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Meet the queer people who practice shooting to defend themselves from hate groups

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

Mass shootings targeting LGBTQ spaces and a rise in anti-trans rhetoric have inspired some queer people to take up arms. New Hampshire Public Radio's Todd Bookman joined the monthly gathering of a gun group that sees firearms as key to their own self-defense. And as you might imagine, the story does include the sound of gunfire.

TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: On a recent Sunday morning, the parking lot of Pawtuckaway State Park in southeastern New Hampshire is filling up with hikers. There's also a different crew packing up warm clothes and weapons.

FIN SMITH: Thank you all for coming to Rainbow Reload.

BOOKMAN: Today's organizer is Fin Smith. Like everybody else in this story, they've requested some level of anonymity because they fear for their safety.

SMITH: I recognize the temperature is freezing, and this is not the most comfortable, but if it's raining, we're training. If it's snowing, we're going.

BOOKMAN: Groups like Rainbow Reload exist around the country, often called pink pistol clubs. It's a place for experts and the gun-curious to practice and improve their shooting, but this goes beyond hobby. There's a practical goal here, to prepare and protect themselves.

SMITH: If the world is dangerous, then you have to be dangerous back. And that very much has pushed me into where I am now.

BOOKMAN: After giving a safety talk, Smith and a half-dozen others start hiking down a snow-covered trail. With long guns strapped over their shoulders, you can imagine the looks they get from dog walkers. One of the members, Sharon, recently transitioned.

SHARON: And I went from concealed carry every once in a while, when I was sort of feeling it, to every single day because reading the news, having a few experiences, realizing that I've gone from old, cis, male, white, upper-middle class, really no real fears about anything to there are people that, just looking at me, will want to hurt me.

BOOKMAN: There's that individual fear - fear of what may happen simply existing in public. But for some, there's also a more organized and ominous threat, including a neo-Nazi group now active in New England that's targeted trans people. This is Jamie, who's carrying a new pistol she's hoping to break in today.

JAMIE: There's been an uptick in hate crimes. There's been an uptick in groups that have been protesting drag story times and drag shows. And it felt like I needed to learn how to protect myself.

BOOKMAN: There are local rod and gun clubs where she could shoot. With her leftist political leanings, and being a trans woman, she thinks she wouldn't be welcomed.

JAMIE: And having to hide your identity when you're shooting with a group of people isn't really a great time.

BOOKMAN: After hiking in for about a mile, the group veers off trail, deep into the woods, until they spot a clearing.

SMITH: Start setting up right here.

BOOKMAN: While Smith marks off a lane for shooting, others collect downed branches and start a fire. Then the range goes hot, and people take turns on the line.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

BOOKMAN: The experienced work with the less experienced. Everybody shares guns. They geek out on scopes. There's not a ton of data on LGBTQ gun ownership, but a UCLA study from 2020 found that about 21% of lesbian, gay and bisexual people live in a house with a firearm. That's compared to 36% of heterosexual adults. In terms of partisan breakdown, a recent Pew study found that about 1 in 5 self-identified Democrats own a gun compared to nearly half of Republicans. Rainbow Reload is not a political group. It doesn't advocate for any gun policies. And amongst the members, there are a variety of opinions.

Do you consider yourself on the political left?

GUARDIAN: I mean, if you go far enough left, you get your guns back.

BOOKMAN: If there's a stereotype that everyone who isn't a conservative opposes gun rights, Guardian is here to scramble that. Obviously a fake name, Guardian says he's fearful of his family being targeted. His hat, worn backwards, says Make Fascists Afraid Again. He's been around guns his whole life and sees them as a way to protect queer people and queer spaces.

GUARDIAN: And I want people to feel safe to be who they are. It's not a matter of politics. It's a matter of whether or not you think certain people should get to live and be their genuine selves.

BOOKMAN: After a few hours, people walk around picking up the spent shell casings out of the snow.

SMITH: Does anybody have anything else that they wanted to practice that they didn't do today?

BOOKMAN: Folks hang around the fire and then start the hike out, the guns over their shoulders a source of security in a world that feels full of threats. For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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