Over time, Patton says the group became something more than just a self-defense organization: It was a way for like-minded friends to feel comfortable at the shooting range. "It's great, wacky fun," says Rauch of the movement he inspired. "My hope would be they're important out of proportion to their numbers because they say something and are uniquely qualified to say something, which is the minority case for self-defense."
It's impossible to say just how many Pink Pistols there are because the national organization doesn't keep track. The Facebook page for the national group has more than 1,200 members, but there are smaller local groups too, and allegiance to a Facebook group doesn't necessarily mean participation. At its height, says Patton, the Pink Pistols had chapters in every state and in Canada; for a time there was talk of expanding into Israel and South Africa as well. Because chapters are loosely organized, the group has had some fallow years, but, Patton says, "in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook incident, there were enough questions and people wanting information" that interest in the organization has picked up again.
Members don't lobby or engage in political activities, but that hasn't stopped them from having an impact on the legal debate. With the help of lawyers paid by the NRA, Patton explains, the group wrote a brief for the Supreme Court case that struck down Washington's gun ban, D.C. v. Heller. (One of the plaintiffs in Heller, Tom Palmer, said he had once brandished a weapon to successfully scare away an antigay mob.) The Pink Pistols say they are working on briefs for other cases making their way through the courts.
The group used to have a natural ally in Washington in GOProud, the now-defunct gay Republican organization. "I've always said way back when we first started GOProud, that people should be able to lawfully defend themselves to prevent themselves from becoming victims of violent crimes," says the organization's former executive director, Jimmy LaSalvia. GOProud partnered with Gun Owners of America to support an amendment to make concealed carry permits transferable across state lines when the hate-crimes bill was debated in 2009.
Finding acceptance has been, at times, tough for those in the gay community who favor gun rights. "You'd think the gay community would be like, 'Wow, you're helping gay people.' But it's like you held up a crucifix in front of a vampire," Patton says. "They treat us like we've left the reservation because we're looking at these evil guns, and they don't like guns, so that calls into question our loyalty to the gay community."
Locating candidates to support within the two-party system, when one side champions gay marriage and the other gun rights, is hard. Whittemore used to run ObamaLA, an organization he said had 2,500 volunteers at one point. But once he started paying closer attention to Ron Paul, he underwent a political conversion and quit the group. He says Rand Paul is half the man his father is, but he would consider voting for him if he ran for president.
"It really does get to be difficult. We're pulled in two directions," says Patton. "There are some Democrats that would be cheerful about taking the Second Amendment and repealing it and saying only police and military can have guns; there are Democrats that believe it. On the same token, there are Republicans who like guns generally and want to keep the Second Amendment and get rid of some limitations of it, but some of those Republicans would cheerfully watch us get stoned in the town square because we're an abomination. Not every Republican believes that, and not every Democrat believes guns are evil, but it's hard to find a balance between that."
If gay advocates of gun rights are lucky, however, they won't have to wait long for a candidate they can enthusiastically support. "The NRA news-commentator opportunity for me is a very logical step to getting to a place where I can run," says Chris Cheng. "I plan to run for office one of these days."