This is part of a series around A Smarter Gun, Motherboard's new documentary.
Gunfire rattles steadily around the Austin Rifle Club, a private gun range on the outskirts of Texas' metropolitan capital. Among the pick-up trucks and camo-wearing gun enthusiasts, a young woman in a light plaid top and sandals leans forward with a pistol, her arms and knees bent. She pulls the trigger, steady and confident. As she fires, her target—a poster of a zombie hipster waving an iPhone and a purse dog—perforates with a tight, consistent grouping.
The 28-year-old woman, Reina Mercado, holds fire as her friend and instructor, Sarah Rossig, walks her through reloading the handgun under speed and pressure. It's the kind of work that combat shooters practice constantly, but it's less common at a range full of weekend target-plinkers like this one. It's even less common to see shooters like Mercado at the range. Mercado is a transgender woman who immigrated from the Philippines when she was 6 years old. She went from making toy guns out of scrap on a family farm to Houston, Texas, deep in the heart of gun culture and oil money.
Mercado represents a new and unlikely set of players in the gun culture that dominates America in general and Texas in particular. They're young, liberal, and many are members of the LGBT community. They're not the kind of people you think of when you think of gun rights advocates, but after watching Donald Trump's rise to power during the 2016 election, they're all ready to exercise their second amendment right to bear arms.
"I'm trans, I'm a person of color, I'm more likely to be targeted. I'm more likely to be in a place where everyoneis being targeted, just like the Orlando folks. I was just like, damn, I need a gun more than these conservative rednecks do."
With Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, gun sales have dropped and the stock of publicly traded gun manufacturers like Ruger and Smith & Wesson plunged as much as 30 percent. Put simply: "The threat is gone," as a gun store owner in Ohio told USA Today. New, more comprehensive gun control legislation is improbable as long as Republicans control Congress and the White House, and if Hillary or Obama aren't coming for our guns, there's no need to rush out and buy AR15s, extended magazines, and other popular targets of gun control restrictions.
The exception: African Americans, religious minorities, and LGBT people are buying guns and getting licensed to carry to cope with their increasingly hostile surroundings. The exact numbers are unknown—the FBI doesn't release race data for their background checks—but gun store owners anecdotally report a "four-fold" increase in minority customers. Meanwhile, the number of black Americans who saw guns as a source of protection almost doubled from 2012 to 2014. Racial tensions in particular were already high before the election, and an outbreak of swastika graffiti and hate crime incidents immediately after Election Day did nothing to calm things down. A gun store owner in Virginia told NBC that he had noticed "an uptick" in black and minority customers in the weeks after the election.
After being raised as a boy with an affinity for motorcycles, anime, and engineering, Mercado spent her late 20s discovering her new identity as a transgender woman. She gathered up her courage and started to explore new names, pronouns, and the LGBT community she found in Austin. She went to the HR department at the job she loves and asked if she could change genders without being fired—in Texas, there's no employment non-discrimination protection for LGBT workers.
Then, 49 people were killed inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. "After the Orlando shooting I came out, loud. I told my friends and everyone around me that I was trans and that I was here," Mercado had a brand new sense of self and an identity that she had just gotten brave enough to declare, and it was being threatened. "That was when I realized that I'm statistically more likely to be a victim. I'm trans, I'm a person of color, I'm more likely to be targeted. I'm more likely to be in a place where everyone is being targeted, just like the Orlando folks. I was just like, damn, I need a gun more than these conservative rednecks do."
Nearby, Jacob Kruse aims down the scope of a custom-painted AR15, his NASA hat turned backward. For Kruse, 33, acknowledging the need for armed protection was more like coming home. Kruse was raised in Fort Davis, Texas (population: 1,201), by doomsday preppers who fled the Austin city limits and the Russian nukes that seemed about to fall in the late '80s. Though he wasn't into guns, the social aspects of gun culture were enjoyed by the rest of his family, whom he calls "a bunch of ammosexuals."
"I never really accepted that I was bi when I was a kid in Alpine," Kruse said, "because out there if you deviated from the square, white norm, you got your ass kicked."
Of all of the people I spoke to for this story, Kruse is the most pragmatic and comfortable around guns. He has the matter-of-fact respect common to people who grew up hiking in the mountains, a shotgun in hand to take out rattlesnakes.
"Statistically, going by broad numbers, having a firearm in the home increases the risk of someone getting hurt with a firearm," Kruse said. "That's just common sense. But we have a lot of dangerous things in our lives that are useful, so we accept those risks. Cars are a good example."
Kruse would like to have protection in case of a home invasion or other crisis, but he rejects the "siege mentality" that comes from spending all of your time obsessing over such rare events.
"It has been interesting watching the LGBT and nerd communities get a little militant," Kruse said. "I've had many conversations where people refer to the [Concealed Carry License] as their 'license to carry a wand'—as in Harry Potter."
For other people who feel targeted in the new alt-right atmosphere, guns are a long-standing source of discomfort. "I came out in High School when I was 16 to—literally—no fanfare." Duke Lambert, 27, laughs as he describes his drama-free coming out story. "I told everyone and no one cared—they all already knew, and they all said they loved me anyway." He was pleasantly surprised that a gay, mixed-race Texas kid could have a reception so gentile. "I [had] heard the stories, like of Matthew Shepard … but I just wasn't seeing that where I was at."
