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The Past and Present of Black Gun Ownership in the US

Amid the coronavirus pandemic and protests against police violence, gun purchases surged in 2020.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint what percentage of these purchases were made by Black Americans, incidents of racial violence—such as the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot by a white father and son in Georgia and the police murder of George Floyd in Minnesota—led some Black Americans to purchase firearms for the first time in 2020. Many expressed desire for self-protection as a motivating factor. 

At Giffords, we organize responsible gun owners who understand that the Second Amendment is fully consistent with a wide range of gun safety laws. These gun owners believe that gun safety laws are necessary to prevent gun violence. 

On the other hand, the NRA and other gun lobby groups seek to invalidate nearly all gun safety laws and expand gun access even among individuals convicted of domestic abuse—while making it clear, both implicitly and explicitly, that their view of gun ownership is centered around white gun owners.

A Brief History of Black Gun Ownership in the US

The history of Black gun ownership in the US is complex. Enslaved people in the US were forbidden from owning firearms, while in parts of the country like South Carolina, white men were required to own and carry firearms to subdue slave rebellions.

After the Civil War and in the decades after the Reconstruction era, laws were passed throughout the South to ban Black people from owning guns. The fear of Black gun ownership fueled the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist violence. 

Guns were very much present in the southern Civil Rights movement for purposes of self-defense. Members of the movement were acutely aware of the threat of white violence and traveled with armed bodyguards as a measure of precaution.

Some movement leaders, like voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, were gun owners themselves. Groups like the Black Panther Party famously supported the right of Black Americans to bear arms in public. And Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a concealed carry permit after his house was bombed in 1956—his application was later denied.

Racial violence has been a fixture in American society for centuries. Throughout our country’s history, the immense fear of becoming a victim of racial violence has led some Black Americans to become gun owners. Although owning a gun does not make an individual any safer, Black Americans have the right to safe, responsible gun ownership, a right that is rarely questioned when it comes to white Americans.

Owning a Gun While Black

Being a Black gun owner in the US comes with a unique set of challenges. The Second Amendment is often not applied to Black gun owners in the same way it is applied to white gun owners. Lawfully armed Black people are often viewed as a threat and met with police violence, in part because of implicit bias that law enforcement is not immune to. 

Philando Castille was a registered gun owner in St. Paul, Minnesota, who was shot and killed by police in front of his girlfriend and her daughter, after disclosing that he was armed. Alton Sterling, who was killed by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was legally armed at the time of his death. Black Americans are disproportionately murdered or injured by police and Black gun owners describe being stereotyped and misperceived by law enforcement.

The NRA Only Stands for White Gun Owners

Gun extremist groups like the NRA seldom advocate for the rights of Black gun owners or speak out when the police kill Black people who are lawfully armed. The NRA has also used racist fear-mongering as a way to sell guns for years, stoking fear about Black and Brown “criminals” who they allege will harm white Americans unless these white Americans are armed. 

Former NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre published an incendiary column in the Daily Caller in 2013 warning readers about looters running wild in New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and claiming that Latin American drug gangs were running rampant in states along the US-Mexico border. LaPierre also promoted the racist conspiracy theory “knockout game” about Black men punching people at random. 

The gun lobby also pushes dangerous, racist policies like Stand Your Ground laws, which give individuals a license to kill and have a disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities. These laws are not about self-protection for Black Americans—they are about white vigilantism. They feed the false narrative that Black Americans, gun owners or not, are a threat that needs to be subdued by law enforcement or even emboldened citizens.

Rights and Responsibilities Apply to All

Encouraging white men to stockpile arsenals of weapons to protect themselves against people who aren’t white and even to overthrow the government doesn’t result in law and order—it results in despicable acts of violence, like Ahmaud Arbery’s murder and the Capitol insurrection. 

Giffords stands in opposition to the NRA’s racist tactics and disregard for public safety, and believes law enforcement should treat all Black Americans, whether they are armed or unarmed, with dignity and respect. Black Americans who choose to be responsible gun owners must have the same rights as white gun owners in this country.

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GUN OWNERS FOR SAFETY

The NRA’s extremist views don’t represent the majority of gun owners. Responsible gun owners understand that commonsense gun laws go hand-in-hand with firearm ownership.

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Our experts can speak to the full spectrum of gun violence prevention issues. Have a question? Email us at media@giffords.org.

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