While the FBI says it’s investigating the shooting in the lobby of a national conservative organization in Washington Wednesday as a potential hate crime, experts say the shooting suspect does not fit the typical profile of someone involved in such violence.
Floyd Lee Corkins, who allegedly shot a security officer after saying, “I don’t like your politics,” was characterized, in an affidavit released Thursday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as a strong supporter of gay rights. The shooting took place at the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank known for its opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights.
Mr. Corkins, a volunteer at a community center for gays, held “strong opinions with respect to those he believes do not treat homosexuals in a fair manner,” the FBI affidavit quoted his parents as saying.
According to the affidavit, Corkins was carrying two loaded magazines for a Sig Sauer 9mm handgun, a backpack containing 50 rounds of extra ammunition, and 15 sandwiches from Chick-fil-A, the Atlanta-based fast food chain targeted by gay rights groups after its president was quoted as saying he supported “the biblical definition of the family unit.”
Corkins was charged Thursday with assault with intent to kill while armed and with interstate transportation of a firearm and ammunition. The guard, who was shot in the arm, remains hospitalized.
“It’s pretty unusual to find a hate crime from the left end of the [political] spectrum,” says Kathleen Blee, a nationally recognized expert on extremist groups. “Most hate crimes are against vulnerable populations like religious people or minorities.”
“It’s really quite rare,” says Ms. Blee, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “Generally, gay rights advocates are engaged in violent acts against property, but it’s very rare for a gay rights activist engaged in violence against people.”
David Mariner, executive director of a Washington community center for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people, told the local media Corkins was a volunteer there for six months.
“No matter the circumstances, we condemn such violence in the strongest terms possible,” Mr. Mariner said.
How law enforcement defines a hate crime depends on the statute in each state. In most states, Corkins’ alleged actions would not be classified as a hate crime, since the designation is reserved for victims who were singled out because of their race, color, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, gender, gender identity, or disability, and the Family Research Council is considered a political organization.
On the federal level, the Shepard Byrd Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2009 defines hate crimes as incidents related to race, color, religion or national origin of the victim.
However, according to 2011 data from the Anti-Defamation League, four states – California, Iowa, Louisiana, and West Virginia – and the District of Columbia add political affiliation to their definition of hate crimes, a designation that protects advocacy groups like the Family Research Council.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino, says the nature of the organization, which shapes its positions based on how it interprets Christian doctrine, lends legitimacy to the hate-crime designation.
“Because the organization also defines itself in religious terms in additional to political ones, it is reasonable to look at this as both a hate crime and also a lone wolf act of domestic terrorism,” Mr. Levin says.
Domestic terrorism, which is more serious, “relates to the use or violent threat to intimidate a population or subgroup for social or political goals,” Levin says.
If the shooting at the Family Research Council is ultimately defined in the trial as a hate crime, it would contradict the organization’s own policy on the issue. On its website, the organization condemns the hate crime designation as a “penalty for the politically incorrect thoughts that allegedly” motivate violent actions. It says no such laws are needed because violence is already illegal.
“We oppose all Thought Crime (sic) laws in principle, because penalizing people specifically for their thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes – even ones abhorrent to us and to the vast majority of Americans, such as racism – would undermine the freedom of speech and thought at the heart of our democracy,” the website reads.
The organization stresses it has “particular concern” when violence related to sexual orientation is classified under federal or state hate crime laws because it “sends the false message that deviant sexual behaviors are somehow equivalent to other categories of protection such as race or sex. In fact, the very term ‘hate crime’ is offensive in this context, in that it implies that mere disapproval of homosexual behavior constitutes a form of ‘hate’ equivalent to racial bigotry.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery Ala. classifies the Family Research Council as a hate group based on its opposition to gay rights and past attempts by the organization to link homosexuality to pedophilia.
Wednesday’s shooting has encouraged conservative groups to say such designation is in itself hateful and must not be tolerated.
“Today’s attack is the clearest sign we've seen that labeling pro-marriage groups as ‘hateful’ must end,” Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, said in a statement released Wednesday.
Levin says that the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, the research organization he operates out of the criminal justice department at California State University, does not regard the Family Research Council as a hate group even though it has “taken counter positions against them on the hate crime law topic.”
He adds that the SPLC “does not require groups to engage in criminality” to receive the hate group classification.