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Black Gun Ownership Rises Amid Pandemic, Protests For Racial Justice

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A record number of Americans have purchased guns this year, including Black Americans. From KUNC in northern Colorado, Leigh Paterson reports that incidents of violence against people of color have pushed some to purchase guns for the very first time. And a warning to our listeners - there are sounds of gunfire in this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: What type of gun is this?

KAT TRAYLOR: So this a Smith & Wesson 9 mm Shield.

PATERSON: Kat Traylor bought her handgun this past spring. These days, she practices at an indoor range with her husband like it's no big deal.

TRAYLOR: You see that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, it's a good shot.

PATERSON: But talking through her mask, Traylor describes how she felt the first time she pulled the trigger.

TRAYLOR: I was beyond terrified. I was shaking. My hands were sweaty (laughter).

PATERSON: Traylor is a Democratic political consultant who lives in Colorado. At first, she was nervous cleaning and shooting her new gun. And she had a bad experience the first range she went to. She says people were staring. She felt unwelcome. Still...

TRAYLOR: Regardless of the anxiety I had around all those things, I got into this because I feel like it was necessary.

PATERSON: Traylor first started thinking about buying a gun when she saw empty grocery store shelves at the beginning of the pandemic. Then as she watched racial justice protests unfold across the country, she started thinking about pushback from people who disagree with those efforts.

TRAYLOR: If it looks like communities of color and people that support communities of color are rising up against white supremacy, that could be a problem for us. And so my husband and I looked at each other. It's like, yeah, it's probably time.

PATERSON: Probably time for them to buy guns - a thought that many other Americans have also had. In August alone, people bought 1.8 million firearms, according to industry estimates. A trade group called the National Shooting Sports Foundation reports that gun sales to Black customers have grown more, percentage-wise, than for any other racial or ethnic group. With her new gun, Traylor wants to feel like she has a chance during a home invasion or an encounter with police.

TRAYLOR: What we as a family had to determine is, how do we want to die? It's sad to look at it that way. Do we want to die not being prepared or at least trying to protect ourselves? That's how you weigh that.

PATERSON: As part of becoming a new gun owner, Traylor joined the National African American Gun Association. Philip Smith is the founder.

PHILIP SMITH: Nationally, across the board, from all over, every state, we had people joining all times of day and night. You know, first I thought something was wrong with the computer (laughter), you know?

PATERSON: Smith was watching membership numbers rise after the death of George Floyd in May. But Black people have been using guns for hunting and protection for a long time. Historians say that Harriet Tubman carried firearms. So did the Black Panthers in the 1960s. These days, according to a Gallup poll released last year, 19% of Black people own guns. Smith says his members are not monolithic.

SMITH: Some women join because they've been sexually assaulted. Some women join because they want to skeet shoot. Some men join because they want to just get really good at self-defense.

PATERSON: People are joining now for different reasons. Some want to support the National African American Gun Association financially, Smith says. For others, it's more spiritual.

SMITH: I think people were looking for a home, a place where you can kind of vent, you can belong, where you felt your mind having a relief of some sort.

PATERSON: Bruce Tomlin, a truck driver who lives in New Mexico, describes his decision to buy a gun as a response to stress.

BRUCE TOMLIN: I just had, like, a mild anxiety attack.

PATERSON: He felt that way after watching cellphone video showing the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was shot while jogging through a neighborhood in Georgia earlier this year.

TOMLIN: I can't go around unarmed the rest of my life.

PATERSON: That's because he's been feeling under attack for years - after the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, for example, and after the mass shooting at a Black church in Charleston in 2015 by a white supremacist.

TOMLIN: Because it's like I can just be minding my own business, and then somebody who's a racist will just decide to roll up on me and gun me down. I just decided that, like, if I go out, I'm going to go out shooting back.

PATERSON: But now that he's an actual gun owner, it's not so straightforward day to day.

TOMLIN: I feel like I can defend myself better, defend my loved ones. But I actually get uncomfortable having it sometimes.

PATERSON: He does not want to kill or injure anyone. Open carry makes him nervous.

TOMLIN: I would never take my gun to the grocery store and carry it around inside or anything like that.

PATERSON: But on the other hand...

TOMLIN: I could be in a situation where I need it, and it's still out in the car or whatever. I just like knowing that I have it.

PATERSON: Gun ownership is complicated for Tomlin, especially because he's Black. If he was stopped by police, he says he probably wouldn't tell them that he had a gun. And Kat Traylor says the same thing, giving the example of Philando Castile. He was shot during a traffic stop four years ago in Minnesota after telling an officer that he had a firearm in his car. Castile did have a permit to carry it. Kat Traylor believes that gun cost him his life.

TRAYLOR: We're not given a fair shake when these conversations are happening. We're automatically - worst intentions are assumed just because we're Black and we're gun owners.

PATERSON: For both of these new Black gun owners, it's an identity that comes with risks but does make them feel safer for now.

For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That story comes to us from Guns & America, a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.