Published stories from George Miller, a journalist, photographer, educator, carpenter, world traveler, dog-lover and home owner. You can reach him at

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Tortured Justice: Philadelphia fighting for abused Iraqis

This was the cover story of the Philadelphia Weekly on April 19 - 25.

Susan Burke and her team of lawyers and researchers hope to help right some of the wrongs committed in Iraq.

LAWYER SUSAN BURKE STARES at the photograph of a 43-year-old former Iraqi police officer glowing on her computer screen. The man appears dignified. He has a strong chin and piercing eyes, and the pockmarks on his cheek are barely noticeable in the dim light. He looks dapper in a crisp white shirt and dark suit and tie.
Looking at the image you'd never know what the man had been through.

American soldiers raided the man's home, and he was taken away in front of his wife and five children. The details of why he was detained are sketchy. But he told Burke and her legal partner Jonathan Pyle that he was taken to a prison camp in Northern Iraq and kept in a steel cage roughly 3.3 feet wide and 3.3 feet deep.

He was held there for several days, restricted to the box when not being questioned by soldiers. During interrogations he said he'd been shoved against a wall and poked in his chest with a stick while blindfolded. He also told Burke and Pyle he witnessed horrible things.

He spoke of soldiers ordering a young Iraqi prisoner to punch his father, who was also a detainee. When the son refused, he was ordered to dig a hole in the ground. Then a soldier ordered the boy to lie in the hole and the father to shovel dirt on top. But because the father had only one arm, the burial was long and slow. The soldiers then made the boy crawl out of the dirt and ordered the father to ride the boy like a donkey.

Burke walks away from the image on her computer screen and stands in front of the large window on the second floor of her Powelton Village law office. She takes off her glasses and stares out at the busy intersection of 36th Street, Race Street and Lancaster Avenue. Cars traverse the wet roads and people stroll by with umbrellas. Tears well up in her blue eyes. She's quiet for a few moments and then returns to her computer.

She's just learned the man in the picture was killed in front of his home.

"An unknown gunman shot him in front of his family," she reads from an email.

He's the third of her clients to be killed in recent days, the fourth overall. It appears he was targeted, but Burke can't be certain why.

"We don't have any indication it's because of us," she says, pausing to compose herself. "But it's something we're concerned about."

Susan Burke and her team of Philadel-phia attorneys and researchers are leading a lawsuit against a pair of corporate military contractors whose employees, starting in 2002, allegedly conspired with government officials and military personnel to rape, pistol-whip, threaten, electrically shock, molest, verbally assault, kick, sodomize, urinate on and otherwise torture Iraqi nationals both in Abu Ghraib and other locations across Iraq.

So far, after four visits to the Middle East, they have statements from 144 former prisoners-including the former police officer who has just been killed-detailing episodes of violence, ignorance, spite and cruelty against people who were usually blindfolded, sometimes naked, often with their hands and feet bound.

"I'm of the view you can't torture anybody, whether they're criminals or not," says Burke, a 43-year-old mother of three who sports brown cowboy boots under her black dress slacks. "But these people are completely innocent. The people we've spoken to were all released without charge. There was nothing other than bad luck that got them picked up. And then they get tortured? It's just disgraceful."

Burke speculates the cost of the case, which was originally filed in June 2004, is already in the millions. Out-of-pocket expenses alone have run more than $250,000. A Maryland man provided $100,000 to Burke and Pyle's firm, but the rest comes out of money they make from other clients. The attorneys at the firm spend a significant amount of time working on the torture case-writing briefs, investigating legal options and poring over documents. And dozens of Penn law students have spent countless hours reviewing thousands of pages of documents. Recently Temple law students have begun helping as well.

An attorney in Michigan is also heavily involved, as is the Center for Constitu-tional Rights in New York. But the torture case is primarily a Philadelphia-based project whose goal is to right the alleged wrongdoings perpetrated by people representing the United States.

And Burke's spartan office is the epicenter.

