Alongside U.S. 59, several miles north of the Loop, sits the appropriately named 59 Gun Range. Run-down homes, vacant lots and a fireworks emporium line its block. Immediately adjacent is Pancho's Mobile Homes, a makeshift sales lot marked by a hand-painted sign, where dented trailers teeter on cinder blocks like derailed train cars. In the smoky gun shop, which forms the lobby of the range, a wispy teenager with long, oily hair and a dimwitted but lively gaze drawls about the thrills of gun recoil. His sidekick affirms with a crooked smile.
At one of the shadowy shooting lanes, Marie Garrison stands a menacing six feet three inches tall in a modified Weaver combat stance, .45-caliber pistol in hand. Spent shells litter the floor, and bullet holes dot the wall just inches from her face. She gently squeezes the double-action trigger. Each blast comes as a surprise. Each surprise punches a pinkie-sized hole in the paper silhouette.
In the next lane, Brandi Williams, a stunning, middle-aged, red-lipped blond, aims her Kimber 1911, a reduced-size .45-caliber pistol designed for concealed carry. And Xen Polk, a round man with thick glasses and a frightfully hacking cough, wields his .357 Sig.
What separates these shooters from so many others is more intimate than their firepower. Garrison happens to be a lesbian. Williams is a male-to-female transsexual, courtesy of one detail-oriented surgeon in Thailand. And Polk is proudly gay. Together they form the core of the Houston chapter of Pink Pistols, a group of concealed-pistol-toting, Second Amendment-defending sexual minorities who don't take mess from criminals, haters or legislators trying to take their guns.
Their motto: Pick on someone your own caliber.
But their gun-wielding ways haven't won many supporters in Houston's gun-shy gay community. They've had to find a home on the fringe, a home where the fellers at 59 Gun Range would feel cozier to them than any Montrose crowd. But they're content there. "The gays here aren't interested in joining Pink Pistols," Polk says. "They give in to the gay stereotype of weakness."
Effective self-defense has been a matter of debate ever since concerns over gay-bashing heightened in the late '70s. A community group, the Montrose Patrol, organized in 1978 to help authorities monitor potential hot spots. It went fallow 11 years later, doomed by its own success: Organizers said that when bashers stopped targeting the community, patrollers lost their enthusiasm.
With a spate of highly publicized gay-bashing incidents across the country in the '90s, including the murder of Paul Broussard in Montrose in 1991, Houston's gay community again mobilized around security and safety. The Montrose Patrol was reincarnated as Q-Patrol. Today, Q-Patrol faces the same challenge as its predecessor -- lack of interest -- and leaders are considering whether they should dissolve the group.
Pink Pistols came along touting a more militant and self-reliant alternative. "We provide an environment where people in the sexual minority can feel comfortable learning to shoot and learning their right to defend themselves against harm," says Gwendolyn Patton, the national media spokesperson for the Pistols. Armed gays don't get bashed, they claim.
Pink Pistols is a loosely governed national organization that erupted from cyberspace fully formed. In March 2000, Jonathan Rauch, a senior writer for National Journal magazine, published an essay on Salon.com that called for homosexuals to "embark on organized efforts" to be trained in firearms and to carry guns.
That call to set up "Pink Pistols task forces" spread across the states as quickly as the double-click of a mouse. Xen Polk and Dan Weiner, who recently died from cancer, founded the Houston chapter not long after the article. There are currently 47 U.S. chapters.
Polk, Weiner and the rest did not come on the scene without controversy. In 2001 an e-mail war waged on what was then Houston's most popular gay Internet message board, Houston Activist Network. Members debated the wisdom of armed self-defense, as well as the overall image of the gay community. When it was over, enemy lines were drawn and the message board shut down.
"Pink Pistols killed it because they insisted that it was a group only for people that agreed with them," says Ray Hill, an early gay activist and the Pistols' most vocal opponent. "They would go on for days about the great joy of putting more powder than specified in a given bullet shell so you get more bang for your buck. If you're not into guns, that gets to be real boring."
Garrison says that much of the beef with the Pistols grew from the fact that co-founder Weiner believed that Pink Pistols should replace Q-Patrol -- that Pink Pistols was the next step in the evolution of self-defense. "Whenever they start saying, 'We need to carry our weapons out where people congregate,' I don't think that's a safety issue," Hill says. "I think there are some gay people that have this macho thing about weapons."
Garrison differs. "Ray Hill wanted to continue to hold the power. I disagreed with him when he tried to use that power to keep that community in a mold rather than allow them to progress. Pink Pistols was trying to give them individual power."
