Tuesday marked the first ever National Gun Violence Awareness Day, an event meant to bring attention to victims of gun violence across the country by having participants wear orange.
The concept originated by a group of Chicago teens, members of Project Orange Tree, in the aftermath of the shooting death a friend, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton. Her death epitomized the senselessness of the violence in the Windy City.
Pendleton was killed on Jan. 29, 2013, while talking to friends in a park after school. The shooters later told police she was not the intended target and that they meant to kill others in the group — those they mistook for members of a rival gang.
Just a week before, the honors student performed in Washington with classmates at President Obama’s second inauguration. The idea behind wearing orange was borrowed from the clothes hunters wear to stand out in the woods so other hunters know not to shoot them.
Everytown for Gun Safety essentially gave the concept a megaphone. Launching it on June 2 – the day Pendleton would have turned 18 – the gun control advocacy group used its assets to market the campaign through media and social networking. In response, roughly 200 celebrities and politicians participated by sharing self-taken photographs of themselves wearing orange and other announcements.
Online and on TV the campaign successfully spread as the hashtag #WearingOrange trended on Facebook and Twitter. The organization said the campaign garnered more than 87,000 tweets with a total reach of 215 million. On Instagram, more than 2,000 posts from 1,369 contributors, which posts generated 5,603 comments, 234,000 likes and 15,000,000 impressions. On Facebook, it reached more than 6 million users.
In Chicago, where the celebration took place, the campaign had modest success with an estimated 100 to 200 people attending the event.
Despite the event being hosted by a gun control advocacy group, there was little mention of politics and legislation. The atmosphere was more akin to a summer festival. Between the hours of 3:30-8 p.m. at the Harold Washington Park on the South Side of Chicago, a DJ spun tunes before and after a Motown band played, people ate barbecue, kids jumped in a bouncy house, families of those killed by gun violence thanked people for coming, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel did a meet and greet and then the show closed with slam poetry.
As attendants shuffled in they were greeted at tables where they could pick up T-shirts and other memorabilia. Those attending were a mix of those who suffered a loss through gun violence, the politically involved and passersby checking out the free event.
Activities centered on fun, which kept many engaged – the bouncy house was packed with kids throughout the event – and speeches focused on honoring victims. Many had signs with a picture of a family member, his or her age and the date they died. The focal point of the event was Pendleton, whose parents while still grieving sang with joy happy birthday to their late daughter.
Although the campaign gained popularity by connecting to the likeminded on an emotional level, it’s hard to say if “Wear Orange” will catch on – something Everytown is curious about as well.
“The impact remains to be seen since we’re still on the day of the actual gun violence awareness day,” said Jason Rzepka, Everytown’s director of cultural engagement, to Guns.com Tuesday. “I think our approach or hope was that this serve as a day for people to raise their hands and say ‘This is something that I care about, this is something that I’m willing to do something about, that I want to get involved and I want to do what I can to help reduce gun violence. … Today is in some ways the beginning – an introduction – to this idea and this concept.”
By next year, Rzepka said Everytown is hoping that by engaging people on a micro level it will get them involved at a macro level.
“We know a lot of the fixes and we know a lot of the things that will keep people safer and lead to positive momentum, but we need to connect the people that believe that with the organizations that do that work and there are many of them,” he said.
However, Everytown’s political opponents, gun rights advocates and groups, were less enthusiastic about the campaign. Although there was no counter protest at the event, some parodied the Wear Orange campaign online by sharing photos of prisoners in orange jumpsuits, hunters wearing orange, and victims wearing orange before an ISIS beheading.
The National Rifle Association called the campaign “pointless” and advised its members to buy a new gun instead of participating.
“If you see any friends or neighbors wearing orange, consider the possibility that they: a) don’t support your right to self-defense; and b) have a rather naïve view of what constitutes real activism,” the NRA wrote in an announcement.
Rzepka responded to the criticism saying, “I would take the message that we’ve put forth today about the value of human life in all the ways you can save lives from gun violence … and I would put (the NRA’s comments) to the American people and say, ‘Which of these do you believe? Which of these do you think is more credible? Which of these do you think is more legitimate?'”