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LGBT gun rights group sees membership skyrocket after Orlando shooting

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6/21/2016 Michael Burke
The Supreme Court gets another chance Thursday to consider bans on assault weapons. © Rich Pedroncelli, AP The Supreme Court gets another chance Thursday to consider bans on assault weapons.

Dylan West says the Pink Pistols gun club in Atlanta has been a stagnant group since he joined a year ago. But that's all changed now.

The gun club for LGBT people has roughly doubled in size to 230 members following this month's nightmarish shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub that left 49 dead and 53 injured.

"There’s always been a necessity for self-defense in the LGBT community,” says West, who grew up in Alabama surrounded by guns. 

Pink Pistols has 35 active chapters across the U.S., and nationally, its Facebook membership has increased from 1,500 before the shooting to about 6,500 as of Monday afternoon, spokeswoman Gwendolyn Patton said. That hike has encouraged some and worried others.

Patton said several of the chapters have become active since last week. The organization helps its members “select a firearm, acquire a permit, and receive proper training in its safe and legal use for self-defense," according to its website. Omar Mateen, the killer in the Orlando attacks, did not belong to the Pink Pistols.

West, who is gay, said that while the Orlando nightclub shooting has thrown the issue into the national spotlight, attacks against the LGBT community “are nothing new.” The FBI reported 999 hate crimes committed against LGBT people in the United States in 2014, the most recent available data.

Because the LGBT community is often the target of violent attacks, it’s important for LGBT people to carry guns to protect themselves, said Dave Kopel, an attorney and gun rights advocate.

“People have to be their own first responders,” he said. “Law enforcement tries to get there as fast as possible to intervene, but they can’t be there all the time and it’s good when people have the tools and abilities to stay alive until law enforcement shows up.”

But others aren’t as sure that the uptick in gun interest among LGBT people is a good thing.

Timothy McCarthy — director of the Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program at Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy — called it both understandable and lamentable that some LGBT people are turning to guns. It makes sense that LGBT people might feel scared after the shooting and want to arm themselves, McCarthy said, but he also said an urge to buy more guns “might be misplaced and problematic.”

“Because I don’t believe that more guns is going to lead to less violence,” he said. “The more guns we have in circulation, the more guns we have in use, that sets us up for more violence.”

But McCarthy also pointed out that 6,500 people —  the approximate Facebook membership total of the Pink Pistols — is only a “tiny, tiny fraction” of the LGBT community.

“So I also don’t think we should make so much of this,” he said.

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