By Hannah Allam

McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — 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 passers-by 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.

The next day in Dallas, when a gunman opened fire at a protest of the shooting, killing five police officers, police mistakenly labeled a black licensed gun owner as a “person of interest.” Perhaps 30 marchers were openly carrying their rifles at the rally.

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 that 54 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.

Extra precautions

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.

“People have a hard time thinking about that history because they can’t reconcile it with their more general assessment that the freedom struggle was all about this more nonviolent strategy,” Johnson said. “It’s true that at the broader political level, they had the assessment that the nonviolent strategy was the way to go, but they were all, almost to a person up until the 1960s, of the opinion that individual self-defense was a proper and necessary resource.”

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the conservative African-American jurist known for his hostility toward affirmative action, surprised even his critics in 2010 by decrying the denial of blacks their Second Amendment rights in what a Washington Post columnist at the time called “a scorcher of an opinion that reads like a mix of black history lesson and Black Panther Party manifesto.”

“The use of firearms for self-defense was often the only way black citizens could protect themselves from mob violence,” Thomas wrote, recalling how white citizen patrols and militias such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Brotherhood once terrorized blacks and forcibly disarmed them.

Yet more than 150 years after the Civil War, African-Americans say, their Second Amendment rights remain theoretical.

Open-carry experiment

A YouTube video that open-carry activists billed as a social experiment offers a street-level look into the limits of blacks’ right to openly carry their guns.

The first part of the video shows Warren Drouin, a white man with an AR-15 slung across his chest, being approached by a police officer and asked for his ID. He refuses, saying he doesn’t need to provide ID because he isn’t committing a crime. The encounter, filmed in Oregon, is calm and professional.

In the second part, filmed in Nevada, a young black man is walking down the street with his AR-15 on his shoulder. Within seconds, a police SUV rolls up. The officer sprints out and immediately draws his gun, yelling, “Down on the street! Now!” Then at least four other patrol cars arrive, sirens blaring, and the gun owner is facedown in the street, saying, “I have done nothing wrong. I am freely open-carrying my weapon.” At no point in the video did the officers ask to see the man’s gun permit.

The possibility of that kind of escalation had been a worry at last week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where both white supremacist factions and the New Black Panther Party vowed to brandish their weapons.

Ohio has seen some of the most widely circulated videos of officer-involved shootings of blacks. In a 2014 case, 22-year-old John Crawford III was gunned down by police in a Wal-Mart as he played with an unloaded air rifle from a store shelf; a fellow customer had called 911.

Another is the case of Tamir Rice, in which a Cleveland police officer shot dead a 12-year-old boy playing with a BB gun. When the police said they mistook him for a man with a real gun, activists countered that Ohio is an open-carry state, so the officer should’ve asked for a gun permit instead of shooting within seconds of arriving at the scene.

“The most cynical among us say open carry is for whites,” said Adolphus Belk, director of the African-American Studies Program at Winthrop University in South Carolina. “This is a civil liberties debate. Are African-Americans and people of color able to exercise their constitutional rights when it comes to maintaining firearms?”

NRA members

Belk singled out the National Rifle Association for criticism, saying it had failed to bring attention to the rights of black gun owners with the same energy that it applies to lobbying against restrictions on gun sales. The NRA’s most prominent black voice, whose stage name is Colion Noir, has spoken openly of trying to change the stereotype that persists of NRA membership as “old, fat white guys.”

But Noir said critics who had complained that the NRA was slow to comment on Castile’s death were disingenuous. “The NRA doesn’t need to make a statement about Philando because they gave him his own show,” Noir said, saying he, too, was a black man with a concealed-carry permit. “I’ve been fighting for gun rights under the NRA brand for years. Y’all just got here.”

“Call me a coon and Uncle Tom when I’m fighting for the same damn rights that Martin Luther King, Huey P. Newton and Malcolm X fought for,” he added.

James Hughes, a 22-year-old African-American gun enthusiast and Army National Guardsman, said his NRA membership gets him discounts at gun ranges and restaurants. The son of a police officer, Hughes received his first gun from an uncle at age 8 — a .22 for shooting squirrels — and began competitive shooting at age 10. He recalled being the only black kid in most of the events and was proud to have won first place in skeet shooting and other medals for long-range and pistol contests.

His personal arsenal includes two AK-47s, one SKS, three AR-15s and three bolt-action rifles. Until recently, he worked at a gun shop in his hometown of Monroe, N.C. He’s well aware of the assumptions people can make about gun-toting black men — passers-by once called police on him for playing with a paintball round — so he’s cultivated relationships with the local highway patrolmen and cops so that there are no misunderstandings.

Still, being a black gun owner can be lonely. “I still go to the range and I rarely see a single black person there,” he said.

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