When Lambert moved to Norman, Oklahoma, the luck of his circumstances was made very plain. "I got a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, and I suddenly became hyper-aware of the student population. Everyone was involved in fraternities and sororities—yeah, they were in the news recently for being racist and having chants that have the word 'nigger' in them. That was the climate I went to college in."
Even though his police officer grandfather had a number of guns in the house, Lambert always stayed away from weapons as a kid. Granddad's guns-gone-wrong horror stories and Lambert's innate clumsiness ("I accidentally shot a friend with an airsoft gun") were all the motivation he needed to stay away from anything designed to kill.
"The news is constantly reiterating that everything is bad and everything is getting worse, but it's not really time for a civil war yet."
Recently, though, Lambert agreed to join some co-workers on a trip to a firing range. He attributes this change, in part, to Mercado, whose frequent concealed-carry evangelizing made him decide that he should get over his squeamishness with guns. He said shooting made him feel more comfortable around a gun, and if one suddenly ended up in his hands, he would know how to use it.
"I think of the Republican party as one big frat, and it feels more comfortable for people to say and do [racist or violent] things that they wouldn't feel supported in before," Lambert said. "It's more normal and accepted in that party, and in the country, now."
"Three days after Trump got elected, I said, 'fuck this!' and signed up for [a concealed carry license] class," Mercado said. Arriving nervous to the licensing class, Mercado was confronted by an unexpected ally. "[The class was taught at] a locally-owned black business. The instructor was straight-up, he was like: hey, I'm black, and people of color are more likely to be victims of violence." The instructor was tall, broad-shouldered, dark-skinned, and wore an oversize Texas belt buckle at his waist.
Mercado attended the class "in boy mode," just on the cusp of gender transition and hormone therapy. "What surprised me is when I talked to him, I kind of brought it up in a bit of a shy way like, you know….what if, maybe, I need to perhaps… change my gender marker on my handgun license?" She dragged out the question, reluctant to reach the end of it. Her instructor answered instantly: "Oh, it's super easy! Just let me know and I'll change it for you. If you have any trouble let me know, I've got connections." Mercado was shocked, but her instructor brushed it off: he gets the question every weekend.
"These were people with no interest in guns, not as a hobby, not as cool machines. They're scared of guns, but they feel like they need one."
After a 45-day turnaround, Mercado got her license to carry a concealed handgun shortly after New Year's Day. "It feels better," she said. "It feels good. My friends are like, 'oh you have it on you right now?' They say that they feel better being with me." As Trump's inauguration came and went, tensions rose, and her friends started to talk with a common euphemism. "Everyone always says it the same way, I feel better being with you because of how things are. It's like a code. How things are."
Kruse is also feeling the tension. "It seems like everyone's waiting for the first move to get made right now," he said. "The news is constantly reiterating that everything is bad and everything is getting worse, but it's not really time for a civil war yet."
Lambert was upset by the inauguration and the aftermath of the first executive orders, so he started attending protests, where passions and anxiety run high. "At one of the protests I went to recently, these White Lives Matter guys came to Austin and they were protesting while the city unveiled an African American War Veterans memorial." The local police kept the groups separate and maintained calm, he says, "but there was one moment. I could see the White Lives Matter guys were open-carrying guns, like they do. Behind me were members of the [communist/anarchist group] Austin Red Guard with red head-coverings and a communist flag, and they were open-carrying as well." Lambert laughs. "So I'm sitting there in-between and both sides have guns, and I don't have a gun. It's not like I think more guns would necessarily help this situation, but it made me think: should I be armed? If I keep going to these protests, will having a gun make it worse? I'm still kind of debating it."
Even though Mercado is already licensed, she's still debating how she wants to re-engage with the social aspects of gun culture. "The way America has sold guns to people is not as tools, but the same way that Harley Davidson sells motorcycles," she said. "They're selling an image. That's the problem, the guns themselves are just tools. But the way you sell power fantasies is just gross. Taking a life is a terrible thought. But growing up on those stories where people go out and beat the bad guys and save the people they care about, that's an image that is very seductive to me."
Trump has made things worse, that's clear to all of the people I spoke to. But Mercado bought her gun in July, in the closing months of the Obama administration, back when it seemed all but certain that Hillary Clinton would win the election. "Even if Clinton won, though, bigots were being emboldened," Mercado said. "And it was around that time that I started to hear from my LGBT friends, like, 'oh shit, I need to get a gun.' These were people with no interest in guns, not as a hobby, not as cool machines. They're scared of guns, but they feel like they need one."
Having a gun made Mercado feel safer emotionally, but intellectually she knows that it's mostly a false comfort. "The thing is, I know the statistics about concealed carry weapons. If you can run, run. You're not going to help, trying to be a hero. Get out of there. But if you're in that last-case scenario, where you're trapped and you've already done your running…" Mercado paused for a moment. "I know I'm not a hero. I'm not a cop. I have no delusions where I'm trying to save the day. But if it comes down to a moment where I'm desperate enough to reach for a 2x4 or a pipe, I would rather reach for the gun."