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What do the Orlando copycat threats really mean?

Is this a matter of guns, mimicry, or good old-fashioned hate?


Mary Emily O'Hara


“We need more Orlando’s,” read one San Diego Craigslist post.

“I am going to stand outside the bar and use f**gots as target practice,” said a caller on the phone to Boxers NYC, a gay bar in Chelsea.

“I’m going to shoot this place up and get my 50 just like Orlando, Florida,” bellowed Justin Rice, a patron at Brooklyn’s HappyFun Hideaway bar.

In the two-plus weeks since the Orlando shooting that took 49 lives and injured 53 more at the Florida gay club Pulse, dozens of headlines have revealed what appeared to be an uptick in copycat threats against LGBT people, businesses, and events. Rainbow flags were burned, the KKK scattered at least one neighborhood with homophobic flyers, and even two active-duty U.S. Marines were reportedly under internal investigation after posting Orlando-style, anti-LGBT shooting threats online.

To an outsider, and to the mainstream media, it certainly looks as if the Orlando shooting inspired a sudden onslaught of violent threats aimed at the LGBT community. Parents are contacting their LGBT children and pleading with them to avoid gay bars. Police and federal agencies are increasing security at pride festivals and parades. Everyone is freaked out.

Should we expect another Orlando to happen soon? That depends on how you define what happened.

To some Americans, the Orlando shooting fits right into an ongoing timeline of mass killings that began with Columbine. Regardless of the location or the population targeted, law enforcement are always on the lookout for copycats. 

Research and data show that mass shootings increase each year, and that each individual shooting is followed by a brief period of rapid contagion. In fact, most of the research on gun violence characterizes it as exactly that—a contagious disease that spreads with both access to guns and with the increased visibility of violent attacks that inspire people already teetering on the edge of violent ideation.

In the July 2015 Arizona State University report “Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings,” data showed a consistent pattern of immediate upticks that lasted about two weeks after a shooting.

“We find significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are incented by similar events in the immediate past,” read the report’s conclusions. “On average, this temporary increase in probability lasts 13 days, and each incident incites at least 0.30 new incidents.”

But it’s not just actual acts of shooting and domestic terrorism that cluster; threats increase as well. Whether or not those threats turn into action is another story.

“We’ve had so many of these, that’s kind of our new normal,” said a former FBI profiler. “Even the lesser case is going to generate a copycat.”

The Daily Dot spoke with retired FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole, author of The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective who specializes in the psychological workings of those who commit violent terrorism. She said that such incidents tend to “ignite” a spectrum of people prone to violent behavior.

“The good side is the majority of people who make threats will not carry them out,” O’Toole told the Daily Dot. “But there’s no way to know with absolute certainty who that person is that fully intends to carry out this threat of violence. So when they come in, each and every one of them has to be vetted.”

O’Toole, who worked on the Columbine case and still consults on others, describes a scenario in which the FBI now scrambles to keep up with shootings that occur so frequently, it’s becoming impossible to define which attacks are the primary incidents and which are the copycats.

“We’ve had so many of these, that’s kind of our new normal,” O’Toole said. “It’s not something we turn on and off, because even the lesser case is going to generate a copycat.”

Shooting clusters can be visibly tracked in an infographic series maintained and updated on USA Today‘s website. While some major shootings aren’t followed by copycats (it was nearly two months between the Virginia Tech massacre and a family-related shooting that claimed five lives later that year), the patterns are unmistakeable. For example, 2015 saw a summertime cluster of mass shootings nearly every other day between July 16 and August 8. Apart from one, all of the shooting incidents were near-identical family killings.

Screenshot via USA Today

Definitions over what constitutes a “mass shooting” also vary. Gun Violence Archive’s crowdsourced Shooting Tracker showed hundreds of mass shootings for 2015, which were defined as any shooting in which four or more people were shot, whether killed or injured. But contrast that with the 2014 FBI definition of a mass killing: Three or more deaths caused by “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” By that definition, a school shooting that leaves 12 injured but only one dead wouldn’t count. A man who slaughters all six members of his family inside a private home probably wouldn’t count, either.

