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 demonstration.
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.
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.