.

The sheriff’s office removed 67 guns from his house, and he is currently on paid leave pending a psychiatrist’s evaluation. Broward County, which includes Parkland, has led the state in obtaining risk protection orders, according to an April review of courts by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. An estimated 76 orders have been served since the law was enacted.

At least one individual in Florida has been arrested for refusing to surrender his firearms after being ordered to do so. During a subsequent search of his house, deputies found an AR-15, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and a bump stock, an accessory that allows semi-automatic rifles to simulate automatic fire.

Semi-automatic AR-15 rifles for sale at a Utah gun store. Red flag laws are already being used in states to take guns fr

George Frey via Getty Images

Semi-automatic AR-15 rifles for sale at a Utah gun store. Red flag laws are already being used in states to take guns from people deemed to be dangerous.

Advocates say red flag laws will save lives. There’s already some evidence that they may reduce suicides. Data out of Connecticut, which became the first state to pass this sort of measure in 1999, and Indiana, which followed suit in 2005, showed that gun suicides fell significantly in the years after the laws were fully implemented, according to a study published earlier this month.

As more states pass red flag laws, data about their effect on other sorts of violent crime may soon be available.

“There are studies being done to determine how effective they are at stopping homicides and even mass shootings,” said Watts. “In the meantime, police are saying, ‘This is an important tool,’ families are saying, ‘This is an important tool.’”

For these laws to be effective, advocates say more awareness is needed so that law enforcement and the public knows how and when to use them. In California, which enacted a red flag law in 2016, courts have issued only around 230 orders, said Allison Anderman, managing attorney at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit gun safety group launched by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was wounded by a gunman in 2011.

“My guess is that there is not enough outreach to the general public about not only the availability of this law in California but how to utilize it,” Anderman said. “To get the most utilization out of the law, there has to be a public education campaign that goes hand-in-hand with it.”

Anderman downplayed concerns that red flag laws could be abused to retaliate against individuals by improperly taking their guns.

The law has a legal standard that has to be met, and it’s a pretty high legal standard in almost all states,” she said. “The judges who are tasked with evaluating this evidence have to do their job.”

Those who argue that the law may be misused by people with grudges are really saying that they can’t trust judges to follow the law appropriately.

“If that’s the argument you’re making, you have a far bigger problem,” Anderman added.

New Jersey’s Tough Gun Laws Just Got Even Stronger

New Jersey gun laws, long considered among the nation’s strongest, became even stronger on Wednesday, with the governor’s signature on a package of firearms legislation.

Among the six bills are measures to expand gun background checks, tighten the handgun carrying permit process, reduce the legal capacity of ammunition magazines and establish a so-called red flag law, which allows people to petition for guns to be temporarily removed from individuals deemed to be dangerous.

At a bill signing ceremony in Trenton, New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) commended lawmakers and advocates for their work, while vowing to continue the fight against gun violence.

We are proud to take these actions today, but let there be no doubt, our work is far from done,” said Murphy.

With the governor’s signature, New Jersey added its name to a growing list of states that have enacted new gun control measures this legislative session, in the face of aggressive calls for reform in response to mass shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas, and at high schools in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas.

New Jersey’s A1217 builds on a growing trend of red flag laws, which gun violence prevention advocates say can be used to prevent suicides, as well as attacks like the Parkland shooting.

The legislation lays out a process for New Jerseyans to file gun violence restraining orders against individuals believed to be at “significant risk” of hurting themselves or others. A judge then reviews evidence and determines whether to order the individual to remain away from all guns for a period of up to a year. If there is cause to believe the individual is already in possession of a firearm, the judge will issue a warrant authorizing law enforcement to confiscate the weapons for the duration of the order.

With the addition of New Jersey, 10 states now have this sort of measure on the books, though the laws vary in their specifics. Five states have passed new legislation since the Parkland shooting.

A separate New Jersey law signed Wednesday, A1181, requires law enforcement to seize a person’s guns whenever a mental health professional has determined that the individual poses a threat to themselves or others.

Under A2757, private firearm sales must be accompanied by a background check conducted through a federally licensed gun dealer. Federal law requires a background check for every gun sale through a licensed dealer, but that requirement doesn’t extend to private transfers.

New Jersey’s A2758 codifies a state regulation that requires residents wishing to obtain a handgun permit to first show a “justifiable need,” as “evidenced by specific threats or previous attacks.” Although this requirement had technically already been in place in New Jersey, former Gov. Chris Christie (R) had loosened the restrictions, making it easier for people to get handgun permits.

Another new law, A2761, expands an existing restriction on ammunition magazines, lowering the capacity from 15 rounds to 10 rounds. A2759 imposes a ban on the possession on armor-piercing bullets. 

