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‘You have to be dangerous back.’ Why some LGBTQ people in New Hampshire are taking up arms

Photo of a person in camo with a patch showing a rainbow flag with an AR style gun that says 'Defend Equality'
Todd Bookman/NHPR
Members of Rainbow Reload, an LGBTQ gun group, see firearms as a way to protect themselves from growing threats.

In the corner of the parking lot of Pawtuckaway State Park, a half dozen people assemble on a recent Sunday morning, making small talk as they pull on gloves, wool hats — and gun holsters.

“I recognize the temperature is freezing, and this is not the most comfortable,” Fin Smith, today’s organizer, tells the group. “But if it's raining, we’re training. If it’s snowing, we’re going.”

Amid the hikers and snowmobilers in the park today, these are members of a group called Rainbow Reload, an LGBTQ gun club that offers experts and the gun-curious a chance to practice firearms skills in a supportive environment.

Similar groups exist across the country, often under the name “Pink Pistols.” Rainbow Reload members stress that their mission goes beyond mere hobby: The goal is to prepare and protect themselves from a rising chorus of threats against LGBTQ+ people, including those stemming from hate groups.

“If the world is dangerous, then you have to be dangerous back,” says Smith, who, like everyone interviewed, requested some level of anonymity citing concerns about their safety. “And that very much has pushed me to where I am now.”

Finn Smith, who organized the recent meeting in Pawtuckaway State Park, offers instruction on proper shooting stance.
Todd Bookman
Fin Smith provides training to another member of Rainbow Reload.

After delivering a safety talk, Smith, who is carrying a Diamondback AR, and a half dozen other Rainbow Reload members here — a smaller crowd than usual due to the presence of a reporter — begin hiking down a snow covered trail. Passing dog walkers give confused looks as they see long guns slung over shoulders.

Every member of the group has a different story about how they arrived here, feeling the need to carry a weapon for self-defense.

“I went from concealed carry every once in a while when I was feeling it to every single day,” explains Sharon, a Navy veteran and competitive shooter who transitioned last year. “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.”

Sharon, along with others, cite both the fear of being targeted while simply existing in public, as well as a more organized and ominous threat. A neo-Nazi group now active in New England has targeted spaces where trans people gather.

“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,” says Jamie, who is carrying a new pistol she received as a gift for Christmas.

While there are local rod and gun clubs where she could shoot, Jamie says she believes she wouldn’t be welcomed as a trans woman or for her left-leaning political views.

photo of a long gun
Todd Bookman/NHPR
“I want people to feel safe to be safe to be who they are," says Guardian on his involvement with Rainbow Reload.

“Having to hide your identity when you are shooting with a group of people isn’t really a great time,” she says.

After hiking in for about a mile, the group veers off trail, deep into the woods, until they spot a clearing. Smith marks off a lane for shooting, while others collect downed branches and start a fire.

Then the range goes “hot,” and people take turns on the line aiming at a target placed in front of a berm. The experienced work with the less inexperienced. Everybody shares guns, and they geek out on scopes and optics.

While Pink Pistol clubs have been around since at least 2000, there’s only limited data available on gun ownership rates among LGBTQ people. In 2020, a UCLA study found that 21.5 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual people live in a house with a firearm, compared to 36 percent of heterosexual adults.

In terms of partisan breakdown, a recent Pewstudy found that about one-in-five 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 among members, there are a variety of opinions.

“I mean, if you go far enough left, you get your guns back,” says Guardian, a pseudonym for a member who says he is fearful of his family being targeted, when asked about his politics.

Dressed in full camouflage, Guardian wears a hat with a patch that says "Make Racists Afraid Again."

He says he’s been around guns his whole life, and now sees them as a way to protect queer people and queer spaces.

“I want people to feel safe to be safe to be who they are,” he says, gun fire echoing in the background. “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.”

After a few hours of shooting, they collect spent shell casings out of the snow, and then huddle around the fire to warm up.

Then they begin the hike out, the guns over their shoulders a source of security in a world that feels full of threats.

Rainbow Reload members hike out of the woods following a few hours of shooting.
Todd Bookman/NHPR
Rainbow Reload meets monthly, in all weather conditions, in state parks or other spaces where they can legally shoot.

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. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.