ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — There’s a dead, stuffed fox guarding the entrance and guns and ammo hanging on nearly every inch of the walls at Bill’s Gun Shop in Circle Pines. In the background, there’s the regular “pop-pop” sound of a gun firing.

Mark Steiger sits near the front door with his fingers clasped together in front of him, wearing a Golden Gophers shirt. He wants a friendly face to greet any of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender men and women he’s invited, who might not immediately feel the gun range is a safe space for them.

“Going to a range can be daunting for someone who is gay,” Steiger said recently to Minnesota Public Radio News . “We do have some people that come to our group that don’t feel comfortable going alone to a range, but they do feel comfortable coming for us.”

Steiger is president of the Pink Pistols, an LGBT gun rights group with chapters in dozens of cities across the nation. It’s been around in Minnesota for nearly two decades, hosting meetings at the gun range roughly once a month. There’s no sign-up sheet and there are no fees necessary to join, but anywhere from two to more than a dozen people can show up each month. Members don’t have to be experienced shooters or even own a gun.

In fact, many people who show up have never shot a gun before — they come to learn how.

“Our slogan is: `Armed gays don’t get bashed,”‘ Steiger said. “In light of the increased crimes against gays, we do try to do training and just get people interested in the basics of gun safety.”

That’s why Eric Inman has been coming to Pink Pistols for the last five years. He’s an NRA-certified pistol instructor who also spent five years specializing in search and rescue in Alaska. “The bears are big there,” he laughed. “Like, really big.”

He’s comfortable around firearms and wants to teach newcomers how to feel comfortable too. Sporting a long red beard and a Punisher T-shirt, Inman starts orientation for newbies with a fake gun, showing them how to position their fingers safely, widen their stance, hunch their shoulders, aim and fire.

Then he moves on to the real thing, a small gun that is easy to clutch with two hands but still heavy enough to cut down on the kickback from firing. That can startle a first-time shooter.

“I want to help people grow comfortable and confident in a demographic that some wouldn’t perceive as being firearms enthusiasts,” he said. “Or they might be hesitant to come in to shoot, giving them that opportunity and that warm environment to come in and try.”

The Pink Pistols’ national website notes that they “advocate the use of lawfully-owned, lawfully-concealed firearms for the self-defense of the sexual minority community.” But part of the mission is publicity, trying to shatter stereotypes that they are “safe targets for violence and hateful acts.”

Interest in the group has spiked in recent years, Steiger said, especially after a gunman opened fire inside a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in 2016, killing 49 people and wounding 53 more. More people started showing up to meetings and asking questions about conceal and carry laws in Minnesota. In Florida, it’s illegal to carry a gun into a bar — but it’s not in Minneota.

“It’s our place, and it felt like it had been invaded by someone who shouldn’t have been there,” Steiger said. “But I always also felt that it was almost inevitable for it to happen. It’s a target because there are people who don’t like us.”

Steiger said he hasn’t experienced many threats of physical violence because: “I’m a big guy, I’ve always been a big guy.” He shot guns as a young man growing up in Hibbing, Minn., and played on the football team in high school.

But it still wasn’t easy, especially after Steiger said he was “pushed out of the closet” in high school by someone he trusted and confided in about his sexuality. Afterward, he was teased and called names by other students, even physically attacked once. He doesn’t like to talk about it much.

“We think people should be able to defend themselves,” he said. “One of the original gun manufacturers, their saying was their gun was the great equalizer. Whether you’re a 100-pound person or a 300-pound person, if you have a gun you can defend yourself against any size person.”

Steiger acknowledges the Pink Pistols occupy an awkward space. Not all gun owners are welcoming to the LGBT community, and not all members of the LGBT community are supportive of gun rights. The Pink Pistols go from events like Pride Weekend to gun rights rallies at the Capitol, and Steiger said they are welcomed at both.

“Some people say it’s harder to come out as being a gun owner and gay because so much of the gay community is anti-gun,” he said. “I call it coming out of the gun safe.”

The group is not political, Steiger is quick to note. While they support the issue of gun rights at the Capitol, they avoid partisan events, and they do not endorse candidates. He said he votes across party lines.

He expects he could be back at the Capitol in the upcoming session to testify against gun control proposals. But he also thinks the state should spend more on mental health services.

Suicide rates are higher among people who identify as a sexual minority, particularly among adolescents. In October, the national co-founder of Pink Pistols, Doug Krick, known as “Krikket,” died by suicide using a firearm.

Tony Piekarski has been a member of the Pink Pistols for 15 years, but he’s been shooting and an out gay man since he was 13. He said he’s lucky: he’s never experienced threats of violence or bullying over his sexuality.

Even so, he says he feels safer because he carries a gun.

“It’s certainly part of our security package,” he said, before shooting several rounds into a target. “I’d rather have it and hopefully not need it.”

(© Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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