'Armed gays don't get bashed'
The Pink Pistols say the answer to increasing violence against queers is more gun ownership.

By David A. Kulczyk

WITH THE MUFFLED sound of gunfire in the background, four members of the San Francisco chapter of the Pink Pistols relaxed in a gun-training classroom at the Jackson Arms Shooting Range on a stormy late-April evening.

Fresh from firing their weapons during this monthly target-shooting practice, they chatted about dogs, gasoline prices, and the Bay Area Reporter before moving to the more relevant topics of guns, the rights of queers to defend themselves against violence, and the reporter who had come to learn about this unusual group.

"What's this story about?" one member, who wouldn't identify himself, asked. "Crazy queers carrying guns?"

Despite the jovial atmosphere, the assembled group was dead serious about the threat of hate crimes against queers in San Francisco, and about their right to arm themselves. All of them said they had no qualms about using a firearm to defend themselves against would-be attackers, either at home or on the streets.

"I've had death threats, property damage, harassment, [and I've] been followed," said the anonymous Pink Pistols member. "You have to wonder if more of us got CCW [carry concealed weapons] permits that hate crimes would go down."

The group's rhetoric and presence in San Francisco – perhaps the most LGBT-friendly and antigun city in the country, yet a city where violence against queers is on the rise – raises interesting issues and questions: Would fear that their targets might be packing stop violent homophobes? Should queers be shooting people in the streets, fearing they could be bashers? Do guns deter or promote violence?

Out and packing heat

The San Francisco chapter of the Pink Pistols has about 40 members and usually meets the last Monday of the month at the Jackson Arms Shooting Range in South San Francisco. It's a safe, casual, and friendly event with members trying out each other's weapons, giving tips about ammo and techniques.

Gene Dermody, who looks amazingly like actor Kevin Spacey, was antigun for most of his life, but national crime statistics changed his mind. "I'm not afraid of [a gun]," Dermody said. "I know how to use it in an emergency, and I actually kind of like it. It's a challenge to me to see if I can master something."

Dermody is especially critical of the ultraliberal, antigun attitude of San Francisco's gay community. "I feel repressed and picked on by the gay community because I don't subscribe to their values," Dermody said.

It is certainly true that pro-gun values are more common to straight conservatives than to San Francisco's largely liberal LGBT community. Sup. Tom Ammiano, the only major mayoral candidate who is gay, voices the more dominant antigun position but stops short of condemning the Pink Pistols' position.

"I'm not interested in a jihad [against] anyone that owns a gun," Ammiano told us. "But certainly my preference is that they are really not needed. I'm not convinced that having a gun is the total answer to that, but I do support self-determination, and if someone feels that they want a gun and need a gun and are willing to go through the steps to get one, safety and education, well I wouldn't throw my body in front of that."

The splash page on the Pink Pistols' Web site opens with a photo of someone wearing a black T-shirt with a pink triangle and holding a pistol in the standard two-hand grip. Their motto, "Armed Gays Don't Get Bashed," is written three times.

Founded in Boston in 1999, the Pink Pistols are a loose-knit organization of queer gun enthusiasts, with 37 chapters across the country. There are no fees or meetings other than informal gatherings at shooting ranges. They believe that in those states that allow qualified citizens to carry concealed weapons, gays, lesbians, and transgender people should become comfortable with guns, learn to use them safely, and carry them. The Web site encourages queers to set up Pink Pistols task forces, sponsor shooting courses and help queers get licensed to carry.

"It seems that there is more of an acceptance of self-defense and gay people taking up shooting sports," said Thomas Boyer, the leader of the group's San Francisco chapter. "In 1982 there was this one gay man in San Francisco who had a pro-gun float in the [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride] Parade, and on it [it said] 'Gays for Guns.' And he said that he was constantly booed. I think that we wouldn't get the same reaction [these days]. We'd probably get some boos, of course, but I think the gay community is more receptive to the concept of firearms for self-defense."

Boyer, who would not say whether he or other Pink Pistols members ever illegally carry a handgun on the street, grew up in the desert in Arizona, where he received his first gun when he was six years old. A San Franciscan for more than 20 years, Boyer said he has been the target of attempted gay bashings three times, but he always fought back, using muscle, mace, or whatever was handy. Now he feels it's time to change the way the city issues CCW permits.

