When the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) made what it called a “significant policy announcement” of endorsing some limited gun control measures, the nation’s largest LGBT rights group also opened itself up to possible conflicts with some donors and the politicians it supports.
“If what they’re saying is gun control is a gay issue, then the question is where do you draw the line on others?” said Ken Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College.
In a special meeting on June 16, HRC’s board of directors adopted a policy that supported “limiting access to assault-style rifles, expanding background checks, and limiting the ability for suspected terrorists, and those with a history of domestic abuse to access guns.”
The new policy was announced the next day.
In some respects, HRC’s hand was forced by a gunman murdering 49 people in an LGBT club in Orlando, Florida, on June 12. On June 16, dozens of LGBT, AIDS, progressive, and faith groups issued a statement that called for preventing “known and suspected terrorists and those convicted of violent hate crimes from legally buying guns” and ensuring that “criminal background checks are required on all gun sales, including online and at gun shows.”
HRC was not among the signatories when that statement was first released, though it has since been added.
HRC resisted taking such a position previously. In 2011, after Jared Loughner killed six people and severely injured Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic member of Congress from Arizona, an HRC spokesperson told Gay City News, “With respect to gun rights, there are many LGBT people that feel strongly about their own personal gun ownership rights… That said, we try and swim in our own lane though and not take positions on issues that could dilute our core message of equality for all Americans.”
The positions of all the groups, including HRC, closely mirrored two pieces of legislation proposed by Democrats in the US Senate. That legislation and two alternatives introduced by Republicans were defeated in procedural votes on June 20.
Since its founding, HRC has presented itself as a bipartisan political organization. While Democrats are its most frequent allies, a few Republicans have voted for legislation that HRC supports. If HRC, which did not respond to requests for comment, should now decide to score gun control votes in its Congressional Scorecard, which is issued after every Congress, it could have problems with some Republicans it has praised in the past.
Republican Rob Portman, the US senator from Ohio, won plaudits from HRC in 2013 when he endorsed same-sex marriage. Portman, who has a gay son, voted with HRC in 2015 on legislation to protect LGBT youth. But Portman, who is running for reelection this year, was endorsed by the NRA in 2010 and again this year. That pro-gun group spent just under $88,000 this year to help his campaign.
In May, HRC issued a press release that praised 29 House Republicans for supporting an amendment to a defense appropriations measure that barred federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The amendment, which was offered by Sean Patrick Maloney, an out gay Democrat from New York’s upstate Hudson Valley, first passed, but the House leadership held the vote open beyond its deadline, allowing seven Republicans to switch their votes and defeat the amendment.
Some of those 29 supported the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which barred employment discrimination based sexual orientation and gender identity. That now-defunct legislation has been replaced by the Equality Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the protected classes in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The new legislation has a single Republican sponsor in the House, Robert Dold of Illinois, out of 175 sponsors. In the Senate, Mark Kirk of Illinois, also up for reelection this year, is the only Republican sponsor out of 41 sponsors.
But 21 of the 29 Republicans who earlier supported ENDA have received donations from the NRA since 1998 that range from $1,000 for Justin Amash in Michigan to $28,350 for Charlie Dent in Pennsylvania, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. Some of the 21 are retiring and at least one, Amash, has soured in his relationship with the gun group. If HRC scores gun control votes, it risks losing the support of the few Republicans who have been allies at times.
“In that case, you move away from the basic rule, which is reward your friends and punish your enemies,” Sherrill said.
If HRC does not score such votes, it risks making its new position look toothless and it could alienate the grassroots LGBT gun control groups that have sprung up after Orlando. But HRC may not be interested in being tough on gun control.
“It depends on what HRC’s purpose is in doing this, in taking a position on gun control,” Sherrill said. “At least one read on it is that it’s trying to reposition itself into the constellation of more general progressive organizations out of the single issue constellation.”
Part of the reason that HRC has been a single issue group is that this posture avoids arguments over matters that are not seen as central to the LGBT community. Some of HRC’s claimed 1.5 million members could well have positions on guns that are closer to the NRA than the organization’s new position and may object if the groups starts to spend cash on the issue.
“Are there going to be new money resources coming into HRC or are we going to divert resources into this?” Sherrill said. “I think it’s likely they are going to have to explain to their donors why they are doing this.”