Four years ago, Chris Cheng—a Chinese-Japanese-Cuban-American Google employee—started watching Top Shot, a History Channel reality show where contestants shoot their way through a series of complex competitions. Cheng, who as a kid had sometimes gone shooting with his Navy veteran father, started getting into the show.
One day, while watching season two with some of his Google coworkers, Cheng told them: "Hey, everyone, this is gonna sound crazy, but I think I'm going to apply for Top Shot." He remembers his colleagues thinking he was nuts. "They looked at me like, 'You barely shoot, you don't have any accolades or trophies or awards or anything in the shooting world. What makes you think you'd even stand a chance with some of these lifelong, seasoned professional marksmen?' "
But Cheng had a sense of what he could do. He'd been going to the range and hitting his marks; the best way to put his skills to the test, he figured, was to sign up and try out. He got in. Then he beat out veterans, police officers, and an Olympic shooter en route to winning that season's competition. The first thing he did after his victory was take some of the $100,000 prize money and upgrade his National Rifle Association membership to lifetime status.
Then, last year, Cheng took to his blog to announce he was gay. This wasn't a surprise to his friends and family: Cheng and his boyfriend had been together for four and a half years. But he wanted people to see that gun owners were a diverse set of people—and who better than a gay, racially diverse, tech-geek-turned-champion-marksman to deliver the message?
In April, Cheng officially signed on as a news commentator for the NRA. This past month, the group released its first video starring Cheng, in which he offers an explainer on the fighting in Ukraine before launching into a case for protecting gun owners from government intrusion. "I think that this is an opportunity for the NRA and our community to accurately portray the diversity that already exists in the community," Cheng told me, of his new gig. "We've allowed some prevailing stereotypes to take hold, and we're not challenging them."
Cheng might be the most prominent gay marksman at the moment, but he's not alone. Websites and communities tailored to gay gun enthusiasts include the Pink Pistols, Big Gay Al's Big Gay (Gun) Blog, and GaysWithGuns.net, which features a sexy, stubbled man brandishing a semiautomatic. The website used to pose the provocative question of what would have happened to Matthew Shepard had he been trained to use a gun—though that was removed after too many people objected, and it was replaced with a quote from the Dalai Lama: "If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you … it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun." Self-defense was one of the reasons Marc Whittemore, a Los Angeles-based designer, started the website, but it was also partly to show that "it's not just Christian, redneck, Bible-thumping old white men that are pro-gun."
The Pink Pistols are probably the most prominent group of gay gun enthusiasts. The organization began 14 years ago, when Jonathan Rauch (a contributing editor at National Journal) wrote an article for Salon arguing that gay people should receive firearms training and arm themselves so they could defend against hate crimes. Not only would they be protecting themselves from violence, he wrote, but they could change the way both straight and gay people viewed them: Guns, Rauch argued, could "emancipate them from their image—often internalized—of cringing weakness. Pink pistols, I'll warrant, 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."
One libertarian activist in Boston, Doug Krick, took inspiration from Rauch's piece. Soon he and his friends were forming a group to go to the shooting range together. Their organization—the Pink Pistols—got a lot of media coverage, and before long, others from around the country were calling to start chapters in their states.
"We teach the public that we know how to do this, and you don't know what gay person out there might be a Pink Pistol and might be able to defend themselves," says Gwen Patton, who speaks for the national organization. "Rather than saying, 'We're here, we're queer, we're in your face,' our thing is, 'We're queer, yeah, that's fine, look at the ways we're similar rather than that one way we're different. But if you absolutely can't bring yourself to do that, we're going to ask you very forcefully not to try to harm us.'
"It's not just Christian, redneck, Bible-thumping old white men that are pro-gun."
Over time, Patton says the group became something more than just a self-defense organization: It was a way for like-minded friends to feel comfortable at the shooting range. "It's great, wacky fun," says Rauch of the movement he inspired. "My hope would be they're important out of proportion to their numbers because they say something and are uniquely qualified to say something, which is the minority case for self-defense."
It's impossible to say just how many Pink Pistols there are because the national organization doesn't keep track. The Facebook page for the national group has more than 1,200 members, but there are smaller local groups too, and allegiance to a Facebook group doesn't necessarily mean participation. At its height, says Patton, the Pink Pistols had chapters in every state and in Canada; for a time there was talk of expanding into Israel and South Africa as well. Because chapters are loosely organized, the group has had some fallow years, but, Patton says, "in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook incident, there were enough questions and people wanting information" that interest in the organization has picked up again.
Members don't lobby or engage in political activities, but that hasn't stopped them from having an impact on the legal debate. With the help of lawyers paid by the NRA, Patton explains, the group wrote a brief for the Supreme Court case that struck down Washington's gun ban, D.C. v. Heller. (One of the plaintiffs in Heller, Tom Palmer, said he had once brandished a weapon to successfully scare away an antigay mob.) The Pink Pistols say they are working on briefs for other cases making their way through the courts.
The group used to have a natural ally in Washington in GOProud, the now-defunct gay Republican organization. "I've always said way back when we first started GOProud, that people should be able to lawfully defend themselves to prevent themselves from becoming victims of violent crimes," says the organization's former executive director, Jimmy LaSalvia. GOProud partnered with Gun Owners of America to support an amendment to make concealed carry permits transferable across state lines when the hate-crimes bill was debated in 2009.
Finding acceptance has been, at times, tough for those in the gay community who favor gun rights. "You'd think the gay community would be like, 'Wow, you're helping gay people.' But it's like you held up a crucifix in front of a vampire," Patton says. "They treat us like we've left the reservation because we're looking at these evil guns, and they don't like guns, so that calls into question our loyalty to the gay community."
Locating candidates to support within the two-party system, when one side champions gay marriage and the other gun rights, is hard. Whittemore used to run ObamaLA, an organization he said had 2,500 volunteers at one point. But once he started paying closer attention to Ron Paul, he underwent a political conversion and quit the group. He says Rand Paul is half the man his father is, but he would consider voting for him if he ran for president.
"It really does get to be difficult. We're pulled in two directions," says Patton. "There are some Democrats that would be cheerful about taking the Second Amendment and repealing it and saying only police and military can have guns; there are Democrats that believe it. On the same token, there are Republicans who like guns generally and want to keep the Second Amendment and get rid of some limitations of it, but some of those Republicans would cheerfully watch us get stoned in the town square because we're an abomination. Not every Republican believes that, and not every Democrat believes guns are evil, but it's hard to find a balance between that."
If gay advocates of gun rights are lucky, however, they won't have to wait long for a candidate they can enthusiastically support. "The NRA news-commentator opportunity for me is a very logical step to getting to a place where I can run," says Chris Cheng. "I plan to run for office one of these days."
This article appears in the August 2, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Gay and Pro-Gun.