Patton, the national Pistols spokesperson, says differing approaches extend beyond Houston. "A large percentage of the established gay community has a decidedly liberal bent. And the typical attitude of that polarized liberal community is that guns are more of a causative factor in violence than an ameliorative factor," she says. Most of the members of the Houston chapter are conservative.
And they're outspoken about their differences. "Some of our members are really excited when they become members of the Pink Pistols," Patton says. "They think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread, and they want the world to know about it. When they're challenged on the subject of firearms in general, they can get upset about it and it can cause some pretty heated behavior."
Like the other Pistols, Marie Garrison grew up around guns. (Citing concerns about her safety and privacy, she agreed to an interview on the condition that her real last name not be used.) Her father was a competition shooter in Maryland with a .45-caliber 1911 and a .22-caliber handgun. He taught her how to clean the guns and load the ammunition. She shot her first gun, a .45, when she was eight. "Yes, I did fall on my butt," she remembers.
She entered the air force when she was 21, and spent 12 years as a staff sergeant stationed in the States with temporary duty in Germany, Panama and Korea. When she was in Panama, she says, a guerrilla sniper climbed a tree and blew her friend's brains against the wall. She tells of returning fire with her nine- millimeter pistol but missing the mark.
Garrison was a member of Q-Patrol before she joined the Pistols. She thought they were doing great work but says it wasn't as fun when people started taking umbrage to the Pistols and making personal jabs.
Now she works in retail sales at a home improvement warehouse and says that she's good at it because she's "a people person." She's quick to smile and set others at ease but always maintains a measure of earnestness, especially when discussing guns.
Garrison is almost always armed. She says the police, who are stationed three minutes away from her home, cannot be counted on.
She categorizes the world into four degrees of preparedness for attack, in what she calls conditions A through D. In condition D, we're defenseless. "You're talking on your cell phone stopped at a red light. You don't check your mirrors. You don't look around. How easy is it for someone to walk up to your window, point a gun at it and put a bullet through it?" She says that she'll never be caught awake in condition D. The other extreme is condition A, when she is contemplating using deadly force to protect her life.
If one of her terriers barks in the night, she immediately shifts from condition D to condition B. She grabs one of the 12-gauge shotguns that flank each side of the bed. "From the first bark I should be able to begin clearing the house in 15 seconds." First, according to plan, she racks a shell into her shotgun so any intruder can hear it. She's trying to spare a life, she explains. "I've seen people die, and I have no desire to cause that, but I'd rather have it happen to my attacker than to me or someone I love."
The first shell is always a No. 6 buck, which sprays a 24-inch circle of pellets that penetrate about three inches into the flesh. The second is double-aught buckshot, which has 12 pellets the size of .32-caliber bullets. The third shell is the lead slug, which can blast through an exterior wall at rifle speed.
During her condition B alert, she "sweeps" the bedroom, and then leaves her partner, Leslie, there, where she must remain. She then checks the rest of the house. Leslie must call police if she hears anything other than Garrison approaching with their predetermined code word.
Garrison has cleared her Mission Bend home three or four times. All were false alarms, but she insists it's good to be ready. "I prepare for this stuff so I don't have to think about it," she says. While even some paramilitary types might think she's paranoid, she calls it good preparedness, like conducting fire drills.
For all their preparations, Garrison and the other Pistols concede that they've never felt threatened by others because of their sexual preferences. From the beginning, Polk was excited about the prospect of shooting with "like-minded individuals." Guns are a part of who they are. Pink Pistols' raison d'être is partly rooted in the simple human desire to be around people with similar interests.
Some others in the gay community wonder if the novelty of Pink Pistols isn't running out of ammunition -- they've averaged only five or six members at any meeting. Once, 20 people came out to shoot, but that was because the local Libertarians joined them at the range. They are "a minority in a minority," as Polk puts it.
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Polk's goals for the group are modest. "I'd like to see about a dozen folks," he says. The Pistols have grown more comfortable on the fringe. The controversy with the rest of the gay community is well behind them. Other gay activists don't hear from them much.
At their recent meeting at 59 Gun Range, the guns go silent after little more than an hour. They retreat to the gun shop and sit around one of the rickety folding tables. Ammunition, earplugs and protective goggles are strewn about.
Their conversation is lighthearted. Gun jokes pervade. Mention of sexuality is noticeably absent. "We talk more about guns sexually than sexuality," Williams says.
They enjoy one another's company. "You don't have to worry about saying something that would tick somebody off," Williams says. "The NRA is full of Bubbas, and if they found out I'm lesbian, they might do something weird."