SALT LAKE CITY — Ermiya Fanaeian looks down the barrel of her AR-15, sighting the pink paper target hanging about a dozen yards in front of her.
She fires off five rounds, exhaling each time before she pulls the trigger and the bone-rattling crack of the gunshot rips through the indoor shooting range. Keeping the rifle pointed forward, she slides the safety lever up and disconnects the banana-shaped magazine, placing them both on the counter before her. Then, she presses a button to her left, sending the target, fixed to a track on the ceiling, rocketing back toward her booth.
The first time Fanaeian shot a gun was three months ago.
“I’ve definitely gotten better,” she says as she inspects the target. One bullet hole sits a few inches above the white X in the center of the target, another slightly to the right.
“Not too bad, not the best.”
In July, Fanaeian, a 20-year-old business student at the University of Utah, reopened the Salt Lake Chapter of the Pink Pistols, a pro-gun, pro-LGBTQ group “dedicated to the legal, safe and responsible use of firearms for self-defense of the sexual-minority community.”
Fanaeian is an unlikely candidate to spearhead a pro-Second Amendment group like the Pink Pistols, which was founded in 2000 and has since grown to include 45 active chapters across the country, according to its website.
At 17, Fanaeian co-founded the Utah chapter of March for Our Lives, a nationwide, student-led campaign born out of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead.
She helped organize a massive event where roughly 8,000 protesters met at the state Capitol to demand stricter gun laws. Many held signs calling for a ban on assault weapons — like the AR-15 that Fanaeian now owns.
At first, Fanaeian felt intimidated diving into the gun world.
“The left’s idea of a ‘gun nut’ typically is white men who are upper class and see this as a hobby that will make their egos bigger,” she told the Deseret News. “But the reality is this is a form of empowerment for me.”
Fanaeian said being involved in movements like March for Our Lives taught her a lot.
“As working-class people, we should not be disarmed,” she said. “There is everlasting violence against LGBTQ people that oftentimes politicians, on whatever side of the aisle, are not addressing, and we need to be able to protect ourselves. And because of that, I came to this understanding that the March for Our Lives goals do not align with my goals.”
In addition to her involvement in March for Our Lives, Fanaeian spent several years working for the campaigns of Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ben McAdams, making inroads in Utah’s Democratic Party and activism scene — communities seeking some measure of gun control.
Though the Salt Lake City chapter of Pink Pistols dates back to 2016, originally started by Matt Schlentz, it became inactive and was rekindled by Fanaeian in July.
Still in its fledgling stages, the Pink Pistols have seen some pushback.
“A lot of the perspectives come from this idea that guns are going to harm people, that getting more guns to queer and trans people is not the answer, that ultimately to protect queer and trans people, we need to ban guns,” she said.
Membership remains light, in part due to a pandemic that makes in-person meetings difficult. But with a growing social media presence, she’s hoping to expand the group’s foothold along the Wasatch Front.
“We’ve had folks from all different walks of life in all different parts of the state reach out to us,” she said. “They express their wants to finally be able to defend themselves, defend their families and defend their communities. … They didn’t know it was an option for LGBTQ folks to do so.”
Anyone can join the Pink Pistols, and Fanaeian says the group is currently made up of college-age people of all races and sexual orientations, including Ashton Leve, a graduate student who joined the group as an ally about a month ago.
“With all the things that are going on in the world, there’s a lot of hate. Every voting period seems to bring out the worst in people,” said Leve who, like Fanaeian, has been a gun owner for less than a year.
“It never really occurred to me that (LGBTQ people) get hit or assaulted just for being who they are,” he said. “I felt like this was a good way to reach out and address some of these issues.”
A 2018 FBI report showed that 1,364 of the 7,120 hate crime “incidents” — nearly 1 out of 5 — reported that year targeted someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation. That’s compared to 1,249 in 2017, and 1,200 the year prior. Hate crimes directed at trans and gender-nonconforming people spiked from 119 incidents reported in 2017, to 148 in 2018.
And for many, the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, at the time the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, was a wake-up call. In the days following, the Pink Pistols membership grew from 1,500 to 6,500 nationwide, Rolling Stone reported.
“Gun ownership among our community has been growing ever since the Pulse nightclub shooting. And a lot of people after that began to understand the need to protect ourselves,” Fanaeian said. “We can’t talk about empowering marginalized communities while simultaneously trying to disarm marginalized communities.”
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, the Beehive State’s “premier LGBTQ civil rights organization,” said, “Many LGBTQ Utahns own guns, either for sport or self-defense. Many don’t.”
“As an organization we support the Second Amendment. We draw the line, however, at military grade weapons in the hands of civilians. We’re talking about weapons like the SIG MCX semi-automatic that was used to murder 49 LGBTQ people and wound 53 more at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. These deadly weapons of war belong in the hands of soldiers, not civilians,” Williams said.
Fanaeian, on the other hand, wants to see community-based solutions to stop gun violence, rather than what she calls “restrictive gun control.”
“As far as legislatively trying to do things such as ban assault weapons, or ultimately make it harder for regular everyday folks to access guns only so rich elitist people can access them ... I’m completely against those initiatives.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School occurred in 2017. It happened in 2018.