Look who’s packing

Sacramento spawns its own chapter of the Pink Pistols

A Pink Pistol takes aim at the Yolo Sportsmen’s Association shooting range.

A Pink Pistol takes aim at the Yolo Sportsmen’s Association shooting range.

Photo By David A. Kulczyk

At high noon on the last Saturday of August, a cheerful group of people rearranged the tables in the cafe at The Open Book on 21st Street. This was not a gardening or book club; it was the monthly meeting of the Sacramento Valley Pink Pistols, the local branch of a nationwide gun club for lesbians, bisexuals, gays and transgenders.

A dozen members, including five first-timers, turned up for this fourth meeting of the Sacramento chapter. Co-founder Deanna Sykes started the informal gathering by having everyone introduce themselves. Some were veteran shooters who owned several firearms, and others were beginners. The same went for the new members: Some were competitive shooters, and others had never fired a gun in their lives. Gun ownership is not a necessity to be a member of the Pink Pistols.

Sykes put the essence of the group in a nutshell. “The whole nature of this group is: ‘I’m gay, and don’t fuck with me!’”

According to the official Pink Pistols Web site, the shooting group honors diversity and is open to all shooters. You don’t have to be gay to be in the Pink Pistols any more than you have to be black to support civil rights. Founded in Boston in 1999, the Pink Pistols are a loose-knit organization of queer gun enthusiasts, with at least 35 chapters across the country. There are no fees or induction, and meetings are informal. The Pink Pistols believe that in those states that allow qualified citizens to carry concealed weapons, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people should become comfortable with guns, learn to use them safely and carry them. The Web site encourages members to set up Pink Pistols task forces, sponsor shooting courses and help members get licensed to carry firearms.

Hate violence against GLBT people is on the rise. There were 357 cases of hate violence against GLBT people in Northern California in 2002, up 14 percent from 2001, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. More gays are starting to arm themselves with firearms to equalize the threat.

Concealed-weapons permits fall into two categories: “May Issue” and “Shall Issue.” There are 35 states that are “Shall Issue,” meaning that they allow regular citizens who are not convicted felons and who have completed a firearm-safety course to carry a concealed weapon. California is a “May Issue” state, which means it leaves the decision of who gets to carry a concealed firearm up to the local law-enforcement agency, a structure that can be ripe for corruption. Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Wisconsin, Vermont and the District of Columbia do not issue concealed-weapons permits.

“If you talk to people about how difficult it is to get a conceal-carry weapon permit,” explained Sykes, who is a competitive shooter with the International Defensive Pistol Association, “a lot of folks are happy about that, thinking that the fewer people that carry guns, the safer we all are. But if you look at states that have just passed concealed-weapon reforms [Shall Issue], and a person who passes the training program and isn’t a felon can actually carry, they are finding that violent crime has decreased. The bad guys are wary of committing crimes because they don’t know who is packing heat.”

Sykes grew up in central Florida and joined the Army after she dropped out of the University of Florida, Gainesville. She studied Czech at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey. Her job was going to be to listen in to military radio broadcasts from Czechoslovakia. “Someone asked, and we told,” said Sykes, and she and her girlfriend both were discharged. In 1997, she received a doctorate in psychology from the University of California, Davis. She works as a research scientist at the Office of AIDS in Sacramento.

“I like guns for the same reason I like power tools,” said Sykes. “They make a difficult job easier. You hear people refer to guns as the ‘great equalizer,’ and what they’re talking about is the fact that in a physical conflict, all else being equal, the biggest, strongest person is going to win. Well, for women in general, and for a lot of gay men, too, we are not generally the biggest, strongest person in a conflict with, say, a basher or a rapist. In fact, if we were, the bad guy probably wouldn’t be attacking us to begin with. Having a gun—and knowing how to use it—evens things out a bit. You’re not going to fight off three guys with baseball bats with your bare hands, but you may survive that encounter if you’ve got your ‘equalizer’ with you. I guess I also like the idea of being self-sufficient—able to take care of myself—and guns represent that to me.”

