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Philip Smith, national president and founder of the National African American Gun Association (NAAGA), hopes to encourage more Black people to legally own guns with an understanding of history and the mechanics of firearms.
“I think the toughest battle we have to go through on a daily basis is just getting that perception of African Americans and guns. When people hear those two words and put them together, there’s usually a negative stereotype that pops in your head and that’s within our own community, and especially outside of our community. We’re constantly trying to strategize how we can combat that and what we’ve done is have a methodology in which we send out positive images of African-American men and women on our website,” says Smith.
Created by Smith in 2015, NAAGA’s official website describes the organization as “a pro 2nd amendment organization focused on the preservation of our community through armed protection and community building. We are a hub and network for all African American firearm owners, organizations, gun clubs and outdoor enthusiasts.” Membership is available for couples, singles, and families, providing access to like-minded community, gun training, self-defense classes, and other resources including Black-owned gun shops and ranges.
The Second Amendment explicitly states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This highly debated portion of The Bill Of Rights guarantees citizens of the United States the authority to own firearms.
For Black people, those rights listed in the Constitution did not, and arguably still do not, equally apply. The history of gun rights in the United States is as racialized just as the right to vote. Philando Castile, for example, was fatally shot by police in front of his romantic partner and her small child while reaching for his wallet after disclosing his possession of a legally obtained and registered firearm.
Statistics on gun ownership uphold the historical bias of white men being majority gun holders. Pew Research Center reports while 36% of white people report that they are gun owners, only about a quarter of Black people (24%) answered the same across gender demographics. Among only men, 48% of white men own guns compared to 24% of non-white men.
What are the main reasons that Black gun ownership is important?
I think it is the most important thing in our community right now and I’ll be specific. Every other community in the United States, based on ethnicity, has guns and I’ll be honest with you, the communities that have a lot of guns are probably the more secure ones. Why can we not have firearms to protect our families, our children, our wives, our loved ones? To me, that’s probably the most insulting thing that you can tell me: “Wait, why do Blacks need to have guns?” We have families, we have investments. We should be able to protect ourselves and it should be nothing wrong with that. That’s what the Second Amendment is all about and that’s what makes us different from any other country in the world… For me, when African Americans are viewed with firearms, there’s a level of discomfort for some and we try to make other individuals — who don’t really know about us — comfortable. But, bottom line, I want my folks comfortable.
You’re doing what is allowed in the country to protect yourself and quite honestly, not having guns in our community has really been the problem. Up until now, to me, because it’s allowed us to be victimized. Other groups, individuals, communities know that we don’t have a lot of guns in our communities focusing on legal gun owners. So, when our folks are out jogging, when they’re out walking, when [they are] minding their business doing their daily going to Kmart or Walmart going to Macy’s, and they get attacked, people know that pretty much that we don’t have firearms on us. And that’s a bad thing when you know that you’re aggressor — and I use that term loosely — is stalking you out in society.
Is it more difficult to convince women that we needed guns?
I think women, for the most part, are more open to new ideas. But, at the same time, our people, Black folks, have been socialized to look at guns in a negative format. Now, what we try to do, we try to take anyone in — especially women — and give them information, and I think the ladies — you know you guys a little smarter than us — so you guys read a little bit more, you’re a little more detail, your thought processes a little more holistic. When I say holistic, you’re looking at the big picture, long term as to something that’s gonna be a value add, and we put all that together with the way we present it. The women have been joining in droves.
Based on what they see on our website, what they hear from us, their experiences on the gun range, they have all been very positive, I would say 99% of the folks that go to our meetings are very pleased if they’re a woman. They see women that look like them, they see professional women, they see women that are white-collar, blue-collar, gay, straight, Republican, Democrat — you have a whole swell of different type of folks.
How do you think we should approach introducing firearms to children?
I think there’s a different context [in] urban living versus country versus suburban [versus] city life [versus] rural versus the city version of living. I think you should, regardless of where you’re at, introduce your child in the same process as early as possible to let him or her know what this instrument is and it is just a tool that can be used for specific reasons. Some people use it for self-defense, some people use it for hunting, some people use it for both. But, you have to make sure that your child knows what this is. And as soon as they are mentally mature enough — focus on that mentally mature enough — take them to the range, have them shoot, slowly train them with an instructor [on] how to shoot a gun, what to do, what not to do, understand that there is a serious consequence. If you don’t use this correctly, it can kill you.
What are your thoughts on the NRA and what are some key differences between it and your organization?
