Norman Bednar picks up his MAK-90 assault rifle from its resting place on his living room carpet. His lean, 6-foot, 1-inch, 150-pound frame wraps around the rifle, while his thin arms pop the magazine into place. He examines the sights intently, and for a moment it appears as if he's actually hugging his weapon.
"There's no need to be afraid of guns," he says, exposing the empty chamber. "I mean, it's natural to fear something you don't understand. But that's why it's so important to get educated."
Bednar, 39, is a commercial airline pilot. He was introduced to guns at age 3, when his father took him behind their house in St. Claire, Mich., and taught him how to shoot a BB gun. Today his arsenal includes a .22-caliber Marlin rifle, good for shooting "varmints"; a Brazilian Boito .410-gauge shotgun; a 1947 Savage 20-gauge shotgun; a Chinese military rifle; and his favorite, a MAK-90 semi-automatic assault rifle.
"[The MAK-90 is] basically like a Chinese AK-47 with a slightly different stock," he says. "It's crude, it's loud, it looks like an insect, it kicks like a mule I love it!"
Bednar's south Orlando home contains almost no furniture; only two light blue recliners side by side near the front door. A single clock hangs on an empty orange wall, ticking softly in the silence. He's in the midst of a move to Fort Lauderdale to be closer to his boyfriend, and to start anew. The Orlando gay scene has grown stale, he says, and it's time to go.
"I'm almost done moving all my stuff out of here," he says quietly. "And as you can see, I know nothing about decorating a home." He pauses and chuckles to himself. "I'm not like your average gay man. I can't decorate a house, but I can tell you about every working part of that Porsche parked outside in my driveway."
A move south might also pump some life into the organization Bednar has tried unsuccessfully to get going in Orlando: a local chapter of the Pink Pistols, the national group that advocates arming gays as a means of combating hate crimes.
Bednar's sexual orientation, combined with his affection for firepower, made him a natural to lead an Orlando chapter. "Starting the Orlando chapter was easy I just signed up on the Pink Pistols website," says Bednar. "I thought it would be a fun way to get involved and be social."
Keeping it going proved difficult. Orlando gays, it seems, are simply not interested in packing firearms. So unless a successor steps up soon, the Orlando Pink Pistols will fade away when Bednar does.
CALL TO ARMS
The first Pink Pistols chapter was started In March of 2000 in Boston by founder Doug Krick, who was inspired by a Salon.com article outlining the need for homosexuals to arm themselves.
The article, by Jonathan Rauch, encouraged gays to "… set up Pink Pistols task forces, sponsor shooting courses and help homosexuals get licensed to carry [guns]." While arming themselves with lethal firepower, Rauch wrote, gays should get as much publicity as possible in order to garner community-wide interest, and possibly, to thwart future gay-bashing incidents.
"If it became widely known that homosexuals carry guns and know how to use them, not many bullets would need to be fired," wrote Rauch. "In fact, not all that many gay people would need to carry guns, as long as gay-bashers couldn't tell which ones did. Suddenly, [gay bashing] would become a great deal less attractive."
Rauch added that it was "remarkable" that Amer-ican gays hadn't considered arming themselves sooner, in light of the nation's inadequate hate crime legislation. Citing the fact that anti-gay crime nearly doubled between 1992 and 1998, Rauch opined that hate crime laws are "at best insufficient, at worst ineffective."
According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program's (NCAVP) most recent report, "Anti-Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Violence in 2003," gay-bashing incidents have risen steadily in the past two years. The group, which monitors incidents in 11 U.S. cities, found that episodes of bias, domestic violence, HIV-related violence, rape and other forms of violence increased 8 percent between 2002 and 2003. The number of victims increased by 9 percent, from 2,183 victims to 2,384 victims.
The Pink Pistols' strategy is simple: Once a month, interested members gather at local firing ranges around the country to practice shooting and learn gun safety. Once members achieve basic proficiency, leaders of the chapter help them get a gun and a permit. They also receive training in self-defense.
