Over the last five years, the Gun Violence Archive has recorded 2,572 mass shootings in the United States.
Some of those who survived have made it their mission to stop another violent incident from happening. The way they choose to do that is through advocating for tougher gun laws.
On a warm September evening, Brandon Wolf enjoyed the official launch of what he calls his “first book” -- ”A Place for Us: A Memoir” is an autobiography that sheds vivid details of one of the most painful nights of Wolf’s life.
“In the wake of the tragedy at Pulse, I think of every person who offered an ounce of kindness without even knowing what I was going through,” he told the crowd at the book signing.
Wolf was one of the survivors of what was briefly the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
“Everything about June 11, 2016 -- the night before the shooting -- was normal, and then in an instant, the most normal night of our lives and the most normal of places for us to be became the tragedy that people know it to be,” he told Solutionaries.
“A gunman charged through the front doors just after two o’clock. I was washing my hands at a bathroom sink; my best friends, Drew and Juan, were enjoying one last dance under their favorite disco ball, and a man filled with hate and armed with a weapon of war open fire,” he said. “He fired over 110 rounds into my safe space that night. You can imagine your safe space, but what that feels like for it to be shredded, torn, and turned into a war zone. That’s what it felt like that night.”
Forty-nine people died inside Pulse Nightclub, and 53 others were wounded. Wolf made it out alive, but his friends, Drew and Juan, did not survive.
Just one week later, Wolf started taking on Congress to change federal gun laws, and more than seven years later, he has not stopped.
“We have a toxic relationship with firearms in this country,” he said. “Very powerful, smart marketing folks have taught us to believe that guns make us more masculine, that guns make us more patriotic, they’ve built this emotional bond between human beings and an instrument of death.”
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Wolf has taken his message directly to Congress on a couple of occasions.
“While the conversation in Washington can sometimes get mired in, you know, the debate over policy and living on the, ‘You want to take my guns,’ or, ‘You want guns in everyone’s hands,’ polar opposites, we humanize it,” he said. “Our stories humanize it. We remind them what’s at stake if we continue to choose to do nothing.”
Country music is one of Emily Cantrell’s favorites.
“It was three days of sunshine, of being by the pool during the day, soaking up the sun,” she said, remembering her plans to attend the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas in 2017.
“It was shortly after Jason Aldeen took the stage that we thought we heard fireworks,” she said. “That ended up being what would result in then becoming the country’s deadliest mass shooting.”
Cantrell ran from the gunfire in Las Vegas that night, and she eventually hid in an airplane hangar for hours at the airport next door.
When asked what it was that lit the fire under her to get up and do something to stop another shooting, she said, “It was the plane ride home from Vegas, where I realized I need to do something.”
Cantrell went to Olympia – the state capitol in her home state of Washington – to share her story with lawmakers.
“We were sitting ducks with no way to fight back,” she told legislators in a committee hearing. “We ran, we dived, and with each new round of bullets raining down on us, my emotions changed from being scared to complete hatred to the person who was doing this to wondering when we all were going to die.”
The result – bump stocks, which make semi-automatic weapons into fully automatic weapons, were outlawed.
“I was told that my testimony had a lot to do with it,” she said. “That was an incredible feeling, even though I felt like it wasn’t enough. That’s how I really got started with these advocacy efforts.”
Cantrell joined the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, a national organization that works to eliminate the harm caused by gun violence. She testified in Olympia several more times for several more gun bills.
In 2022, she was in the room when Gov. Jay Inslee, D-WA, signed a bill banning high-capacity magazines and ghost guns.
“It’s incredibly emotional,” she said. “The day that (the bill) passed, and then being in the governor’s office as he signed it, there are really no words.”
Cantrell said she feels sharing her experience is part of the solution.
“We have made amazing progress here in Washington state, and there are other states that reach out to us at the Alliance for Gun Responsibility asking what is going on over there? How are you doing what you do? And can you come over here and help us out? So, the alliance is starting to do replication work,” she said.
Back at the book signing in Orlando, the group Moms Demand Action, which is also fighting for more public safety measures, calls survivors of mass shootings “part of the solution.”
“People who have experienced it and lived through it are the voices that need to be heard,” group member Linda Hoffman said.
Those voices are helping change gun laws, but they face a lot of political opposition.
“You don’t have to believe or agree with me; however, that’s how I feel,” Cantrell said. “I would rather protect lives than someone’s gun.”
“Gun violence is a uniquely American crisis that I think ultimately is going to touch all of us in some way,” Wolf said. “That means we all are truly part of the solution.”
This article is part of “Solutionaries,” our continuing commitment to solutions journalism, highlighting the creative people in communities working to make the world a better place, one solution at a time. Find out what you can do to help at SolutionariesNetwork.com.