Like many African-Americans of his generation, Phillip Smith, a Californian in his 50s, grew up without a gun in the house. To his parents, gun ownership was not just politically unacceptable, but morally wrong – a fount, if anything, of trouble and tragedy.
When he moved his own family to the South in 2002, he found a different tradition, where black families, many of them fresh from the farms, had hunting rifles for sport and, to an extent, self-defense. Mr. Smith was intrigued. As he bought his first guns and began practicing at a gun range, he had an epiphany: Perhaps the Second Amendment is the black man’s ultimate sign of full citizenship.
Smith’s crossover into the world of guns and ammo makes him part of a widening attempt to, as he says, “normalize” a black gun-carrying tradition fraught with historical pain and tragedy.
His advocacy for African-American gun rights has turned out to be a potent message. The National African-American Gun Association he founded has grown from 800 to 20,000 members since 2015. Unlike the primarily white and male National Rifle Association, NAAGA is diverse in both color and gender; 60 percent of its members are women.
“The main thing – and I’d be lying if I said something else – is that in the last 18 months the racial tone of the country has tilted in a direction that is alarming, at a minimum,” says Smith, who lives in an Atlanta suburb. “For African-Americans, we’re seeing the same old faces, the same type of conversations we saw in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and we thought they were dead and gone.”
Given that white Americans have led the liberalization of gun laws in the past decade, black gun carry is becoming a test of constitutional agency, injecting what University of Arizona gun culture expert Jennifer Carlson calls the specter of “legitimate violence” into an already tense political climate. Incidents like the June acquittal of the Minnesota police officer who shot Philando Castile, a legal gun owner, during a traffic stop have added to that tension, gun owners like Smith say – as did the National Rifle Association’s silence over both his shooting and the verdict.
For some black gun owners, the question is a stark one: Can African-Americans reasonably expect to be covered by the Second Amendment in a country still marbled by racist rhetoric, attitudes, and acts?
In one way, “it is saddening and troubling how much hopelessness there must be to make such a massive shift to decide guns might be a necessary answer” to a documented rise in overt racism, says Nancy Beck Young, a political historian at the University of Houston.
Two events that changed things
The shooting of Mr. Castile and the election of President Trump changed things for Dickson “Q” Amoah, a former Air Force reservist from the outskirts of Chicago.
Like Smith, Mr. Amoah says his parents were vehemently anti-gun. To this day, he says, “Honestly I still think that getting rid of all these excess guns in Chicago and the country would be a good thing.”
Then he saw the white nationalist salute of “Hail Trump” near the White House in January. His first thought was: “Oh, hell no.”
For him, carrying a gun has become a test of a stereotype, as Professor Young says, “built on the myth of what the black man was after and what he might do.”
“I used to worry about what people thought of me as a black man,” says Amoah, the president of the 761st Gun Club of Illinois. As a gun-carrier, he says, “Now, I just don’t care anymore.”
Michigan gun boards
The extent of the risk legally armed black men take to carry guns is hard to measure. The Washington Post has found that unarmed black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than unarmed white men. But there are no hard studies on that have looked at how officers react to armed black men versus armed white ones. Moreover, privacy laws prohibit deep-dive studies of gun registration data to look for patterns by race.
But Ms. Carlson, author of “Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline,” found a proxy in administrative “gun boards” that exist in several states to adjudicate gun license issues. She found differences in how gun boards operated in Michigan's majority-black Wayne County and majority-white Oakland County. Black concealed-carry applicants in Wayne were routinely lectured and quizzed in public forums – what she calls “degradation ceremonies.” White gun owners in Oakland, meanwhile, were addressed without lectures in hearings where they could plead their case in a semi-private room. (Michigan has since done away with the gun boards.)
Her findings suggest such proceedings for concealed-carry licenses now “serve as mechanisms ... to encourage black men to internalize their position at the bottom of the racial ... hierarchy.”
That evidence, she says, underscores how some policing strategies, like stop-and-frisk, “only work if you can presume that the guns that are being carried are illegal,” says Carlson. In that way, “gun laws change the ordering of how people think about danger in a way that is way beyond whether there is a gun there or not.”
Only about half as many African-American households have guns as white ones – 19 percent, compared with 41 percent. And attitudes toward guns remain starkly divided along racial lines. Sixty percent of black voters favor more gun control, while 61 percent of white voters seek more gun rights.
That reflects a deep resistance to guns in African-American communities that goes back to the civil rights era, when blacks, often victims of gun crimes, began to see gun ownership as counterproductive and dangerous. But that doesn't tell the whole story, gun-carry proponents say.
“You dig and you realize the civil rights movement wasn’t just a nonviolent movement,” counters Amoah. “The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a gun carrier. And you look at Malcolm X differently. He was a self-defense guy.”
Smith in Atlanta says he has had heated debates with preachers over his gun carry advocacy. To some, it seems a reprise of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense movement, which led to a wave of gun control laws in the US. After 30 of its members marched, armed and defiant, into the California state capitol in 1967, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, who ran for president as a staunch Second Amendment defender, signed a law prohibiting open carry in the state.
Second Amendment vs. the whole Bill of Rights
Scholars say that Second Amendment rights for African-Americans cannot be fought for separately from other rights.
“No. 1, Philando Castile was seeking to show an officer his permit when he was killed, so having a gun is not an escape from being killed,” says historian Gerald Horne, author of “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America.” “But while that case suggests that African-Americans’ Second Amendment rights are not worth as much as those of others, it also brings us to the devalued citizenship of black Americans in 2017. In order to re-value that citizenship it will take a political movement that goes beyond Second Amendment rights and focuses on the whole panoply of rights generally.”
The coast-to-coast growth of NAAGA chapters from a handful to 32 in less than two years seems to mirror a shift, partly a generational one, in that thinking. The number of blacks who prioritize gun rights over gun control rose from 18 percent in 1993 to 34 percent in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center.
Black-owned gun shops say they have seen business increase in the last six months, even as gun sales overall have softened, leading to price cuts of more than 50 percent.
At 280 pounds, Louis Dennard says he can be an intimidating presence – until people get to know him as the kind-hearted gardener and pitmaster that he is.
His worry is that racist stereotypes get enshrined into law, under a president who openly questioned former President Barack Obama’s citizenship and, in Mr. Dennard's view, is basing his legacy on dismantling the work of the country’s first black president. “Right now, they are in the process of prejudicing the system,” he says.
Though the growth of his gun club is tied to national politics, Smith is careful to not focus his advocacy on the president or the NRA. He says his toughest critics, so far, have been others in the African-American community, who don’t see a strong correlation between the Second Amendment and a sense of full citizenship.
“I’m trying to let everyone know that you have the right – not the God-given right, but the right as an American – to carry a gun,” says Smith. “We have things to overcome in the black community in terms of what you believe you have a right to do as a citizen.
“My job is to convince people that it is not radical to have a gun ... to protect your family.”
Clarification: This article was updated to clarify that Michigan has since abolished its gun boards.