The city of Orlando in Florida was left devastated in June 2016, when a gunman opened fire at gay nightclub Pulse. Tragically, 49 people lost their lives in the massacre and at least 53 others were wounded.
The horrific events of that night are never far from the mind of Maria Rodriguez, who lost her close friend and housemate Frankie in the attack.
‘Something woke me up in the middle of the night, at about 2am. My heart was racing. I turned on the TV and all of a sudden the first news that came up was Pulse. I immediately started calling all my friends.’
‘He went there with a couple of friends – I couldn’t make it that day. The rest of our friends were able to get out. The last time that they saw him was as he was being shot whilst he was in a fetal position on the floor. That’s it, that’s all we know.’
‘We didn’t know where he was at until the following day when we were all searching for him and we got the news from Orlando Regional Hospital. That’s how we found out he was deceased.’
Since the attack, the Orlando community has pulled together and is now working to fight back against hate crimes in the area.
Part of this movement is being led by gun group, The Pink Pistols, who are encouraging members of the LGBT community to take up arms in the wake of the massacre.
Jo Martin, founder of the Orlando Chapter of the group explains, ‘Pink Pistols was formed in the year 2000 and it’s a non-profit organisation. It was set up after a series of attacks on the LGBT community and they figured that if they had a gay gun rights advocacy group that they could help train people in the gay community to be able to safely defend themselves using a firearm.’
‘After Pulse, the LGBT community, in addition to the non-LGBT community, in this area was pretty badly effected because it happened right here and people that we knew were affected by it directly. It did have a major impact.’
‘The one positive thing to come from such a negative event was that people really pulled together. The Pink Pistols is not just for LGBT people. Really the only criteria is that we all believe that everyone should have the right of self-defense.’
Although it is currently legal to carry a concealed weapon in the state of Florida, many anti-gun campaigners have called for firearms to be banned completely after Pulse and other atrocities. But the Pink Pistols are part of a wider group that believe in their Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Jo says, ‘I pray every night that I never need to but I do have that knowledge if I do need to and that’s one of the reasons why I’m involved in Pink Pistols.’
‘We want to share that knowledge so that other people have that level of confidence as well.’
‘The answer to the question, ‘would the world be a better place without guns?’ is absolutely. But there’s a caveat to that – only if nobody had them. Quite honestly, realistically, I don’t see that happening.’
And even after the events at Pulse, Maria still believes that guns shouldn’t be banned and that if more people had been armed that night they would have been able to protect themselves.
Now, the Orlando community is concentrating on slowly rebuilding itself and looking forward to a future without hate crimes. But for Maria and so many others, 12th June 2016 will stay with them forever.
She says, ‘my hopes for the future is that everyone accepts everyone without judgement, without discrimination, without racism. Who cares who you love? You love who you love and love is universal.’