Since the Pink Pistols launched their website in 2000, nearly 6,000 members have joined together to create 47 chapters in the United States and Canada. National spokesperson Gwendolyn Patton says that only about 500 Pink Pistols members nationwide actually meet each month to practice.
From the start, it was hard to convince gays that they needed guns to defend themselves, says Patton. "Homosexuals generally believe that guns are evil, icky, bad! But the Pink Pistols are an important organization with an important message. Self-defense is our right."
Patton says few other gay organizations have warmed to the group's philosophy. In fact, she says, the Pink Pistols have been more welcome at local gun ranges than in the gay community.
"The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual organizations here have almost universally shunned us [in Philadelphia]," says Patton. "It's amazing how quickly we became anathema. After we came forward with our cause, all the local gay organizations immediately made rules stating there were absolutely no guns allowed. Obviously, this meant that we weren't welcome."
Patton's group isn't the only chapter being "shunned" by the gay community. In the summer of 2004, members of Stonewall Columbus asked the Central Ohio Pink Pistols to leave a Gay Pride parade for openly carrying firearms. Pro-gun organizations were quick to defend the Pink Pistols.
Nonetheless, the Pistols have positioned themselves on the forefront of the right-to-arm movement, taking a stance more closely aligned with conservative groups. In January, five San Francisco supervisors recently proposed a law that would ban handgun ownership for nearly everyone except law enforcement. The city's Pink Pistols chapter has been a vocal opponent of the ban, even considering joining forces with the National Rifle Association.
In 2004, the group publicly endorsed two Libertarian candidates for office: David Euchner, who was running for office in Pima County, Ariz., and presidential candidate Michael Badnarik. The Pistols liked Euchner because he scored 100 percent on a 2,000-question Pink Pistols questionnaire; they liked Badnarik because he favored same-sex marriages and opposed all gun control laws.
HOMOPHOBIA AT HOME
Bednar doesn't believe guns are a "cure-all" for gay bashing. He does, however, believe that being armed helps even the odds.
"In 1998, two wastes of sperm and egg tied a 105-pound Matthew Shepard to a farm fence in the middle of nowhere, Wyoming, and commenced to beat the living hell out of him," says Bednar. "Had [Shepard] been carrying a weapon, then this wouldn't have happened trust me."
He adds, "When someone a lot larger than you decides that [violence] is the only way to settle his [or] her personal difference, what can you do? I'll tell you what. If you're carrying, you'll find that nothing shuts them up like good old-fashioned firepower."
Bednar's bold statements contrast with his quiet voice, slender frame and timid demeanor. Every few minutes, his shyness fades, and he flashes a warm smile and voices a word of caution.
"Like a good prescription medicine, [guns] need to be controlled and administered in a proper manner, or the side effects can prove disastrous," he says.
Practice with BB guns made Bednar one of the best shooters in his high school ROTC class. Yet, despite being an accomplished marksman, Bednar hasn't shot much of anything, with the exception of a few small birds, squirrels and rabbits when he was a child. He's been deer hunting a couple of times in Michigan and North Carolina, but wound up "killing only beer."
"I've never shot another person, not even with a BB gun," he says. "A friend of mine shot me in the shoulder with a BB gun when I was 18 I just about kicked his ass!"
Bednar says there are a number of reasons he's relocating to Fort Lauderdale, a place he calls "the de facto gay Mecca on the East Coast." He wants to be closer to his boyfriend, but he also thinks the Orlando gay scene has lost its luster.
"Orlando's gay scene, which was truly hot about five years ago, has cooled off the past few years, kind of like the weather," he says. "Now when you go to a gay club, everything feels forced and people seem fake."
The recent increase in gay-bashing incidents in a section of Orlando known as the "ViMi" a nickname for the intersection of Virginia Drive and Mills Avenue cemented his desire to relocate.
"Overt homophobia has risen its ugly head within the past few months," he says, referring to the December BB gun attacks on the Gay Days headquarters in Orlando.
