Lore McSpadden never touched a gun before the Trigger Warning Queer & Trans Gun Club started this past year. Now McSpadden is among the shooters routinely yelling, “Pull!” and blasting at clay pigeons angling over a mowed field near Rochester.
Trigger Warning members are anxious about armed and organized extremists who seem increasingly emboldened. Their response has a touch of symmetry to it: They started a club to teach members how to take up arms.
“It’s a way to assert our strength,” said Jake Allen, 27, who helped form the group. “Often, queer people are thought of as being weak, as being defenseless, and I think in many ways this pushes back against that. And I want white supremacists and neo-Nazis to know that queer people are taking steps necessary to protect themselves.”
Trigger Warning members meet once a month to shoot still targets and saucer-shaped pigeons. The 18 dues-paying members are all LGBTQ, many just learning about guns.
“I identified as a pacifist really through most of my life,” said McSpadden, 37, who has attended a self-defense seminar and now owns a 20-gauge shotgun.
On a recent evening, their instructor showed novices how to pull a .22-caliber rifle snugly to their shoulders and how to aim slightly ahead of a moving target. Members cheered when shooters shattered a pigeon or hit a bull’s-eye.
The light mood belies the apprehension that led to group’s creation this past winter amid a year marked by politically tinged violence ranging from scuffles at protests to a violent clash of white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Zora Gussow recalls a dismal time earlier this year when she began talking to Allen about taking on “the gaping hole in the knowledge of people on the left” about firearms.
“I grew up afraid of guns,” Gussow said. “The first time I was near a gun in a house, it was of one of my friend’s, and I basically jumped back. And that feels dangerous to me in a society where there are so many guns.”
A dozen shooters in a field in upstate New York does not exactly represent a vanguard of a newly armed left. But the group is not alone. Allen said there is another Trigger Warning chapter in Atlanta and he has received inquiries from people in about 10 other cities.
Membership in the Pittsburgh chapter of the Pink Pistols, an LGBTQ-oriented gun group with chapters nationwide, bumped up after the presidential election and then after a white supremacist killed a counter-protester in Charlottesville this summer.
The National African-American Gun Association gained 500 new members within two days after Charlottesville. Association president Philip Smith said the group went from four chapters to 45 in the past year. The Liberal Gun Club, a national organization, has seen its paid membership roughly double since the election to about 5,500, said Lara Smith of the group’s California chapter.
So-called leftists see the country differently now than the days of Occupy Wall street six years ago, said Mark Bray, author of “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook” and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. Trump’s victory emboldened white supremacists, he said, and the threat is felt not just by the LGBTQ community, but people of color, immigrants, Jews and Muslims.
“Back then we were sitting in parks, twinkling our fingers and talking about economic inequality,” he said. “Now we’re talking about firearms and self-defense.”
Some other groups are more provocative.
Black-clad radicals affiliated with the anti-fascist movement have tangled physically with conservative demonstrators at some public events. In August, members of the anti-racist group Redneck Revolt stood outside a raucous Trump rally with long guns.
These more radical groups stand out in a movement with a long history of nonviolent protests. Still, even the act of taking up arms for defense is enough to worry some veteran activists.
“Is an arms race what we really want?” asked Scott Fearing, executive director of Rochester’s Out Alliance. “What we know in any arms race is that it’s never good for anybody, and death and destruction and harm and hurt can come when so many people have arms and weapons.”
Trigger Warning members stress they are about empowerment and self-defense, not offense. Members say it also gives them a sense of community — even if it comes on a firing line in the middle of farm country.