We’ve had really strong gun laws for a while, and we’re a good example of the fact that strong guns do work and save lives.
Nico Bocour, Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence

In the wake of a recent wave of mass shootings, gun violence prevention advocates have loudly pushed for legislation to ban semi-automatic military rifles like the AR-15, as well as bump stock accessories that allow those firearms to simulate automatic fire. New Jersey had previously passed restrictions on that weaponry, which is one reason why gun violence prevention advocates cite the state as a model.

“We’ve had really strong gun laws for a while, and we’re a good example of the fact that strong guns do work and save lives,” said Nico Bocour, state legislative director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, who worked on the legislative efforts in New Jersey.

New Jersey’s gun laws ranked second in the nation last year, behind California, according to the latest scorecard from the Giffords center. The state also has one of the lowest gun death rates in the nation.

During his remarks on Wednesday, Murphy said that while state action on gun control was important, it could only go so far in the absence of more sweeping federal legislation. He recalled a recent story about a nursery rhyme posted on the wall of a kindergarten classroom telling young students what to do in case of an active shooter lockdown.

“This image for me, more than any, highlights the failure of Congress to take action on a national level,” said Murphy. “New Jersey will lead, but unless and until that day that we have commonsense laws coming from our Congress, our laws will continue to be able to reach only so far as our own borders.”

The governor also urged people to keep up the campaign against gun violence by supporting candidates in November who would support gun control.

“Continue to push those in public office to stand for the right things, and if we do all of that together, we will win this fight,” he said.

American Medical Association: Ban Assault Weapons To Curb ‘Public Health Crisis’

As lawmakers continue to offer thoughts and prayers with little legislative action to combat mass shooting in the U.S., the nation’s leading organization of medical professionals called for a ban on the sale and ownership of assault-type weapons.

The recommendation is one of several approved by the American Medical Association (AMA) on Tuesday to deal with what it termed the nation’s “public health crisis” of gun violence.

People are dying of gun violence in our homes, churches, schools, on street corners and at public gatherings, and it’s important that lawmakers, policy leaders and advocates on all sides seek common ground to address this public health crisis,” Dr. David O. Barbe, AMA’s immediate past president, said in a statement. “In emergency rooms across the country, the carnage of gun violence has become a too routine experience… It doesn’t have to be this way, and we urge lawmakers to act.”

The AMA, meeting in Chicago, voted to adopt nearly a dozen new policies focused on gun control.

The policies include taking guns away from those considered at risk of committing violence, expanding domestic violence restraining orders to include dating partners, recognizing the role of firearms in suicides, and opposing President Donald Trump’s recent suggestion that schoolteachers should be armed.

But perhaps their most ambitious new policy is supporting the ban of “all assault-style weapons, bump stocks and related devices, high-capacity magazines, and armor piercing bullets.”

The new measures were passed 446-99.

Barbe told The Associated Press the lack of action on gun control has been “frustrating.”

“It has been frustrating that we have seen so little action from either state or federal legislators,” Barbe said. “The most important audience for our message right now is our legislators, and second most important is the public, because sometimes it requires public pressure on the legislators.”

The worst modern mass shooting in U.S. history occurred last year in Las Vegas, when a gunman using assault-style rifles killed 58 people and resulted in injuries to more than 800 others at a concert venue. Prior to that, a shooting at a gay nightclub in Florida in 2016 that left 49 people dead had been the nation’s deadliest modern mass shooting. 

More recently, a school shooting in Parkland, Florida in February left 17 people dead ― primarily children.

Student Protesters Hold Die-Ins Nationwide To Push For Stronger Gun Laws

WASHINGTON ― Young gun violence prevention advocates gathered in Washington and elsewhere around the country on Tuesday, issuing a call to action on the second anniversary of the deadly mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

The loosely organized rallies were held as part of National Die-In Day, an initiative recently launched by three students who say they’re tired of legislative inaction in the face of massacres and routine gun violence.

Like much of the youth-led activism that has cropped up in the wake of the February shooting in Parkland, Florida, the group has put voter registration efforts front and center in hopes of mobilizing younger voters to oust pro-gun politicians in November and replace them with supporters of gun control measures.

In Washington, about 100 people assembled on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol for the main die-in.

National Die-In participants lie outside the U.S. Capitol, June 12. The effort was launched by three students who s

Nick Wing

National Die-In participants lie outside the U.S. Capitol, June 12. The effort was launched by three students who say they’re tired of legislative inaction in the face of massacres and routine gun violence.

Nurah Abdulhaqq, a 14-year-old Georgia high school student and National Die-In organizer, sought to shine a light on the racial disparities of gun violence, an issue that can get overshadowed in the broader gun debate.

“I have grown up knowing that at any time, I could be shot and my white killer could probably get away with it. I have known that people see my father as a threat because of his skin tone,” she said in a speech.