So what does all of this say about Orlando and possible copycats? Not much. That’s because we don’t have a very stable system of keeping track, but it’s also because we’re so inundated with mass shootings that we can barely count the days in between. According to the Shooting Tracker, there were three mass shootings the day after Orlando. But it would be a stretch to call any of them—mostly teenage victims in inner-city areas already dominated by gun violence—copycats. Especially because there were even more mass shootings (five in total, with 10 casualties and 12 injured) the day before Orlando.

A parallel runs between the FBI’s scramble to keep up with mass shooting clusters and the LGBT community’s own dam against homophobic and transphobic violence.

In the days after the Orlando shooting, vigils were held all over the world as gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, and queer people huddled together for support—and to share newly reignited fears. For many, the mass killing inside of a gay club ruptured a bubble of safety and social progress that had settled in after marriage equality and other legal victories were reached in 2015. For others, the attack was a reminder that very little had actually changed.

While media reports just after Orlando suggested an uptick in anti-LGBT sentiment—largely in the form of threats against gay bars—there wasn’t necessarily any difference. Instead, the longstanding problem of anti-LGBT violence was newly thrust into the spotlight; the violence was framed as having returned when, in fact, it had never disappeared.

According to the latest annual report on anti-LGBT violence compiled by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, homophobic, and transphobic attacks actually increased in 2015—the year before the Orlando shooting. Shelby Chestnut, co-director of community organizing and public advocacy at the Anti-Violence Project in New York, told the Daily Dot that as anti-LGBT homicides have statistically increased over the years, she theorizes that we’re actually “just getting closer to the number we’ve known existed for years.”

“I don’t think we’re seeing an increase in threats or violence, we’re just seeing more attention on the violence that’s already there. Those people have existed long before Orlando.”

“What we’re grappling with is that this country had to wake up overnight to a devastating deadly reality that LGBT people have been acutely aware of,” Chestnut told the Daily Dot in a phone interview. “I don’t think we’re seeing an increase in threats or violence, we’re just seeing more attention on the violence that’s already there. Those people have existed long before Orlando.”

The problem with pinpointing increases or lulls in anti-LGBT violence stems from a problem with data collection. As Chestnut pointed out, the U.S. Census does not track sexual orientation or gender identity, making it impossible to even estimate the number of LGBT Americans. The FBI’s hate crimes data only applies to a specific definition of violence motivated by “race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation,” and FBI crime statistics in general are drawn from information volunteered by police agencies. Some entire states (Florida included) do not report crime data—and when it comes to LGBT victims, the data can be misconstrued or misreported by police.

But there’s a bigger, uglier problem when it comes to police data on anti-LGBT violence: Queer and trans people don’t feel safe going to the police in the first place.

“What we’ve seen nationally now for two years is a decrease in people who experienced hate violence going to police,” said Chestnut, emphasizing that data that doesn’t reach the police will never reach the FBI. “The reasons they don’t report to police is because they fear not being believed, they fear being mis-arrested, being mis-gendered…a number of things.”

The annual AVP reports are compiled using data from a national network of LGBT agencies, community centers, nonprofits, and various other services, including health clinics. The unique community reporting system allows AVP to circumvent the complications in police and FBI data and go directly to the source.

And the 2015 report revealed a disturbing trend: 80 percent of hate violence survivors said that when they tried to report attacks to police, officers were “indifferent or hostile.” As a result, the number of victims who reported incidents to police dropped between 2014 and 2015 to less than half.

Tension between police and the LGBT community is an issue that needs to be discussed in the wake of the Orlando shooting, as cities respond to a perceived rise in threats by installing more officers at pride parades, and billionaires like Mark Cuban donate hefty sums to increasing police patrols in gayborhoods.

“The country has moved to talking about gun violence and gun laws,” said Chestnut. “But we’re unwilling to talk about the fact that police presence is increasing at pride events in an environment in which the majority of LGBT people are not trusting of or having positive interactions with the police.”

