The Gay Advocates of Gun Rights

Challenging stereotypes about the NRA.

Chris Cheng looks down range through the sights of his rifle. 
National Journal
Marin Cogan
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Marin Cogan
Aug. 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

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 GaysWith­, 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.”

Marc Whit­temore

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.”

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