In the deathly cold of November 2010, our president was still black, and I’d only been dating Lizzie, who is white, for three months. We took a two-hour drive from the University of Oklahoma, where we were studying, to meet her parents for the first time.
Her dad, Charles, shook my hand and then promptly left the room, returning with the biggest revolver I’d ever seen.
“It’s a Judge,” he said.
Neither Lizzie nor her mother, Nancy, found this moment alarming. But as a black man, I felt certain I had landed in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” or the next film in the “Saw” franchise. (As anyone who watches horror movies knows, the black man usually dies first.)
Even so, as the years passed, and I got to know Charles better, I came to see this gesture as a true display of friendship.
Charles loved gun shows, and he watched reruns of “Gunsmoke” like some watch professional football — piously. Growing up in Hattiesburg, Miss., I knew guns as things that could get you killed. But I decided to learn about guns so I could understand the man who would eventually became my father-in-law.
I found the National African American Gun Association’s page on Facebook. NAAGA bills itself as welcoming to all “religious, social and racial perspectives,” and was founded on Feb. 28, 2015, by president Philip Smith. Just three years after its founding, the association is followed by more than 49,600 people on Facebook. Smith has said he would like to see the group reach 250,000 members.
The club began as a way to honor Black History Month, according to Smith. “Our organization is working hard to show that we are law-abiding citizens just like everyone else,” Smith said. “We have families. We work. We care about politics and enjoy sports and want to have a gun to protect ourselves and our families.”
NAAGA’s membership saw an enormous jump during the lead up to, and following, the 2016 election. Between November 2015 and February 2016, the association added 4,285 members. During the same time span a year later, it added 9,000. It offers membership at $29 annually, though they have yet to turn someone away because they can’t pay. “There’s nothing hidden, nobody’s funding us, the NRA or the Democratic Party or Republican Party. We’re funding ourselves. We’re moving ourselves, and that’s a good thing because nobody owns us,” Smith told me.
In 1892, Ida B. Wells published a pamphlet called “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.”
In describing the epidemic lynching of black men, Wells surmised that the only way to prevent more black men suffering at the hands of angry white men who might string them up was self-defense by firearm.
“The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense,” she said. “The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”
I earned a pistol certification and handgun license to answer a single question: Is a good guy with a gun better than a bad guy with a gun?
I was encouraged to become a certified basic pistol instructor with the NRA. The teacher at my class was a former Army sergeant, current Oklahoma City Police Department sergeant and a scoutmaster, with his face permanently fixed in a snarl.
After showing how to properly load and unload a single- and double-action revolver and semiautomatic pistol, clear a failure to fire and double feed and then teach those skills, my classmates and I needed to show we could shoot worth a damn. For this NRA instructor certification, that meant putting eight out of 10 shots into a grouping no wider than a dollar bill’s length and no narrower than a dollar bill’s width from 15 yards out — twice.
We took our positions on the range, put our ear gear on and waited to hear the fire command. I took my time sighting in my target and letting the blast from the pistol surprise me. I treated each shot as its own and kept to my ritual.
Feet shoulder-width apart.
Loose through the torso.
Arms comfortably extended.
Grip tight enough to feel in control.
Sight the target.
Align the sights.
The next day, I marched toward Charles sitting in his recliner in his living room and brandished the very target that earned me my certification.
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He stood and took the target from me like it was his grandma’s china.
“You done good,” he said.
I’m looking at my certificate now. Even a year after I qualified, it still shocks me to see it. In the end, I earned a pistol certification and handgun license to answer a single question: Is a good guy with a gun better than a bad guy with a gun?
My answer to that question is no.
Owning guns hasn’t made me feel any safer. In fact, less so. If I carried a gun, people might judge me wrongly, especially as a black man. What if I was suddenly pulled over by the cops or caught up in an incident? Just last month, police killed Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford Jr. during a mass shooting in Alabama because he was carrying (a reportedly legal) gun and they thought he was the shooter.
I believe in the right to carry a gun, so I own them. But, despite the encouragement of Wells, NAAGA, the NRA and even Charles, the man whose passion I was so eager to understand, they stay unused and unloaded in my home, two glorified paperweights.
RJ Young lives in Tulsa, Okla. His book, “Let It Bang: A Young Black Man’s Reluctant Odyssey Into Guns” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is out now.
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