Even though homophobic and transphobic violence was on the rise before the Orlando massacre, the Florida shooting has marked a turning point in public awareness and response. 

Suddenly, politicians from coast to coast are pledging to protect the LGBT community while ramping up law enforcement initiatives to guard against a similar attack. At the same time, it was the Orlando shooting that finally inspired extreme anti-gun action on the part of Congress—with senators filibustering and Democrats holding a sit-in on the House floor.

But what if the only way to prevent another Orlando isn’t by militarizing the LGBT community or by eradicating guns, but by eradicating homophobia and transphobia at the root?

“It’s easier to talk about guns that it is about the systemic hate and violence against LGBT people that this government allows to continue,” Chestnut told the Daily Dot. “It’s about schools, it’s about employment protections, it’s about homes.”

“It’s easier to talk about guns that it is about the systemic hate and violence against LGBT people that this government allows to continue.” 

For Chestnut and many others who work in LGBT community services, it’s impossible to separate Orlando from the school bullies who call a transgender teen “it.” Or the adoption agency that won’t place a baby with a lesbian couple. Or the Airbnb host evicts a gay man upon arrival. Or the court clerk who refuses to hand over a legal document because she says it violates her faith.

And here is where the threat of copycat Orlandos and where the longstanding, fear-gripping threat to the LGBT community at large meets its master: hate.

According to former FBI profiler O’Toole, hate is the only motivating factor that drives any mass shooter.

“Hatred is such a systemic state of being,” O’Toole told the Daily Dot. “It’s not like anger. They hate African-Americans, they hate women, they hate gays, they hate immigrants…and when you really sit down and study their life, they really hate everyone.”

O’Toole suggested that it’s impossible for a mass shooter to simply come out of nowhere. It takes a slow build of hatred and a preoccupation with violence, and signs are typically there ahead of an outburst. And most importantly, O’Toole stressed, it takes access to guns.

“All along the way, if someone doesn’t recognize the signs that this is a young man who is preoccupied with violence, who has ideations of violence, is filled with aggression, is filled with hate, who is fascinated by weapons,” warned O’Toole, “That’s the kind of thing that I’m talking about.”

Omar Mateen the killer wasn’t created in a vacuum—and his profile matched that of so many other distressed, violence-obsessed young American men who commit mass shootings. But Mateen’s choice of a gay club as the site of his mass killing spree also didn’t exist in a vacuum—it followed on the heels of decades of anti-LGBT violence and murder.

Such violence blooms in an atmosphere in which homophobic and transphobic messaging gains volume. The Orlando attack may have taken the most lives, but the constant smaller attacks that preceded and followed it took place as waves of anti-LGBT legislation made front page news in various states, as conservative groups launched massive boycotts of companies like Target because they support LGBT rights, and as “religious freedom” acts were enacted in order to codify and allow discrimination.

Many activists who fight anti-LGBT legislation and harassment have been the targets of hate crimes themselves. Gender Justice League Director Danni Askini is one of them. “I was the victim of three violent hate crimes in Portland, Maine, where I went to high school,” Askini, who has campaigned against anti-trans laws in Seattle, told the Daily Dot, adding that the case was prosecuted and covered in local media. “That’s why my career has been so focused on LGBT activism. I don’t want anyone to experience that kind of violence and objectification.”

When it comes to imagining some sort of solution to the unchanging epidemic of anti-LGBT violence, it can feel like an impossible task. Restrictive gun legislation isn’t going to keep people from getting jumped outside of gay bars, and increased police presence isn’t a viable option for those in the community who already experience high rates of profiling and police harassment. Besides, if hatred is the spark that ignites anti-LGBT violence—and according to O’Toole, all mass killings as well—then we can take away all the weapons in the world, but hate would still fester and grow.

It would seem that the first step towards curing homophobic and transphobic violence is curing discrimination.

“Violence starts in the brain,” O’Toole told the Daily Dot. “Not in the hands.”

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