A new LGBT gun culture?
Few aspects of United States law have drawn more interest from, or inspired more debate amongst, the American public than the Bill of Rights. Over time and through shifting interpretations by the Courts, the meanings of the rights granted to citizens have shifted, and, in many cases, their scopes have been vastly expanded.
Interpretation of these rights has a direct, and deep, impact on how we live our lives together as citizens: what do we have the right to say, and when and how may we express it, how can we gather to voice our concerns about the government, how free are we to worship, and how can we protect our own interests? These issues are provocative not just because they immediately impact our personal lives but also because their implications are sometimes deadly serious.
And because they are also questions of great philosophical importance, debates about constitutional rights, and in particular about First and Second Amendment rights, are at the center of our modern culture wars. Conventional wisdom divides opinions about gun ownership between those held by conservatives and those held by liberals, with conservatives favoring less gun regulation and finding security in an armed citizenry and with liberals promoting greater gun control and putting the role of community protection more in the hands of the state.
Since LGBT people—because of their oppression at the hands of conservative ideologies and their reliance on the mechanisms of government to secure their own civil rights—overwhelmingly identify as liberal or progressive, the community’s views on guns and gun control have often fallen along traditional liberal lines.
Even many native Southern LGBT, many of whom were exposed to guns as early as they were to bicycles, have a long ambivalent relationship to gun ownership. John Lee, who plays with the Nashville Grizzlies and is an outspoken liberal, writes in his own piece on this topic, about his discomfort with guns. But he also writes about how his views have begun to involve, and he is not alone.
Increasingly, liberals of all stripes and members of the LGBT community are embracing their Second Amendment rights in the name of self-empowerment and self-defense. The movement isn’t new—for instance the national LGBT gun advocacy group, the Pink Pistols has been around for nearly twenty years. But membership is growing, as is interest in groups like the Liberal Gun Club.
What’s happened to fuel this movement? A lot of things, but an increasingly openly hostile environment that has sprung up in the wake of LGBT gains has left many scrambling to find ways to protect themselves and their loved ones. Two high-profile events in the last year were named by Lee and others as motivating factors: the Pulse Night Club shooting and the anti-LGBT rhetoric and violence surrounding Trump’s rise to power. These events have shaken the community, leaving many feeling like they are in the enemy’s sights.
In March of 2000, Jonathan Rauch wrote in Salon Magazine, “Thirty-one states allow all qualified citizens to carry concealed weapons. In those states, homosexuals should embark on organized efforts to become comfortable with guns, learn to use them safely and carry them. They should set up Pink Pistols task forces, sponsor shooting courses and help homosexuals get licensed to carry. And they should do it in a way that gets as much publicity as possible.”
This is a philosophy that many are newly adopting in the age of Pulse and Trump, a way of self-empowerment in an age of anti-LGBT terror. According to their website, the Pink Pistols “advocate the use of lawfully-owned, lawfully-concealed firearms for the self-defense of the sexual minority community… We teach queers to shoot. Then we teach others that we have done so.”
The last part is key to the Pink Pistols’ social and political goals, which rest on an aggressive and perhaps questionable assertion: “Armed queers don’t get bashed. We change the public perception of the sexual minorities, such that those who have in the past perceived them as safe targets for violence and hateful acts … will realize that that now, a segment of the sexual minority population is now armed and effective with those arms. Those arms are also concealed, so they do not know which ones are safe to attack, and which are not…which they can harm as they have in the past, and which may draw a weapon and fight back.”
Much about this argument raises difficulty for those with qualms about the effectiveness of a heavily armed populace at reducing violence, but it represents a growing sentiment that the only true defense for sexual minorities is self-defense. It is not surprising that the Pink Pistols have openly worked with other aggressive gun rights advocacy organizations, like the NRA. Nearly twenty years after the group’s founding, there are around fifty chapters of the Pink Pistols nationwide, including a new organization in Middle Tennessee and a newly revived Memphis chapter.
Other groups, like the Liberal Gun Club, are more politically inclined to, well, liberalism. The Liberal Gun Club was founded in 2008 by a group of people who were “tired of feeling like a traitor for wanting to vote for President Obama.” This group recognizes that sensible gun regulation and sensible gun ownership are not mutually exclusive, and draw attention to the fact that gun ownership isn’t the sole province of the extreme right, or the fear-driven. Thus their mission: “to provide a voice for gun-owning liberals and moderates in the national conversation on gun rights, gun legislation, firearms safety, and shooting sports.”
