Somewhere in the woods 90 miles east of Manhattan, Joe Fasanella has a knife and a pistol strapped to the front of a bulky green bulletproof vest. A former cop and Marine, the shooting instructor is surrounded by a heavily armed group of soldiers, SWAT team members, NYPD officers — and one member of the LGBT community, 27-year-old Army veteran Alma Molina.
It's been more than a month since gunman Omar Mateen opened fire at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people. When it comes to guns, the massacre has sparked two divergent reactions. One involves a renewed push to tighten gun control laws and make it harder for people to obtain weapons like the AR-15-style assault rifle that Mateen used in the Pulse attack. The other, exemplified by people like Fasanella and Molina, involves LGBT people considering arming themselves for protection.
Fasanella's company, Condition Gray, offers firearms training for cops, members of the military, and the general public. For the first time, the company is now also actively welcoming LGBT clients. Molina, the first female and openly gay instructor Fasanella has hired, said her first thought after the Pulse attack was that it could have happened anywhere, including New York City.
'The only thing that prevented the body count from being higher is the armed guard that was in the club.'
"It could have been Escualita," she said, referring to a now-closed lesbian club near Times Square that, like Pulse, once attracted a large Latino crowd.
The push to promote gun ownership in the gay community first took off in 2000 with the formation of the Pink Pistols — motto: "Pick on someone your own caliber" — a gun organization that now has chapters in 40 cities nationwide. The group, which organizes training sessions and hosts online forums for pro-gun LGBT people, says its membership increased from 1,500 to more than 7,000 in the week following the Pulse attack.
Pink Pistols member Erin Palette created an interactive map of LGBT-friendly firearms instructors. Palette's map — dubbed "Operation Blazing Sword" — is now dotted with instructors all over America. One of those instructors is Fasanella, which is how a VICE News reporter ended up at a gun range on Long Island holding Fasanella's 9mm Glock 17 pistol, the same model as one of the weapons Mateen used in Orlando.
When I first arrived with a friend, the class of soldiers and law enforcement officers seemed hesitant about welcoming civilians. But I soon proved my worth by hitting a human-shaped target in the torso several times, and we were treated like welcome comrades after my friend put a cluster of bullets in the center of her target's head.
After some regular training, Fasanella led one exercise specifically designed to teach attendees how to take out a gunman during a mass shooting. Pairs of shooters stood together, practicing how they would take turns shooting.
"You need to be aggressive," Fasanella said. "You need to get in their face and end it."
While Fasanella is pro gun, he does not believe that the solution to hate-based violence is to arm the entire gay community. He said gun ownership is "the American way... everyone's entitled to it," and emphasized that he mainly wants anyone who purchases a firearm to receive proper training.
Attendees at Joe Fasanella's shooting class practice firing pistols. (Photo by Ruby Samuels/VICE News)
On the other side of the debate is Gays Against Guns (GAG), an activist organization that formed days after the Orlando shooting. The group quickly made headlines around the world by staging an anti-gun "die-in" that saw 49 members — one for each Pulse victim — sprawled in the middle of 12th Street during New York City's Pride parade.
"I knew at least three individuals who lost people at Pulse," said GAG co-founder Brian Worth. "That was really my call to action. I was like, 'Oh, they're hunting us.'"
Worth grew up around hunters and gun owners in his hometown of Dallas, Texas, but he said his familiarity with firearms has only reinforced his belief that tighter regulations are necessary. Referring to the Sig Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifle that was used in Orlando, Worth said, "I don't see any reason to use an assault rifle for anything other than hunting people. You're not going to use one to hunt animals, and if you do, you're just going to obliterate the animal."
"More guns on the street do not mean that more people are safe," he said. "My simple answer to that is: The security guard at Pulse had a gun, he's dead. That's all I really need to say about that."
Fasanella had a different take. He noted that the security guard, an off-duty police officer, traded fire with Mateen. Minutes later, additional officers arrived on scene and quickly entered the club, forcing Mateen to retreat to a bathroom with hostages, where he was killed after a three-hour standoff.
"The only thing that prevented the body count from being higher," Fasanella said, "is the armed guard that was in the club."
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