Whatever your stereotype of a gun owner looks like, Gus Kein is probably not it.
The 52-year-old Wilton Manors resident is both openly gay and a retired minister. As a 17-year-old growing up in Plantation, "I shot a bird or a squirrel or something and cried like a baby,” he says. And as a pastor at Fort Lauderdale’s Sunshine Cathedral, an LGBTQ-friendly church, he didn’t carry a gun because he felt it would be inappropriate.
But then, while tending to people in the hospital, things changed.
“I had to attend to people in the hospital who were victims of gay violence, who had their throats slashed and heads bashed in with baseball bats,” he says. “For a while, I thought, if I pray harder and love harder, maybe these people will stop.”
But they didn’t. So once he retired, he decided it was time to start carrying a gun to protect himself from that same kind of violence and encouraging other gay people to do the same.
Kein is the founder of Pink Pistols Greater Fort Lauderdale, a new chapter of the national Pink Pistols organization, which was founded in 2000 to provide gun training and safety education for members of the LGBTQ community and anyone else who might not normally feel comfortable at a firing range. (They get a lot of straight women, he says.)
Ever since a previous local chapter closed down in 2004 when its leader moved away, Kein had tried periodically to resurrect it. But there was never much interest. “There are a lot of gay people who own guns but are very closeted about their gun ownership because they tend to be liberal,” he explains. “They don’t think they’ll be accepted by their friends if they come out as gun owners.”
Then Orlando happened. In the wake of the mass shooting at gay nightclub Pulse, many gay people began to consider arming themselves for the first time. Nationally, Pink Pistols’ membership went from 1,500 to over 8,000 in just a month. Kein decided it was time to try again. As soon as he sent out the first press release, he got hundreds of calls and emails.
It’s worth noting that the people who were killed in Orlando would not have been able to bring guns into the club with them due to a Florida law that bans firearms from places where alcohol is served. But the shooting nonetheless had the effect of reminding gay people that even in 2016, in a tolerant city, they could easily be the targets of violence.
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“Unfortunately, crimes against gay and lesbian people are not going away,” Kein says. “We may have gay marriage and antidiscrimination laws now, but that just makes people who hate us even angrier.”
Meanwhile, in recent years, mainstream gun organizations have become more welcoming to the LGBTQ community. In 2014, the National Rifle Association hired its first openly gay commentator, Chris Cheng, suggesting that the organization is making an effort to broaden and diversify its membership. And Kein says that while there may be bigoted individuals here and there, gun culture as a whole is vastly more tolerant than he remembers it being 20 years ago.
At the same time, the National LGBTQ Task Force has been actively campaigning for stricter gun control. “Unfortunately, LGBTQ people have lived with the threat of violence for a long time,” deputy executive director Russell Roybal says. “When we reach to touch our partner’s hand, there’s always a calculus that each one of us makes: Am I going to get beaten up, am I going to get murdered? It’s unfortunately part of our history that our safety is never guaranteed. And I don’t believe that LGBTQ people being armed in the streets or in the bars is going to change that. I don’t think that’s a way to combat the homophobia or transphobia that persists.”
Kein says plenty of trolls have called him a gun nut and said he’s contributing to the problem. “There are a lot of people who say guns are not the answer, and in a perfect world, I would agree with them,” he says philosophically. But in the meantime, being armed gives him peace of mind. “Thankfully, I haven’t ever had to pull it out,” he says. “I would rather call the police, I would rather run, I would rather do anything that I can to avoid a violent confrontation. But I can say, ‘Stop — I have a gun,’ and usually that works.”