Gun owners welcome a new addition to the club: Liberals

By: - March 11, 2021 6:00 am

Mick Sharpe teaches firearms training and other self-defense courses geared toward progressive-minded people in Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Mick Sharpe begins each of his gun permit classes by telling his students his goal is to talk them out of buying a gun.

“I don’t believe we’re made safer by more guns,” he cautions.

Even so, his new business keeps growing.

Driven by pandemic-induced anxiety, rising violent crime, civil unrest and fears of political extremism, the number of gun owners is soaring in Minnesota and across the country. Last year, Minnesota sheriffs issued nearly twice as many permits as the year before — 51,404 in 2019 to 96,554 in 2020.

A sizable share of those permits likely went to a new breed of gun owner that Sharpe caters to: Liberals. The trend threatens to again reshape the nation’s turbulent politics around gun rights, as a surge of left-of-center gun owners could slow the momentum of gun control groups that were ascendant after a wave of high-profile mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut; Parkland, Florida; and Las Vegas, Nevada.

Sharpe says he’s trying to nurture a different kind of gun ownership, however.

“Historically gun culture is very toxic. There’s a lot of toxic masculinity. There’s a toxic mindset of ‘This is what I’m going to do if somebody breaks into my house’ murder fantasy,” Sharpe said. “That is absolutely not what I wanted to teach nor what I wanted new shooters to encounter.”

Sharpe had taught people about firearms for years as a side hustle to his full-time job as a personal bodyguard and security contractor. He’s also a veteran of the National Guard, although that’s not an experience he likes to talk about or what he bases his lessons on.

“The gun is a limited use tool. And it is not the appropriate tool for the vast majority of conflict. So I definitely stress conflict avoidance, de-escalation and situational awareness,” Sharpe said.

After the civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd, Sharpe said a number of friends reached out asking for lessons.

“I think a great many people suddenly came to the realization that those that we have historically trusted to protect us were not necessarily willing to do that anymore or do that in a way that we found acceptable,” Sharpe said.

His training business  — Protection Far Left of Center — quickly outgrew his living room and he leased space above a restaurant on Eat Street, which he decorated with a Black Lives Matter flag, an LGBT flag and a sign with weapons spelling out “Love.” For the practical part of the course, however, class moves to a suburban shooting range because the city of Minneapolis has made it nearly impossible to open a gun store through its zoning code.

Sharpe’s appearance could be misleading. He’s a big guy with face tattoos and a shaved head. He would fit in in a motorcycle gang. He even owned a motorcycle, which he used to block traffic for protesters during Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

In class, he speaks like a camp counselor running down the dangers of archery or whittling, punctuating each topic with an easily digestible slogan.

On deescalation: “The best gunfight you’re ever going to win is the one you’re not in.”

On paying attention to mental health: “You get to bring your attitude or you get to bring your gun. You don’t get to bring both.”

On toxic masculinity: “We haven’t taught boys to shed tears, so they only know how to shed blood.”

Firearms instructor Mick Sharpe (left) assists Chelsea Breslin as she earns her carry permit. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Sharpe isn’t the only firearms trainer in the Twin Cities serving progressive gun owners, although there aren’t many. In class, he says if people aren’t comfortable learning from him as a cisgender, straight white man, he can make referrals to Black, trans and non-binary people in the field.

“We’re doing our best to make sure that this information — which has historically been, you know, an angry white guy skill set — becomes something that is accessible to those that want to learn,” Sharpe said.

Gun owners are quickly becoming more diverse. A national survey by NSSF, a firearms trade association, found 40% of people buying guns last year were first-time buyers. The highest sales increase in the first half of 2020 came from Black men and women — some of the most reliably Democratic groups of Americans — with a 58% increase from the same time period in 2019.

“It’s getting harder for people who want to classify gun owners as the stereotypical old, male and pale,” said Mark Oliva, director of public affairs for NSSF, a national firearms trade group. “The stereotype just doesn’t fit anymore.”

Oliva said they first noticed the surge in interest after governors started issuing lockdown orders aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. People were worried that police might become infected and not be able to respond to 911 calls. At the same time, prisons began releasing some inmates to avoid major outbreaks.

“People realized that they were going to have to be their own first responder,” Oliva said. “That bears out with the types of guns people are buying. More than half of the guns sold last year were small defensive use handguns … these are not the types of guns you can use duck hunting.”

Sarah Cade Hauptman has seen interest in gun ownership swell among liberals over the past year.

Hauptman is biracial and politically far left of center. She didn’t grow up with guns, but after taking a class for fun with her mom about eight years ago, she is now fully immersed in the culture. She and her husband — who she met at an NRA convention — run a gun holster company from their home in Maplewood. She also volunteers with the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus.

A target hangs between firearms instructor Mick Sharpe and one of his students at Bill’s Gun Shop and Range in Circle Pines. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Since the pandemic lockdowns began, she watched membership in a Facebook group for gun owners she moderates skyrocket along with membership in the Minnesota chapter of the Liberal Gun Club, which she is also a part of. The Liberal Gun Club saw its paid membership double across the country and in Minnesota, according to spokesperson.

Hauptman noticed the new Facebook members had little or no knowledge of gun ownership before.

People wanted to know where they could take a class that didn’t “spout conservative B.S.” and they also wanted to know if they would be welcomed.

To that question, Hauptman answers with a resounding “yes.”

“I thought I was going to face some discrimination. But I actually encountered the opposite,” Hauptman said. “In the gun enthusiast crowd, people are so happy that you show interest in their hobby … people wanted so badly to reach out to people like me, and they didn’t know how.”

A swell in interest in gun ownership among liberals could again tilt the Democratic Party away from gun control after nearly a decade in which candidates — especially in the suburbs — ran hard on it. Gun safety lobby groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action and March for our Lives have become counterweights in recent years to the previously all-powerful National Rifle Association.

The new gun control groups have become reliable sources of campaign money and volunteers and driven up enthusiasm for the issue among some voters.

Surveys of both conservative and liberal gun owners show broad support for more stringent gun laws like universal background checks, but the political ground could start to shift under Democrats’ feet as more constituents exercise and enjoy their Second Amendment rights.

Unlike Sharpe, who says it’s “terrifying” how easy it is to get a carry permit in Minnesota, Hauptman is fervently opposed to most gun control laws.

She thinks of gun ownership like abortion rights.

“Everyone has the right to bodily autonomy. And I feel the same way about gun laws,” Hauptman said. “The right to self defense is a universal human right and laws that restrict access to it, really, are hurdles for poor people.”

Newly elected Rep. Liz Boldon, DFL-Rochester, organized with Moms Demand Action before becoming a lawmaker. She said the increased interest in gun ownership just reaffirms her belief in passing laws like universal background checks and so-called “red flag laws,” which would allow police or family members to ask a court to remove guns from people believed to be a danger to themselves or others.

“As we have more guns in circulation, it is just all the more reason to be sure that we have measures in place that will help to keep folks safe,” Boldon said.

Chelsea Breslin recently earned her permit after attending Sharpe’s class in Minneapolis. She was motivated by the pandemic and the recent civil unrest.

“It just seemed like a good idea to at least be more informed on the Second Amendment and protecting oneself,” Breslin said.

She was not dissuaded by Sharpe’s class, however, and she says she’s saving up for a gun.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.