“Change is needed, but all politicians say is, ‘Please don’t take away my guns,’” she continued. “Well, please don’t take my friends. Please don’t take my school. Please don’t take my teachers. Please don’t take me too. Please reform.”

Matt Deitch, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a member of the student-led March for Our Lives movement, recounted a trip to Capitol Hill after the shooting at his school in February in which 17 people were killed. When he began describing an unproductive conversation with outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the crowd booed loudly.

“Don’t boo. Vote,” said Deitch, borrowing a line from former President Barack Obama.

Deitch went on to offer a list of policies he’d like to see lawmakers pursue, including safe storage laws to prevent children from accessing firearms and so-called red flag laws, which allow police or family members to request that guns be taken from individuals deemed possibly dangerous. Those initiatives appear on the National Die-In platform, alongside a host of other proposals.

At noon, organizers read the names of the 49 victims of the Pulse shooting, setting down a red rose after each one. Participants then dropped to the grass and lay silent for 720 seconds — one for each mass shooting in the U.S. since the 2016 attack. 

Demonstrators take part in a National Die-In demonstration in Washington on June 12, lying quietly for 720 seconds

Nick Wing

Demonstrators take part in a National Die-In demonstration in Washington on June 12, lying quietly for 720 seconds — one for each mass shootings in the U.S. since the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, Florida, two years ago.

Counterprotesters with Patriot Picket, a Maryland-based pro-gun group, remained standing. Paul Brockman, a spokesman for the organization, said he felt it was necessary to show up in order to show “the other side.”

“We had a series of speakers come up here and say they’re not coming for our guns, but these folks right here have ‘Ban AR-15’ posters,” he said, pointing to a group of people holding signs bearing the logo of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Brockman said his group opposes any additional gun control measures, including expanded background checks. He argued that gun violence prevention advocates should be looking more at mental health and less at access to firearms.

“Evil people violence is a problem,” he said. “I think the problem is with the person who pulls the trigger and not the guns themselves.”

For Frank Kravchuk, a 21-year-old Orlando resident and National Die-In organizer, the afternoon offered an opportunity to reflect on the effect of the Pulse shooting on his city’s LGBT community.

Although many LGBT people have been vocal in the aftermath of the tragedy, he said he felt some have “stepped back in the shadows” after Donald Trump’s election, amid fears that they could be targeted.

“Since then, our community’s kind of gone silent,” Kravchuk told HuffPost. “We didn’t do anything this June 12, the day of the shooting, because we wanted to have a day of silence.”

Orlando is set to host a candlelight vigil on Tuesday evening, he added. He suggested that his group will be planning other events around the country before the November midterm elections.

After the rally dispersed, some advocates headed off to hold another die-in at the office of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

One die-in was enough for Kravchuk.

“I’m not going because I don’t want to get arrested,” he said.

How LGBTQ People Have Fought To Reform Gun Laws In The Wake Of Pulse Massacre

On June 12, 2016, about 300 people gathered in a meeting room at the LGBT Community Center in Manhattan. They were spilling into the hallways because the center didn’t have a room large enough to hold all the people in attendance.

That day, news of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, had ricocheted across the country: 49 people — largely queer people of color — died, and dozens more were injured. The people at the LGBT Center who came together to express their loss, outrage and unwillingness to let gun violence continue to rip America apart eventually became Gays Against Guns — an advocacy group committed to making comprehensive gun control a reality in the U.S.

“We were outraged, we were hurt, and we were confused,” said Gays Against Guns member Cathy Marino-Thomas. “We had been living during the Obama years with a euphoric hope that we were finally going to move towards some kind of, if not acceptance, then tolerance.”

Before Pulse, she said, gun violence had been lumped in with homophobia and hate crimes by most queer advocacy groups rather than treated as a separate issue. “I don’t know that we made any distinction,” she said.

But Pulse changed the conversation around gun violence ― for those watching, horrified, from the sidelines as well as for those who lived through it.

People visit a makeshift memorial outside Pulse on June 12, 2017, one year after a gunman killed 49 people there. S

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

People visit a makeshift memorial outside Pulse on June 12, 2017, one year after a gunman killed 49 people there. Since the shooting, members of the LGBTQ community have rallied behind the fight to end gun violence.

Brandon Wolf survived the shooting at Pulse but lost his best friend, Dru Leinonen — a loss that inspired Wolf to create the Dru Project, an LGBTQ advocacy group focused on gay-straight alliances in public schools. He has seen how the queer community has rallied behind the fight to end gun violence. “We can’t be following, because we’re the ones that are most impacted by it,” he told HuffPost.

