As Boogaloo Bois waved AKs around the Third Precinct last May and reports of armed white supremacists popped up on social media, I started thinking about guns: who has them, who should have them, and the fact that I’d never held—much less fired—one.
I certainly wasn’t the only person reassessing their thoughts on firearms. National gun ownership figures are skyrocketing, with a record 22.8 million guns sold in the U.S. last year. Those figures are way up among women and people of color, and 2021 looks like it’ll be another record year. At what point was I being stupid by not knowing how to use a gun? I imagined winding up like a panicked Gale Weathers unsuccessfully taking aim at the killers in Scream: “It works better without the safety on.” So I started going to the range with my partner and looking into handgun safety classes.
If you’re a Minnesotan who wants to learn more about firearms and doesn’t come from a gun family, your education options are fairly limited. Sure, there are gun safety courses meant for teens learning to hunt, which isn’t extremely helpful if you’re 30 and also not into hunting. Permit to carry classes provide the most in-depth explanation about basic gun laws and safety, but they’re overwhelmingly taught by white men who look like ex-cops—often because they are.
Around this time, a friend told me about something called Sequeerity. Their website said the company was owned and operated by queer people of color, and their services included de-escalation training, bystander training, and permit to carry classes. They stated a goal of creating and maintaining safe spaces for everyone, “especially for the LGBTQIA+ community.” Promotional fliers for their carry class featured a photoshop of a holstered can of Twisted Tea.
And that is how I came to learn the parts of a semi-automatic pistol and the difference between the isosceles and weaver stance from a security guard who spent years performing with Dykes do Drag and a DJ with neck tattoos in a Kermit the Frog T-shirt.
Kimmy Hull grew up around guns. A military brat, she moved around a lot, and she was going to the range alongside her dad from the time she was young.
But when she officially LLC’d Sequeerity in 2019, it wasn’t about guns. She did it because “quite honestly, I didn’t like the security that was happening around Minneapolis.” Bouncers at clubs in the Twin Cities tended to be reactive and not proactive. It didn’t feel like there was a sense of respect for the people—even the word “bouncer,” if you think about it, is more combative than it is safety-focused.
At the beginning, Sequeerity focused on providing security at nightclubs, bars, and festivals. Hull, an experienced security guard, would take on jobs as a liaison at queer events in straight venues, or consult with in-house security teams about topics like approaching people without misgendering them.
That changed after the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent uprising. Suddenly, Hull had “a shit ton of friends”—many of them queer, trans, and people of color—who were interested in self defense and community defense like never before. Many were talking about getting a gun.
That group includes Shannon Blowtorch, who started doing administrative work with Sequeerity last summer. (She’s also one of the best-known DJs in the Twin Cities.) Blowtorch and her wife had already been thinking about getting their permits to carry, and after watching white supremacists with guns walk around their Minneapolis neighborhood during the uprising, she says, “We got licensed really fucking quick.”
Gun ownership has been on the rise in Minnesota for years. The Star Tribune reported on the state’s “historic” number of gun owners in 2015, when a record 200,000 Minnesotans had valid permits to carry handguns.
Minnesota sheriffs issued 51,404 carry permits in 2019. The next year, that number nearly doubled: Whether the increase was fueled by the uprising, the pandemic, the rise of Trumpism, and/or the rise of white supremacy, Minnesota sheriffs issued 96,554 carry permits in 2020, more than in any other year since the 2003 Personal Protection Act made those permits widely accessible. This March, the number of Minnesotans with valid permits to carry was 358,897.
So where are all these new gun owners coming from? For one, gun culture is diversifying. Almost half of all new gun buyers since 2019 have been women, and among Black Americans, firearm ownership is up 58.2%. The rise of the “armed left” was a topic of discussion even before the events of 2020.
Realizing that a lot of new people in their circles were getting gun-curious, Hull and Blowtorch started offering impromptu safety classes. “A lot of our friends and community members were wanting to get armed, wanting to get training,” Blowtorch says. If you were looking for people to shoot with, why, they had a whole list of other people who wanted to practice. They started taking groups to the shooting range, where there was safety and comfort in numbers.