While the death of Burke's client is horrifying and sad, there's more news expected today. Anxiety is already high. The defendants in the case-Titan Corporation, CACI International Inc. and five specific former employees-are expected to deliver a motion to dismiss to the court. They have until midnight, and chances are an email will arrive at the firm at 11:59 p.m. with the paperwork.

Burke and her team are well aware of the likely stand the defendants will take.

"They had a contract with the government, so therefore they should be entitled to something called the 'government contractor defense,'" Burke explains. "You're not liable because the government wouldn't be liable. The government has a lot of immunity from tort suits. So if all you're doing essentially is acting as an arm of the government, then you have some immunity too."

As a legal entity, she says, the United States is prohibited from torturing people, and that clouds that argument.

"The difficulty for them is that this stuff was illegal, so the government cannot legally order that it be done," Burke says. "They're in a bit of a fix in trying to prove that all they were doing was following government orders."

The class action suit doesn't directly fault the United States government or the military-a tactical move, according to Burke.

"We know there were some high-level people involved in this-Rumsfeld and others," she says. "Although our case is against two companies and the individual torturers, it's a conspiracy case. All these people worked together and formed a conspiracy and did torture these people. Naming them makes it more likely we'd embarrass the government into stepping in to try to shut the case down."

The lawsuit refers to government officials, military officials, soldiers and contractors equally as "torture conspirators."

"There's just a voluminous amount of evidence that this stuff happened," Burke says. "There's no way anyone can claim it didn't."

It's already taken 18 months just to settle arguments about where the case should be heard. A district court judge in Washington, D.C., has finally been assigned the case.

The motion to dismiss is the first stage in what's likely to be a process that lasts several years. Burke and her associates have until May 8 to respond to the motion (the judge is expected to return a decision by summer). If the case is deemed worthy of trial, they'll enter a discovery phase-an exchanging of information that could last more than a year.

Burke guesses the case may not be resolved until 2008.

"We're pushing as fast as we can," she says.

"Whenever you look at wartime, there are always things countries have done that they shouldn't have done, whether it's the My Lai massacre or the internment of the Japanese," says Burke. "As a nation, we've got to step up and hold these people accountable and correct them. It's an important part of our democracy."

The daughter of a retired Army officer, Burke started investigating reports of abuse from detainees in Guantánamo Bay and Afghanistan in 2002. At the time she was the head of Tenet Healthcare's regional law offices, and investigating the torture was nonpaying side work. When dealing with both her regular job and the pro bono work became too cumbersome, she left Tenet and became a partner at Montgomery, McCracken, Walker and Rhoads LLP, one of Philadelphia's grand old law firms. There she got other lawyers from the firm involved in the case, including her current partner.

Pyle, 29, wears his long brown hair in a ponytail that stretches halfway down his back. Dressed in a blue flannel shirt, green T-shirt, moss-colored corduroy pants and tan work boots, he looks more like a peace activist than an attorney handling a huge international case with potentially damning implications.

But Pyle, originally from western Massachusetts, was educated at Swarthmore College, graduated from Penn Law and served as a class action defense attorney for three years.

In April 2004 the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, and everything changed. Burke and Pyle immediately shifted their focus to Iraq, especially after the report made by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba was leaked to the media. The report detailed a litany of abuses performed against detainees, and concluded that "several U.S. Army soldiers have committed egregious acts and grave breaches of international law at Abu Ghraib."

The report also listed abuses by contractors, which is when the attorneys realized they had an angle: You can't sue the government, but you can sue those working for the government.

The torture case dragged on, and Burke spent many hours working on it without institutional support from her employers. Last August Burke and Pyle opened their own law practice, Burke Pyle LLC. City Councilman Michael Nutter, a friend of Burke's, is among the new firm's clients.

"It got to the point that it was so politically unfavorable that it was easier to work on it as a smaller firm," says Pyle.

"[Burke] has done this at tremendous personal risk," says Judith Chomsky, an Elkins Park attorney specializing in human rights cases. "She left a big law firm to pursue this case."

