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How can we make sense of the Orlando shooting?

15 June 2016

As the world mourns the tragic loss of 50 lives, how can we answer the questions around homophobia and mental health raised by the Orlando shooting? Our researchers appeared on ABC’s The Drum to discuss the complex debate. 

On 12 June 2016, a gunman took the lives of at least 50 people and injured another 53 at a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The horrific attack was the deadliest mass shooting in US history.

As the world mourns this tragic loss of life, questions of how we make sense of an act of mass violence and hatred that targeted gay men and women remain.

Dr Christopher Neff and Professor Ian Hickie from the University of Sydney took part in a panel discussion on The Drum, broadcast on ABC on Sunday 13 June. During the program, they addressed the following five questions:

1.    Is the Orlando shooting a hate crime?

“It’s Latina night at Pulse in Orlando. It’s a queer event, on a queer night during gay pride,” Dr Neff told The Drum.

“There’s no question that this was a hate crime. This is an anti-gay hate crime.

“It’s important that we are very clear about that and don’t erase any of the different identities [of the individuals who were killed]. They were members of the LGBTIQ community who were killed as well as people of colour and at least eight were women.

“If Donald Trump can be called out for racism, then this can be called out for homophobia. Killing queer people is homophobic. Nobody stumbles into Pulse nightclub at 2am with an AK-15 for three hours and accidentally kills 50 people.”

2.    How can we talk about mental illness in relation to Orlando?

A psychiatrist and prominent health campaigner, Professor Ian Hickie told The Drum that there are very few mass shootings that can be explained by active mental illness.

Professor Hickie said the perpetrators of mass shootings are typicallymen who are marginalised, isolated and “often quite paranoid in their ordinary thinking, who live in a society that encourages both the hate aspect to mass shootings and then the availability of guns to act out their aggression.

“With the American election campaign, which should be a great celebration of democracy, we see violence breaking out at rallies. This is where things have really come unstuck,” Professor Hickie said. The normalisation of extreme violence should be of great concern, he said.

3.    Why recognising the anti-gay nature of the shooting matters?

In the hours following the shooting, politicians in Australia came under criticism for making statements that did not initially express sympathy for the LGBTIQ community.

Dr Christopher Neff told The Drum, “I don’t know what [they] were thinking by not talking about this as a queer nightclub or an anti-queer attack, but they’re wrong.

“This is a time to recognise the lives that were lost, and these were queer lives.”

4.    An issue of gun control or the mental health system?

“Mental illness is a worldwide phenomenon,” Professor Hickie said. “But there’s nothing like the degree of mass shooting in the US.

“We have incidents elsewhere in the world, like Port Arthur in Australia, but there’s nothing like the repeated episodes of mass shooting in the US, anywhere else in the world.”

5.    What should a good policy response involve?

“There are lots of forms of violence,” Dr Neff said. “We saw the most extreme form of this at the Pulse nightclub.

“Homophobia is violence. It drives youth to suicide and we need to be taking care of our youth: we need to have policies that treat all people equally.”

The Drum on ABC

Watch the full episode here