June 12, 2019, is the third anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting, the second-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. In the early hours of Sunday, June 12, 2016, an attacker entered Pulse, an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and killed 49 people. Brandon Wolf, now 30, survived the attack by hiding in the bathroom until he could escape. His friends, Andrew Leinonen and Juan Guerrero, were killed in the shooting.
After the shooting, Wolf helped found The Dru Project, which provides scholarships to LGBTQ individuals and supports gay-straight alliance groups in schools, in Leinonen's memory. A member of Everytown For Gun Safety's Survivor Network, he shared his story with Elite Daily's Lilli Petersen for Everytown's Moments That Survive campaign during Gun Violence Survivor Week in February 2019. On the third anniversary of the shooting, these are his words. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
[Before the Pulse shooting] I was fairly complacent. I was the person who sat on the couch and thought that by watching a debate, I had done my civic duty. Posting on Twitter or Facebook was enough to be involved. And then, one fateful night, a few of my best friends and I went to Pulse nightclub. It was a usual spot for us to be ... kinda in our little group, unwinding from the week. We each had pretty stressful jobs at the time, so it was kind of our ritual on the weekends to unwind together.
It started like any other night. We went to the club, it was busy.
As the night wore on, we kind of ended up right out there on the patio. My best friend, [Leinonen], he would always get so sappy when he was drunk, so he’d had a few drinks, and he put his arm around me, and he said, "You know what we never say enough in the world? That we love each other." And so, then and there, he said, "I want you to know you’re my best friend in the world and I love you very much." That was the last conversation we would ever have.
All I can remember is that feeling in the pit of your stomach.
I’ll never forget, standing there in front of the sink, terrified people crowding around me, and I got the first smell of blood and gun smoke. That’s when it felt real to me. I remember shortly after that, the gunfire started again, and this time it was relentless. It didn’t stop. And there was this debate in the bathroom about whether or not we should stay, we should go, try to hide. Ultimately, a group of us decided that we needed to leave. So, there was nowhere to hide, and if we didn’t try to make an escape we wouldn’t make it out. So we linked arms with each other, we grabbed hands with whoever we could, and we made a run for an emergency exit. Luckily, someone had propped a door open as they ran out. So there was an exit. I didn’t really look around. People ask me all the time if I saw the shooter ... To be honest, all I can remember is staring at that door, staring at the light from outside at that parking lot, and just praying and hoping that whatever was in the building wasn’t [close] enough [to] me that I could get out without getting hurt.
You think about that grief that is so overtaking, it’s so overwhelming.
The sensation that sticks with me, the memory that sticks with me [from] the initial moment when I figured it all out is panic. All I can remember is that feeling in the pit of your stomach — for people who don’t like roller coasters, when you go over that first drop and you’re not sure you’re going to make it. It’s that feeling in the bottom of your stomach, a knot. And every time I get into a situation where I feel like something [is] going to happen, that sense of panic comes back. For me, that’s one of the most vivid memories of the shooting. A feeling of sheer panic.
I’l never forget, Monday morning, getting the call that [Leinonen] had not even made it out of the club that night. You think about that grief that is so overtaking, it’s so overwhelming. I think from that moment for the next 24 to 36 hours, I don’t remember anything.
There is plenty we can do about this issue. We’ve been told for way too long that there’s nothing we can do.
[After the shooting, people] were talking about, "Where does this fit in a national landscape?" talking about a presidential election. And I remember in that moment making a decision that, if I didn’t speak up, if I didn’t say something or do something, that my friends would just forever be two of 49 victims. That no one would ever know their names, no one would ever know what they meant to the world, or their passion for other people. So I made a choice that week that no matter what happened, no matter how low I felt, no matter what the world around me said or did, I was going to make sure that people knew who they were.
There is plenty we can do about this issue. We’ve been told for way too long that there’s nothing we can do. And now we realize that the only people telling us that are the ones who stand to make money from us gunning each other down. And we’re just not doing it anymore.
One of the really pressing things we have on our plate right now is HR8, which would expand background checks. [Editor's Note: HR8, also known as the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, passed the U.S. House of Representatives mostly along party lines on Feb. 27, 2019. As of publication, it has not yet been voted on in the Senate.] Ninety-seven percent of Americans agree that we need expanded and universal background checks. We need to close the gun show loophole. That’s a really big deal.
There’s a ton of other legislation we can be coalescing around. I helped to elect Rep. Stephanie Murphy out of Orlando. She worked really hard to end the Dickey Amendment, which prevented the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] (CDC) from studying gun violence as a public health crisis. Now we just need money allotted to the CDC. We could talk about red flag laws, which allow family members or courts to temporarily take away firearms from people who are deemed a hazard to themselves or others. There’s a lot of common sense legislation that if you sit down, and it doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on, if we just talk about health and safety in this country, we all agree on it.
In terms of regular, everyday people, what can you do? You can continue to hold your legislators, your lawmakers, accountable. We elected them. It’s not as if they don’t have a responsibility to us. These are people we are paying, every single day, to do what’s best for us. And that means it’s our responsibility as citizens to call, to write, to show up, to march, to sit in, to do whatever we have to do to remind them that if you want to get paid, if you want to sit behind that desk, if you want to represent me, then you need to represent me.
I had an incredible opportunity to speak at the Democratic National Convention ... I had numerous opportunities to be a surrogate on campaigns, to fight really hard for gun violence prevention measures. To give really momentous speeches in front of large groups of people. Those are the moments that stick out to other people. What sticks out to me are the quiet moments. The ones that make me feel something are the ones where I’m all alone, I’m sitting down, I’m doing something that Leinonen and I would have been doing together. I almost feel a sense of peace. As if he’s come back and put his arm around me again.