I’ve met members of the NRA. I will say this, I don’t have any ill will against any organizations out there, NRA or otherwise. You do your thing, we’ll do ours. My focus is on NAAGA and NAAGA only. I use the analogy of going to the weight room, and you see this really buff guy in the weight room, and they’re huge and you’re like, man, how did he get that that cut up? Well, you can spend all day looking at them, get buffed while you sit in in the weight room, eating chips, or you can focus on yourself and get strong. And that’s what I do. I focus on my organization.
My job is to make African Americans — when they come to our website — comfortable. I’m not worried about making any other group comfortable. Now, anyone else is surely invited, and we have numbers that are increasing in other groups: white, Asian, Latino and that’s great. But, you know, when you come to NAAGA, your focus the conversation. The emphasis is on Black folks and firearms, and we are unapologetic in that.
We make no apologies. We are Afrocentric in nature, our delivery of information, our history that we expose our members to from Crispus Attucks to Nat Turner to Harriet Tubman to the Buffalo Soldiers to Deacons of Defense — all those rich African Americans who provided history for us, you learn about that in NAAGA, and that’s the difference. In terms of what is our relationship with anyone, we don’t have a relationship with any organization… The days of us trying to explain ourselves why we’re here are over. Now you can accept that, or just step out of the way. But, make no mistake about it we’re here to stay.
Do you think more progress, as far as how Black people with guns are seen, would be made if the education system was better at teaching those kinds of stories?
It would be huge. You’ve touched on something that is probably one of the main issues. The history of African Americans in this country is a beautiful history. It’s rich. The Buffalo Soldiers, Tuskegee Airmen, they fought all the racism, all the double standards, and they still went out and did a great job for the country. The 54th, the Harlem Hellfighters that were denied to fight with Americans here in America, but went over to France… and they became one the most awarded groups in the history of the war for France.
All [NAAGA] board members have to take this course. When you take this course, you have an opportunity to become aware that you are not the first Black person to grab a gun and in fact, you’re one of many in a long list of African Americans that have been able to use a gun.
How could an organization like yours be seen after a mass shooting?
I think, obviously, I’m very biased leading the largest African American firearms organization. I believe the lobby of gun control folks, and I don’t like demonizing anybody. We’re all American citizens, we all have different perspectives and at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to have a better America for everyone to live in. But, there are different ways to get to that point. I believe that having a man with a gun, a good guy with a gun — you’ve heard this term — is better than having no gun at all. Now, other folks believe that guns are the issue and they are the problem.
I get questions about, well, you look at South Central L.A. or look at the south side of Chicago or even here in Atlanta, you look at the Bankhead area where there are some severe poverty and strife. You see a lot of gun use and I submit this. Anytime you take a group of people, I don’t care what color, put them in an educational system that is basically a pipeline to the prison system, they learn nothing. They get no skills. Give them a hostile relationship with the police, at best, and that’s it best. Put them in an area where they get no skills, and by the way, make sure they have three or four felonies by the time they’re 24 and 25. You know what’s going to happen. You have somebody that cannot — living in the current economy — they can’t get a job. They’re literally left on the outside, so you don’t [know what] you’re going to do… They’re gonna do whatever it takes to survive.
When you have conversations like that, you know very, very quick it’s not the gun. So, when people talk taking away the guns, they don’t want to look at the whole problem… because when you look at the whole problem, you understand that it is a big problem. It’s just not guns, it’s education. It’s opportunity. It’s communities are under siege with drugs. Those are big problems. It’s easy to sit back and say, “Oh take the guns away.” You still will have death and mayhem just in a different format. So, let’s be grown up and look at the real problem. Guns are not the problem. People are the problem.
People have attended protests with firearms. Do you think that your organization is beneficial to organizing groups, as they continue to protest police brutality and racism?
I think that anytime you have open carry for an African American male — and I’m not saying they don’t have the right to do that — if someone has paid the taxes, they’re doing the right thing and they can legally qualify in that particular state to open carry or concealed carry. That is your right. I’m not arguing that point. I’m saying that it may not be the smartest thing to do based on the social climate in which we live because a lot of times, you’re making yourself a target. I’m not saying you don’t have the right. If you want to carry an AR-15, like some of these other folks and other communities do and walk down the street, and go walk into Macy’s, you might have the right to do that. But, I just don’t think it’s realistically a good move on your part male or female because it draws attention in a negative way that may put you in a situation where your life is in danger very, very quickly. Now, I’m a big proponent of concealed carry. But, open carry, that’s something totally different.
How do you see NAAGA growing within the next five years? What’s the future of NAAGA?
Our goal, and I put everything in five-year segments, is to reach anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000 [members]. I do think we’ll get 100,000 members within the next two to three years. After that, the ultimate goal for me is 600,000. I think 600,000 would be 10% of African Americans in the country right now that have guns… So if we can get 10%, I think we will have done an admirable job.
For more information on NAAGA, visit www.naaga.co.