A couple of years ago, co-founder Steven Mills was riding his bike in Midtown on the Fourth of July. A van pulled up alongside him with two gun barrels sticking out of it, aimed right at him. Luckily, the rifle missed, but Mills took a point-blank hit from a paint gun. Then, on Christmas Eve 2001, an armed man invaded Mills’ home. He was tied up and had a black hood put over his face. Mills had no safe, gold or—at the time—guns. The robber inadvertently had gone to the wrong apartment. Mills, who is a trained gymnast, was able to get out of the ropes and sound an alert to his neighbors, but the man was never caught.

Mills, a Benedictine monk for 15 years, is a computer-network-managing instructor and travels widely, which means he can’t keep a dog for protection. He read about the Pink Pistols in a magazine and checked out the group’s Web site. “I realized that these are all reasonable, rational, careful and responsible people who are not looking to become a vigilante committee,” said Mills.

Seeing that the closest Pink Pistols chapter was in San Francisco, Mills bumped into Sykes on the Pink Pistols discussion board, and together they founded the Sacramento Valley chapter. “Deanna and I encountered one another,” said Mills, “and we thought, ‘Why shouldn’t we start a group of two and see what happens from there?’”

After their meetings at The Open Book, members then drive and carpool to the Yolo Sportsmen’s Association near Davis for the actual shoot. At every shoot, at least a third of the attendees have no experience firing a gun, so the experienced members show them proper safety and shooting techniques. They start off with a small-caliber gun and, by the end of the shoot, they are popping off .45 rounds like they’re Benicio Del Toro.

The Yolo Sportsmen’s Association shooting range is in the dusty fields near the Yolo County Airport. After the Sacramento Valley Pink Pistols’ fourth meeting, as paragliders sailed over, the members were assembled and ready to do some shooting. They came from as far south as Stockton and as far north as Paradise.

Richard Church is a soft-spoken man from New Zealand who has been living with his wife in Sacramento for almost two years. There are very few guns in New Zealand, and to acquire one, you must pay a lot of money and go through a lot of red tape. “The bad guys are not going to disclose ownership,” said Church, “so why penalize the good guys?” After only attending two Pink Pistols meetings, Church, who never fired a gun before, joined the group. At the range, he was nailing the target with great precision. “I really like accuracy—as close as you can get it to the bull’s-eye,” said Church, “putting those holes where you want them.”

The Pink Pistols are a relaxed group. They sip sodas, smoke cigarettes and chat when not on the firing line. Everyone shares weapons, and there are many different calibers to choose from. Mossberg 12-gauge shotguns loaded with slugs, .45- and .40-caliber semi-automatics, 9 mm weapons, .38s, .22s and .357 Magnums line the firing table.

Stan Kelly left Los Angeles after 25 years to live in the mountains near Paradise. A successful graphic artist, he realized that in these modern times, he could live anywhere he wanted to live and still do his job, but he wasn’t expecting to be threatened because of his sexual orientation. After his car was vandalized, his home was broken into (though nothing was stolen) and he received threatening phone calls, he bought a .40-caliber Ruger semi-automatic pistol. He shot once with the San Francisco Pink Pistols before the Sacramento Valley chapter got off and running. “I’ve been threatened, terrorized, followed, yelled at, and my house was broken into. I felt hunted. I felt like I was the prey. I decided the prey is going to fight back,” he said with a wheezing laugh. “The prey is armed now.”

Is Sacramento’s gay community ready for pistol-packing queers? “What I’ve found out since beginning the chapter,” explained Sykes, “is that my assumptions were correct: There are a lot of folks in our community who have an interest or need for this. I’ve talked to folks who have always wanted to learn to shoot but haven’t because there is not a good forum for them. I’ve talked to a number of folks who have a gun for home protection but never practice with it—same reason. And I think the fact that our group has grown every single month since we’ve started is more evidence that there is a need for this group here.”