Orlando massacre shocks LGBT community, ignites local gun debate

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Katie Baldwin, a senior at William & Mary, reads the names of victims in the June 12 shooting in Orlando, Fla., at a Monday vigil. (Adrienne Berard/WYDaily)
Katie Baldwin, a senior at William & Mary, holds vigil for the victims in the June 12 shooting in Orlando, Fla. (Adrienne Berard/WYDaily)

Katie Baldwin read each name in succession, pausing between breaths to steady her voice.

“Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, Juan Ramon Guerrero, Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera…”

A rising senior at William & Mary, Baldwin is one of more than two dozen students and professors who gathered outside the Wren Building on Monday night to hold vigil for the 49 victims of a recent mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

In the early morning hours of June 12, Omar Mateen, 29, opened fire on a crowded club, killing 49 people and wounding an additional 53 before he was shot and killed by SWAT officers over three hours later.

The tragedy marks the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history, taking that troubling title from the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, which ended in the death of 33 people. It also holds the distinction of the worst act of terrorism since the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

“This shooting definitely hit closer to home for me because it directly targeted LGBTQ people,” said Hayes Parker-Kepchar, a rising William & Mary junior who organized the vigil with fellow student Pallavi Rudraraju. “I felt like my identity was under attack.”

Pallavi Rudraraju, a senior at William & Mary, helped organize a vigil on campus for the victims of Orlando's June 12 shooting. (Adrienne Berard/WYDaily)
Pallavi Rudraraju, a senior at William & Mary, helped organize a vigil for the victims of the June 12 shooting in Orlando, Fla. (Adrienne Berard/WYDaily)

The gunman, who has since been identified as an ISIS sympathizer, used a Sigsauer MCX assault rifle and a Glock handgun to perpetrate the attack. He purchased both weapons legally, but in recent years the FBI had repeatedly flagged him as a potential terrorist sympathizer – leading many to question the role stricter gun laws could have played in averting the tragedy.

“I am hopeful that this incident will spur meaningful policy change, both about gun control and LGBTQ rights,” Parker-Kepchar said.

For York County Sheriff D.J. “Danny” Diggs, stricter gun laws are the problem, not the solution to America’s epidemic of mass shootings.

“A gun free zone makes no one safe,” he said. “In fact, it just puts people in jeopardy. Had there been other people there who were armed and proficient with firearms, they could have cut the death toll down to one or two maybe.”

The real problem, according to Philip Van Cleave, President of the Virginia Citizen’s Defense League, a gun ownership advocacy group, is the faith that citizens have in their government and its ability to protect them.

“More people need to wake up, including the LGBT community, that there are people out there that want to kill you,” said Van Cleave. “So you need to protect yourself. You need to understand that guns are a tool and you need to learn to use that tool.”

For Andrew Goddard, Legislative Director for the Virginia Center for Public Safety (VCPS), a gun represents more than a tool; it symbolizes a deeply personal tragedy.

On April 16, 2007, his son was shot four times while in French class at Virginia Tech. After multiple surgeries, he survived. The following year, Goddard joined VCPS to fight for gun violence prevention.

“If you ever sit beside your child in a hospital bed and watch them bleed, you can’t not be moved into action,” Goddard said. “That’s what happened to me. It’s many years later and I’m still passionate about getting something done. America has put people on the moon. We’ve never faced a problem and done nothing about it — except this and that’s not good enough.”

Correction: While it was widely reported that the shooter, Omar Mateen, was armed with an AR-15-style rifle — which was the language we originally used to describe the weapon — it was, in fact, a Sigsauer MCX assault rifle. We have updated the story to reflect that correction.