Note: We’ve changed one of the names in this story because it’s a sensitive subject.
Rex Johnson is sitting at a picnic table outside the San Jose Municipal Firing Range. He just finished a round of target practice shooting a rifle with a scope, and he’s pretty pleased with his accuracy.
“At 33 feet, I have a beautiful pattern that goes one in seven, one in eight and one in the bullseye,” Johnson says, presenting his paper target decorated with small bullet holes.
The gun range is a small, concrete, bunker-like building with five shooting lanes. A crank and pulley system that looks like a clothes line moves paper targets down the range.
Johnson is a bisexual man and he says he’s here for target practice because recently he’s felt less safe. On June 12, there was the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub that left 49 people dead. Then there was an incident closer to home.
Johnson was going shopping his boyfriend. They were in the parking lot, near the crosswalk, when he saw a driver approaching.
“She was far enough distance and the speed was slow enough that I felt it was okay. Instead, she speeded up and she swerved around us, and called us faggots. That was unnerving,” Johnson says.
He says he was stunned because he was just being himself.
“Places that I thought were safe and we could come together, maybe are not as safe as they used to be. That makes me sad in some ways. In other ways I'm adaptable. I'm going to adapt,” Johnson says.
Getting firearm training from the Pink Pistols is one way he’s adapting.
The Pink Pistols is a national gun rights organization founded in 2000. The group advocates for the LGBT community to learn about and carry firearms as self defense.
On the second Saturday of every month, the Pink Pistols chapter in San Jose hosts a “beginner shoot.” Newcomers like Johnson go through safety training and learn how to fire a gun.
Before this event, the last time Johnson says he shot a gun was as a child growing up in Ohio. Recently, as he started feeling less safe, Johnson decided he wanted to take some kind of action. That’s when he found the Pink Pistols.
“That's all that I'm doing here,” Johnson says. “More for my psyche and my comfort and learning something new.”
He doesn’t own a gun right now, but he says he’s planning on getting one.
The Pink Pistols have about 50 chapters nationwide and three in the Bay Area: San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.
Nicki Stallard, who manages the San Jose chapter, says she’s seen an increase in interest since the Pulse nightclub shooting. The month after the incident in Orlando, 39 new people joined the San Jose Pink Pistols Meetup group, nearly four times as many as in the month before. The Pink Pistols national organization claims it’s seen a similar spike in interest.
Stallard, a transgender woman, learned how to shoot more than 30 years ago in the navy.
“My first pistol was a 357 Magnum revolver,” she says smiling.
She’s worked with the Pink Pistols for a decade because she says she sees the need for LGBT-targeted self-defense training.
“First of all, a lot of people who are LGBT are nervous about actually going into firearms ranges,” Stallard says. “Firearms are literally learning a new skill, like a martial art. For a lot of people who are LGBT they did not grow up in a gun culture. I didn’t grow up in a gun culture.”
She says the Pink Pistols are trying to make these inclusive learning spaces, and ultimately working to change perceptions.
“One reason the LGBT community is picked on is because we are perceived as being weak, easy targets,” Stallard explains. “Well, we would like to destroy that reputation.”
Training people to use guns safely doesn’t necessarily mean that the Pink Pistols is creating new gun owners.
Athnoia Cappelli and a friend made the drive from Santa Cruz to attend a San Jose Pink Pistols’ social shoot, which happens the last Sunday of every month. Cappelli is a pacifist and says the last thing she would do is hurt a person or an animal.
She’s also a vegan. Even though she came out to this Pink Pistols event, she says she doesn’t plan on buying a gun.
“But I do feel a little bit of a need to protect myself. I'm in an open lesbian relationship and I'm very expressive out in the world,” Cappelli says. “I want to be myself and I occasionally catch those glances. There's a little bit of fear that you feel running around even in the liberal place like Santa Cruz.”
Even though she hopes she never has to use a gun in real life, Cappelli’s here with the Pink Pistols because she wants to know that she can.