I’m having brunch with an LGBTQ Meetup group in Somerville, Massachusetts. It’s a diverse bunch whose backgrounds range from finance and paralegal to barista and plumber. As I dig into my huevos rancheros, our conversation turns to the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle; not in regard to banning the weapon. No. But more in terms of general practical tips on the firearm’s functionality. And almost every member at our brunch table seems to have their own insightful, experienced opinion.
“What’s your name?” asks a friendly guy wearing a baseball cap with a thick New England accent.
“Harmon,” I say.
“I like this group because everyone has such unique names,” he shares. “At my regular gun group, everyone has the same seven names.”
This is how it goes at the monthly gathering of the Boston chapter of the Pink Pistols—an LGBTQ gun group that first formed nationwide in 2000 and saw a spike in membership following the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, coupled with the election of Donald Trump.
The mottos of the Pink Pistols say it all: “Armed Gays Don’t Get Bashed” and “We Teach Queers to Shoot and We Teach the World We Did It.”
The Boston Pink Pistols meet ups are designed to share gun affinity and instruction amongst the LGBTQ community—as well as providing time to fire off some heat at a nearby shooting range.
“I don’t like trying to tell people they should be scared of crime rates or whatever,” said Aaron Grossman, president of the Boston chapter of the Pink Pistols. “I don’t like trucking in an emotion as a sales pitch.”
Grossman, a congenial guy with a long braided ponytail, who grew up around gun culture in rural Massachusetts has a very eclectic background. He’s worked in the circus arts, as a go-go dancer, and is also an electrical engineer. Grossman stepped up to the plate and resurrected the Boston Pink Pistols after the chapter fell apart and needed a driving leadership force in 2016 following the Pulse shooting.
“No one deserves to be on the receiving end of violence,” explained Grossman. “If you agree with the basic premise that self-defense is a human right—and firearms are a useful tool for that—and that everyone deserves to do this, including people in the queer community… then you can call yourself a Pink Pistol.”
Since Trump took office, there’s been a steady rise in hate crimes. Last year, the FBI reported a 17 percent increase across the U.S. Victims targeted due to their sexual orientation and gender identity made up nearly 15.8 percent of all hate crime victims.
“That fear of being arrested doesn’t actually result in people not committing crimes,” said Grossman, explaining that the Pink Pistols ethos is not for members of the LGBTQ community to go all Charles Bronson-vigilante-style, but instead to put out in the ethers that someone targeted as a potential victim could also have the ability to fight back. “And if their ability to fight back includes any number of firearms or weapons, that deterrent effect is more powerful,” said Grossman. “I want predators to be afraid. I want predators to do their risk-reward analysis… and realize the risk is greater than the reward and stop being predators. And if that happens by us, being public about being the Pink Pistols—awesome!”
But for some Pink Pistols members, being “public” can be both a blessing and a curse; that’s one of the big changes since 2016.
“I can’t let people I work with know I’m doing this,” said the petite woman sitting next to me; a first-timer in the gun world who shared that she also has a fondness for Dungeons and Dragons. “I won’t disclose it. I don’t think I’d be comfortable.”
This NRA-endorsed activity is a problem within the LGBTQ community. In fact, Grossman told me beforehand, “A lot of our members are uncomfortable with reporters, as many are not necessarily out in all aspects of their lives.”
What Grossman means is, in this liberal enclave that is Boston, where you see a large billboard with a Parkland victim and the words Gun Laws Save Lives as you drive into town, not all people are comfortable coming out and professing to their friends and family… that they are a gun owner. In these recent years, it’s a double-standard of being applauded for taking the steps to defend yourself against hate crimes, while being ostracized by the means in which you choose to do so.
“It’s easier being ‘out’ in the ‘gun community’ than it is being an gun owner in the queer community,” Grossman explained. “Generally, this is a function of issue bundling—guns are considered a ‘conservative thing,’ and queers are assumed to be progressives. Whenever you cross the streams, as it were, you can expect some push back.”
Pink Pistols members have described losing friendships over their firearm fanaticism—or being called “baby killers” and the like by lifelong acquaintances for not submitting to a typical liberal groupthink.
