What started out as a Facebook discussion morphed into an entire movement.
Last Summer, as Kevin Hertzog and his friends were mourning the Pulse shooting in Orlando, it was a simple conversation that kicked off, what would eventually become, Gays Against Guns, or GAG.
“A friend [on Facebook] had said ‘this is awful’ and I said, ‘we should do something about this,’” Hertzog, 52, said. His friend, Brian Worth, jumped into the conversation. “Brian said ‘we should get together,’” and then, they just did.
“I just felt very upset and I could tell other people did as well,” Hertzog said of the Pulse nightclub shootings on June 12, 2016 — the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. “It didn't seem appropriate to me to just change my profile picture, wait a week, and move on. There was such a profound injustice in play that it demanded more attention.”
GAG started the day after the Pulse shooting in an effort to not only bring awareness to the violence against the LGBT community, but also prevent it from happening again.
“Rallies weren’t enough from politicians,” Hertzog said. “We needed a community response. [Pulse] happened, we can’t change that, but what can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?”
Gays Against Guns is direct action activism. Communications Manager Terry Roethlein said there are other gun prevention groups that are doing great work trying to change legislation, but their angle is a little bit more upfront.
“’Direct action is when we went right up to the doorstep of the organization that we are shaming,” Roethlein said. “Last Summer we went to BlackRock’s office in midtown and held a major demonstration outside their office by holding a die-in, then went inside, chanted and disrupted them.”
The Guardian reported last summer that BlackRock, an investment firm based in New York City, has the largest share of corporate shareholders of gun companies’ stocks. The die-in and other direct action activism is meant to disrupt daily business as much as possible to showcase the real harm being done by these companies.
“We're continuing to apply pressure,” Roethlein said. “In this environment with an NRA president, it will be difficult but we will keep on pushing.”
The National Rifle Association put more than $50 million toward political races in the 2016 election, the Center for Responsive Politics reported in November. President Donald Trump alone was more than $30 million of that investment.
Direct action means being loud and somewhat confrontational. Roethlein said they haven’t broken the law or done anything illegal, but “it’s on our menu as a possibility.”
“We’re not afraid to be out there, flashy, eye-catching,” Roethlein said. “We bring a visual, gay sensibility. We want to get [people] interested in our cause.”
Sometimes at demonstrations, there will be 49 people dressed in white, wearing white veils, holding plaques with names on them to represent each of the 49 people who died in the Pulse shooting.
“Most actions we do have human beings with us,” he said. “It shows people actual people who are dead from the terrible gun laws in this country.”
One of the biggest success stories was helping to unseat Kelly Ayotte, a former New Hampshire Republican senator. GAG went to her office in October, wearing white costumes and carrying signs that read “first she voted, then she lied, Kelly is guilty of homicide.”
Ayotte lost her re-election bid for the Senate in November, and Roethlein believed GAG had a big part in that.
Last Summer, the group protested and shut down two different Reebok locations in New York City over the judgement to award glock handguns as prizes in the CrossFit games. Reebok, the title sponsor of the games, holds CrossFit classes. The Games took down the mention of glocks as prizes on their website, but Roethlein is anxious to see if they keep the prizes for this year.
With direct action activism comes the very real prospect of direct confrontation. So has the group ever experienced pushback or violence from their work?
At a rally in Washington D.C. last Summer, the group partnered with the American Federation of Teachers and National Action Network for a march from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial — both were victims of gun violence. At the end of the march at the Lincoln Memorial, GAG did a die-in. Some people weren’t happy with the group’s demonstrations.
“One Iraq veteran was open about disagreement [with us],” Roethlein said. “There are a lot of people in America agree with him, that the best protection against gun violence was having a gun themselves.”
The roughly 100 active members in New York City meet every other week to plan events, programs, and yes, more die-ins. There are some other chapters — in New Jersey, Washington D.C., Massachusetts — but New York is the central hub for GAG. There’s been some interest, in cities like Baltimore, Minnesota, and Austin, but those aren’t as active as some of the others.
There’s no restriction to join and it’s free to be members. They make some money from organizations that have donated, but for the most part, people donate their time and materials when they can.
Regardless of who is on hand to help, the goal is always the same.
“We want universal background checks, a federal ban of assault weapons, and to drastically decrease the amount of violence that people of color and marginalized groups are experiencing every year from gun violence,” Roethlein said.