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."