Chomsky, who's working on the torture case through the Center for Constitutional Rights, has a long history of fighting corporations that allegedly violate human rights. She was among the attorneys who represented Burmese villagers in a suit against the California oil company Unocal for alleged use of forced labor in Myanmar. The case was settled out of court in 2005. She seemed a natural to join the torture case team.

"There aren't a whole lot of cases like this," says attorney Anne Heidel, 28, a member of the Burke Pyle firm. "It's a lawsuit against private companies on foreign soil involving non-American citizens."

Heidel came to the firm from the powerful law firm Ballard, Spahr, Andrews and Ingersoll LLP, where she handled environmental litigation. Last summer she was approached by Pyle, a classmate at both Swarthmore and Penn, about joining the firm. Another Penn classmate, Heather Allred, also joined the firm and torture case.

"It's a unique opportunity," Heidel says. "You read about this in the news and you think you can't do anything about it. These are people who are profiting on these human beings. This is a way to get accountability. I'm helping atone for what happened."

"When you hear their stories, it really affects you," says Pyle as he recounts tales he heard during his most recent trip to Amman, Jordan, where he interviewed former prisoners.

The stories involve prisoners being forced to stand for hours on end, with some detainees upright for up to 20 hours straight. In many cases they were deprived of food and bathroom access. Some had words written on their faces, and others were forced to touch other naked detainees, male and female.

In one particular instance, five teenage boys were taken into custody during a raid in Baghdad. In blindfolds and handcuffs, they were shuttled to an airport facility and stored in small wooden cells too low to stand in. The boys were allowed to use the bathrooms only twice a day for only 30 seconds each time-and even then they remained handcuffed behind their backs.

"So even if they were in the middle of taking a dump and the time ran out, they could be yanked away," Pyle says.

After a week in the cells the five boys were chained together with other detainees and led onto an airplane runway. They were forced to walk in front of blazing hot engine exhaust that caused people to jump back and jerk around the others who were all tethered.

"The soldiers were laughing," one 16-year-old boy told Pyle.

The boys were then led onto a plane where they were told they were being taken to Guantánamo Bay. Less than two hours later the boys exited the airplane unsure of whether they'd gone anywhere. They were placed in a black interrogation room that had the words "ADMIT IT" written in Arabic in red.

Pyle says soldiers forced the boys to dance, and then they molested them.

In another case a woman carrying her 4-year-old daughter was killed when soldiers broke down her door. The daughter was killed as well. The father had a hood placed over his head and was escorted out of his destroyed home by soldiers.

"They allowed him, as he was being walked blindfolded, to step on the body of his dead wife," Pyle says.

A 17-year-old Iraqi boy was blinded when soldiers tossed a sonic grenade into his house.

"If he had money, he could have his eyes repaired," Pyle says.

The lawsuit lists even more egregious acts of malice. One client says he was tied to 11 other prisoners, all attached with ropes on their penises. Another client was forced to wear women's underwear. Several were threatened with growling, barking dogs. One man, according to the suit, was made to watch as his father was tortured to death.

The abuses continued long after the Abu Ghraib scandal hit the press. And they occurred at several detention centers.

When one prisoner had his head stepped on by a "torture conspirator" while praying inside a prison, he asked, "Why do you torture us and prevent us from worshipping God?"

According to the lawsuit, the torturer responded, "You are under our authority. We can do whatever we want with you."

At times Pyle seems uncomfortable talking about the stories, offering an awkward laugh at odd times.

"You don't know what to say to them," Pyle says of the former detainees. "On behalf of my fellow Americans, I'm sorry this happened to you."

"The most angry groups I saw were the Marines and soldiers who were out in the villages and provinces who were trying desperately to connect with people, to build credibility," says Anthony Zinni, retired United States Marine Corps general. "To them, Abu Ghraib pulled the rug out from under them."

A Philadelphia-area native, Zinni has come to town to promote his new book The Battle for Peace: A Frontline Vision of America's Power and Purpose.

The square-jawed 35-year military veteran briefly pauses outside the Comcast studios on Columbus Boulevard to talk about the prison abuse scandal. "I think there are some questions that have to be answered," says Zinni, who served as chief of the Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East, from 1997 to 2000. "I don't think there's been a satisfactory answer about how these young NCOs [non-commissioned officers] and enlisted men and women came up with these techniques."

