Pink Pistols: Gun-toting gay people

Tom Nelson, local Pink Pistols chapter president, at his dining room table holding his Colt AR-15 rifle.

Gwen Patton does not carry a gun specifically because she is a lesbian. She carries a gun because she believes random evil can put its hand on you at any moment - and gay people face additional danger.

"Yeah, because someone mugs you on the street, they want your wallet, they want your watch, they want money. A woman might also face a threat of rape," she says. "Another level is when they don't like you for what you are. There's a quantum leap in danger."

That's why she joined Pink Pistols when it was formed when the new century dawned. She now heads the organization of gun-toting gays and wants every gay to be armed. She also wants everyone else to know they are armed, trained and prepared to pull the trigger in life-threatening situations.

The idea is to make a gay basher think twice, to feel gays are not helpless, easy marks.

"These are tools of existence, extreme situations, last ditch, last resort, gotta do something," she says. "The police are great, but I can't carry one along with me. They're too heavy."

The federal government does not keep records of homicide by sexual orientation, but the FBI does put hate crimes into categories.

In 2014, the FBI reported LGBT people accounted for one-fifth of the 5,462 so-called single-bias hate crimes. They represent the second largest group of victims, following only race-based hate crimes, at 48.5 percent. Third place goes to religious-based hate crimes: 17.4 percent.

There is no shortage of gays murdered for what they are. Two of the most prominent were San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, who was shot to death in 1978, and Matthew Shepard, a gay student who in 1998 was beaten and tortured to death in Wyoming in a case that received international attention.

That explains her need for self-defense, Patton tells me as we sit in the kitchen of her rancher near Norristown on a hot summer day. We are talking guns, precautions and preparation.

She has zero fear of guns because she was introduced to them at an early age by her father, Paul, an insurance adjuster who owned many and customized his own weapons.

The first weapon she ever fired, at the age of 10, was a Colt .45, which is a powerful gun, and the weapon she carries today is a .45.

Paul "had me help clean them, maintain them. He wanted me to have a respect for them. There was no mystery to them at all."

She says she knew they were not toys. "I knew how to check to see they were safe. It was very much Eddie Eagle before there was Eddie Eagle," referencing the NRA's gun safety program for children.

Both she and her partner, Maggie Leber, are armed.

The father, so to speak, of Pink Pistols is Jonathan Rauch, who, in a 2000 essay for Salon, proposed gays "become comfortable with guns, learn to use them safely and carry them." He was motivated by the murder of Matthew Shepard and created the name Pink Pistols for an organization that would educate and arm gays, plus help them get licenses to carry for their own protection. One PP goal is to get members to a gun range at least once a month.

Gays are "very good about candlelight vigils for the fallen, but we're bad at protecting them from falling," says Tom Nelson, who took over the Delaware Valley chapter of Pink Pistols when Patton became the national leader, which they call First Speaker.

A retired computer programmer, Nelson got a BB rifle when he was 12, a .22 single-shot rifle at 14. He's been around guns his whole life.

Like Patton, he chafes at "gun-control" laws written by legislators with little if any experience with firearms.

"Gun control does not equal crime control. The two are not one, and the people in favor of gun control can't make that distinction," the tall and lanky 72-year-old tells me.

He's never had to draw his weapon, and "I'm fine with that," he says, although he has taken training to teach him how to act in different scenarios.

His carry weapon is a .40 calibre Glock. The Lansdowne resident is a lifetime member of the NRA, but having a gun on his hip doesn't turn him into Macho Man.

"Every safety instructor who's worth anything says that you should always avoid confrontation," he says.

But that's not always possible.

Andrew Green couldn't.

Now 46 and living in Bridesburg, when he was in his 20s, he left a bar in the Gayborhood and started walking to his car, some distance away.

It was summer, about 3 in the morning. A couple of guys started following him, and Green realized they were carrying a couple of lengths of lead pipe.

"One of them shouted 'Hey faggot!' at me, which broke what little cool I had left," says Green.