Aside from being called a "faggot" a few times, Bednar says he's never personally been threatened. He says he's witnessed only one anti-gay act in his time here.
"I was standing outside of the Parliament House, when a man driving by in a maroon Ford F-150 flung a bottle of pool acid from their car window, aiming at the club," he says. "The acid landed on the sidewalk, and thankfully, no one was hurt."
But at 1 a.m. on Jan. 23, a gay-bashing incident left a man in the hospital. The man was walking south on Mills Avenue on his way home from The Peacock Room. Somewhere between Oregon and Colonial, a white man with blondish hair pulled over in a white car and asked if he was "a faggot." The attacker, accompanied by several other men, began beating the victim.
"He wasn't swishing down the road or being obvious or anything like that. He just likes walking," says District 4 commissioner Patty Sheehan. "And out of nowhere, these cretins hop out of their car, ask him if he's a faggot, and start beating him up and kicking him on his face, over and over."
In response to the attack, Sheehan and the Orlando Chapter of the Human Rights Campaign sponsored a march down Mills Avenue on Feb. 14 in the victim's honor.
"We want the Neanderthals that did this to know that this kind of violence and discrimination is not going to happen in our neighborhood," she says.
If the man was armed would the outcome have been different? There's no way to tell. Patton, the Pink Pistols spokesperson, notes that the Orlando incident is similar to one that took place in Philadelphia, but the outcome was much different.
"Our member was leaving a gay club late at night. You could tell he was gay by the way he was dressed, and the attackers knew he was gay when they saw him leaving," says Patton. "They followed him to his car with metal pipes in their hand. As soon as they said 'Let's get this faggot,' our member drew his weapon and aimed it at the attackers. Next thing you know, someone screams, 'Holy bleep, he's got a gun,' and they all ran away."
DROP YOUR WEAPONS
As has been the case in other cities, the Pink Pistols have not been warmly embraced here. Chris Alexander-Manley, vice president of sales and marketing for Gay Days Inc., says guns could make a potential attack more dangerous. "I really sit on the fence with this issue," says Alexander-Manley. "I think it's important for a gun owner to learn how to handle that gun properly, but at the same time, what happens if a homosexual carrying a weapon gets shot by his own gun?"
Sheehan agrees, even though she's a gun owner herself. "I don't carry my gun; even though I could, I don't carry it. I don't feel good about taking one with me. I'd rather just call the police on my cell phone," she says. "Part of that concern comes from the fact that I'd probably be placing myself in a 'shoot-to-kill' situation."
"I'm a closet gun owner," she says. "And as a lesbian, I catch a lot of flak for having a gun. I learned how to use it, and I'm a really good shot, but it's locked up in a strongbox because I have nieces and nephews now."
Bednar is not surprised by the local gay community's lack of enthusiasm. He says it's easy to misinterpret the Pink Pistols' mission, and that many gays think guns are "symbolic for stupidity."
"I think it's perfectly normal for a gay man to want to own guns. In fact, I think it is perfectly normal for a gay man to advocate ownership of guns," he says. "Guns and things technical, such as cars, tend to have a very redneck image in 'gay land'… and people like me are not completely understood."
Yet Bednar is quick to accept responsibility for the group's demise. "I think I have failed with the Pink Pistols mission," he says. "I hoped to change the notion in the gay community that guns were something for cops and rednecks. If there were a significant number of gay men who legally carried [guns] and shot on a regular basis, then it would automatically become more socially acceptable."
He adds, "And I hoped that the notion that many gays were carrying would put fear in the hearts of serious homophobes, such as the trash that killed Matthew Shepard."
The Orlando Pink Pistols will become the "Central Florida Pink Pistols" if Bednar moves to Fort Lauderdale without anyone to replace him in Orlando. And Bednar will continue preaching the gospel of armed response.
"[If you draw a weapon on someone who's attacking you] you are safe to at least leave the area or defuse the situation. Safe," he says. "Ask Matthew Shepard's mom what she thinks about this earned safety I'm sure you'll get an earful."