The abuses-nakedness, verbal assaults, touching people in culturally inappropriate ways-were too institutional and routine to be random, he says. Reservists from West Virginia or Montana wouldn't coincidentally perform the same brutality in multiple detention centers.

"Those things aren't things that were conjured up somehow at their level," Zinni says. "These are obviously very sophisticated techniques-you talk about what it takes to intimidate an Arab male. That's the question that never got answered with satisfaction to me: Who's responsible? I don't know."

Since retiring, Zinni has been one of the most outspoken members of the military establishment against the way the Iraq war has been handled. And while he's been sharply critical of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush administration in the past, he won't say they're to blame for the prison scandals.

"I'm not going to speculate whether it was a matter of policy, or whether it was the people using these techniques," he says. "Were these approved? Where did they come from? How were they designed? Who was in on the interrogation? Where were these learned? Those questions have to be answered."

Having the abuses heard in court is vital, he says-for the military as much as for the victims.

"One of the most important things we value in the military is a sense of justice, making sure that if something's wrong, there are people held accountable for it," says Zinni. "It's really important in the time of war to keep the moral compass straight."

"More than retribution, they want justice," Pyle says of his clients. "What they want more than anything is to sit in the witness box, say what the person in front of them did and have that person punished for what they did."

Most of the prisoners, Pyle says, were gathered by the military simply because they were within proximity of someone who was thought to be a suspect. Their houses were barged into and severely damaged. During each raid dozens of people-men and women, from young teens to senior citizens-were blindfolded, cuffed and taken away without being given a reason.

The photos of the abuses have become famous, and some of the people in the images are plaintiffs in the case, including the man claiming to be the person in the black robe and hood, standing on the box with electrodes on his hands.

"These are people who are suffering, physically and mentally," Burke says. "To bring them some level of justice and accountability, some sort of compensation, that's the least you can do."

And seeking justice for these people has nothing to do with politics.

"We would've done this even if a Democrat were president," Pyle says.

CACI International's motion to dismiss rolls in around 6 p.m. Titan's arrives at 11:13. In all, there are about 280 pages of briefing to dissect.

John O'Connor, an attorney for CACI, says their motion is complex and hard to summarize, but "basically it's a contention that the complaint fails as a matter of law to state a claim."

The motion reads, "Plaintiffs continue to seek to inject themselves and this court into the process of establishing and overseeing the United States' foreign policy and the manner in which the federal government is waging the war in Iraq."

O'Connor says CACI was under the supervision of the United States military at all times. The motion doesn't address whether the abuses and mistreatments actually occurred because that's not appropriate at this stage of the legal battle, he says.

"CACI has at all times denied those allegations," says O'Connor. "But in a motion to dismiss, you have to start with the assumption of truth."

And now it's time for the plaintiffs' lawyers to really flex their legal muscles to ensure this case goes to court.

"These victims are counting on us to make sure their hopes for accountability don't get dashed at this early procedural stage," Burke says.

If the case goes to trial, many of the victims will come to America to take the stand.

The dead 43-year-old former Iraqi police officer won't have that opportunity.

Just to meet with the attorneys last month in Amman, Jordan, he had traveled at great risk for 15 hours by taxi on a dangerous road. But when he arrived, Pyle says the man was affable and loquacious, sharing stories-both good and bad-and telling jokes.

"What's the difference between a lawyer and a liar?" Pyle recalls the man asking in English.

The attorneys may never know if the man was killed because he cooperated with them.

"The politics are more complicated than that," Pyle says. "If our clients are heard to be hanging out with Americans, they can be targeted. If they are heard to be working against Americans, they can be targeted."

And the violence in Iraq continues.

"It's just kind of surreal," says Burke. "You meet these people-and then they're dead."

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Pink Pistols: Gays with Guns

This was the cover story of the Philadelphia Weekly in the April 12-18 issue.

The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight: Members of the Pink Pistols try to deal with hate crimes by arming themselves. Their pro-gun views haven't made them many friends within the gay community.

