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Pulse survivor speaks up for assault weapons ban in Florida

It’s been more than three years since Brandon Wolf fled from the Pulse nightclub.

The Orlando man stood in a restroom when the killer began firing shots. He escaped outside before realizing his friends, Drew Leinonen and Juan Guerroro, were nowhere to be found.

It was much later that authorities confirmed both men perished, their names now listed frequently among the “49 Angels” lost.

And as the nation deals again with news of not one but two mass shootings, Wolf must mentally revisit the night that changed the trajectory of his own life.

“Watching the news over the last weekend,” he said, “it’s clear we have a real crisis on our hands because we’ve militarized hate in this country.”

It’s all more reason, Wolf said, why Florida needs an amendment codifying gun control in the state constitution.

The Ban Assault Weapons Now amendment would prohibit possession of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns capable of 10 rounds or more, or any other “ammunition-feeding device.”

Putting such regulations in the constitution feels like a dramatic step, but Wolf says it’s necessary as long as lawmakers in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. refuse to act.

“The frustrating thing is there wouldn’t be a need for citizen initiates and ballot measures like this if the Florida Legislature did what everyone there was elected to do,” he said, “which is to create policy changes to make us safer.”

Tragedy’s Growing Reach

Wolf this weekend will travel to Dayton, Ohio this weekend with the organization Survivors Empowered. Founded by the parents of Jessica Redfield Ghawi, who died in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting in 2012, the organization once again grew its ranks through the actions of others this weekend.

The world of survivors-turned-activists serves as a political force and a trauma support group all at once.

“It’s a family, one I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” Wolf said. “This is a community of people who never wanted to meet each other. But we have no choice.”

When stories of mass shootings brought despair to Wolf’s mind this weekend, he found himself on the phone with students from the Parkland shooting. That gave him the hope this week to step into the spotlight once more and fight for gun control.

“As they always do and have done over the last year and a half, they lifted my spirits and inspired me,” he said. “They tell me to think of the long game, and that’s the challenge now for the people of El Paso and Dayton.”

As far as policy, both shootings this weekend should inform the gun debate, Wolf said.

In Dayton, police killed a shooter within 30 seconds. Still, the event left nine dead and 37 injured.

Why is it, Wolf asks, that gun owners who cherish weapons for sport or self-defense need firearms capable of that kind of damage? It’s why the BAWN amendment focuses on mass-capacity weapons.

“This particular proposed amendment still protects the rights and retention of firearms used for hunting,” Wolf said. “It just tackles the idea of weapons that fire rapidly and hold an excessive amount of ammunition.”

The measure contains exceptions for police officers and members of the military. But Wolf sees no use for a civilian to own a weapon capable of such harm.

In El Paso, where the shooter appears to have released a white nationalist manifesto, Wolf sees volatile hate mixed with the literal power in the barrel of a gun.

It’s a connection too familiar. Wolf was inside a gay nightclub when a terrorist, also American but one radicalized through ISIS propaganda, burst in and killed his friends.

While the motives of the Pulse shooter have been debated for more than three years, Wolf believes hate played a role in the attack.

“It takes a dark level of hatred and evil to carry out something so horrific,” he said. “That goes to the broader topic we need to address around the rhetoric of leaders in this country.”

Sadly, Wolf sees political leaders using hot-button, emotion-stoking issues for political gain routinely, and he doesn’t anticipate that stopping soon. But he doesn’t want people driven by hate to have easy access to deadly firearms.

Battle Lines

The week revealed challenges ahead for the BAWN amendment.

The amendment has already gathered more than 10 percent of the 766,200 valid signature required to make the statewide ballot; state records show more than 100,389 signatures submitted so far.

But the measure must pass muster with the Florida Supreme Court. And Attorney General Ashley Moody this week promised to fight the amendment. At a Monday press conference, she said the mass shootings did not deter her opposition.

“If it’s going to mislead the voters, we have to communicate that to the Court,” Moody said, suggesting the amendment will impact “virtually every self-loading long gun.”

Wolf dismissed the criticism and said the Attorney General’s opposition was to be expected.

“It’s unfortunate the Attorney General decided rather than do the job she was elected to do, she will instead try and subvert the will of Florida voters,” Wolf said. “It’s unfortunate she decided to pick this battle to wage, but it’s not surprising. We’ve known she was a sellout to the gun manufacturing lobby and NRA since she announced her campaign.”

What of news that Senate President Bill Galvano wants a review of factors that contribute to mass shootings?

“I appreciate the sentiments,” Wolf said, “but forgive me if I’m a bit of a skeptic. The one thing Florida politicians are good at is empty platitudes. If I have a dime for every thought and prayer after Pulse, I’d be a rich, rich man.”

It’s going to take a significant political shift in the make-up of the Florida Legislature before Wolf expects a review of mass shooting factors that re-examines Florida’s gun policies.

“The folks in power today are the same folks who had the opportunity to act after Pulse and after Parkland,” Wolf said. “Then they called any action theatrics … I’ve been saying we won’t see a legislative change until we change the legislators.”

He’d like it if pro-NRA lawmakers gave up the fight, or retired to give motivational speeches to CEO gatherings.

But a growing body count means citizens can’t afford to wait.

So he’s working to put BAWN on the ballot. Wolf communicated regularly with Gail Schwartz, whose nephew died at Parkland and who now chairs the BAWN committee. He helped create a video advertisement promoting the measure, and this week released a fresh statement on the effort’s behalf.

“These events highlight the harsh reality: These killings will continue to happen, here in Florida and across the country, until we take action and do what our elected leaders have failed to do,” the statement reads. “We must ban these weapons of war. No one should have to worry about going to school, or the mall or a theater or a nightclub or wherever, worrying that they or their family members might be the next statistic.”

Wolf supports red flag laws, like those now promoted by President Donald Trump. And perhaps a better use of background screenings could have prevented the Pulse tragedy, where a gunman once on no-fly lists legally purchased a Sig Sauer MCX days before the 2016 shooting.

But nothing compares to the effectiveness of an assault weapons ban. That was shown by a federal ban signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994. This week, The Hill reported that Clinton is calling for the ban’s reinstatement.

Since the ban expired in 2004, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of mass shootings in America. Wolf can’t help but wonder if Pulse, Parkland, El Paso or Dayton could have been prevented had the ban remained in place.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate won’t even take up a universal background check bill.

“The Democrats and Republicans in Washington refuse to act together on a myriad of issues,” he said. “That leaves is to us to deal with on the state level, and even the county and local level.”

The BAWN amendment lets Florida make an important statement on ending gun violence, he said.

“We have a real opportunity,” Wolf said, “to make life better and safer for Floridians.”

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