“We’ve realized our place in the conversation and the leadership role we have to take. If you go anywhere in this country and you talk about Pulse, you talk about 49 lives lost. People feel that. Queer people feel that. It’s unsettling. It makes us feel unsafe. It reminds us that we have so much further to go. The reality is that violence and hatred are still very much alive in this country. They’re being fed by the current administration. There’s a realization in the queer community that we have to be the leaders in this fight.”

This February the conversation around gun violence changed again after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In the months since the shooting, survivors have become powerful voices in the gun control movement, and one of the most visible has been 18-year-old Emma Gonzalez.

“It doesn’t surprise me that the person leading the gun violence movement out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is a queer Latin female, because that’s the future,” said Wolf. “These communities most impacted by gun violence are going to stand up and have a say, and they’re not going to take no for an answer.”

Gonzalez delivered a moving speech at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., during which she stayed silent for six and a half minutes — the amount of time it took a gunman to kill 17 students at her high school. In Wolf’s eyes, it showed how powerful one queer person, backed by those who stand to inherit this country, could be.

“Both queer people and the youth of America understand the power of protest, and neither group is afraid to do that,” said Marino-Thomas. “These kids are amazing. The people on the other side of these issues should be scared of them because they understand their power. They understand the power of the vote. They’ve actually read the Constitution, and they know that they can change it. They know that world is about to be handed over to them, and they are taking it.”

Emma Gonzalez calls for stricter gun control during the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C, March 24. She showed how

Sun Sentinel / Getty Images

Emma Gonzalez calls for stricter gun control during the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C, March 24. She showed how powerful one queer person can be.

According to Marino-Thomas, the Pulse and Parkland survivors share the experience of extreme violence in places where they were supposed to be protected. “The kids are in it because this issue came into their safe space, and that’s the reason queer people are as well,” she said.

Clubs have a long tradition as queer community spaces, and in the wake of Pulse, queer people had to reckon with the desecration of that sanctuary. “You can’t discount Pulse as a catalyst for why we’re involved. It finally came into our home, and we had to do something,” she added.

After the shooting in Parkland, Gov. Rick Scott helped pass gun safety legislation for the first time in Florida in 22 years — but that’s only one state, where two of the most horrific mass shootings in recent memory took place.

“Six hundred and twelve days passed between Pulse and Parkwood. There was no change in that 612 days that passed, but 96 Americans died every single one of those 612 days,” Wolf said, citing a statistic supported by Everytown, a nonprofit group that tracks gun violence. “You have to ask yourself at some point, ‘What more can you stomach from gun violence in this country? How much longer can you turn off the television or change it to something a little less unnerving?’ Six hundred and twelve days passed with no change, not in Florida, not in America, and 96 people died every single one of those days. I say that’s too many. I say that’s too much gun violence. I’m just wondering at what point this country will say enough is enough.”

According to Everytown, there are 13,000 gun-related homicides a year in the United States. For every person killed by a gun, two more are injured. Seven children and teens are killed by guns every day in America, on average. So far in 2018 there have been 25,664 incidents of gun violence reported, according to the Gun Violence Archive. And while cold hard numbers are sobering, it’s easy for Americans to become desensitized to them. That’s why organizations like Gays Against Guns aim to replace these numbers with human faces through public demonstrations.

Gays Against Guns works mostly through protest, staging monthly die-ins at senatorial office buildings, using their bodies to represent those slain by gun violence, often leading to members’ arrests. They also connect the chain of death, linking gun manufacturers, people who purchase guns without proper background checks, companies that invest in gun manufacturers, companies that invest in the NRA and perpetuate their power, legislators that take money from the NRA and NRA leaders who attempt to dictate laws.

And in Marino-Thomas’ eyes, this work, in conjunction with other public forms of pushback against the NRA, is changing things. Many airlines that gave discounts to NRA members have stopped doing so. Car rental companies that have donated money to the NRA have stopped. Most overnight shipping services no longer give NRA discounts — except FedEx, which continues to give members 25 percent off. “We have taken a different approach to direct action and in making the connections in how the NRA has become so powerful,” she said.

At the March for Our Lives in New York, Gays Against Guns helped put together a group of demonstrators, each holding a photo of a shooting victim in Parkland and at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. “When you saw the … people, mostly small children and people standing in for them, you felt the loss,” she said. “When you see the photograph, held by an actual person, representing the life that had been taken, you felt it. People had to look at them all day, march next to them, and it made a difference. When people are confronted with the actual bodies, it’s a very powerful statement.”

At the Gays Against Guns demonstration in New York after the Las Vegas massacre, shrouded participants carried phot

Pacific Press / Getty Images

At the Gays Against Guns demonstration in New York after the Las Vegas massacre, shrouded participants carried photos of the victims.