“I’ve personally been cornered at parties, and told I’m wrong for teaching people to defend themselves because they shouldn’t have to be scared walking home at night,” said Grossman. “Ironically, my goal is to empower people to feel capable, precisely so they don’t have to be afraid.”
Besides Pink Pistols, since 2016 other LGBTQ pro-gun groups have also organized across the country. The Trigger Warning Queer & Trans Gun Club, out of Rochester, New York formed as a counter to armed and organized extremists—after the Trump victory emboldened white supremacists. The motto on their Facebook page states: “Not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you.”
“An unfortunate reality of the world we live in is that there are dangerous, hate-filled individuals that walk among us, and they don’t typically give their victims any advanced warning,” said Piper Smith, who runs the group Armed Equality based in Southern California. Smith, who came out as a member of the LGBTQ community in 2014, learned firsthand the prevalence and dangers of hate crimes, especially after the Pulse nightclub shooting.
“It can happen again,” she said, “and the thousands of supporters of Armed Equality agree that we should learn from this history so that we can do our best to avoid repeating it.”
Much like Pink Pistols, Armed Equality has a lot of first time gun shooters joining the group: “Many LGBT individuals have never been around self-defense culture and have historically been rejected from a lot of the mainstream Second Amendment community that consists primarily of cis-het white men,” Smith explained.
Smith also agrees about the stigma of being a gun owner in the LGBTQ community but doesn’t blame it on weaponry introduced to a progressive community. “This is primarily caused by our incredibly divisive mainstream media that prefers to focus on inanimate objects while ignoring the true root causes of violence conducted with those objects,” she said. “When this is mixed with extremely ignorant reporting, political grandstanding and virtue signaling, it creates the perfect recipe for the creation of illegitimate negative stigma.”
“We recognize that the LGBTQ body is under attack, It’s always been under attack,” said John Grauwiler, one of the principal organizers of Gays Against Guns (GAG) a New York-based “inclusive direct action group of LGBTQ people and their allies committed to nonviolently breaking the gun industry’s chain of death.” GAG has a shared understanding with the Pink Pistols; both groups want people in the LGBTQ community (and all communities) to be safe. But, “We don’t support using guns,” Grauwiler continued. “Because we know that the stats tell us that carrying a gun—whether you’re LGBTQ or a person of color—if you introduce a gun to a situation, it increases the chance, five times likely, that someone is going to die!”
Grauwiler understands why people in his community carry guns, but maintains that “introducing that object increases your chances of death exponentially.”
GAG also believes that the epidemic of gun violence disproportionately affects LGBTQ people—but in other ways. As stated on their website: “Most gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides, and LGBTQ people are overrepresented among suicide victims.”
In the case of preventing another Pulse nightclub massacre, Grauwiler is not a proponent of the whole good guy with a gun can get a bad guy with a gun mantra. “Yeah, so when does a good guy become a bad guy?” he asked. “These are smokescreens for addressing the real issue of gun violence and that is we know the NRA has an agenda… These key phrases that the NRA creates in order to pivot from the real issue—which is their commitment to guns everywhere.”
Grauwiler also sees a flaw in the mindset of creating an ecosystem where people don’t know who might happen to be armed, as well as arming yourself if traveling to unfamiliar places because you don’t know who’s out there.
“The root of that… consists off a larger ideology that the NRA exists off of… that everyone and your neighbor must be feared. This is the NRA’s insidious messaging at play,” he said. “I don’t subscribe to that. I don’t know if living in a perpetual state of anxiety creates a cohesive or unified world—in fact, I know that it doesn’t. I’m not saying violence doesn’t exist, but to me, it just perpetuates a culture of violence. That’s not a world I want to live in or a world we, Gays Against Guns, want to support.”
“We are not interested in trafficking fear—we are interested in finding empowerment—and advocating for peace and for safety,” he added.
Grauwiler would like to see an open forum to discuss these issues with Pink Pistols, considering that both groups are essentially after the same goal.
“People are adults, they can make their own choices, But we’re not going to get involved in a turf war between Pink Pistols and Gays Against Guns,” said Grauwiler.
Time to Go Shoot!
After the Pink Pistols split up the bill for brunch, we then carpool to the Harvard Sportsman Club, a gun range roughly a half hour outside of Boston.
