“Shooting isn’t like any other hobby,” says Erin Palette, the founder of the LGBTQ-friendly firearms education network called Operation Blazing Sword. “Car people will talk your ear off, but they usually won’t say, ‘Hey, do you want to drive it?’ But, at practically any shooting range, shooters who catch you looking at their guns will say, ‘Hey, do you want to shoot it?’”
Erin’s right. Almost without exception, lawful gun owners believe ‘the more responsible gun owners there are, the better.’ No matter who you are, we support your Second Amendment right. As a result, newcomers to the firearms community are often pleasantly surprised by the openness and generosity with which they’re received.
Contrary to mainstream propaganda, most gun owners will treat “gun-curious” LGBTQ people with equally open arms. In fact, this welcoming ethos is the driving force behind Operation Blazing Sword, which Erin founded to help arm LGBTQ people in the aftermath of the devastating Orlando nightclub shooting.
“Following the Pulse shooting, we saw an outpouring of support that people don’t expect or talk about,” Erin says in an interview with TTAG. “This reaching across the aisle that we’re told never happens.”
“There were a lot of white men, gun owners, who were saying, ‘You have a right to life, you have a right to defend yourself—and I will help teach you. I’ll take you shooting, and I’ll pay for everything. I just want you to learn and have a good time.’”
The Emblem of Operation Blazing Sword
Because Erin was a familiar face at shooting ranges as well as in the LGBTQ community, gun owners started approaching her, volunteering to provide nonjudgmental firearms instruction to LGBTQ people without prior shooting experience. It started with a handful of individuals, but, even on that small scale, getting the word out was an uphill battle.
“Because of how everyone on social media is in their own bubble, I knew the people who really needed to hear this welcoming message wouldn’t see it,” Erin explains. “But I thought I could just collate the names of these people who were willing to help, and hopefully the people who needed to see it would, and they might even share it.”
To Erin’s amazement, over the course of that one day, the trickle of volunteers became a tide.
“12 hours later, I collapsed into bed. We had over 100 volunteers,” Erin recalls happily. “Over the next month, I was getting a hundred emails a day from people who wanted to help in some way. So, I got some amazing, really competent people who helped put all that data on a map.”
Now, about two years later, there are over 1,500 volunteer trainers indexed on Operation Blazing Sword’s publicly available map:
The list includes people in every state and every metropolitan area, including (currently) more than 40 in California and hundreds all along the East Coast. You read that right—gun owners in the bluest of blue states are allowing their names to be listed on Erin’s map.
“‘Coming out’ as a gun owner in a liberal state is very similar to ‘coming out’ as queer in a conservative state,” Erin observes.
“The communication and education goes both ways,” she says. “Not only do queer people learn what it’s like to be a gun owner, but gun owners learn what it’s like to be a queer person. We’re making that personal connection, and it’s a deeper and more important idea of let’s not do this civil war that seems inevitable.”
Speaking of which, you’re probably not surprised to learn that by and large, gun owners aren’t the ones holding Operation Blazing Sword back from even more explosive success.
“Getting instructors isn’t the hard part,” says Erin. “There are many people who have signed up. The hard part is getting the message into the community—traditional forms of media, the gay newsletters, the help centers—all the things like that won’t talk about us.”
“They regard us as if we’re radioactive, because they’ve bought into the narrative that if we have anything to do with guns, we are evil and toxic and Republican and conservative, and so the moment we try to speak to them, they plug their ears and go la la la la la.”
In fact, Erin recently planned an active shooter survival training event that was cancelled by those who had previously agreed to host it… because it had to do with guns. Very luckily, Erin was able to get short-notice funding from Brownells to host it at a different location (it’s called One Aim and will take place on July 14 in Orlando, and future organized OBS events can be found here).
Image via Operation Blazing Sword
Looking at the big picture, such obstacles are only speed bumps. Already, half of the people who fired their first shots thanks to Operation Blazing Sword now own guns. Of those, two-thirds have obtained carry permits. That’s a powerful thing, particularly for those of us who believe that all concealed carriers are, in a way, gun activists. A trend like that, reproduced nationwide, could change the entire cultural landscape.
“The amazing thing is, this is completely grassroots,” Erin adds. “We’re not funded by a New York billionaire. We’re not funded by the NRA or any other gun organization. I wish they would donate, of course! But all of this is funded by volunteer donations.”
As such, it’s important to clarify that Operation Blazing Sword is not a full-on training organization. In Erin’s own words: “We’re not claiming that we do professional training. We like professional trainers and we don’t want to put them out of business. These are people who wouldn’t seek out training otherwise, and once they have a good first experience, if they’re interested in learning more, we’ll refer them to someone who can give them more training.
Above all, Operation Blazing Sword “removes a huge barrier to entry for people who are already hesitant about going shooting,” says Erin. “It really removes the fear of the unknown. So, now, they understand how firearms work, they understand what they don’t do, and now they’re armed against the misinformation out there.”