Mick Sharpe looks like he could have bounced you from a bar last night. Bearded and burly, he's wide enough to block a doorway, copiously tattooed and pierced, with ear tunnels big enough to pass a quarter.

But on a Sunday morning, above a south Minneapolis storefront, Sharpe is preaching. Under a Black Lives Matter and rainbow pride flag, the 47-year-old firearms instructor unleashes aphorisms by the round:

"Your goal is not to win a fight. It's to realize a fight might happen and not be there when it does."

"We don't shoot to kill. We shoot to live."

"Gun culture sucks" is not among the things you would expect to hear at a carry permit class. But Sharpe defies expectations — as do many of today's new gun owners.

About 400,000 Minnesota civilians now hold valid carry permits, triple the number from a decade ago. Roughly 40% of Americans live in a home with a gun.

And the demographic profile of gun owners has been expanding far beyond the stereotypical conservative, rural white male. Women now make up almost half of all new U.S. gun buyers, according to the 2021 National Firearms Survey, which found that nearly the same number of gun owners identified as Black or Hispanic.

Many of them are also political liberals, a population Sharpe caters to through his business, Protection Far Left of Center, which offers instruction with firearms and other less-lethal forms of self-defense. He focuses on students who may feel uncomfortable in traditional training settings, including those who identify as people of color or LGBTQ.

Though Sharpe embodies a tough guy aesthetic, he rails against an industry that markets AR-15-style rifles as a prereq for one's "man card," and what he describes as the "angry murder fantasy crap" that some firearms enthusiasts espouse. His efforts to take the toxic masculinity out of gun culture are, in a sense, personal — a way to atone for his past as a self-described "toxic man."

"Guns can be a useful tool, but they can also be a tool of mayhem and destruction," Sharpe said. "And guys like me created the culture that allowed that to happen. So guys like me have to be the ones to fix it."

A tumultuous past

Sharpe learned how to shoot when he was a kid, fascinated by the power that firearms represented at a time when he mostly felt powerless. His father died shortly before he was born and his mom was a flight attendant, so Sharpe shuffled between his mom's place in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where his grandparents lived. His grandfather was abusive, Sharpe says, and he didn't get along with his stepfather. "Nowhere ever really felt like home and I never really felt safe," he said. "It was kind of me versus the world."

Sharpe longed to emulate the tough-guy protectors he read about in books, but had no idea how. "So I turned into a hooligan instead of a good guy," he said.

Hooliganism, though, did launch his career. At 17, Sharpe was at a Lake Street nightclub when a fight broke out, and he helped throw both parties out of the place. The metal band that was performing asked him to provide security — not caring that he wasn't old enough to be in some of their venues.

Sharpe soon got security gigs with other musicians — Prince, George Clinton, Tori Amos — and developed a reputation for taking a proactive approach: Identifying risks before they turned into threats was a skill he'd cultivated by learning to read his mother's and grandfather's moods.

During this time, Sharpe was using drugs and drinking a lot. In 2001, he "blew up his life" and split with his daughter's mother. The tumult pushed him to sobriety. But it would be years until he addressed the underlying issues that led to his unhappiness — and acknowledged his past transgressions as a thief and a liar, an adulterer and absent father, a verbally and emotionally abusive partner. "It was like, 'I'm an asshole and nobody likes me and rightfully so, because I'm a dick,' " he said, explaining his revelation.

Sharpe's daughter's middle-school counselor helped him believe that life could be different. "After she put me in my place and told me I was an idiot, she looked at me and said, 'Mick, you might have been a bad guy. But you're not a bad guy anymore. You're trying to be better. Forgive yourself.' "

Therapy helped. As did meeting the woman who is now his wife (they connected online by bonding over their shared favorite book, "Dune"), who helped him recover from a devastating motorcycle accident four years ago. (He may be the only Palmer's Bar bouncer to have called from an ambulance to let his boss know he wasn't going to make his shift.)

During the civil unrest following George Floyd's murder, Sharpe's left-leaning friends, who had previously pooh-poohed his enthusiasm for guns, were now seeking his guidance. So he opened a school to teach others like them.

Carry permit class

Guns, Sharpe tells the students in his Sunday morning class, make angry decisions simple. They are very, very, very unforgiving of negligence. They don't make you powerful. They give you the ability to interact with the world in a way you've never interacted before.

Fueled by vape and Monster Energy drink, Sharpe runs through safety protocols and passes around a few guns. Most are rules that a novice would know, expressed in a more colorful way: "Keep your booger hook off the bang switch," for "keep your finger off the trigger," for example.

