Early in the morning of June 12, 2016, Jerry Wright was celebrating a friend’s birthday at the Orlando nightclub Pulse when an American-born shooter opened fire on the club and shot Wright five times, murdering the 31-year-old Walt Disney World employee along with 48 other victims. A year later, Wright’s Miami-based parents, Fred, 59, and Maria, 57, share with Billboard the experience of losing their son in a terrorist attack and how two lifelong Republicans who support the Second Amendment have since devoted their lives to changing America’s gun laws. As Maria puts it, “I hope we can make clear this is not a Republican or a Democratic issue — this is an American issue.” As told to Camille Dodero.
Maria: Our son Jerry usually came to visit us in Miami about every four to five weeks. On Friday, June 10, I talked with him about coming down that Saturday morning, June 11, but then he realized Father’s Day was the next weekend. Obviously if he had come that Saturday, he would still be here.
Fred: Jerry was the kind of kid that he’d call both of us — my wife and I — once or twice daily. He was very close to us. He was just an incredibly gentle, wonderful human being. He worked at Disney World.
Maria: Jerry was silly, sweet and friendly. He liked people and he was a good neighbor: His neighbor was in her 80s and he would have a glass of wine with her every other day.
Fred: On that Saturday [June 11], we went to a little golf tournament and he called that night, probably around 9 p.m., while we were having dinner. The next morning, I saw there’d been a shooting in Orlando. He’d told me he was working late that night, so I wasn’t too concerned. I went to play golf. Like a normal Sunday.
Maria: Fred woke me up and said, “There’s a shooting in Orlando.” I said, “Jerry?” Fred said, “Don’t worry, he was going to work late.” But I still texted Jerry. When I didn’t get a text back, I started calling him. By the time I texted him, he was already dead.
Fred: At that point, he had five bullets in his body. He was laying in the club. Soon after I finished the golf game, my other son, Jerry’s older brother Joseph, called and said, “Dad, I think Jerry was at Pulse in Orlando: I just got a call from his roommate.” We headed to Orlando immediately to look for him in the hospital.
Maria: They read the names of people in hospitals and he wasn’t on it.
Fred: They sent us to another place where they said the medical examiner would brief families. I said, “Medical examiner? What are you talking about?”
Maria: We were told we’d have to wait — not to call, not to go to the medical examiner — just to wait, from 5 p.m. Sunday until the next morning. Can you imagine what that night was like? We just kind of held each other and cried. Because of course we knew. I know my son would’ve called me. The only two options were either: He was severely hurt, but not in a hospital, or he was dead.
Fred: It was absolutely dreadful, not knowing.
Maria: My daughter, Aida, was in Atlanta and took very first flight out on Monday. My son Joseph brought her back from the airport around 10:45 in the morning. They were ushered into a briefing, where we had already been told. I turned around and shook my head to my children — that was the way I told them their brother was dead.
That Wednesday we came home to Miami. I was already a member of [gun-violence prevention group] Everytown [for Gun Safety], which sent out an email blast about Pulse. I responded, “My son was killed. What can I do?” That was how we started our apprenticeship with this issue.
Jerry died on June 12, 2016. We went to Washington D.C. on July 12 to meet with U.S. Senators and representatives.
Fred: The gunman was an American-born terrorist who’d been put on a terrorist list by the FBI twice, yet he just walked into a store and bought assault weapons. Even though we respect the Second Amendment very clearly, something has to change.
Maria: My daddy was from Texas. I was born in Dallas. I know how to shoot. I grew up with guns in my house. We’re not trying to take law-abiding citizens’ guns away. It’s dangerous people getting them so easily — and that’s what we’re trying to change. We are lifelong registered Republicans. We support the Second Amendment. That did not make any difference when our son ended up with five bullets in his body.
Fred: That’s why we’re pouring our hearts and soul into doing whatever we can: Laws that would require a background check for every gun sale, that will make it tougher for anybody who’s dangerous to themselves or other people to get guns. It’s gonna be a very long battle, but that’s what we’ll be doing for the rest of our lives.
Maria: We’ve written op-eds and letters. We’ve made phone calls. We’ve been to Maine, New York, Tallahassee, we have spoken at venues. I have become fairly close to several other Pulse mothers. I have become fairly close to many people in the gay Orlando community. But I’ve had people who love me tell me, “You really need to stop talking about this. It’s not good for you” when they see me so openly state that my son was shot five times. It’s not that it doesn’t tear me up every single time I say it; it’s not like I don’t wish I had been there with him — the idea of him dying by himself without me there to hold his hand really bothers me.
Fred: If somebody tells me, “You’re getting boring because all you talk about is the situation” — I say, “No, we gotta keep talking about it. Because that is precisely why my son was taken is because people were not talking about it.” So we’re gonna be boring. We don’t want any other families to go through this.
Maria: One of the hardest things to accept, for me, is that this horrible way of feeling is the new normal. There are moments when you say, “There’s just no way that I can live like this.” Yet, you do, because you have to. I have to learn to live without my son, my buddy. Can you imagine there’re 48 additional families? The pain is not just my pain.
Fred: This year in Florida, there were 16 different gun bills that would’ve made it easier to have guns — they even wanted to make the whole state open carry — so we went to talk to lawmakers in Tallahassee.
Maria: I told the lawmakers in Tallahassee: “Please do not make Florida an open-carry state. Because any time I see a gun, I see my son, dead.” Fred can’t even look at toy guns and he’s a toy buyer.
Fred: I have an export business and in January, I was at a Hong Kong toy fair. There’s a section that’s all toy guns, but they look very, very real, and I just had to run the other way. I was just in Scotland and I went to a golf course in Carnoustie. Next to it, there’s a firing range used by the government. I kept hearing the guns going off and I broke down. I couldn’t play.
Maria: This is the first anniversary, there’s a part of me that is — the word isn’t “happy,” but at least gratified — that so many people are remembering this horrible incident and the people who were affected. But I’m also a pragmatist enough to know this is the big hoopla. Probably by the second year, people will not be remembering it the same way. But I’ll be honest with you: Next June 12, 2018 is going to be just as hard.
Fred: In 2019, 2020 — and forever. We’re gonna miss him terribly forever.
Maria: Our daughter Aida found out she was pregnant the week after Jerry died. We all felt like someone, with a capital “S,” threw us a lifesaver, gave us a light in the middle of all this darkness.
Fred: He was born Feb. 18 . His name’s Jerry.
Maria: He’s another reason to try and make a difference. If we save one life just by what we’re doing? That will have brought something good out of this horrible situation.