Sometimes, Marino-Thomas added, it feels that the movement to end gun violence isn’t working hard enough and fast enough. But she believes a significant breakthrough is near. “These movements get really bad before they get better. I worked on marriage equality for 17 years, and right before a big win, we always had a great loss. In the 2008 election, we got Barack Obama elected, but we lost four initiatives. I feel to some degree, it’s the same way here. Discussing gun violence every day has not always been our reality. The more we unearth the crazy and dig in and bring it out and constantly have it in the news, it certainly empowers people to do something about it.”

For Wolf and the other survivors of Pulse, as well as queer people across America, June has become an even more symbolic month than it was two years ago. Every year, amid LGBTQ Pride celebrations, queer people will forever be confronted with the memory of the 49 lives taken at Pulse. “June 1 was my best friend Drew’s birthday, and he doesn’t get to celebrate that birthday anymore,” Wolf said. “If we are being true to ourselves and the 49 lives lost at Pulse, if we are being true to the 95 Americans who die from gun violence every day in this country, we are not only during Pride month celebrating our identities and each other — we are also honoring all of those victims with action. We are reminding ourselves that while it’s important to be proud and to celebrate, we also have to remember the journey ahead and empower each other. Pride has always had an undertone of action behind it. We know better than any other community in this country what it is to fight for our lives.”

“Ultimately, queer people have always led the charge on progress and change,” Wolf added. “The fact that queer people are engaged around this issue only lends to the fact that we will solve this sooner rather than later.”

#TheFutureIsQueer is HuffPost’s monthlong celebration of queerness, not just as an identity but as action in the world. Find all of our Pride Month coverage here.

Surviving The Pulse Massacre Propelled This Gay Man Into Gun Reform Activism

Brandon Wolf is one of a group of survivors who made it out of Pulse nightclub alive in the early hours of July 12, 2016. His best friend, Christopher Leinonen, did not ― and Wolf has spent the two years since the massacre fighting to honor Leinonen through his advocacy. 

In the wake of the Pulse shooting, Wolf founded The Dru Project, an organization dedicated to the promotion of Gender & Sexualities Alliance Networks GSAs in public schools.

And he has also become a proponent of gun law reform in America, having spoken at the March for our Lives rally earlier this year.

“I personally am not anti-gun,” Wolf told HuffPost. “I think our Second Amendment is uniquely American, and I understand people’s passion around it. What I will say is the laws in this country don’t work.”

“Our legislators inherited a system that worked. They inherited an economy that worked. They totally bankrupted it I think, both economically and morally,” Wolf added. “There is no better representation of that than our obsession with firearms and how much we value them over human life.”

In this interview with HuffPost, Wolf talked about his dedication to the reform of American gun laws, the Parkland students and how the Pulse massacre shaped him as both an activist and human being.

[embedded content]

Thinking about your work surrounding gun control in this country, can you talk to me a bit about why the anti-gun movement is such a personal thing for you?

I personally am not anti-gun. I think our Second Amendment is uniquely American, and I understand people’s passion around it. What I will say is the laws in this country don’t work.

And the reason it’s so personal to me is obviously I was at Pulse nightclub in 2016. I lost my two very best friends. I would call them brothers. I’ve seen first hand where the law and our legal system have failed us.

Our legislators inherited a system that worked. They inherited an economy that worked. They totally bankrupted it I think both economically and morally. There is no better representation of that than our obsession with firearms and how much we value them over human life.

It is personal to me. I guess I would just… the only thing I would take issue with is that people who believe that we need to do something different are not anti-gun. They’re pro-people.

How do you see the movement surrounding gun laws in this country and the LGBTQ rights movement as intersecting?

Well, I think it’s obvious to those of us in the community that LGBTQ people, specifically LGBTQ people of color, are exponentially more at risk to be harmed, to be humiliated, to be bullied, to be harassed based on who we are. You ask trans women of color what it feels like to be in America today, and it’s a scary place.

I think the two movements really are uniquely intertwined, because if we create a world where everyone is safer, if we create a world where only the right people have their hands on weapons, then we create a world where LGBTQ people are safer. We have for generations, for centuries really, been targeted for who we are.

We have a unique responsibility to lead the charge to protect not only ourselves but everyone really from that kind of violence.

I think so often … I honestly think we are, more than any other community, well equipped to be able to lead a movement. We know uniquely what it’s like to fight for our survival. We know uniquely what it’s like to resist a legal system that’s broken; laws that need to be changed. I think we, again, we don’t have to be followers in this. We don’t have to wait and see. We can actually be leaders because we are equipped to do that.

Brandon Wolf appears onstage at the the Democratic National Convention alongside Christopher Leinonen's mother and

Bloomberg via Getty Images

Brandon Wolf appears onstage at the the Democratic National Convention alongside Christopher Leinonen’s mother and fellow survivor Jose Arriagada.

