On June 12, 2018, activists and LGBT community members around the country, and indeed around the world, commemorated the two years that have passed since the largest mass shooting targeting LGBT people to have been perpetrated in the United States.
Since then, of course, many more mass shootings, have occurred, and Pulse has now been eclipsed in death toll by Las Vegas. But, for many, particularly in the LGBT community, the memory of Pulse is a stark reminder of how much hatred there still is for the community.
In Nashville, Pulse was remembered in many ways, by many people, but a group of students from Williamson County, in conjunction with a nation-wide event, observed the anniversary with a call to action.
These students, many of whom were LGBT and allies, came together on Legislative Plaza and spoke about gun violence. Then they staged a "die-in," symbolically laying dead on the ground for 10 seconds for each of the victims.
While the assembled lay prone in honor of the victims, a group of 2nd Amendment rights activists burst into the space occupied by the students and placing copies of the constitution into their hands. They then loomed over the rest of the proceedings, while a police officer monitored the situation.
Afterward the event concluded, Sydney Coil, a student at Independence High School, explained, "The reason I'm here is because a lot of people say that young people shouldn't get involved in politics, and I disagree, because we are the next generation. We are the people who are going to be taking over these problems, so I think the earlier we can get into politics the better."
Then she added, "I think gun violence has become very normalized in America and I think that's something we need to change. We shouldn't be numb to it. We should be feeling the horror and shock we did with the first mass shootings." Sydney's parents support their daughter's decision to engage in this activism.
Sydney was recruited to the cause by Garrett Schneider, she said. Garrett expressed a general frustration with the political atmosphere that has stalled out progress on gun violence.
"I'm tired of seeing lot's of back and forth, with lots of talk but nothing being done, within our legislature," Garrett said, "and the voices of the kids not being taken seriously. In the case of school shootings, we are required by law to go to school Monday through Fridays; the lawmakers aren't. They aren't taking our safety seriously, and they aren't taking the threat of gun violence everywhere seriously."
Reflecting on Pulse, Garrett, who identifies as LGBT, added, "Pulse was one of the deadliest mass shootings in America before Las Vegas. It was a time when we should have stopped and said, 'This has happened, what are we going to do about it?' And it seems that nothing has been done, and more and more mass shootings–Las Vegas, Stoneman Douglas, and on and on. After these mass casualty events, nothing is being done. Sometimes it seems nothing will ever be done, unless we do it…"
Garrett was not alone at the event. His father accompanied him and the other students, despite the fact that he holds more conservative political beliefs. "Him and I are opposite sides of the political fence," said Garrett's father, Tim. "But we discussed gun rights and we both really agree that people do have the right to bear arms, if they can do it legally… We both believe in background checks and registrations."
"It's just like a car," Tim explained, "it's registered and it goes with the car and it's tracked, and you can pull up it's history. You can't do that with a gun too many times. There are some loopholes that need to be closed… Society has changed, and they need to be closed."
Among the other adults present was Beth Roth, executive director and policy director of the Safe Tennessee Project. "We are a gun violence prevention organization based here in Tennessee," she explained. "When the legislature is in session, we work closely with legislators on firearm legislation. During what I call the 'off season' when the legislature is not in session, we spend a lot of time doing research."
"We really come at the issue of gun violence from more of a public health angle, so we rely heavily on peer reviewed research, data specific to Tennessee," she explained. "We look at other states and see what they have been able to do that has reduced gun violence in those states. And then we work up what we think good legislation for the coming session might look like and then we schedule meetings with legislators in the late fall to propose legislation that we think would be useful."
The shooting at Stoneman Douglas was a wake-up call for many youth, and Roth says her organization has seen a large uptick in interest amongst students since the event. "After Parkland, there were so many students that wanted to get involved that we actually formed a youth advisory board," she said.
Those students, she added, "helped plan walkouts in their schools, they were participants and planners of the big walkout we had here in Nashville, they planned a town hall back in April with legislators, where they asked legislators tough questions about gun legislation.
The WilCo [Williamson County] students reached out to see if we could help them promote this event and help them build up interest, and so of course we were happy to do that. We worked with Clay, one of the organizers, to provide him with some specific data to Tennessee."
Besides the youth activism, Roth says there's reason to be optimistic, even in a state whose legislature is as hostile to gun control as Tennessee's is. "This was the first year in at least the last four or five years when not a single law was passed expanding where guns can be carried. We considered that a victory… What we've also seen in recent polling is the needle really moving on this issue, not just nationally but even here in Tennessee. There's been about a 24 point bump in the number of Tennesseans percentage wise who would like to see stronger gun laws … so we fell like our message is getting out there and getting a better hearing."
After meeting with these students from Williamson County, it's hard not to have a little hope for a safer future for our community.