What would you do if someone broke into your home? Luca Bridgman called the police. It’s what he had been taught to do when something bad happens.
Bridgman, 46, recalls the nightmare scenario: A man had been stalking his roommate, who is a transgender woman, in order to figure out where she lived. One evening, the man broke through their front gate and tried to bust down the front door while Bridgman was in the apartment. The intruder clearly planned to kill Luca’s roommate, who wasn’t home. Luckily, Bridgman was able to escape before the man entered their home.
The response from local law enforcement, Bridgman says, was surprising. Instead of trying to catch the culprit, he claims the police blamed his roommate. When their home was broken into a second time, he says that the police dismissed his account altogether.
“Before then I was an extremely anti-gun person,” Bridgman says, but the experience changed his mind. “At that point, I made a decision. I could continue to live this way, obey the law, and call the police—or I could protect myself.”
Following the incident, Bridgman went out and joined the Pink Pistols, a national LGBT group that promotes gun ownership and training. Formed in 2000 by Gwendolyn Patton, the organization operates over 40 chapters in cities around the country, but membership has increased dramatically following the deadly attack on Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
In the wake of the massacre, groups like the Pink Pistols are trying to change the conversation about gun control in the LGBT community. The group’s motto puts it succinctly: “Armed queers don’t get bashed.”
The group’s motto puts it succinctly: “Armed queers don’t get bashed.”
Pistols founder Patton has referred to Pulse as “the gay community’s 9/11.” Whether or not you agree with that particular comparison, Salt Lake City Pistols member Matt Schlentz stays that the horrific violence was a “reality check” for queer people.
“Places like gay clubs, that are traditionally seen as safe spaces, where people who aren’t out yet can feel loved and supported, aren’t as safe as we would like them to be,” said Schlentz. “Gay bashings and hate crimes are something that we see on a daily basis here in America and every other country in the world. In the wake of Orlando, a lot of people said, ‘I’m not willing to let this happen to me or my loved ones. We’re going to stand up, and we’re going to learn to defend ourselves as citizens.’”
On the Saturday before the Pulse shooting, the Pink Pistols counted 1,500 members nationwide, according to the group. The day following the attack, the group’s ranks more than doubled, they said, with membership skyrocketing to close to 4,000 individuals.
The Pistols were originally inspired by writer Jonathan Rauch, today a member of the Brookings Institute. In a 2000 column for Salon, Rauch detailed the case of Austin Fulk, who was nearly assaulted by a group of four men. The only reason Fulk survived the encounter, Rauch writes, is because “his companion reached into the truck and whipped out a pistol from under the seat, leveled it at the gay-bashers, and fired a single shot over their heads.” “At that point, I made a decision. I could continue to live this way, obey the law, and call the police—or I could protect myself.”
The moral of this story, according to Rauch, is that “Homosexuals should embark on organized efforts to become comfortable with guns, learn to use them safely, and carry them… And they should do it in a way that gets as much publicity as possible.”
Today, the Pink Pistols provide firearm instruction, as well as teaching safety courses to its members. According to Craig Kamikawa of the Sacramento Pink Pistols, the group stresses four key rules when handling a gun:
1) Treat all guns as they’re loaded—always, all the time, no matter what kind of situation you’re in.
2) Point your gun in the safest direction possible. At a range, it’s down range. Depending on your environment, it’s either on the ground or away from other people.
3) Finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.
4) Know your target, your surroundings, and what’s beyond your targets.
This education serves a dual purpose. By advocating that its members be safe and prepared, the Pink Pistols not only teach their members how to fight back but also how to avert potential crisis situations. Although mass shootings like the one is Orlando are relatively rare, the LGBT community has long had reason to fear for their safety. According to a New York Times analysis of data collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation: “LGBT people are twice as likely to be targeted as African-Americans, and the rate of hate crimes against them has surpassed that of crimes against Jews.” Black and Hispanic transgender women are particularly at risk. The Pink Pistols not only teach their members how to fight back but also how to avert potential crisis situations.
