PHILADELPHIA — Try as he might, Tom Nelson just could not get any other gay people to the gun range.
For the past four years he sent out email invitations to a local mailing list for Pink Pistols, a shooting group that encourages members of the LGBT community to carry concealed firearms. Then, on the third Sunday of each month, he would head to a gun club in the Philadelphia area and wait. Nobody ever showed.
"It's been very lonely out there," said Nelson, a 71-year-old retiree who continued to make the trek lest his own shooting skills deteriorate. Nelson also organizes a monthly support group for gay men who are married to women, and reliably draws a small crowd to that one, so he wondered: Could there really be more gay guys with wives than gay guys with guns?
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Pink Pistols marching — Photo: JennJacques via Twitter
But a week after a gunman killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Nelson had reason to believe that might change. It pained him that it took such a terrible tragedy, but for the first time in recent memory he'd gotten some tentative RSVPs. The night before their meeting at the range, he was so nervous he lay in bed hardly able to sleep.
"We've been very good as a community with candlelight vigils, but not so good at doing what it takes to prevent them from happening," he said the next morning after he pulled his white socks up high, tucked his salmon polo shirt into his cargo shorts and packed his .40-caliber Glock into a customized fanny pack. He sat at his living room table — scattered with issues of the Philadelphia Gay News and Gun Digest — and reread the speech he had always hoped to give to new Pink Pistols members.
"What's going to happen is going to happen," said Nelson as he folded his 6-foot-3 frame into a Honda hybrid. "I hope several people will show up, but I guess who knows."
Nelson was a proud gun owner before he was a proud gay man. He got his first BB gun as a 12-year-old living in Massachusetts and his first .22 rifle when he was 14, and at the University of Maine he joined the rifle team. As a college student, Nelson had "a lot of gay sex" but, he says, didn't think of himself as gay. He didn't have anyone to talk about it with at the time, he says now, and didn't really understand how to label his sexuality.
After college he worked for the better part of a decade helping design guns for Remington. And at 38, he met a woman named Carol on an Appalachian hike. They ended up living together for 20 years. His closest brush with gun violence came when a stray bullet from a neighborhood scuffle flew into their kitchen, not far from where Carol had been standing. Nelson wasn't around, though. He was on a camping trip with his boyfriend at the time.
Nelson now lives with that boyfriend, Avram, and maintains a cordial relationship with Carol. It helped, he said, that when he started going to the support group for married gay men, he was open about it with her. Belatedly out of the closet, Nelson began joining various gay clubs and began to feel like part of a community. In 2001, he saw a blurb for the Pink Pistols in the Philadelphia Gay News and called right away.
"They told me I was one of the first people to sign up," he said.
He quickly surmised that most people in the gay community were not gun lovers. "It's a pretty liberal group," he said. For the first couple of years he could expect somewhere between two and eight guys to show up at the range, but over the years the numbers dwindled down to just him.
Well — him and Jeff Bloovman, anyway.
"Hi, I'm Jeff Bloovman. Many of you know that because I've trained you. And as you know, I'm totally gay and stuff."
This was how Bloovman, an uber-athletic self-defense and firearms instructor with a stylish swirl of gelled hair, introduced himself Sunday in the backroom of the Gun Range in Philadelphia. Bloovman is not a member of the Pink Pistols, but for the past year he has volunteered his services for anyone from the group who shows up — which, up until now, had been Nelson. After the Orlando shooting, Bloovman turned to Facebook to encourage his friends, gay or straight, to come to the range this third Sunday of June and show some support for the Pink Pistols.
"I'm a firm believer in individual rights, and I think personal liberties are for everybody," he said before introducing Nelson as the head of the Delaware County chapter of the Pink Pistols. "That's in terms of sexuality and personal protection. And as we've seen, despite their best efforts, law enforcement cannot be everywhere at once."
About a half-dozen people had shown up. They sat around a long table, loading bullets into magazines while Nelson read his speech. He rattled off the highlights of his biography and talked up the importance of lawful gun ownership. Most were friends of Bloovman's, and not necessarily gay, but at least one came specifically for the Pink Pistols.
"I'd heard about the group a while back but didn't think they were still around," said Mike Klepper, a 52-year-old gay man with a mustache and close-cropped hair. Klepper worried that after Orlando there would be more talk of government regulations on certain types of guns. He was willing to do "whatever it takes" to keep that from happening, but at the moment he was just happy to spend the day with some like-minded people.
The group put in their earplugs and headed out to the indoor range: a noxious hotbox of gunsmoke and sweat. Nelson stalked the range like a geriatric Gary Cooper in "High Noon," quick-drawing his gun out of his fanny pack and shooting at a pink outline of a person.
Men practicing on pink outlines — Photo: Nathan MacNichol via Instagram
An NRA-certified instructor introduced himself to Nelson and encouraged him to "continue breaking stereotypes." He said that after Orlando he had reached out to a gay community organization in Philadelphia but never heard back.
"A lot of people discriminate against me because I have NRA in my job title," he said.
A woman named Gloria, who had come to show support for the gay community, posed for photos with her AR-15, a firearm with similar design features to the one used in the Orlando shooting and other mass killings that have made global headlines in recent years.
"I had asked people not to come with rifles," Bloovman said, mortified. "I knew it just wouldn't look good."
Bloovman offered quick lessons to everyone who showed up, working toward an ultimate goal of shooting 10 rounds, from 10 yards away in 10 seconds. Waiting his turn, Nelson looked around and couldn't believe how many people had come. Yes, it would have been nice to get a few more gay people, or perhaps someone who wasn't already a gun enthusiast, to show up.
But it was a lot better than no company at all.
Nelson ambled up to the stall, fired 10 rounds at the target that left a fist-size cluster of bullet holes. Not bad, but there was still room for improvement.
"The next thing is to get faster," Bloovman said. "But you gotta make the hits. If you can't make the hits, it's a liability and you start hurting your cause."