This week, millions gathered in solidarity with the victims, families and L.G.B.T. community affected by Sunday’s horrific attack of terror and hate at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Rallies were held from City Hall Plaza in Boston, to New York’s historic Stonewall Inn and in major cities across the country and world. As media and the public follow the unfolding developments of this tragic story, a range of intersecting issues are once again surfacing as part of our national discourse, many of which have direct implications on public health in the United States.
Gun control: Voices belonging to supporters and opponents of tightened restrictions on gun ownership and sales amplify in the wake of mass shootings. In the medical community, doctors and health professionals have long voiced concerns about gun violence as a public health crisis. Early last year, the New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial calling for more action on gun restrictions, writing, “Without deep cultural and regulatory changes, the chances of reducing gun deaths in the United States are slim indeed.” Massachusetts is a leader in gun control, writes Evan Horowitz of the Boston Globe, and has “about 70 percent fewer gun deaths than the national average.” Go figure.
Mental health: The tragic frequency of mass shootings places a spotlight on mental health. Many are quick to label an active shooter as “mentally ill” or “unstable.” Such reports are already cycling their way through the media, yet doing so can result in a dangerous assumption that stigmatizes a large population with mental health diagnoses who would never cause harm to anyone. As the public continues to search for answers regarding the shooter’s emotional and mental state, it is important to not forget about the victims, friends, families and communities that just experienced such unthinkable trauma, which will have longstanding mental health effects in the years to come. Recently, the Denver Post reported that witnesses to the 2012 theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado sought help processing the events in Orlando, “a reminder of how such incidents span both time and distance.” City officials from Aurora also offered support to authorities in Florida, drawing from experiences with their community’s tragedy to help people cope with the attack.
Regulations on blood donation from gay men: Images of hundreds of people lining up in Orlando to donate blood remind us of the overwhelming drive to help one another in times of crisis. A record-setting 5,300 people gave blood through Florida’s OneBlood donation network on Sunday. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently lifted a lifetime ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood which was put in place during the AIDS epidemic more than 30 years ago. However, they must still wait 12 months after having sex with a man if they choose to donate. Sunday’s violence prompted further calls from gay rights advocates, AIDS researchers and members of Congress to rewrite the regulations, citing new testing methods that dramatically shorten the waiting periods on results for blood-borne diseases like HIV. On Tuesday, the Boston Globe Editorial Board wrote that the aftermath of Sunday’s massacre is “tinged with cruel, absurd irony” as the current FDA abstinence policy “only affirms the stigma still attached to same-sex relationships.”
Domestic violence: Far too often ignored in the debate over gun control and mass shootings, domestic violence is a public health epidemic affecting nearly one in three women across the United States. According to a Huffington Post analysis, in 57 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2015, the assailant targeted a family member or intimate partner as part of the attack. On Sunday, the Orlando shooter’s ex-wife told the press that he regularly abused her and once held her hostage—actions for which he was never held accountable. As Soraya Chemaly writes in the Rolling Stone, “Intimate partner violence and the toxic masculinity that fuels it are the canaries in the coal mine for understanding public terror, and yet this connection continues largely to be ignored, to everyone’s endangerment.” Just two years after a young man vengefully massacred a sorority at the University of California Santa Barbara, we must once again face the fatal ways in which hidden misogyny can manifest in our country on a large scale.
These public health issues are part of a much larger debate around civil rights and national security that will continue to unfold in the months leading to this year’s election. Moving forward in this discourse without mourning the victims in solidarity with their families and their communities is unacceptable. This is a sad, confusing and difficult time for our country in which an individual felt entitled to strip the safety from spaces created to liberate and welcome people subjected to a long history of mass violence and persecution. It is up to the public and the media to ensure these victim’s stories are not overshadowed or forgotten.