What do you most want people to know about how the events of that night at Pulse nightclub have shaped you, both as an activist and on a human level?

Well, in a personal sense, I will never be the same person that I was the night before Pulse. I think, kind of like the Parkland students have felt, it was a little bit of a loss of innocence. I guess I would say it’s a loss of blissful joy.

I don’t really have that anymore. I mean, I lost the people that gave that to me every single day. I feel like everything I do is clouded by that experience. In a very personal way, it’s kind of sad. It is a little sad. But in an activist way, in an advocate way, I think it’s also given me new purpose. Part of what happens after a traumatic event like that is you wonder why you’re still here.

You wonder why you weren’t one of the victims. And you can feel a little purposeless. But in my mind what justification looks like, what justice looks like for my friends, is a world that they could be proud of, a world that would be safer for everybody.

I was really complacent before Pulse happened to be quite honest with you. I was that millennial that was more worried about avocado toast than who was running for president. What I hope for everyone is that my experience, my getting fired up about things, can leave some runway for other people to get involved before it’s too late, before something horrific happens.

My hope is I can inspire and energize others.

Since Pulse happened, and we obviously continue to have these incidents of high-scale violence tied to mass shootings and guns, when something like that happens now, do you even have time to process it? Or do you feel like being a professional activist is kind of a way of processing that for you? What is that experience like for you now?

Well, each experience is still different. Which is interesting, because I don’t know if people realize that. I think when you become an activist, when you start to speak out, people almost see you… They expect you to react first. They’re looking for your insight. What are you feeling? What are you thinking? What should we be doing?

But I still experience every single act of mass violence in a very personal and unique way.

The shooting in Parkland was really painful for me. I don’t know that I’ve felt that level of pain since Pulse, mainly because it was kids, and I could not wrap my head around how children would have to be going through what I’ve gone through over the last now almost two years.

The idea of them waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, the idea of them having nightmares about the people that they lost, the idea of them not being able to go into crowded rooms anymore without looking for the exit. That is terrifying to me.

And it felt really personal. So in a personal way, I feel those events every single time. What I do like about being able to use my voice, about being able to speak out, is that words have always been very cathartic for me.

So it’s very healing for me to talk about things. It’s healing for me to share my opinions and to generate insight into what’s happening. Again, I’m a very forward-thinking person. As soon as something happens, yes I’m processing it on a personal level. But I’m also thinking about what can we do differently to make sure that this doesn’t happen to other people. I think in many ways that’s how I end up processing my emotional response is by remaining forward thinking and wondering what can I do to make the world better? What can I do to stop other people from going through this?

What advice do you have for young queer people, or I guess young people in general, who kind of may feel powerless during social and political moments like the one we’re currently in? How can they channel those feelings into tangible action?

I think the Parkland students have shown us what’s possible. In 2018, Generation Z is unstoppable.

And that should be really inspirational to young people to know that more than ever before your voice is being heard. That’s largely because young people know how to leverage social media. They know how to leverage their networks from a very young age, to be able to share their opinions and group together and demand actions. I think more than ever before, young people have a voice. They are at the megaphone. I think this country has done a great service to young people by telling them, “You can be anything you want to be.” Right? The American Dream is that you can grow up in this country and believe, truly believe, that you can be anything you want to be if you put your mind to it.

That is a powerful tool in our arsenal to create change in this country. My encouragement would be no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, young people all over this country should feel more powerful than ever when they are taking on some of the most powerful and corrupt organizations that have totally morally bankrupted our political system. And they’re taking them on head-on. They’re challenging them. And they’re winning these battles.

The fact that five teenagers can go on social media and dwarf the NRA in a matter of 30 days is impressive, and it should remind young people that there is no greater power than the people.

Let’s talk about the Parkland students a little more briefly. They really, I think, provide the symbolic hope for a lot of American people that things might actually kind of tangibly change when it comes to gun laws in this country. Moving forward, what do you hope we kind of see in terms of tangible change in this country from this moment surrounding the Parkland students?

The first thing I hope to see is young people more engaged in the political process. We’re talking about young people voting in a mid-term like we’ve never talked about before. I think that’s really, really important. I hope that young people feel empowered more now than ever to get involved, to understand the political process, to have an impact, not just on a presidential level, but all the way down to local politics. ’Cause that’s where change is really made is local, state and then congressional races.

I hope that’s a big change that comes out of this. I also hope that people remember the impact that they can have individually on the direction of our country. We’ve gone through a few decades now where that didn’t necessarily feel feasible. A handful of really wealthy, really powerful, corrupt people dictated what happened from beginning to end. What you’ve seen all across the country is a populist movement. It’s a movement that says, “Hey, don’t forget. We’re the ones who employ you at the end of the day.” I think what the Parkland students have done so well, and I hope what translates to change further down the road, os really this idea that we voted you in, and we’re happy to vote you out if you don’t adhere to the things that we find important as people.