Because while gun owners may be getting more diverse, gun culture isn’t. White, straight, cisgender men almost always run the places where you can get training. (Take a look at the instructor rosters at some of the gun ranges around the Twin Cities, and you’re going to see a lot of pale, male faces.) You can take a guess as to their political affiliations. (When my partner took his permit to carry class last year, the teacher quoted heavily from Dave Grossman—the “killology” guy and creator of the “warrior” style of police training that encourages aggressive conduct and has been banned in Minneapolis.)
“Quite often, the typical spaces where people practice their firearms rights tend to be reactionary and unwelcoming to traditionally marginalized intersections,” Lucas Hubbard, director of communications for the Socialist Rifle Association, tells Racket. Hubbard says it’s worth noting that hate crimes are also at their highest level in more than a decade. “It’s common that when you walk into a gun store or a range you will see blue line flags or overtly Islamophobic signs, not to mention the behavior of staff and patrons at these types of places.”
That’s why “nobody wanted to take the [permit to carry] classes,” Hull says. Which is an issue, and not just from a public safety perspective. “Being a person of color, being trans, being queer—you’re going to get profiled,” she explains. “And if you’re gonna carry a gun, you really, really, really need to be legit.”
So she and Blowtorch decided to get licensed. They taught their first classes together almost exactly a year ago.
Sequeerity’s online permit to carry class is like others in that the instructors want you to leave with the skills, knowledge, and attitude necessary to safely own and operate a handgun. The class handbook outlines the parts of the gun and the types of cartridges; they’ll take you through issues of liability and legality. You’ll learn about range calls, safe firearms storage, and the difference between single-action revolvers and semi-automatic pistols, and before class is over, you’ll schedule your range test. The fundamentals are all there.
Where it differs in is just about everything else. Even before instruction starts, Blowtorch asks the class to introduce themselves with their names, pronouns, and the reasons they’re interested in getting a permit to carry. On one of the first slides of their presentation, Hull outlines the reasons for gun ownership. There’s protection, and there’s sport, “And then there is identity-driven bullshit,” she tells the class. “It’s when you pick up a firearm and it changes your perception of what you can do, what you feel you can do, and how you feel in general holding a firearm in your hand.”
The acronym they use for the universal rules of firearm safety? ACAB. (Always treat the firearm as if it were loaded; Control your trigger finger and the muzzle; Always keep the firearm on safe until you intend to fire; Beware of what’s beyond your target.)
Hull and Blowtorch have the energy of the grumpy old men from the Muppets, ribbing each other and laughing together in a way that makes it clear they trust one another as instructors and friends. “Just remember, I know a lot more than Blowtorch does,” Hull teases at one point. Nearly all instructors work alone, but these two have always taught Sequeerity’s students in tandem, with Hull poking fun at her colleague in arms. “It disarms people,” Blowtorch unintentionally puns.
Blowtorch and Hull are pleasant and practical. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that bra-wearing folks need to avoid wearing low-cut shirts at the range, lest a hot casing lodge itself between your chest. They’re inclusive: In offering that advice, Blowtorch specifies “bra-wearing folks,” not “women.” And it does get serious, especially when they dive into the ins and outs of the legal stuff, such as what would actually happen in the event of a self-defense shooting.
“We try to make this a relaxed, comfortable, and kind of fun class,” Hull says. “I find that if you’re enjoying it and you’re laughing with me, you’re more likely to retain a lot more information because you’re more actively participating.”
“You need to lock your shit up,” Blowtorch says at one point, leading the class through safe firearm and ammo storage. A moment later, seeing some motion on a class member’s screen, Hull gasps: “Oh my God, look at that puppy.”
Sequeerity’s instructors are clear that guns aren’t the be-all and end-all of self defense, or even the first thing most people should consider.
“We want you to have the knowledge and the skills to know whether a handgun is even for you or not,” Blowtorch tells the virtually assembled group before the carry class is over. “After this course, if you’re like, ‘I don’t think I should own a gun,’ absolutely no judgment. There’s a million other things you can use out there for self-defense. Really think about that.”
