My son, Christopher, was an easy-going child from birth. He was fun and happy. He used to love taking baths when he was little because I always sang his favorite song during bath time. He used to pretend like he was taking a bath just to hear me sing the song.
He enjoyed meeting new people and making friends — he was the epitome of a social butterfly. Christopher was a good student and got good grades, but he also strived for balance in his life and made sure to prioritize spending time with friends and family.
Christopher was very caring and considerate and had a spirit of helping others. So much so that in high school, a school counselor recognized this spirit and nominated him for the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award for standing up for gay and lesbian teens at his school. It was just after the September 11th terrorist attacks and the Florida Holocaust Museum created the award to honor a student who fought against hatred. Christopher won that award the first year it was offered.
I was a single mom and Christopher was an only child, so we were very close. My profession was quite flexible so I moved to Polk County, Florida, to be closer to him while he went to college earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of Central Florida. He ended up working at a mental health facility to help diagnose people experiencing homelessness and living with mental illness. Christopher eventually took his licensing exam and became a mental health counselor in Orlando Hospital’s emergency room. I was so happy for him because, as a mom, when your child finds his niche, it’s very rewarding.
I have a memory book I made for him. It’s called, “Mother’s Memories for my Son.” It was going to be something that he could look back on if he was much older and remember me by. Now I look at the book and remember him.
On June 12, 2016, I woke up at 3 a.m. and checked my phone. I saw that a friend of my son’s, Brandon, had posted on Facebook that there was a shooting at a local nightclub called Pulse, and that he hoped his friends got out okay.
Alarmed, I immediately messaged Brandon and asked if Christopher had been with him. He said yes, but he didn’t know if Christopher got out of the club safely. Brandon was waiting at a 7-Eleven near Pulse to see if he could get any more information, so I hopped in my car and took off to meet him.
I arrived at the 7-Eleven near the club but Brandon was not there. I asked a police officer near the scene of the shooting if there was another 7-Eleven nearby. He said yes and pointed me in the right direction. I then asked if anyone was hurt in the shooting and the police officer matter-of-factly replied, “Oh, yeah. They’re all over the floor.”
I found Brandon at the other 7-Eleven and he described his account of what happened. In my previous career I had been a state trooper for ten years and I knew immediately that the shooter had used an assault weapon.
Brandon was very upset and decided to go home, but another friend of Christopher’s — J.P.— went with me to the hospital. I knew that anyone who was injured would be taken to the hospital so, naturally, that’s where I wanted to be in case my son needed treatment.
When I got there, I noticed a reporter standing next to the emergency room entrance and thought it might be a good idea to stay near the reporter because the hospital would be less likely to ask me to leave. While I was waiting there, I told the reporter that Christopher was in Pulse at the time of the shooting and I could not find him. The reporter put me on the air in an effort to help me spread the word that Christopher was missing.
As the night went on, the crowd outside the emergency room grew and grew as concerned loved ones received word about the shooting. Eventually, police moved us to a hospital conference room and asked us to provide pictures and other identifiable information about our loved ones.
As the night went on, it was clear we were not going to get the information we so desperately wanted. The police told us to go and call a hotline to keep up with the latest information. I did that but then was told I needed to be there in person, so J.P. and I went back to the hospital again. When we arrived, we were told no information would be released until 8 a.m.
It wasn’t until 33 hours later that I would get official word that Christopher was dead. He was hit multiple times and–based on his injuries–had likely been unable to walk or run to escape. In total, my son was shot five times in the torso and four times in the back. Christopher’s boyfriend Juan also died that night.
The killer had the run of the club.
Since Christopher’s death, I have become an advocate of common-sense gun laws. The vast majority of Americans want common-sense gun safety. I cannot understand why a common citizen would need an assault weapon with the ability to shoot that many rounds in a minute.
There isn’t one solution that can stop all gun violence. But there’s so much more we can do to save lives. We cannot afford for what happened in Orlando to take place anywhere else in our country. Americans have a right to feel safe whether they are at a prayer service, in a movie theater, or like my son, at a nightclub. We deserve better.
I’m very optimistic about seeing meaningful change because, since the election, people have become invigorated. People are ripe for a resistance. The election has inspired so many more people to get involved and become activists.
In fact, I believe it might prove to be the best thing to move our cause forward and give us the momentum we need to drive real change.
Christine Leinonen is the mother of Christopher Andrew “Drew” Leinonen who was one of the 49 people killed at the Pulse Nightclub shooting. Christine is a member of the Everytown Survivor Network. If you have been personally affected by gun violence and would like to share your story with Moms Demand Action, please email [email protected]