“There’s a limit to how much I can affect people by just telling my neighbors to just be awesome to everybody,” says Grossman. We first stop to pick up some targets at Grossman’s house. Six months ago, the Boston Pink Pistols weren’t a legal entity. Now, a formalized structure has been put into place which allows people to donate money to the organization via their partner, Operation Blazing Sword, to provide targets and other items needed to keep the gun group going. The plus is, anyone who shows up can get free instructions and utilize the abundance of guns and ammo on hand.
“The NRA has always been supportive of the Pink Pistols,” Grossman says as we continue towards the shooting range. “That said, while there are folks who are members of both, there is no official tie between the two.”
“I’m just a dude who likes sharing this within my community,” he adds. “I don’t care what your reasons are for coming to me. I just care that you want to be a responsible and safe gun owner. I want to help.”
Upon arriving at the Harvard Sportsman Club, roughly a dozen Pink Pistols members assemble inside the lodge as Grossman, clad in a T-shirt with a coiled snake that says in rainbow colors “#Ishootback,” gives the safety rules of the range.
“Our job is not to leave here with more holes than we started the day with,” he exclaims.
We head down to our shooting range—which is directly behind another shooting range, separated by a large dirt mound berm. I’m told this is safe.
“It can be a bit disconcerting to hear gun fire erupting directly behind us,” a bearded man informs me while loading bullets into a clip. “It took me a while to get used to it,” he adds as the tin roof enclosure reverberates with the sound of flying stones and projectiles.
Firearms, ammo and targets are unloaded onto a long table, and I have to say, this is the friendliest bunch of gun enthusiasts I’ve ever met—a mix of first timers and seasoned pros who’ve brought a wide variety of weaponry from their personal collections, ranging from Magnums and stylish Berettas to old-timey revolvers.
Grossman gives instructions to two women, first-timers, on how to load bullets into the clip and the proper shooting stance before they fire away, while everyone else exchanges gun tips and starts blasting at targets down-range; bullet shells land everywhere.
“Don’t tell anyone our dirty little secret,” whispers a short older man originally from England. “It’s fun!” he says with a grin. As bullets continue to fly, he tells me that he was part of the founding membership of the Pink Pistols—back in 2000 when it began. “The whole point of Pink Pistols was to encourage people who weren’t part of the classic gun culture to learn how to defend themselves,” he says. “And yes, I carry… most of the time.”
“I don’t really feel the need to defend myself at the moment,” he continues as a series of loud pops erupt. “Things could change.”
“It would protect anyone from a hate crime—it doesn’t have to be LGBT,” says a woman with a corporate day job. “It’s just a very fun group.” She shares why she joined the Pink Pistols back in November, hearing about it first at a Republican Meetup. “Boston Pink Pistols has no political affiliation and political leanings,” she says as I strain to hear her over the sea-bursting gunfire mere feet away.
“There are people here from multiple areas on the spectrum—but we don’t talk about politics. We all have our different reasons for being here: people who are gun owners, people who maybe the victim of hate crimes and people like me who don’t exactly have a gun but just enjoy gun shooting and having fun.” Still, the woman continues, “There’s a lot of stigma, I’d say, around gun ownership. So if you say, ‘Oh, I like to shoot guns.’ People will make certain types of assumptions.”
“Now, you shot a gun,” I overhear Grossman saying to the woman who loves Dungeons and Dragons after she blasts off some heat for the very first time.
“It was great. It was exciting,” she says beaming ear-to-ear. “I’ve never handled a gun before.”
“Do you want to shoot,” Grossman then asks me as more bullet shells bounce off my boots. Previously, I was prepared to answer with the witty, “I only shoot photos”—being that I’ve fired my fair share of guns over the years and it never really did anything for me. But instead, I find myself answering, “Sure!”
Grossman watches as a load three bullets into the clip.
“Just three?” he asks.
“Yup,” I reply. “I’m good.”
I load the clip into the .22 and fire away as the air smells of sulfur and the sound of hundreds of bullets erupt around me. Most people say they get a buzz out of firing a gun. I get that. It’s a fight or flight adrenaline rush as bullets continue to fly, and the tin roof loudly reverberates with the sound of projectiles—but it only reminds me of other scenarios with the exact same sounds and smells—and sadly a lot less fun.
And this is where we’re at in history.