Do you have trauma around guns or violence that will impact good decision making? Do you have mental health concerns like depression or anxiety that might make gun ownership unsafe for you? Would you be able to more safely protect yourself with a stun gun or a flashlight or a baseball bat or a dog? If the answer to any of those questions is “yes” or even, “hm, maybe,” Blowtorch and Hull encourage curious folks to avoid gun ownership, pushing them instead towards one of their de-escalation or other self-defense classes.
That’s the kind of community defense perspective Liz Collin, a local musician and educator, can really get behind. Collin attended Sequeerity’s bystander training class earlier this year, which she heard about through the survivor-led safe spaces group Show Up Collective.
“In Minneapolis over the last year we’ve had kind of a culture of people going out into the community to solve problems, and when that’s happening, there’s a lot of potential for crisis situations that need to be de-escalated,” Collin says. “I think for me, and maybe a lot of people in the city, we want to get out there and make sure that whatever situations we’re coming across, we’re able to intelligently manage them in a way that reduces harm.”
There aren’t many other firearms training groups like Sequeerity that emphasize de-escalation and prioritize queer, trans, and BIPOC folks—but there are a few. Around the time Blowtorch and Hull were getting their training certifications, Mick Sharpe was getting Protection Far Left of Center up and running.
Sharpe, too, had his roots in security, a job that ramped up last year as he provided protection for out-of-town news crews visiting Minneapolis to follow the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the Chauvin trial. And for all his knowledge about and experience with firearms, he doesn’t love guns. In the permit to carry classes he teaches at Protection Far Left of Center, he encourages people to consider not getting one.
“I want to be very clear: I don’t think the solution to uprisings and violence and all these things are more guns. If I could Thanos snap and make all of them go away, and we lost the technology to build them, I’d do it in a heartbeat,” Sharpe says. “But we’re not there. For good or ill, we’ve embraced private ownership of firearms in this country.”
And there’s a lot of ill, certainly, surrounding guns. “Gun culture is fucked up,” Blowtorch says. It can feel like you have to sacrifice some part of your beliefs to buy one—who is your purchase paying?—to say nothing of range politics and the Trump stickers you’ll see in the parking lot. She started working as a range officer at the South St. Paul Rod & Gun Club, where she’s bonded with another range officer—a Navy vet who gives her tips and tricks, and who listens when she explains terms like transgender. But not everyone at the St. Paul Gun Club is so open, and not every gun club is like the one in St. Paul. Take the Osseo Gun Club, which apologized earlier this year after promoting ammunition buys for its customers’ “trips to the hood.”
For a long time, gun culture has thrived on making buyers afraid of other people in exactly that way, selling an us-against-them mentality that makes people more afraid and more reactive. Prioritizing de-escalation makes people feel safer and more confident without relying on armed conflict. If you do choose to buy a firearm, then you should know how to use it safely, and you should still have de-escalation tactics in your toolbelt to turn to first.
“Guns make stupid easy,” Sharpe says. “So lets take the stupid out of the equation, and let’s get past this angry white guy murder fantasy bullshit about what you’re going to do if somebody breaks in to take your Xbox, and let’s talk about those things that apply to being a responsible citizen and whether or not owning a gun is even right for you.”
“We’re not pumping that high volume like a gun shop, that’s not who we’re here to cater to,” says Blowtorch. Since they started offering the course last November, Sequeerity has certified more than 100 people, and the majority of those new permit holders are women and people of color. They continue to offer their permit classes online, reducing stress for folks who rely on public transit or who are worried about COVID. They offer a scholarship for women of color who want to take the class, which covers the live fire test and up to one hour of personal training.
Guns might not be for everyone, but for some, they can provide a feeling of empowerment. Shooting is cathartic; it’s fun. Blowtorch remembers one woman who was so racked with anxiety she almost didn’t show up for her range test after taking the permit to carry class. These days, she’s looking into competition shooting.
“To listen to her, and have a conversation about her mental health and her anxiety—this changed some shit for her,” Blowtorch says.