"Most people believe that they can get a permit to carry, if they need one, and that just isn't true," Boyer explained.

Licensed to kill

San Francisco is the toughest city in California, if not America, in which to be granted a CCW permit. Currently there are only five permits issued to non-law enforcement personnel in the city.

"This is an antigun city, and I'm proud to say that our District Attorney's Office has the highest gun-prosecution rate of any county in the state," District Attorney Terence Hallinan said. "San Franciscans don't like guns; they know [guns] are trouble and anytime there is one around, someone is going to get hurt."

The fact is that very few deaths result from queer-bashing incidents. The basic legal definition of self-defense is, you must have a reasonable belief that you are in imminent danger of death or great bodily injury from an unlawful attack and your acts are necessary to prevent the injury. That means you can't shoot someone who punches you and is not physically overwhelming or a trained fighter. So queers who shot would-be bashers could end up facing murder charges.

Yet rather than advocating gunning people down, the Pink Pistols seem mostly to go for the deterrent effect in their efforts to deal with rising violence. There were 317 reported incidents of hate violence against the LGBT community in northern California in 2002, and 272 of those confrontations happened in San Francisco, according to San Francisco's Community United Against Violence. An LGBT person is more likely to be assaulted in the Castro than in any county in northern California except for Alameda County. To the Pink Pistols, that concentration of violence against queers calls for deterrence, something that guns might bring.

"I imagine these people with permits to carry probably are least likely to need a permit to carry, because they don't live in a high crime area," Boyer said. "Whenever they travel, it's either by car or cab. I'm sure that they have very little exposure to potential assault."

In California it's up to the discretion of the chief law enforcement agency in each county to grant a CCW permit. Evidently Marin County is lenient about CCW permits, as it issued one to actor and resident Sean Penn, who recently made the news when his car was stolen, along with two of his handguns, when he was in Berkeley. It is no secret that Penn has been convicted of assault and domestic violence, a history that would normally disqualify any applicant from permission to carry a concealed weapon.

"The irony is, in a shall-issue state [one in which the sheriff has no discretion about issuing permits to citizens without a criminal record], Sean Penn would probably not get a permit to carry," Boyer said. "If the laws would be applied fairly, he would not be allowed to even have a gun."

Yet Hallinan pointed out that people don't have a basic legal right to carry concealed weapons, and San Francisco officials have acted on sound evidence in choosing to deny CCW applications in all but the most extraordinary circumstances.

"I think that statistics show that more people are injured by guns that are issued pursuant to permits than are saved by them," Hallinan said, "so I'm very leery of issuing gun permits except under very exceptional circumstances, where you have an immediate threat that would justify it and the person that it is issued to has some experience and training."

What would constitute an immediate threat? That's up to the sheriff. Of the five San Franciscans who have CCW permits, only one, private investigator Jack Immendorf, is not a government employee.

"I hope that [the Pink Pistols] will expand the interest in shooting sports," Boyer said, "but maybe people will work on politicians to allow 'shall issue' permits to carry eventually. About 36 states have 'shall issue' permits, meaning that if you qualify, they have to give you a permit to carry, and for them not to give you a permit to carry, they have to have a specific legal reason not to give you a permit to carry."

Isolated position

San Francisco LGBT organizations seem to bear the Pink Pistols no ill will, and clearly there's support in the LGBT community for preventive self-defense.

"The dangers are definitely out there, and if anything, we try to have programs that are related to violence prevention and self-defense," said Kar Yin Tham, executive director of the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center. "To me, the issue of arms is not what we are concerned about."

"I think that is one method of self-protection, though I don't think that it is necessarily the only useful method," Tina D'Elia, director of the Hate Violence Survivor Program at Community United Against Violence, said about relaxing San Francisco's concealed-weapon policies. "There is no 100 percent safety for anybody in this world. Even if they don't have a license, people can carry weapons."

What would be the implications if more people were issued CCW permits in San Francisco? Would there be shoot-outs over parking spaces and taxis? Would queer bashing decrease but homicides by queers increase? Will there be a day when you'll have to check your gun at the bar, like in San Francisco of 150 years ago? Not likely, but the issue will remain as long as people feel threatened by violence in the streets.

One Pink Pistols member even went so far as to say, "If Matthew Shepherd had a gun in his sock, he'd still be alive today."

June 4, 2003