On a trigger-finger-numbing December Saturday in Harvard, Mass., Sergio Perez is a little out of his element.
The Connecticut resident's idea of a nice weekend doesn't involve a gun range. Perez admits he prefers to spend Saturdays traveling to New York City to see Broadway musicals.
He has shot a gun once before. But that was a long time ago.
"I think the last time was with a big, long rifle. And they said something about, 'Pull!' and you had to shoot," Perez remembers. "It was something totally different."
Different, because now he's shooting with the Boston Pink Pistols — a group brought together by their LGBT identity and interest in using firearms for self-defense, if need be. Many come to learn to protect themselves, while others just come to shoot.
Upon arrival, Perez likes the scene. It's a group of gay people, like himself, either becoming or being true marksmen and markswomen. And soon, he gets a turn with the guns.
Aaron Grossman — an NRA-certified instructor and leader of the Boston Pink Pistols, who identifies as a sexual minority — starts his lesson with Perez by showing the basics of wielding a Ruger .22 handgun.
"You're gonna line up these three dots," Grossman says, showing Perez how to use the sights on the top of the pistol.
Then, Perez squeezes off some rounds.
"Did I hit any of my targets?" he asks.
"Honestly, I was looking at you, not the target," Grossman says. "Because my job is to make sure you're safe, and that you're doing the right thing."
As Hate Crimes Rise, Fears Do, Too
Originally formed in 2000, Boston had a Pink Pistols group that disbanded some years ago. But Grossman revived it after the 2016 Pulse gay nightclub massacre in Orlando.
Before heading to the gun range in Harvard, some participants often first grab brunch in Somerville. They're joined by others later at the gun range. Though the numbers fluctuate, Pink Pistols' meetups often draw at least 15 people to the shooting range.
Since the Pulse shooting, Grossman says gradually, more and more people have been joining the group. With state data showing nearly a 10 percent rise in hate crimes in Massachusetts in 2017 over the previous year, Grossman says Pink Pistols participants worry they could be victims of a violent hate crime.
"And when that happens, it's too late to seek help, it's too late to avoid it," he says. "Because the situation is already there."
While hate crimes in Massachusetts have risen overall, the most recent data show crimes based on victims' sexual orientation and gender identity in the state have decreased in recent years.
Despite whatever progress data may show, Perez says he's still concerned.
"You're hearing all of these horrible stories. I, unfortunately, want to be prepared," he says. "Of course, you have to gauge the situation very carefully. But that's what I'm hoping to get out of [being with the Pink Pistols] — how to deal with something like that. I just want to be prepared."
Perez says his greatest fear is he'll be a victim of a physical attack, caught off guard and won't know what to do.
Some may trace the rise in hate crimes to overheated rhetoric since the election of President Trump. But Perez, who voted for Trump, doesn't see the correlation.
"And I respect folks who have that sentiment," he says. "I don't really feel that our president is undermining me as a LGBT. I know for trans folks, there's some issues there."
Most folks in the Boston Pink Pistols don't want to be in this story because they don't want to out themselves as gun owners or advocates. They say there's more of a stigma in Massachusetts being a gun owner than being gay.
The state attorney general enforces the state's civil rights act. In a statement, the AG's office wouldn't comment on the Boston Pink Pistols group, but said victims of bias-motivated harassment and violence should call the AG's special hotline (1-800-994-3228) for hate crimes.
Back at the gun range, Perez gets more comfortable holding the pistol, and it looks like he may have even hit the paper target a few times.
"I totally felt at ease practicing with folks like me — of similar backgrounds," Perez says. "I think that if this was in a regular setting, I wouldn't have felt as relaxed."
(Being relaxed, as Grossman said earlier, is kind of a prerequisite to safe shooting.)
When asked if he feels ready to defend himself with a firearm, Perez says, "Not at all."
"This requires a lot more sessions for me," he says.
At the end of the day, the group sweeps up hundreds of spent shell casings. As Perez helps clean up, he says he'll skip some Broadway shows in New York to come shoot with the Boston Pink Pistols. That way, he says if the time comes to defend himself, he'll be prepared.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported how Aaron Grossman identifies. We regret the error.
This article was originally published on January 07, 2019.
This segment aired on January 7, 2019.