“There’s a thing I tell people when we’re training,” Schlentz said. “In society, there are three types of people: There are wolves, there are sheep, and there are sheepdogs. Wolves are like the shooter in Orlando. Their only purpose is to cause chaos and destruction, to kill and maim. There are sheep, people who are morally unable to carry a gun or are scared of guns and don’t want to learn about them. And then you have people who are sheepdogs—people who will put themselves in between the wolf and the sheep and say, ‘No, that’s not going to happen.’”
He continued, “I could not live with myself if I watched something I know I could have stopped.”
“I want to make it as hard as possible for any human being who wants to buy a gun to get one.”
In the wake of the Pulse shootings, California’s West Hollywood neighborhood was inundated with signs featuring a LGBT-friendly version of the infamous “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, along with the hashtag #ShootBack. But many other LGBT groups have used the tragedy as a call to action of a different sort.
Draped in white veils, Gays Against Guns marched in this year’s New York City Pride parade with a very different message. The group staged a silent die-in at the Stonewall Inn, the historic site of the 1969 riots that kickstarted the modern gay liberation movement. Holding signs like “NRA Sashay Away” and “Flowers Not Guns,” GAG estimates that 500 supporters stood in solidarity with the victims of Pulse.
The New York-based activist group, which also formed in the wake of the Orlando shooting, believes more gun control, not more guns, is the best way to curb America’s gun violence epidemic.
The group’s first meeting was held in June at the LGBT Community Center in New York City’s West Village. “The consensus was that we needed to call out, shame, and demonize the gun lobby in the same way that ACT Up drew attention to drug makers that were doing nothing during the AIDS epidemic,” says Tim Murphy, a principal organizer with GAG. “Our approach had to be very theatrical, very public, very confrontational, and very embarrassing—calling out the bad actors, the people who were making this mass shooting environment possible.” “It’s about looking them right in the face and saying, ‘How can you live with yourself? You are profiting in death.”
In the weeks since, Gays Against Guns chapters have formed across the country—including branches in Washington DC, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, and Columbus, Ohio. Draped in their signature white veils, members have protested outside places like the National Rifle Association booth at the New Jersey State Fair and BlackRock, an equity firm that invests portions of the mutual funds it manages in gun companies like Smith & Wesson.
“We want to go right to the heart of an institution,” Murphy explained. “It’s about looking them right in the face and saying, ‘How can you live with yourself? You are profiting in death. You are part of this death machine.’”
Author and publicist Joseph Papa, who marched with Everytown for Gun Safety following the Pulse shooting, was similarly blunt. “I want to make it as hard as possible for any human being who wants to buy a gun to get one,” he says.
For the LGBT community, it was clear that something needed to change after Orlando. While guns and gays might seem like unlikely bedfellows, Pink Pistol activists say they are fed up with feeling like the victim. It’s an understandable reaction, if a potentially misguided one, according to Papa.
Papa says he respects the rights of “responsible gun owners.” But he also believes it’s simply too easy for guns to fall into the wrong hands. “It’s astonishing to me that’s a problem we have. It’s a uniquely American problem.” In 2016 alone, the Washington Post reports that 23 people have been shot by toddlers.
For the LGBT community, it was clear that something needed to change after Orlando. “When those guns fall into the hands of anti-LGBT or mentally ill Americans, the consequences are equally tragic. Forty-nine members of our community were murdered… because of a toxic combination of two things: a deranged, unstable individual who had been conditioned to hate LGBTQ people and easy access to military-style guns,” noted Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement.
The good news is that some of these efforts may be starting to pay off. In June, White House Democrats staged a sit-in to protest Congress’ inaction on gun control, and shortly after, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that domestic abusers could lawfully have their gun ownership privileges revoked.
“There does seem to be a change in the conversation,” says author Papa. “While I’m thrilled for that, I’m a little pissed that after Sandy Hook, the death of 26 children didn’t do it… But I think for the family members of the children and teachers who were killed in Connecticut, it has to feel like some small victory.”
And while he credits groups like the Pink Pistols for starting a conversation in the LGBT community on gun safety, Papa believes it’s much more crucial to educate people about the importance of expanding background checks, banning assault weapons, and keeping people on the no-fly list from buying firearms.
Owning a gun may make some people feel safer in the short-term, but research shows that more guns does not mean less crime. In fact, it’s the opposite. No one deserves to feel helpless in America, but as Papa suggests, even good guys with guns won’t fix America’s gun problem.