The goal of the National African American Gun Association is to introduce black Americans to guns and also instruct them on how to use them.
Some see the group as an alternative to the National Rifle Association for black gun owners, but it has some notable differences. Organizers say it is a civil rights organization that aims to build community and promote self-protection.
Since its creation in 2015, the group has seen rapid growth with roughly 30,000 members and 75 chapters nationwide. Leaders expect another 25 chapters by next year.
Overall, 4 in 10 Americans say there is a firearm in their household, according to a 2017 study by Pew Research Center. Broken down by race, 24% of African Americans say they personally own a gun, compared with 36% of whites and 15% of Hispanics.
“Black folks and guns usually get a negative stereotype reaction like: ‘What is that guy doing with a gun?’ ” says Philip Smith, the president and founder of the group.
Membership spiked after President Trump was sworn into office, Smith says, attributing some of that growth to a political climate where people with racist views feel emboldened to talk about and act on those views.
Some in the organization say it is time to have a larger platform. Executives in the group are mulling whether to form a political action committee that would raise money and back candidates sympathetic with the cause. The primary focus of the PAC, though, would be to work on solutions between black gun owners and the police.
“Does law enforcement, or more importantly larger society, view black men with firearms in a certain way? Let’s have that discussion,” Smith Says. “That’s a hard discussion, but that’s a discussion we need, as an organization, to be involved with.”
Smith and others are quick to point out that the group is supportive of law enforcement, but also make the case that carrying a gun while black can have deadly consequences.
The group talks often about Philando Castile who was shot and killed by police in 2016 after he was pulled over in St. Paul, Minn., for a broken taillight.
During the stop, Castile told the officer he was licensed to carry a firearm and as he reached for his wallet, per the officers’ request, he was shot.
It’s impossible to know what role being black played in those incidents, but for Smith, “My job, and it’s a very long-term wish, is to change that socialization process where [when] people see a black guy or a black woman walking with a gun, they won’t automatically say, ‘He or she is a thug’ or ‘He or she is doing something illegal.’ “
On the group’s name, some members call it “NAAG” for short.
Others use all the letters in the acronym: N-A-A-G-A, which, when said out loud, sounds similar to a specific racial slur. Smith says people have had a problem with the name since he started the group, “Some people thought it was offensive. I thought, and still do think, there’s kind of an edge to it.”
Division On A Shift To Politics
In a sunlit lounge at a midtown Atlanta shooting range, a handful of NAAGA members get together to shoot, but also talk.
Their discussion spans from whether there is, indeed, a need for an Afrocentric gun organization, to deadly incidents involving police and African-Americans, to white nationalism in the U.S.
Casandra Light, 23, wears a black t-shirt with pink lettering that reads: “I carry a [image of a handgun] because my [image of a military-style rifle] won’t fit in my purse.” She says she is wary of a shift into politics.
“One of the main things we’re trying to do is change the perspective of black gun ownership into a positive mindset,” Light says. She says she worries that if NAAGA forms a PAC, some may think the group is radical, driving members away. “I would hate to see that happen,” she says.
“I think if the organization wants to maintain the openness that we have to everyone regardless of their race, gender, political affiliation,” Light says, “we also need to be careful about having a political stance because it’s real easy for that to get blown out of proportion.”
Michael Doyle, one of a handful of white members of the Atlanta chapter, said the shift is inevitable.
“The colors of our skin is politicized, sadly. Gun ownership is politicized, sadly,” Doyle says.
“The idea that an African-American gun association would be blithely silent on matters of race and gun ownership, would be absurd.”
Monica Neal, an Army veteran who says she “got serious” about firearms training and self-defense after her divorce, thinks NAAGA elevating its voice might bring more gun owners out of the shadows and into the organization.
“When others see that we’re for protection and for gun ownership, I think it would maybe more than likely increase our numbers,” Neal said.
Phil Smith, the national president, says the organization’s executive team is discussing if and when to launch the PAC. Once group leaders come to a conclusion, the rank and file members will get to have their say as well.