ELDERLY LADIES IN PRIM tan suits and buttoned-up white blouses chat at a nearby table as children squeal and laugh in the adjacent booth. Attractive young waitstaff in maroon shirts and khaki pants stand around flirting with each other, tittering and posturing, because this Huntingdon Valley restaurant isn't all that full on this cold afternoon.

Off to the side at Calloway's-a typical family-oriented restaurant and sports bar with lots of neon beer signs, wood paneling, vinyl tablecloths, video games and basketball games on big-screen TVs-an eclectic group of average-looking people gleefully talk about guns.

"I brought the Uzi along," says Andrew Greene, a 36-year-old self-proclaimed computer geek, former firearms dealer and Libertarian Jew from New York who now resides in Bridesburg.

Greene is a short, stout man with a large head covered in thick, dark hair. His beard covers much of his face. Wearing his glasses, he bears a slight resemblance to Jerry Garcia.

Phrases like "double-action trigger pull" and "recoil springs" easily and repeatedly flow from Greene's mouth as though he's talking about a baseball game or a movie. His eight lunch companions chime in with smiling, excited responses about new developments in gun technology, concealed weapons, violent crime and ultimately self-protection.

Self-defense is a big topic with this group.

"It's not really a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender issue as much as it is a human rights issue," Greene says. "The right to defend is a basic human right."

The organization that has brought these people together, the Pink Pistols, isn't simply a Second Amendment fundamentalist group. These people have more than just guns in common.

The Pink Pistols advocate the use of firearms for self-protection, specifically among their target audience: the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The slogan of the loosely organized club-there's no formal process to become a member-is rather blunt: Armed gays don't get bashed.

"When friends find out I'm in this, they're horrified," says Greene's 25-year-old straight roommate who asks not to be identified because he doesn't want his co-workers to talk about him. He speaks softly in a high-pitched voice. A long blond ponytail sprouts from under his camouflage Winchester Rifle baseball cap.

"They think I'm a fascist, a warmonger," he says.

Many of the Pink Pistols revel in their ability to live in two worlds that seem so ideologically divergent: the gun-loving NRA crowd and the queer community.

"They assume all of us must be Republicans," says Gwen Patton, the international media spokesperson for the group and head of the Delaware Valley chapter. "Some of us love Bush, but that's a whole different agenda."

She deliberately pauses for a moment.

"And yes," she says with a wry expression, "I meant that as a double entendre."


The Pink Pistols were founded in July 2000 on a lark.

Doug Krick, 35, a former Libertarian candidate for state representative in Massachusetts, had a few friends with whom he liked to go shooting. He knew that being gay and a gun enthusiast was a combination that messed with people's minds. He decided to form an organization that would erode the common stereotypes of the queer community. "It was all done tongue-in-cheek," he says from his current home near Chicago. "I wasn't looking to start a national thing. We just wanted to bring some attention to the queer perspective on guns."

He and his friends formed a Pink Pistols club in Boston, where he was living at the time. They created a website and word began to spread. Soon a chapter started in Virginia. And within a few months there were 20 chapters across the country.

There are now 42 chapters in the United States and Canada with an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 members. Every month some 500 to 800 members visit shooting ranges across the two nations.

The Delaware Valley chapter, founded in April 2001, has about 15 regular attendees and approximately 50 people on their email list.

"Our goal is promoting the legal, safe and sane use of firearms as self-defense," Krick says. "But just by existing, we make people think."


The idea of a gun club for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender crowd might inspire images of burly men with 5 o'clock shadows, wearing flower-print muumuus and bad wigs, aiming weapons at distant targets while their ecru-colored knee-highs droop down to their hairy ankles.

But the Pink Pistols are among the most mundane-looking human beings you could ever possibly meet. There are no tight shirts, no Versace bags and no Indigo Girls T-shirts. You could walk past one of these gun-packing people in the grocery store and not even notice them.

"We break down stereotypes when we can," says Patton, a freckled, heavyset 43-year-old woman clad in nondescript loose-fitting clothing. "People look at us, and it plays with their brains."

