Black Gun Owners Claim Being Armed is a Civil Rights Issue–Are They Right?

Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 9.39.28 AMArmed Black men and women are experiencing ‘fear’ and a sense of ‘defiance’ over what has happened the past couple of days. Is their right to bear arms a civil rights issue though? Give us your thoughts below.

By Hannah Allam

In February 2015, Philip Smith started a Facebook group to make space for the often-overlooked concerns of law-abiding, license-carrying gun owners who happen to be African-American.

Smith was tired of feeling conspicuous as the only black guy at the gun ranges he visited. Surely, he thought, there must be others out there, dealing with the same suspicions he faced when passersby glimpsed the Glock on his hip.

A year and a half later, Smith counts more than 11,000 members, representing all 50 states.

Smith’s forum reflects what researchers see as growing interest among African Americans in gun ownership. But becoming a black licensed gun owner is not a risk-free prospect, a fact brought to light this month by the police shooting of Philando Castile, who had a permit to carry a concealed weapon when he was shot in his car July 6, and by the presence at a Dallas rally of perhaps 30 marchers July 7 openly carrying their rifles. Dallas police mistakenly labeled a black licensed gun owner as a “person of interest” after gunman opened fire, killing five police officers.

Despite the championing in Congress of gun restrictions by black legislators, many African-Americans now see gun ownership as an important civil rights cause, in the spirit of abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ comment in 1867 that a man’s rights lay in three boxes: “the ballot box, the jury box and the cartridge box.” In African-American gun groups like Smith’s, members are expressing a mix of fear and defiance over the incidents.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Smith said. “We have to buckle down and work for full Second Amendment rights for African-American men and women. We work, we pay taxes and we’re not going to take this second-class treatment anymore. But one person can’t do it. It has to be done by a community.”

For decades, black gun owners say, they’ve battled racism from within pro-gun circles as well as scorn from fellow African-Americans who don’t always share their view of gun ownership as a civil rights imperative.

There are signs that attitudes are shifting. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that54 percent of blacks now see gun ownership as a good thing – more likely to protect than to harm – compared with 29 percent just two years ago.

Predominantly black gun clubs and online forums report spikes in interest, especially from African-American women. Smith said black women made up 65 percent of his online group’s membership – from ordinary professional women seeking self-protection to dealers such as Francine James-Jones, owner of Bubbas Gun Sales in Georgia and one of the only – if not the only – African-American women to hold a U.S. federal firearm license.

However, 10 black gun owners interviewed separately by McClatchy said they took extra precautions when they carried their guns, in hopes of avoiding deadly confrontations with police in case they were stopped. In encounters with police, they fear, the guns they’d bought to protect themselves could turn into liabilities. That’s what black gun owners think happened in two recent incidents that brought national attention to the perils of being black and legally armed.

The first was the Minnesota case of a police officer shooting Castile while he was in the car next to his girlfriend and with her young daughter in the back seat. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, live-streamed the chilling aftermath, repeatedly telling the officer that Castile was licensed to carry a gun. Reynolds also said the car had been pulled over for a broken taillight. There’s no full account yet of whether Castile’s gun was even visible before the officer fired into the car.

“I’m a black male with no criminal record. I have a CCL. I have a 4-year-old daughter. The difference is nothing more irrelevant than a broken taillight – he had one and I don’t,” a user named Ross wrote on another Facebook group, “African American Gun Club.” (The club slogan is: “Yeah we’re Black, and we’re armed. Deal with it.”)

The second incident was the ambush of Dallas police officers by an army veteran who shot 14 people, wounding nine and killing five. In the chaotic early moments, police released a photo of a black man in camouflage carrying a long rifle, asking for information on this “person of interest” in the deadly attack.

Friends and relatives of the man, Mark Hughes, who turned himself in to police and had nothing to do with the shootings, were incensed. Hughes’ brother loudly denounced the singling out of his brother as penalizing him for exercising his Second Amendment rights.

“The world saw him as a mass murderer,” said Paul Saputo, Hughes’ attorney. “Why? Because he was a black man carrying a gun.”

Blacks have a long history of gun ownership – and an equally long experience, historians say, with whites trying to disarm them. Blacks often kept guns for practical reasons such as hunting, but the main reason for many was protection from white mobs and groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Gun enthusiasts are quick to remind critics – correctly, historians say – that gun control laws have their roots in racist policies. Throughout slavery, the Civil War, the Reconstruction years and the Jim Crow era, historians say, laws were enacted to separate black people from firearms.

As a result, gun ownership became an important plank in early civil rights activism, up until the 1960s civil rights era, in which “establishment black politicians” teamed up with white progressives and began backing away from the idea of gun ownership, said Nicholas Johnson, a law professor at Fordham University in New York, and author of the 2014 book “Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms.”

Though historians quibble over the details, Johnson said, there are accounts that even nonviolent icon Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a gun permit after his house was attacked – and was denied.

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