Not the values that you necessarily brought in personally, not the dollars that you brought in in your campaign coffers, but the value that we as American people hold.

Then the very last thing that I hope comes out of this is that young people, and especially young queer people of color, run for office, because we still do not have nearly enough representation of all of the beautiful diversity in this country in both state legislatures and in congress. It’s high time for young people, this generation, to get in the mindset that they’re gonna have to run for office and do it themselves.

What does Pride mean to you in 2018?

I think now, more than ever, Pride needs to be a rallying call. I think it needs to be a call to action that yes, we can throw parties and be confetti in the streets, and that’s important for our future. But what’s also important is that we turn that into engagement and we turn that into action. I’m hopeful that Pride across the country this year really speaks to our need to be involved, our need to be in the forefront, leading the charge, not following behind.

The theme for HuffPost’s Pride coverage this year is #TheFutureIsQueer. I’d love to hear you reflect on that and talk about what a queer and inclusive future looks and feels like to you?

Well, what a beautiful future that sounds like, because I can’t imagine a better world than one where everybody is free to identify however they like, and we all just really love each other for that.

My best friend that I lost that night, his name was Drew. One of the things that I loved most about Drew is that he was unashamed in his unconditional love for everyone. I didn’t have that when I met Drew. I brought with me I think a lot of baggage from my childhood. I was kind of judgmental. I wasn’t open minded. I wasn’t inclusive. The years that we spent together, he challenged me every single day to be more inclusive, to be more loving, to be more kind. And, in fact, the last conversation we had, he told me that I needed to tell people I love them more often.

I could not think of a better mantra, a better motto to live by. So when I think about a queer future, right? An inclusive future? That’s what I think of is more people with their arms around each other saying, “You know what? We might be different, but I love you just the same,” rather than fighting about what makes us different.

For LGBTQ Pride 2018, HuffPost is highlighting 30 different cultural influencers who have shifted the narrative when it comes to queer issues and whose work has contributed to building a more inclusive and equitable future for us all.

#TheFutureIsQueer is HuffPost’s monthlong celebration of queerness, not just as an identity but as action in the world. Find all of our Pride Month coverage here.

Florida Stopped Background Checks On Concealed Weapon Permits For A Year: Report

For over a year, Florida allowed citizens to obtain concealed weapon permits without a background check because an employee couldn’t log in to a national database that tracked people deemed unfit to own weapons in other states, a previously unreported government investigation has revealed.

The 2017 document, which was first reported on Friday by the Tampa Bay Times, revealed that starting in February 2016, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services stopped using an FBI crime database because an employee in charge of background checks could not log in to the system.

The database, called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, is used by state officials to keep track of applicants who want to carry guns and who may also have a criminal history or documented mental health issues in other states. 

The issue was not corrected until March 2017, according to the investigation, which was conducted by the state agriculture department’s Office of Inspector General.

Record requests by the Tampa Bay Times revealed the negligence, with the final state investigation revealing that it was employee Lisa Wilde who had a “login issue” with the database but never followed up to get it fixed.

Wilde told investigators that she “neglected to do it for almost a year.” It was ultimately more than a year.

“I dropped the ball ― I know I did that, I should have been doing it and I didn’t,” Wilde said.

As the Times points out, tens of thousands of applications went unchecked during that period, in a state that saw a surge of requests to get weapon permits following the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting that left 50 people dead. The state saw horror again in February of this year when 17 people were gunned down at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

When questioned by investigators, Wilde looked “bewildered, and stated: I had a login issue and never followed up,” the investigative report says.

State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican now running for governor, bragged in 2012 that under his leadership, the process of getting a concealed permit application fell from 12 weeks to 35 days.

Wilde is now out of a job, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

“The integrity of our department’s licensing program is our highest priority,” Aaron Keller, a department spokesman, told the paper. “As soon as we learned that one employee failed to review applicants’ non-criminal disqualifying information, we immediately terminated the employee, thoroughly reviewed every application potentially impacted, and implemented safeguards to prevent this from happening again.”

Bullets Put These Men In Wheelchairs. They Turned To Poetry To Process Their Pain.

By Elizabeth van Brocklin and Eric Fernandez

There be days that I wished I got shot in my head / Instead I’m stuck in a f**king hospital bed. / Could have left me in a pool that was all red, / Instead, I’m left with a body that’s half-dead.

LeVar Lawrence spoke those words last week into a microphone at an art gallery on New York’s Roosevelt Island. Lawrence, who was shot in the neck in 2005, was there to perform poetry and spoken word alongside five other gunshot survivors.