None of these people would be welcome on the set of Will & Grace. At the same time, you'd never guess that any of them has a gun strapped under their arm, or resting in their pocket, or waiting under the seat of their car.

Of the nine members comparing caliber sizes and barrel lengths at this lunch gathering and excursion to the shooting range, four are women and five are men. At least two people, interestingly enough, are straight. One married guy brags that he's among the most consistent visitors to the get-togethers held on the third Saturday of every month.

"My wife knows I'm here," says Kriss, a 44-year-old auto technician who declines to provide a surname. He pulls down his heavy green plaid flannel shirt to reveal a black T-shirt with a pink-colored, triangle-shaped Pink Pistols logo on the left breast. "She washes my T-shirts."

Also joining the group is 53-year-old Maggie Leber, Patton's partner of eight years. There's Tom Nelson, a 61-year-old retired gun designer who lived with a woman for 20 years before ending the relationship in 2004. He's tall with gray hair and glasses. He looks so paternal you'd expect to see him coaching his grandson's T-ball team.

And there's Paul-not his real name-a boyish-looking 37-year-old first-time attendee from Northeast Philadelphia who seems uncertain of the Pistols. As Greene talks about marginalized groups and Smith & Wesson revolvers in the same breath, Paul sits like a restless child, constantly looking around the room, never making eye contact with anyone.

"I was just looking for an alternative way to meet people," he says. "I don't like the whole 'gay scene.'"

Paul hasn't fired a weapon since he was a child growing up in the South, he says. But he's interested in learning. He thinks he might like to go hunting again someday.

He keeps it pretty quiet, but it's his birthday.


After a two-hour lunch, the Pink Pistols caravan a short distance to the Classic Pistol Indoor Range, a gun haven in Southampton that caters to local law enforcement.

Bucks County police officers are regulars here, as are members of the Bensalem, Upper Southampton and Lower Moreland police departments. Among the 2,000 members of the private shooting range, 200 are Philadelphia police officers, an employee says.

The facility is inconspicuous in a low brick building at the back of an industrial park. Inside there are rows and rows of guns in glass display cases-Glocks, Rugers, Sig Sauers, Berettas, Heckler & Kochs, Winchesters, Mossbergs and Bennelis. There are aisles of shooting paraphernalia, from sights and ammunition to gun safes and eye protection.

"We carry the area's largest selection of holsters and concealed-carry accessories from companies like DeSantis, Galco, Blackhawk and Uncle Mike's," the Range's website boasts.

At the back of the showroom, behind 2.25-inch-thick bulletproof glass, are 15 shooting lanes where enthusiasts can mow down paper targets. They shoot in bays with white armor-plated ceilings and walls, the bullets lodging into 15-ton mounds of sand.

The Pistols occupy several lanes, and the building echoes with the sound of fireworks. In one lane, Patton leans over Paul's shoulder and offers advice through the cacophony.

Greene, who's the last to enter the shooting area because he's been chatting with everyone, quickly disassembles and assembles the black Israeli-made semiautomatic 32-round Uzi that he carries in a plain black case. He cocks his Ruger handgun and gathers his .22-caliber Marlin target rifle. He adjusts a set of big maroon ear-protectors on his head, then dashes into his stall to shoot.

Once he's in the actual range, he puts on a show. He struts with the Uzi, showing it off to others in nearby stalls, then he rests on one knee in his lane with his weapon at eye level. He hunches over his gun, exposing the back of his black Pink Pistols T-shirt, which reads, "Pick on someone your own caliber." Then he rapidly fires a series of shots.

After a few more bursts he presses the target return button, collects his prize and then, like a first-grader with a good report card, holds the tattered target up to the window so waiting Pink Pistols can appreciate his talent.

Leber and Kriss nod, but Greene isn't satisfied. He walks out of the lane, through the double doors, and holds the riddled target in front of their faces.

Six holes overlap in a tight 1-inch grouping.

"It's about the size of a squirrel's head," he says with a laugh. "That won't even get me in the Olympics."