"I ran around the other side of my car, and I drew on them over the top of my car. They were in motion toward me at this point," he says, but they saw his stainless steel .38 Smith and Wesson revolver in the light of a street lamp.

"One of them shouted, 'Holy f-, he's got a gun!' and they both took off," says Green, a PP member who works in marketing and got his first gun at 18. He has some collector's items, such as a post-war .22 calibre Luger and a replica .44 calibre cap and ball Civil War pistol.

Today there are some 50 Pink Pistols chapters across the U.S. and Canada, many using this tagline: "Pick on someone your own calibre." There was a huge surge of interest after the June shooting inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, that left 49 people dead, Patton says.

The Pink Pistols Facebook page went from 1,500 to 8,000 in a month.

The desire of late to take to arms was by no means restricted to gays. The number of concealed carry permits has increased 161 percent for women and 85 percent for men since 2012, according to the Crime Prevention Research Center.

Patton, 54, suffered a freak auto accident in 2006 that left her largely disabled and unable to continue working in computer tech support. She has more guns than this month has days, yet doesn't get to the range much because of her disability. She wore pressure gloves on her hands as we spoke and moved around with difficulty.

While her physical state is bad, she is a formidable spokeswoman not just for guns, but for the need for LGBT people to arm up.

PP is nonpartisan, not connected with other pro-gun groups, such as the National Rifle Association, although it has worked with the NRA on specific goals, such as a defense of the Second Amendment, which PP regards as sacrosanct. It charges no membership fee.

Some anti-gun people regard the desire for weapons for personal protection as a form of paranoia. Patton answers by noting responsible homeowners have fire insurance even though they don't expect a fire.

Despite what many Americans see as a need to be armed for self defense, there's another legion that is fanatically anti-gun. That group exists mostly on the left, where most gays reside, while conservatives tend to be pro-gun but cool to social issues such as marriage equality. That creates an interesting dynamic for PP members that is not shared by its mirror-image group, Gays Against Guns. Its name tells you all you need to know.

Green says most of his gay friends are gun owners, but admits they are not the norm.

Green hasn't done much shooting lately because in February, a roommate slammed a door on his finger - his trigger finger.

"I lost about 7 mm of finger, 7 mm I was very fond of," he laughs.

Local chapter leader Nelson, who for a time worked for Remington Arms and designed guns, isn't laughing at gun laws that "are basically disarming people who need to protect themselves, while the criminals are going to break any law that you make."

Most of the people talking about gun control, he says, have little experience with guns. They suggest you are protected by the police.

"When seconds count, the police are only minutes away," he says grimly. He's never drawn his gun in anger and hopes he never will.

He, Nelson and Patton know almost as much about guns as a gunsmith, but each emphasizes safety and avoiding situations where using lethal force is necessary.

Jeff Bloovman is a member of Pink Pistols and an NRA certified gun instructor, but no great lover of the NRA. The tone-deaf statement made by NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre after the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre had him so mad, he almost turned in his NRA certification. He also parts company with the NRA on national background checks, which he supports.

A 34-year-old Philadelphia resident, Bloovman is fit, muscular "and as gay as the day is long," he says with a winning smile.

He instructs at the Gun Range, near 10th and Spring Garden, so we met there to talk. Since 2011, he's run Armed Dynamics, which teaches all forms of personal protection, including guns.

"I don't want my students getting into gun fights. It's a small part of self defense," he says.

"This is what 'gun guys' f- up," he says. "Not every scenario is a shooting scenario."

He sees his job as teaching when not to use guns.

Like the other members of Pink Pistols I interviewed, Bloovman regards lethal force as a last resort, but one that may be necessary, albeit hardly ever.

On that rare occasion, he says, "you shoot them until they stop doing what they are doing. You shoot them as many times as is needed, until he is no longer a threat. Then we must stop shooting because anything beyond that is murder."

Like the others, he's armed, trained and determined that when violence is unavoidable, he will not be a victim.

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