Are Guns a Gay Issue?

With the January 8 shooting in Tucson that killed six and wounded 13, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, many gay blogs, like much of the blogosphere that leans left, were initially enthralled with the notion that extreme rhetoric and images promulgated by the right drove 22-year-old Jared Loughner to make the attack.

When it was disclosed that Daniel Hernandez, an intern in Giffords’ office who aided her after she was shot, was gay, the gay blogosphere seized on that meme.

While the mainstream press has run some stories on how the attack may advance gun control initiatives or issues related to how Loughner’s apparent mental illness was handled at the community college he attended, there has been virtually no talk of these matters in the LGBT community.

While some argue the benefits of defending yourselves, the toll from violence is meaningful

That lack of a conversation is surprising because members of the community have certainly been the victims of gun violence. The 2009 suicide of a longtime gay community leader also raises questions about the easy access to guns in many American states.

“This issue here isn’t about Sarah Palin or guns,” said Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of GOProud. “It’s about mental health and how we treat it in this country… That’s an issue that needs to be talked about in the gay community and in the country at large. I can honestly say as an average person I don’t know enough about it.”

The conservative gay group was among the few organizations to respond to Gay City News’ queries on the topic. The broader community has discussed guns in the past, but is has generally been gun rights advocates who have had such conversations.

The Pink Pistols, a gay gun owners group, was founded in 2000 after gay author Jonathan Rauch wrote on Salon.com that more gay men and lesbians should learn to use firearms to protect themselves. The Pink Pistols website carries the slogan “Armed Gays Don’t Get Bashed.” The group, which claims 60 chapters in 33 states and three countries, did not respond to a call and emails.

In 2008, Dale Carpenter, a University of Minnesota law professor, argued in the Washington Blade, “Gun ownership might, at the very least, give [gay people] peace of mind. And widespread knowledge that many gays are packing might give their would-be attackers second thoughts. Gun rights are gay rights.”

Whether carrying guns would make LGBT Americans safer can be debated, but there is no doubt that they have been victimized by gun violence. In its study on 2009 hate crimes, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that firearms accounted for 19 percent of all weapons used in bias attacks.

Also in 2009, Rodger McFarlane, who at various times headed the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the theater group Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS, and the Gill Foundation, took his life with a gun.

In records obtained from the New Mexico State Police, it is clear that McFarlane set his suicide in motion at least a year earlier when he legally purchased a gun and particularly lethal ammunition.

McFarlane wrote in a letter to a friend that he was not struggling with mental illness, but had opted to take his life to avoid what he thought was an inevitable physical deterioration.

“I’ve always planned to off myself before I became seriously ill,” he wrote in the letter that police recovered. “You know that. I always imagined that would come with a sudden diagnosis, a clearly marked crossroads like a stroke or lung cancer. But I’ve re-thought that, especially over the last four years.”

Friends who survived McFarlane, notably playwright Larry Kramer, insisted he made a rational choice. That would be unusual. The link between suicide and major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other types of mental illness is overwhelming. Those who work in suicide prevention have generally argued for stricter controls on guns because they are so deadly.

There were 35,933 suicides in the US in 2008, with 18,251, or 50 percent, of those deaths completed with guns, according to the National Vital Statistics Report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All other causes accounted for 17,681 suicides in 2008.

Homicides with firearms accounted for 12,209 deaths in 2008, while other means caused 5,628 homicides that year.

For gay groups, wading into the thorny issue of gun control is best avoided. Some issued statements decrying Loughner’s attack, but that was all. The national groups are also aware of competing views in the community.

“With respect to gun rights, there are many LGBT people that feel strongly about their own personal gun ownership rights,” Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, the leading gay lobby, wrote in an email. “It’s an issue that people of good judgment can and will disagree on. Like gun ownership and violence, there are a whole slew of issues that affect our community. 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.”

Inga Sorenson, spokeswoman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, wrote that the group “does not have an official position on gun control.”

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