This past weekend, the 2017 National Rifle Association Annual Meetings and Exhibits took place here in Atlanta, Georgia. The four-day event commenced on April 27, expected an attendance of 80,000+ “patriots” and featured a speech given by Donald Trump. Since Trump took office, however, gun sales have slowed to pre-Obama levels but have seen a surge among minorities who are believed to have anti-gun views.
In particular, sales have risen among African American women and many of these women are also joining pro-gun groups. Once such group is National African American Gun Association (NAAG), a national network for all African American firearm owners, gun clubs and outdoor enthusiasts founded by Morehouse College alumni and Atlanta native Philip Smith in 2015. I sat down with Mr. Smith to discuss NAAG, firearm ownership among Blacks and the organization’s response to the NRA’s recent Atlanta convention.
“One thing I noticed—which was the initial catalyst to starting the organization—was that there were not a lot of Blacks involved in shooting or at the range,“ said Smith. “The few that I did see were kind of off in the corner, looking kind of nervous and not fully integrated into the rest of the group. They were there but they weren’t there. I felt the need to change that, because if I could have fun then, I knew my people could have fun.”
Smith, who originally hails from Northern California’s Bay Area, admitted that his views on gun ownership changed once he discovered Southern gun culture.
“Regardless of color, fathers passed down guns to their children,” Smith noted. “At family gatherings, the go and shoot. They hunt together. Black or white. The Southern culture is very different.” Spurred by his eye-opening introduction to firearms, Smith researched African American gun associations, saw a hole in the cultural landscape and got to work creating NAAG.
Smith’s vision was a politically neutral association which would attract a Black audience interested in fully embracing their Second Amendment rights and learning proper firearms safety. When he launched the organization in honor of Black History Month on February 28, 2015, Smith expected an overall response of 300 members total but was surprised to see that number surpassed that within the first five weeks of the launch. Today, the organization boasts a membership of just under 20,000 with members from every state.
“We’re seeing steady growth. We’re 60% African American women—which surprised me.” NAAG’s November 2016 newsletter cited that the organization received 1000 new members over the Thanksgiving holiday alone.
According to a 2014 survey conducted by Pew Research Center, 54% of Blacks say gun ownership does more to protect people than endanger personal safety, nearly double the 29% who said the same in December 2012. Smith attributes this shift in African American views to an awakening of sorts.
“There’s a lot of folks in our community who are really seeing the light. Guns don’t make people bad. It is people and their choices who make the act of wielding a gun a bad thing. Getting a gun is not a political statement. It’s neither a democratic nor a republican statement; it’s a personal statement. It’s saying that I want to protect myself, my family and my kids. ”
Smith also understands that this transition in African American view on firearms comes after a very long and complicated history in America—a history that Smith has made sure to point out on the NAAG website. That experience includes the existence of the Black Codes of 1865 and 1866, a series of laws meant to restrict and prohibit Blacks’ rights and freedoms including those to vote, bear arms, gather in groups and learn to read and write.
“The American Black experience has been so very different from any other ethnic group. We were not even allowed to have guns. Compare that to what’s happening now in the last 40 years or so. Look at Jim Crow, the deep South especially, and even communities outside the South that were affected by not being able to protect themselves. If you can’t protect yourself then really you’re going to potentially be a victim because everyone knows that you can’t fight. Anyone can walk into your community and set up pornographic stores and liquor stores on every corner because they know you don’t have any ability to say anything and that’s what’s happened.”
Smith made clear that the NRA’s failure to properly acknowledge or recognize this history with African Americans (among other culturally sensitive issues) is what makes groups like his more attractive to Black firearm enthusiasts.
“We’re going to talk about Trayvon Martin. We’re going to talk about Alton Sterling. We’re going to talk about the Dallas shootings. And we’re going to have it from our perspective. We want to change the social narrative to the point where when someone says “black” and “gun,” it’s not an automatic negative or urbanized slant. Instead we want the response to be ‘he or she must belong to NAAG.’ We want exposure of our organization to different folks to turn back the brainwashing that has taken place in greater society and with Blacks regarding Black gun ownership.”
Smith further noted that the politically neutral nature of NAAG also does more to attract Blacks from all different perspectives and walks of life. The group touts members who are republican, democrat, gay, straight, conservative and liberal. It also prides itself on having discussions including varied views in lieu of a monolithic thought. Smith believes that this sort of open discourse results in a better thought process and conversation in which positions must be backed up with fact, not just emotion. The organization abides by the notion of “agreeing to disagree but not to disconnect.”
“In my opinion, we’ve never had a Black voice in firearms, a voice that we bring to the table unapologetically from a Black perspective.” This voice, according to Smith, agrees not to demonize police officers but insists that any police officers in the wrong be held accountable, moved out of law enforcement forever and be placed in jail—a sentiment largely absent from groups like the NRA. Still, NAAG’s differing and uniquely African American views don’t prevent them from associating with the NRA.
“Our whole management team went to the convention the first night and went to the dinner on Sunday night. We interact with any organization that can potentially help us. Does it mean we are in step with every thought process at the NRA or the Gun Owners of America or the Jewish Defense League? No. But we’re certainly going to sit down at the table if something can be forged to benefit us.”
Smith views the current president’s Second Amendment stance as being beneficial overall to Black firearm ownership, particularly the pending concealed carry reciprocity law which Smith feels will pass.
“For law-abiding gun owners in the Black community, I believe the expanded access to guns are a good thing. But there are some pitfalls with that because there is still the danger of those guns falling into the hands of crooks and criminals, so I believe there may be some hiccups potentially. But as a community, we have to police ourselves and do our due diligence in making sure that doesn’t happen. I think overall the present legal scheme of having access to more guns will be a positive thing for the Black community.”
As far as tragic occurrences with legal gun owners such as the murder of Philando Castile, Smith has a very specific opinion on how the Black community should respond.
“The worst thing we can do as Black folks is feel that we are discounted citizens without the full rights of the Second Amendment because some rogue cops are out there shooting Blacks. If that’s the case then we need to put legal pressure on those communities and those courtrooms where those cops exist. We should also collectively put financial pressure on those communities through boycotting. When things like that happen, if they’re shooting us, we’re not the problem; they’re the problem. So let’s go after them.”