"Criminals are like wolves," Greene says. "They don't want to fight. They want to find people who won't fight back. Traditionally, that's been the gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered."

His roommate adds, "You never hear about the captain of the football team getting mugged."

Many of the Pink Pistols can recall a harrowing tale of a run-in with meatheads.

More than a decade ago, on a hot summer night, Greene was returning to his car after a night of partying at a Center City leather bar. Sporting a black leather vest, white T-shirt, jeans and leather boots, he headed east from 13th Street toward his car, which was parked in Queen Village.

A few blocks into his journey, four young adults began following him.

"Hey faggot!" Greene says the teens yelled.

Greene picked up the pace. He turned around at one point and saw that each of the thugs was waving a metal pipe as they continued barking at him.

When Greene, who says he hadn't been drinking, finally arrived at his car, he reached into his pocket, pulled out his five-shot Smith & Wesson revolver, and aimed it at the hooligans.

"Holy shit! He's got a gun!" Greene says the one of the teens yelled.

Then they ran off.

"This was a successful self-defense with a gun," Greene says.

Without a weapon, he says, the kids would've ganged up on him, and the cops wouldn't have been able to do anything.

"The police would've shown up in time to clean me up off the street," he says with an uncomfortable chortle.

In 2004, the most recent year for which data is available, the FBI recorded 1,486 attacks on people because of their sexual orientation. Gay men were the most targeted. There were 904 victims nationally.

The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, an advocacy group for the LGBT community, reports 2,131 victims in 2004, a 4 percent increase from 2003. Their numbers differ because they include verbal and other assaults that may not reach the level of an official crime in the eyes of law enforcement.

According to the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, a Philadelphia-based legal advocacy group for Pennsylvanians, there were 48 incidents in the state in 2005, compared to 67 incidents in 2004.

They note that there were several assaults in Philadelphia in 2005, including the attack of Lucas Dawson in October.

Dawson, a 21-year-old aspiring model, was walking to a bus stop in East Mt. Airy, planning on meeting friends in Center City to tell them about his recent tryouts for American Idol. But less than a block from his home, Dawson says a group of six or seven teenagers barked at him, "Hey faggot," and then hit him with a basketball.

The teens jumped Dawson, punching him and kicking him as he hit the ground, he says. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pen-knife. He waved it at his attackers, and when one of the teens rushed at him, Dawson plunged the knife into the teen's chest.

Seventeen-year-old Gerald Knight died from the wound that night.

Dawson was arrested for Knight's murder but was released after spending more than a week in jail. A judge cleared Dawson during his preliminary hearing, calling Dawson's actions self-defense.

After his release, Dawson said he was scared to return home because all but one of his attackers remained in his neighborhood. He feared them even more now that one had been killed by his hands.

Dawson told the Daily News, "I won't carry a knife on me anymore, but I am considering getting a gun permit."

That statement had the Pink Pistols buzzing, and Greene spoke to Dawson about joining the Pink Pistols for one of their monthly outings.

"It's really scary, but if Lucas would've been armed, the outcome probably wouldn't have changed," Greene says. "But his attackers might have thought twice in the first place."

And that's exactly the point, say the members of the Pink Pistols. If potential criminals and attackers think you might be armed, they're less likely to attack you.


Philadelphia, however, is in the midst of an antigun movement spurred on by the 380 murders in 2005, the highest annual total since 1997. More than 80 percent of last year's deaths were committed with a handgun, and more than 1,600 people were injured by gunfire in the city.

The general feeling among local politicians is that fewer guns are needed, not more people carrying concealed weapons.

"Guns may not be the root of the problem, but they're a main branch of the tree," says City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller.

Miller and Councilman Darrell Clarke introduced a ballot question last year about whether Philadelphia should push Harrisburg to allow Philadelphia to enact its own gun legislation. More than 80 percent of the voters said yes to forcing state legislators' hands. Only 14,769 people said no, compared to 66,598 who voted yes. Now state Rep. Dwight Evans is taking the battle to Harrisburg. At an early March press conference to announce the introduction of House Bill 2483-providing local exemptions to the state preemption on gun laws-he reminded those assembled that more than 50 people had already been killed in Philadelphia since the beginning of the year.

