Essence, who preferred not to use her full name, was reluctant to talk as she descended the steps of the Gun Range on Percy Street in North Philadelphia. The whap, whap, whap of gunfire reverberated in the hallway as she walked down the long flight of stairs and onto the street.

She and her male companion had just exited the Gun Range, where paying customers sharpen their shooting skills. Behind a bulletproof glass, a fusillade of bullets from a wide range of rifles, revolvers and pistols explode out of muzzles and rip into paper targets.

"I'm torn," Essence said as she stopped for a quick chat. "I know that guns are killing us. Blacks are shooting each other. But I need a gun to protect myself and my family. I'm forced into a corner."

Essence posed a question that a growing number of Blacks in Philadelphia and the nation are asking and answering the same way she did: They’re buying guns. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, gun sales among Black men and women increased by 58% in the first six months of last year.

Like Essence, novice gun owners are frequenting shooting ranges and joining gun clubs and advocacy groups in startling numbers.

Crime is the prime mover of this growing trend, Black gun advocates say, adding that rising homicide rates in Philly and elsewhere are fueled in part by the financial and emotional stress of the coronavirus that’s magnified in Black communities. This rising death toll comes at a time when police brutality and violent white supremacists are constant concerns, said Daniel Webster, professor of American Health in Violence Prevention at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"We've seen such an increase in white nationalist violence," added Webster, who is also director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy.

"Some combination of the lack of faith in police protecting you, and hate groups, have motivated a lot of Black people to arm up," Webster said.

According to the Mapping Philadelphia’s Gun Violence Crisis website, as of Friday, there have been 1,310 nonfatal and 325 fatal shooting victims in the city, and the homicide rate jumped 17% over last year.

In response, Black gun ownership, especially among Black females like Essence, is surging.

Byron Franklin, an aspiring gun store owner in Philadelphia, said that if he had known gun sales would spike the way they have, he would already own a gun shop. But he said he was advised few Blacks would have money to invest in weapons during a pandemic.

"Instead, gun sales quadrupled!" he chuckled.

Gun clubs teach and support

Black gun associations have grown in Philadelphia and around the nation in recent months to support these new Black gun owners. The Robert Brown Elliott Gun Club is among a slew of them with catchy names like Train 2 Fight, Black Guns Matter, Defensive Unicorns, and the Not F-----g Around Coalition (NFAC).

Franklin founded Train 2 Fight. His fiancée, Dannielle Dupree, established Defensive Unicorns, primarily to support domestic violence survivors. The couple agree that new gun owners need training and education to avoid accidents as well as to avoid abusing their weapons. That way, gun ownership, gun clubs and gun education could be the cure for gun violence, not the cause.

The NFAC, which bills itself as a 1,500-member Black militia group, has made frequent appearances at police brutality protests and demonstrations for Black gun rights. A combination of old separatist Black Muslims and the former Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the group came close to clashing with a white right-wing militia group, the Three Percenters, at a recent demonstration in Louisville, Kentucky, according to The Courier Journal. The group was profiled in the April edition of The Atlantic, as testament to its growing notoriety. 

So widespread is the current interest in gun ownership that Blacks have formed their own answer to the National Rifle Association. This umbrella group is called the National African American Gun Association (NAAGA), founded by Georgia resident Philip Smith. The group helps Blacks who can’t relate to the NRA, which Smith said has failed to reach out to them.

The group aims to provide an extra level of comfort for Blacks based on common experiences, much the same as Black fraternal and professional organizations.

The association — which claims to have 45,000 members nationwide (over 60% of them women) in 75 chapters — aims to help educate Blacks with guns and help them navigate the shoals of gun laws across America.

Moreover, NAAGA helps with Black gun owners' dilemma of rising Black homicides on one side, rising white militias on the other, and how to stay safe from both extremes.

“The value of these groups is learning with people who know your struggle and understand what’s happening and has been happening with this country,” said Anubis Heru, the owner of the 1770 Armory and Gun Club Denver, touted as Colorado’s first Black-owned firearm store and simulator range. They teach gun safety, care and respect for guns and human life, Heru said.

Blacks and guns have a history

The sharp rise in Black gun ownership implies Blacks have been less willing to arm themselves in the past.

But Dupree, Franklin and other gun advocates point out that there has been a tradition of Black gun ownership for community protection dating back to groups such as the Deacons for Defense and the Black Panthers. They referenced the teachings of Malcolm X and even in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a group of gun-owning Black WWI veterans tried to save a Black man from being lynched prior to the burning of "Black Wall Street" in 1921.

Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a gun permit after the bombing of his house but was turned down. Earlier in 1867, Frederick Douglass said, "A man's rights rest in three boxes: the ballot box, jury box and the cartridge box.” Harriet Tubman carried a pistol on her treks to rescue slaves.

For Tubman, advocates say, the gun was a tool like a rake or a hoe that was needed to function in a hostile environment. That same hostility can be felt today, the advocate added.

“Why would you want the racists to be the only ones with knowledge of firearms?” Philadelphia gun advocate and founder of Black Guns Matter, Maj Toure, recently asked a reporter.

Nevertheless, gun proponents stress the need for safety education and overall training for all those novices who’ve decided to buy firearms.

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