In addition to Lee’s article which follows this one, we spoke with local Brandon Edwards about his history with guns, and how he, as an LGBT person, feels about gun ownership, and why.
Like Lee, Edwards grew up around guns. “I have had guns since I was 10,” he said. “My first one was a 22 gauge shotgun I got for Christmas. I had gotten my first BB gun at 8 years old.” Unlike Lee, Edwards never developed an intense dislike for guns that he would have to shake.
“I have been in the military for over 9 years now, and my family has always had guns,” Edwards explained. “I was taught about gun safety at a young age and have always understood the importance of self-protection. Even as a child I knew that guns were not toys and it was a serious responsibility to own a firearm. I learned even more about gun safety and situational awareness from the military.”
While many liberals may believe it’s too easy to get a gun, Edwards points out that, “Gun ownership is something that is not easy to acquire legally, especially in the state of Tennessee, where you are required to do a background check before the legal purchase. If you pass the background check and are found to have no connections to any terrorist organizations and are found with no criminal record, you still have to register the weapon with the state.” Edwards isn’t arguing that it’s too hard, or that it isn’t too easy still—just that it’s not as easy as people imagine to get any weapon you want.
Echoing the Pink Pistols philosophy, Edwards added, “Now, as I have said to many people throughout the years, it is not the people who carry their weapon on their hip that you have to worry about. It is the people that hide their weapons on their bodies. If you own a weapon that is legally registered you’re more likely to carry it proudly, not just for protection in the moment, but as a deterrent for anyone thing that you are an easy target. So, in my opinion, as long as you legally acquire your weapon, pass a background check, obtain a carry permit, and train on your weapon often, sure, you should carry.”
In fact he goes a step further. “I think that if you can legally obtain a weapon you have an obligation to,” he added. “Those who can be protectors of their community, should. Those who illegally buy and carry weapons often commit crimes with those firearms before the police are able to arrive. I feel it is my job to protect myself and my family and my community.”
As a well-trained military professional, that may seem easy for him to say. But he recognizes it isn’t for everyone. But he cautioned, “Before you make your decision about guns, take the course, try a few practice rounds at the shooting range, and really evaluate your level of risk. If you still feel that it isn’t right for you then that is fine. It’s about personal safety, so it should make you feel safer... After you have had the training on a particular firearm, if you still have reservations about it, that that’s just fine. The beauty of this country is that you have the right to bear arms, if you choose to.”
Edwards hasn’t come around recently, like Lee has, but a good number of people in his circle of acquaintances have. “I have two friends that have recently obtained a carry permit, one gay and the other one bisexual,” he said. “They both went to the proper training course to learn proper gun safety and training. They waited till the New Year because the lifetime carry permit cost dropped drastically. I know that both of them went to the training after the Pulse incident.”
Edwards definitely believes that the shooting motivated his friends because, “They were all talk about getting their carry permits until everything happened with Pulse,” he explained. “Then they really got serious about finding a good class and shooting range to keep up those skills.”
After Pulse, the Nashville Armory sparked a controversy by offering a free concealed carry course to members of the LGBT community sponsored by an anonymous donor. Back then I spoke with Ryan Edwards and Jason Steen, who signed up for that course. Both of them professed that, like Edwards’ friends, they had long considered taking such a course but that the shooting was a catalyst.
“I dislike the fact that I now feel the 'need' to have to carry,” Steen said back then. “I've always felt comfortable out and being social, but now there's this weird feeling that I have to be extra vigilant, to be prepared.”
He added, “the violence rate for LGBT in general has seemingly skyrocketed, especially for trans [people], in the past few years. This is just the factor that made me act. I'm the last holdout in my family, everyone else, including my mom and sister, have their carry permit.” Since Orlando, tensions around the election and beyond have simply reinforced a new wave of fear, and a sense of defenselessness, and have further emphasized the importance of relying on one’s on resources for empowerment.
For many, increasingly, that means joining the ranks of a pink pistol toting citizen “militia.” So don’t be surprised, in the coming months and years, even some of your most liberal LGBT brothers and sisters start talking more than hypothetically about packing heat.