Hundreds of protesters, including survivors from two of Florida’s deadliest modern mass shootings, staged a rally in Orlando on Monday to call for tougher firearms restrictions two years after a gunman killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub.
The demonstration, held on the eve of the shooting anniversary, preceded a day of events planned in Orlando commemorating the bloody rampage by a South Florida security guard who professed allegiance to Islamic State militants.
The assailant, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, a U.S. citizen of Afghan descent, was killed when police stormed the Pulse, a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, three hours after the gunman opened fire in the venue with an AR-15-style assault rifle and a pistol.
The death toll from the siege ranks as the second-most lethal mass shooting in the United States, surpassed only by the 59 lives lost when a gunman opened fire in October 2017 on an outdoor country music festival from a high-rise hotel window in Las Vegas and then killed himself.
While authorities branded the Pulse shooting an act of Islamic extremism, civil rights activists asserted that the massacre was also hate crime that largely targeted gay men and Latinos frequenting the club.
Advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community have accused Florida Governor Rick Scott and other Republican politicians of contributing to anti-LGBT hostility by refusing to back measures prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“We asked the governor to protect us, and sign an executive order, saying that we would not be discriminated against in our workplace. We were met with excuses,” Orlando shooting survivor Brandon Wolf said at Monday’s rally, addressing the crowd of outside Orlando City Hall.
He and others urged supporters to express their views at the ballot box by voting against politicians who refuse to back stronger gun control measures or accept campaign financing from the gun lobby.
Wolf was not the only Florida mass shooting survivor to address the rally.
“Not even four months ago, I found myself on the floor huddled with my classmates not knowing if we were going to die,” said Aly Sheehy, a recent graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
She was one of scores of students who cowered in terror as a 19-year-old former classmate who had been expelled the year before for disciplinary problems sprayed gunfire from an assault rifle he had legally purchased as an 18-year-old.
Fourteen students and three faculty members were killed in the Feb. 14 Parkland assault, which stands as the second-deadliest modern public school shooting in the United States.
The Parkland shooting sparked an unprecedented lobbying campaign by student survivors and victims’ parents that led to swift enactment of gun-safety measures signed into law by Scott, long regarded as a strong National Rifle Association ally.
The package raised the legal minimum age for buying rifles and imposed a three-day waiting period on all gun sales, but it also authorized a controversial program to allow the arming of some school employees.
Writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Michael Perry