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Here's how Sarah Cade used to think of American gun owners: "old, fat, white guys, and they're all racists and they hate everyone."

Of course, that was before she got a gun.

Cade is young, biracial and passionately liberal. She's also become a self-described gun nut and a staunch defender of gun ownership.

But she wants to be nice about it.

"I have a talent for disagreeing with people without being a jerk about it," she said. "I don't like hostility in any of my interactions. I'm very nonconfrontational."

Cade, a millennial from Maplewood, didn't come from a hunting family or grow up around guns. In fact, she's been a gun owner for only about five years. Still, she's trying to be a new, nonthreatening face for gun rights advocacy in Minnesota.

She writes pro-gun op-ed articles and testifies at legislative hearings. She lobbies her legislator, gets quoted in newspaper articles and interviewed on podcasts. She debates people online, speaks at public forums and appears in gun rights advocacy videos.

In many ways, she defies the stereotype of a Second Amendment crusader.

She has empathy for people who are scared by AR-15 rifles, one of which she owns.

"I get why people are afraid of them. Like, I understand that. I get that it's scary for people to think that other people have the capacity to cause harm," she said.

And she understands just how negatively gun owners are often viewed. "There's a perception that gun owners don't care," she said, "and that could not be farther from the truth."

But Cade believes that ideas about gun control should be judged on their merits, not where they fall along political lines. She hopes to persuade, not just win arguments. And she doesn't lecture opponents about the origins of the Second Amendment or wrangle over whether semi-automatic weapons should be called assault rifles.

"It's not an assault rifle until you assault someone with it," she said, adding, "I don't approve of anyone being mean about it, or rude, because that doesn't help anyone."

Given the incendiary tone of the current gun debate, where both sides seem to be entrenched and disagreements all too quickly turn to personal attacks, Cade is an anomaly.

"She brings a perspective that's not very typical," said Pat Watson, a fellow gun rights advocate. "She's absolutely a different face."

Nonwhite women like Cade are the least likely group in America to be gun owners, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey. Only about 16 percent of women of color are gun owners, compared with nearly a quarter of white women and nonwhite men and half of white men.

As an articulate medical professional who doesn't fit the stereotype of a gun owner, Cade "is a highly effective advocate" for gun rights, according to Bryan Strawser, chairman of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus. "Sarah's approach is probably less confrontational."

Even some people who disagree with her stance acknowledge her effectiveness.

"She's just tremendously respectful," said Inver Grove Heights Police Chief Paul Schnell, who debated Cade on gun access issues at a forum in Bloomington in 2016. "I have respect for her. I have to. She's principled, she's decent and yet she's strong-minded."

Embraced by community

Cade, 35, has a boyfriend, a dog and 10 chickens and is an experienced horsewoman. She describes herself as a "super geek," who likes playing Dungeons and Dragons and doing "Star Wars" cosplay. For most of her life, she was a "gun agnostic."

"I didn't have a strong opinion on the political side of guns really one way or the other," said Cade, who works an X-ray technologist and has a side business doing drone photography and videography.

"If you had asked me then I probably would've said, 'Yeah, let's have background checks. Why does anyone need an assault weapon?' "

About five years ago, she and her mom took a basic handgun class as a mother-daughter bonding activity. While they were doing it just for fun, Cade also felt that she was exercising "a right we have as Americans. Why waste it? You know people literally fought a war so that we could have this right. We should try it out."

They did — and they liked it.

"I think what I liked about it is it's a little bit like yoga, where it's a combination of really intense focus and physical effort," she said.

Soon afterward, Cade bought her first gun, a .22 semi-automatic pistol. To her surprise, she was embraced by a gun community which was welcoming, generous and helpful to a newcomer. At ranges, experienced gun owners offered to let her try their guns and acted as mentors when she started competitive shooting.

It wasn't long before Cade was shooting as much ammunition as she could afford, as many as 10,000 practice rounds a year. She entered pistol shooting competitions that simulate self-defense scenarios and shot long-distance rifles in North Dakota, hitting targets a mile away. She was once even the cover model for a gun manufacturer's catalog.

When asked how many guns she owns, she'll only say, "I have fewer guns than I have pairs of shoes. But not by much."

Despite the fact that she hates politics and gets nervous speaking in public, she volunteers as a team leader with the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus because "I have a voice that is kind of underrepresented in the media. Most of the liberal gun owners that I know are like really in the closet about it," she said.

Being rational

Cade was born in North Carolina to a white mother and a black father, who died when she was 17. She has spent most of her life in Minnesota.

She said gun access is important for people of color if they don't live in neighborhoods where protection from crime is as good as in white communities.

"It's not that you are trigger-happy. It's just that you want the option and you want to have the agency to make the choice to defend yourself if you have to, " she said.

Around firearms, she's a stickler for safety, vigilant about careful gun handling procedures.

As a feminist, she sees parallels between being a gun rights activist and being "super pro choice" on abortion.

Both positions involve protecting controversial rights from what she calls "bad faith" government restrictions. Proposed restrictions on abortion clinics often are justified as increasing women's safety, but Cade believes they are really intended to reduce access to the procedure. Just as she believes many proposed gun control laws would reduce access to guns while not increasing safety.

"In my mind, these issues are very, very similar," Cade said. "I come from a place of liberal values. So when I explain why I oppose a gun law, it's from my values. It's not from conservative values."

She left the NRA when it created ads she felt were polarizing, alienating and "extreme right wing."

But she also objects when people compare the NRA to the KKK, or make "utterly ridiculous" arguments that the Second Amendment was originally created to protect slave owners.

"If you really look at the Constitution, none of the rights in there were supposed to apply to us until we took them for ourselves," she said. "I don't care if they wrote it for me. It's mine now."

Cade said she's been attacked online for speaking out about gun rights.

"I've been called a despicable murder advocate. I've been called an inhuman, you know, dancing in the blood of children, stuff like that. That stuff, it kind of gets to you after a while," she said.

"I'm like, not 'the gun lobby,' " she said. On second thought, she admits, "Well, I am the gun lobby."

Still, she resists being provoked into personal attacks.

Instead, Cade has asked friends to post photos of "friendly-looking gun-related pictures" on Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #WeAreMN. She wants to make a video using the photos.

"The goal is to humanize gun owners," she said. "We're normal people and we're part of this community, too."

"I don't think you can judge either side by the worst people on that side. That's not fair, and that just contributes to us not being able to talk to each other," she said. "It would be cool if we could all come together and be rational about it. But we can't seem to do that very well."

Richard Chin • 612-673-1775