Lesbian activist Gwendolyn Patton, national leader of the LGBT gun advocacy group Pink Pistols, says she was heartbroken when she learned that 49 mostly LGBT people were shot to death on June 12 at an Orlando gay nightclub by Omar Mateen.
Patton, 54, said the horrific incident at the Pulse nightclub conjured up memories of gay-bashing incidents the LGBT community has grappled with for years and reminded her that the mission of Pink Pistols goes beyond just training LGBT people to use guns for self-defense.
“We have an even more poetic vision,” she told the Washington Blade in an interview this week. “We teach queers to shoot and we teach the world we did it,” she said with an emphasis.
“The idea is that if the general public becomes aware that there is a portion of the GLBT community that may be armed with a lawfully owned firearm and have the training and the skills necessary to use it effectively, this is a deterrent to make those that would attack us think twice,” she said.
“They’re choosing the gay community because they think that we’re a safe target to attack, that we’re not going to fight back. The whole stereotype about the GLBT community is that we’re weaker, we’re passive, we’re pacifists, we’re unwilling to fight,” she said. “It’s the whole stereotype of gay men as being weak and effeminate.”
Patton is a former computer programmer and systems analyst who lives in a Philadelphia suburb. She has been mostly wheelchair bound and legally disabled since 2006 when in a freak accident the hood of her car slammed down on the top of her head by a forceful gust of wind.
“Essentially, it broke my neck,” she said, noting that she suffered shattered neck and upper back vertebrae causing severe pain and immobility.
Despite this hardship, she has continued to serve as spokesperson and later chief coordinator or “First Speaker” of the national Pink Pistols group since 2001. Her dedication and outspokenness, according to those who know her, has in itself shattered stereotypes of gun advocates.
Patton and Dexter Guptill, coordinator of the Pink Pistols chapter in Northern Virginia, point out that the national organization got its start in 2000 in response to an article written by gay journalist and commentator Jonathan Rauch, which was published in Salon.
With the 1998 gay bashing murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard still fresh in the minds of the LGBT community, Rauch startled activists by proposing that gays should create “Pink Pistols task forces, sponsor shooting courses and help homosexuals get licensed to carry” guns.
“Pink pistols would do far more for the self-esteem of the next generation of gay men and women than any number of hate-crime laws or anti-discrimination statutes,” Rauch said in his article.
Guptill, who like Patten, first become involved with Pink Pistols in 2001, reports that gay activists in Boston were the first to take up Rauch’s proposals by forming what is believed to be the Pink Pistols’ first chapter in that city in 2000.
“They asked Rauch if they could use the name and he said go for it,” Guptill said. “And a number of chapters sort of sprang up like mushrooms.”
According to Patton and Guptill, the chapters along with the national group established a precedent of helping LGBT people learn the basics of using firearms from more experienced members and through certified trainers. The chapters also coach members on whether guns could be legally purchased in their states and how to go about applying for a permit or license.
The Northern Virginia chapter, the only known chapter in the D.C. metropolitan area, meets informally at an indoor shooting range in Lorton, Va., called Sharp Shooters, Guptill said. The next chapter gathering at the range is scheduled for July 10.
He said beginners are always welcome and experienced gun owners, like him, are pleased to serve as mentors for newcomers, teaching them the ropes of shooting and, if suitable for them, how to legally purchase a firearm.
Patten and Guptill noted that they, like many Pink Pistols members across the country, often hear of situations like the one reported by Rauch in his Salon article where an LGBT person is confronted by one or more attackers. Upon pulling out their gun, the attackers almost always withdraw without a shot being fired, Patten and Guptill said.
“In other words, a gun is often the most efficient way to deescalate a situation,” Guptill said. “The odds are with you. But if you pull that gun out you have to be ready to pull the trigger as well.”
He and Patton said that’s where the prior training advocated by Pink Pistols comes into play. Both said gun use training by experts fosters an ethical “mindset” that promotes responsibility and caution as well as an ability to assess when to use and not to use a gun when confronted with danger.
Gay gun rights advocate Tom Palmer, senior fellow with the libertarian think tank Cato Institute, said most of the nation’s attention has focused on legislation stalled in Congress to prohibit gun ownership for people on federal terrorist watch and airline “no-fly” lists.
He said far less media attention has been given to local and state anti-gun laws that in Florida would have prevented any of the victims in the Pulse nightclub attack from carrying a legally owned gun due to a state ban on guns inside establishments that serve alcoholic beverages.
He said such laws should be repealed, noting that people trained to use firearms tend to be responsible and must undergo a background check to carry a concealed weapon.
Patton said gun owners she knows in the LGBT community would do what drivers do when going with friends to bars and nightclubs – have a designated non-drinker with the group who has the gun just as a designated driver doesn’t drink alcohol when joining friends at bars.
“Yes, we’ve had some really incredible response after the Orlando incident,” Patten said. “That was a horrific tragedy. It has torn the hearts out of us all. And a lot of people determined after that, that they didn’t want to be vulnerable anymore,” she said. “They wanted to take on the responsibility for their own safety.”
Patton said that within two weeks after the Orlando incident Pink Pistols’ Facebook membership jumped from 1,500 to over 7,500.
“We’ve also had a greater number of people asking for information on how to start a chapter in the past two weeks than we’ve had in the previous two years,” she said.
Even more astonishing, Patton said, has been an enormous outpouring of support from mainline gun advocacy groups and businesses.
“We had so many people from gun shops and gun ranges and from companies that make guns and that make accessories offering support, offering training, offering resources that we couldn’t keep track of them all with the [software] tools we had,” she said. “We had to create a new tool for doing that.”
What has emerged, she said, is a new page on the group’s website, pinkpistols.org, consisting of an interactive map created by volunteers that shows active chapters and the services they provide in the U.S. and Canada.
“I wish that we could have such a phenomenal response and it not be due to such a terrible ordeal,” Patton said. “But if anything, I hope that we’re doing something to help keep some of these people safer in the future — even if it’s only increasing their situational awareness and learning how to cope with an active shooter situation, even if they don’t ever buy a firearm of their own.”