If a Thanos snap could vaporize every gun on the planet, Sharpe often says, using a geeky Avengers reference, he'd support it.

Copious research shows that a gun in the home increases one's risk of being harmed by a gun, whether through suicide, homicide or unintentional injury or death. "The feeling that the gun will make you safer can be totally real, but nobody wants to think about those other circumstances," notes Deborah Azrael, of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

Acknowledging that the country's 400 million guns aren't going away anytime soon, Sharpe stresses that they are not right for everyone — and certainly not for every situation. If you're firing a gun, he notes, you most likely missed an opportunity to de-escalate the situation first.

He demonstrates his two favorite less-lethal options: a big carabiner on a keychain and a palm-size flashlight, which he always has with him on days when he feels he's not in the right mental state to carry a gun.

Sharpe would like to see carry permit-seekers receive 16 hours of classroom and range training, funded by a tax on firearm purchases, and perhaps submit to a psychiatric evaluation by a provider of their choosing. He finds Minnesota's current requirements too lax, "like throwing the keys to a Ferrari to a 16-year-old kid."

As Sharpe segues into legal and ethical issues of carrying, it quickly becomes clear that learning how to wield a gun is far less complicated than when. The decision is nowhere near black-and-white as it feels like it should be, considering what's at stake.

Sharpe gives an example. Late one night, he encountered a driver at a stoplight who was punching his passenger, grabbing her by the hair as she tried, unsuccessfully, to exit the vehicle. After Sharpe drew his gun, the man ran the light and sped away. And by the time police responded, the pair was long gone. The gun hadn't stopped the assault. And Sharpe wondered if introducing it had made the situation worse.

After the classroom instruction concluded, a couple of students admitted they were surprised by Sharpe's explanation of how he'd react to an intruder. He wouldn't grab his gun and slink into the shadows like every movie protagonist who hears something that goes bump in the night. Instead, he told the class, he'd lock the bedroom door and yell to the thief to take what they want — with the warning that, should the door open, he was ready to fire. All the stuff in the world, Sharpe noted, isn't worth risking a life.

Fire away

The second part of Sharpe's training takes place at Stock and Barrel Gun Club, which does, as Sharpe points out, look rather like the lobby of a Life Time Fitness.

The wood-and-stone décor suggests a luxe suburban home — if not for the arrays of guns for sale and the firearms popping off in the background. Sharpe calls the place "the most bougie gun shop I've ever been to in my life," but the presence of a green-haired transgender employee reassured him this was a place where his students would feel comfortable.

Each student takes a turn in the range with Sharpe, who offers a few pointers before proctoring the qualification test. A shooter in the neighboring lane fires a weapon that emits a startling, cannon-like "boom." A piece of spent brass bonks the brim of Sharpe's hat, and he doesn't even react.

Seated in her wheelchair, Anne Colestock takes aim at the target. She was raised with firearms, unlike a lot of people who grew up in the suburbs and identify as lesbian, as she does. Colestock always liked guns ("I think they're cool") but was only now, at 44, pursuing the option of carrying a handgun.

Colestock and her wife live in an area of north Minneapolis where she says gunfire is a regular, multiple-times-a-day occurrence. Though Colestock's father bought her a shotgun for home defense, and she carries a knife, dealing with limited mobility due to fibromyalgia has made her feel more vulnerable. "As my disability evolved, I came to the awareness that I am less and less able to effectively defend myself in a physical altercation without some kind of a weapon," she said.

Cultural change

Sharpe's friend and fellow firearms trainer, Kimmy Hull, co-owns Sequeerity, a local security company operated by women who identify as queer and people of color. She calls Sharpe an ally in their shared mission of giving people underserved by traditional gun instruction a safe place to learn.

"We're trying to change the gun culture," Hull said. "And if we can't change the gun culture, we'll create a completely different gun culture for people like us."

Sharpe, in some ways, straddles both cultures. He looks like he might belong to the tough-guy, guns-make-me-powerful cohort he initially joined and he clearly understands that mentality — because he once held it. But he's using that knowledge to model a new approach: one that's more inclusive, focused on de-escalation, and only drawing a weapon as an absolute last resort.

Sharpe is still working through the process of repairing, or moving on from, difficult personal relationships. And he acknowledges a certain irony in attempting to make amends for his past violence by trying to make an inherently violent tool less so.

"Maybe all of that [crap] that I went through and all that [crap] that I put other people through has a happy ending," he said. "Maybe that was all worthwhile because I probably couldn't be the man that I am without having been that man."