Most victims were shot.

"This is senseless," he said while surrounded by two dozen elected officials, community leaders and the police commissioner. He was stern and emphatic as he spoke about the violence.

After the press conference, he confided, "At the end of the day, it's people's right to own a gun as long as they're safe. We're not trying to take guns away from decent people."


"Violence is the wanton, indiscriminate use of force," says Patton. "Counter that force with similar force, and it does spiral out of control."

Self-defense, she says, is the opposite of using force to combat force.

"It is pure antiviolence, in the purest form," she says at Classic Pistol, while Greene and the others continue to shoot.

After popping off about 380 rounds in about an hour and a half, Greene finally calls it a day. He stows his weapons in their cases, meanders around the shop and then parks in the sparsely furnished waiting room with the other resting members.

"After we shoot everything else," Patton says, "we come in here and shoot the shit."

Nelson, the retired gun designer, and Greene talk guns again. Kriss complains about the court system being too lenient on criminals, and Patton laughs about the feathers the Pink Pistols ruffle within the queer community.

"The gay community doesn't always see eye to eye," Patton says.

At the Philadelphia Gay Pride Fest three years ago, the Pink Pistols had a table next to representatives from BiUnity, a support group for bisexuals, and there was tension in the air. Patton says the BiUnity group was unhappy there were gun enthusiasts nearby.

"I don't want my child to be in danger because of your guns," someone barked at Patton, she says.

But she never told anyone she was carrying a firearm, Patton says, because that would be brandishing a weapon, and brandishing is illegal.

So the tension remained and nasty looks were exchanged.

At the end of the festival, a Pink Pistols member glanced at her foe and taunted, "We got six new Pink Pistols today. How many bisexuals did you get?"

Clarence Patton, the acting executive director for the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, and no relation to Gwen Patton, says violence against the LGBT community is a social problem that won't be resolved by people carrying guns.

"If three people take you by surprise," he says, "is that firearm really going to be able to do anything for you? Realistically, no. And God forbid the attacker get a hold of your gun."

Clarence Patton says the U.S. is still uncomfortable with homosexuality, as evidenced by the ongoing debates over gay marriage. Attacks on gay people, with the exception of the Matthew Shepards and the Lucas Dawsons of the world, rarely receive much attention or sympathy, he says.

"We don't live in a country, in a time, when this type of activity is abhorred," he says. "It's clear that we're not there yet."

He continues with a chuckle, "The last thing I need to do is start carrying around a gun."


Paul and Greene walk around the glass display cases, eyeing the vast selection of expensive handguns. There are tiny palm-sized weapons and oversized guns that would make Dirty Harry jealous.

Paul grabs a few gun pamphlets. He's having a birthday dinner with his parents, and he's thinking about asking for a special present.

Paul quietly thanks the Pistols and makes his exit. Slowly, the group disbands and they cart their weapons to the trunks of their cars.

Two weeks after his encounter with the Pink Pistols, Paul says, "The information and training that Gwen gave me was excellent. I felt really comfortable working with her."

His goal is to meet people, and to possibly find a relationship. He's tried art clubs, naturalist clubs, singles events and adventure outings for the gay community. And now, a gay gun club.

"They're not really my kind of people," he says. "Would I hang out with these people, go to dinner or go to the movies with them? Probably not."

But he likes shooting with them. He may join the Pistols again on another outing, and he may bring along a few friends.


To become a Pink Pistol, you simply declare yourself a Pink Pistol, Patton says. There are no registration forms, no roll call, no mandatory obligations or regular dues.

"Keep your money," she orders. "Get training. Get a weapon."

You can join the group for lunch and then fire off a few rounds at the range whenever you want, Patton says. Everyone is welcome.

"Being a Pink Pistol means you've decided to take responsibility for your own safety," she says. "I'm basically a nice, gentle person. But if they try to harm me or her ... "

She turns toward Leber, her partner.

"I will shoot them."