The performers are members of OPEN DOORS, an organization under the Angelica Patient Assistance Program, a New York-based nonprofit. The group began as a writing workshop three years ago and now provides men who’ve survived gun violence with mentorship and resources to create art, pursue education and learn other skills.

From their wheelchairs, wearing hoodies and baseball caps, the men shared stories of death, pain, regret and resilience. Trace contributor Eric Fernandez was there to capture the performance on video. One speaker, Micah Harris, described himself as a “world-class orator, wheelchair warrior.” Another, Andres Molina, talked about finding his compassionate side.

“We all have something inside from all that pain that we went through,” said Molina. “That stays there.”

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More than 100,000 Americans are shot every year. The majority of them survive. Survivors who sustain spinal cord injuries, especially those in wheelchairs, can require a lifetime of treatment. The most common victims of gun assaults are young men of color from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. 

“What you hear in the narrative and in the media is, ‘gun violence leads to death,’” said Dexter Ciprian, a program associate for OPEN DOORS. “But there’s this whole middle place that a lot of people are left in.”

That “middle place” is where many gun violence victims reside.

Betsy DeVos Says School Safety Commission Won’t Look At Role Of Guns In School Shootings

Testifying before the Senate appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the Federal Commission on School Safety, which she chairs, will not look at the role of guns in a recent spate of school shootings.

In an exchange with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), DeVos said it is “not part of the commission’s charge per se” to look at the role of firearms as it relates to gun violence. Instead, DeVos said the commission will study “school safety and how we can ensure our students are safe at school.”

Leahy asked DeVos if she thinks an 18-year-old should be able to buy AR-15-style guns and ammunition.

“I believe that’s very much a matter for debate, and I know that’s been debated within this body and will continue to be,” DeVos replied. “Our focus is on raising up successful proven techniques and approaches to ensuring schools are safe for students to attend.”

The White House charged DeVos with leading a federal commission on school safety after a shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February left 17 dead. In a March press release, the White House said the commission will study and make recommendations on issues including “age restrictions for certain firearm purchases.” 

HuffPost reached out to the Education Department to see if the commission still plans to make recommendations in this area, given DeVos’ comments Tuesday.

In response, department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill clarified that the commission will still be making such recommendations.

“It is one of the 27 items to be addressed by the report,” Hill said in an email.

She also noted “that the commission cannot create or amend current gun laws — that is the Congress’ job.”

While speaking with Leahy, DeVos also said the commission will not look at countries where teens spend similar amounts of time playing video games or on social media but that do not have the same high rates of gun violence in schools as the U.S.

Leahy ended the exchange by noting that the commission “will look at gun violence in schools but not look at guns ― an interesting concept.”

DeVos has been holding listening sessions and events for her commission in recent weeks. On Wednesday, the commission is scheduled to hold a public listening session. 

Suspect In Arizona Spree Killings Dies By Suicide: Report

A suspect wanted in connection with a deadly killing spree has reportedly died after a confrontation with police in Arizona.

According to ABC News, the suspect opened fire on law enforcement officers Monday morning after they surrounded a Scottsdale hotel. Police reportedly gassed the room and then sent in a robot equipped with a streaming video camera. With the aid of the robot, it was determined the suspect had died by suicide, ABC news reported.

Sgt. Vince Lewis, a Phoenix police spokesman, told WCNC News that police did not fire any shots at the suspect and no one else was injured.

The name of the suspect has not been released, but Scottsdale police said in a statement that Monday’s incident “does appear to be related to the recent homicides in Phoenix and Scottsdale.”

Authorities previously said they believed the recent killings of a forensic psychiatrist and two paralegals were committed by the same individual.

The killing spree is thought to have started at a Scottsdale business on Thursday, with the shooting death of Dr. Steven Pitt, a 59-year-old forensic psychiatrist. According to his website, Pitt had consulted police on several high-profile cases, including the killing of JonBenet Ramsey and the Columbine High School shooting.

A day after Pitt’s slaying, paralegals Veleria Sharp, 48, and Laura Anderson, 49, were shot and killed at a law office in Old Town Scottsdale. While police have said the killings appear to be related, it’s unclear what connection Sharp and Anderson had to Pitt, if any.

Police are also searching for a possible link in the killing of 72-year-old Marshall Levine, a counselor and life coach who was found shot dead in his Scottsdale office on Saturday.

Suspect sketch released by police.

“Right now, we do not know if the shooting [of Levine]… is related to the previous two shootings, but we are working closely with Phoenix Police Department in all three of these cases,” Scottsdale police spokesman Sgt. Ben Hoster told KTAR News 92.3 FM.

Authorities on Saturday announced an $11,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

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