Look At Me: #WearOrange and gun violence activism in the United States

Megan Doney explores how the colour orange has come to represent the movement against gun violence and how such protests intersect with the feminisation of gun violence activism. 

#WearOrange Promotional Logo. Image Via Wear Orange.

Orange is one of the “most polarizing” colours, writes Katy Kelleher in The Paris Review. It is the most common “least favorite color.” Blaze orange, also known as safety orange, hunter’s orange, or OSHA (Occupational Health & Safety Administration) orange, is also the only colour that is standardised by the United States government. The fact that firearms are so loosely regulated in the United States makes it both ironic and fitting, then, that blaze orange has become a colour associated with gun violence prevention. The #WearOrange faction of the United States gun violence prevention movement effectively combines connotations of caution and safety with rhetorical appeals to maternal protective instinct, achieved through the feminisation of gun violence prevention activism.   

The feminisation of gun violence prevention in the U.S. can be traced back to the Million Mom March in Washington, D.C. in 2000. Founder Donna Dees-Thomases was inspired to organize the event after a mass shooting at a Jewish community centre in California. The movement mobilized again in 2012, the day after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, in which twenty children and six teachers were murdered. Self-described stay-at-home mother Shannon Watts began a Facebook page that she titled “One Million Moms for Gun Control.” She quickly amassed followers and volunteers. Today, the organization’s website claims ten million members and chapters in every state.  Moms Demand Action members regularly lobby Congress and state houses for sensible gun reform and have successfully integrated many politically inactive women into activist roles.

Betty Holzendorf at the Million Mom March 2001. Image Via Wikimedia Commons.

#WearOrange is a parallel movement aligned with Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety. On 21 January 2013, Chicago teenager Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed. Wear Orange explains that her friends, “decided to commemorate her life by wearing orange, the color hunters wear in the woods to protect themselves and others”. Hadiya’s mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, became known as a “Mother of the Movement:” one of a group of Black mothers whose children were killed by firearms. These women have appeared at the Democratic National Convention and have become public figures advocating to prevent gun violence, marshalling their tragic loss into meaningful social change. The web site for Moms Demand Action contains a link to WearOrange merchandise. The Wear Orange line includes ball caps, towels, water bottles, pins, and stickers. The movement developed into Gun Violence Awareness Day and Wear Orange Weekend, the first weekend of June. Partners across the corporate world, including Gucci, Yahoo!, Levi Strauss & Co., and Paramount Entertainment also participate, and U.S. landmarks like the Empire State Building in New York City and the White House have been illuminated with orange lights to publicize the calamity of gun violence. Every day in the U.S., roughly 110 people are killed by firearms, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Senator Kamala Harris Supports the #WearOrange Campaign, 2017. Image Via Wikimedia Commons.

Tough mothers, mama bears, tiger moms, mother hens
: there are dozens of idioms that illustrate the psychological associations of motherhood with strength, protection, and the willingness to defend the vulnerable at all costs. Some members of Moms Demand Action go so far as to get tattoos proclaiming their allegiance to this idea. Sara Hayden cites Cynthia Stavrianos, who argues that “[m]others are afforded a special respect and considered especially moral and caring. These widely shared and deeply held beliefs about motherhood make maternal frames especially resonant and, therefore, potentially very powerful tools of mobilization.” Both the largely white mothers who make up Moms Demand Action members, and the Black Mothers of the Movement, are united in their maternal identity as a source of their investment in change. The phrase “as a mom” is frequently deployed in women’s public statements about gun violence, signifying maternal identity as a singular impetus for activism.

While it has undoubtedly been effective in bringing women into activist circles, a detriment of maternal rhetoric is that it potentially alienates non-mothers, who cannot call on maternal power to legitimise their activism. Moreover, Hayden notes that it “ignor[es] men’s responsibility to participate in repairing our world.” This latter caution is especially urgent as the perpetrators of firearm violence in all contexts in the United States are overwhelmingly male.

Grandmothers Against Gun Violence March to City Hall, 2015. Image Via Wikimedia Commons.

In the time spent writing this blog post, over five thousand people in the United States have been killed by firearms. The scourge of firearm violence in the United States transcends race, geography, and economic class; U.S. residents are regularly shot in their homes, schools, workplaces, recreation centres, and houses of worship. Just as I was writing, on the eve of Valentine’s Day 2023, eight students were shot on a university campus, three killed. Safety orange, which is intended to alert human beings to one another’s presence and insists on being seen and acknowledged, is a tragically appropriate use of colour to call attention to a calamity that affects all United States residents. There is no such thing as a safe space. All U.S. residents need to be reminded of one another’s presence and one another’s humanity; we should all wear orange, every day.


Megan Doney is a professor of English at New River Community College in Virginia, United States where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her research interests include gun culture, collective trauma, and memory in light of mass firearm violence in the U.S. She is at work on an essay collection about gun culture and illusions of safety, and is represented by Jennifer Chen Tran at Folio Literary Agency.


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