Sitting in a classroom above a gun range, a woman hesitantly says she isn’t sure she could ever shoot and kill someone, even to protect herself. Couldn’t she just aim for their leg and try to maim them?
Her instructor says self-defense is not about killing someone, but is instead about eliminating a threat.
If the gun gets taken away by a bad guy, the instructor says, “I promise you they’re not going to be having any sympathy or going through the thought process you are.”
Gently she adds that if the student isn’t comfortable with the lethal potential of the gun, buying one might not be for her.
Marchelle Tigner is on a mission: to train at least 1 million women how to shoot a firearm. She had spent no time around guns before joining the National Guard. Now, as a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault, she wants to give other women of color the training she hadn’t had.
“It’s important, especially for black women, to learn how to shoot,” Tigner said, noting that black women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence. “We need to learn how to defend ourselves.”
It’s hard to find definitive statistics on gun ownership, but a study by the Pew Research Center released this month indicated that just 16 percent of “non-white women” identified themselves as gun owners, compared with about 25 percent of white women. Other Pew surveys in recent years have shown a growing acceptance of firearms among African-Americans: In 2012, one found that less than a third of black households viewed gun ownership as positive; three years later, that number had jumped. By then, 59 percent of black families saw owning guns as a necessity.
A recent study by gun-rights advocate and researcher John Lott showed that black women outpaced other races and genders in securing concealed carry permits between 2000 and 2016 in Texas, one of the few states that keep detailed demographic information.
Philip Smith founded the National African American Gun Association in 2012 during Black History Month to spread the word that gun ownership was not something reserved for whites. He figured it would ultimately attract about 300 members, a number achieved in its first month. It now boasts 20,000 members in 30 chapters across the country.
“I thought it would be the brothers joining,” Smith said. Instead, he found something surprising — more black women joining, most of them expressing concerns about living either alone or as single parents and wanting to protect themselves and their homes.
In recent months, he said politics also have emerged as a reason why he finds more blacks interested in becoming gun owners.
“Regardless of what side you’re on, in the fabric of society right now, there’s an undertone, a tension that you see that groups you saw on the fringes 20 years ago are now in the open,” he said. “It seems to me it’s very cool to be a racist right now, it’s in fashion, it’s a trend.”
On top of that, the shootings of black men and boys around the country have left Smith and others concerned that racism can make a black person a perceived threat, even when carrying a firearm legally.
“The pain that I initially feel for Philando Castile is the same pain I felt for Alton Sterling or Trayvon Martin and the list goes on and on and on,” Smith said.
He and his organization take pains to coach members on what to do when stopped by police, but not everyone is comforted.
“It’s disheartening to think that you have everything in order: Your license to carry. You comply. You’re not breaking the law. You’re not doing anything wrong. And there’s a possibility you could be shot and killed,” said Laura Manning, a 50-year-old payroll specialist for ADP from Atlanta. “I’m not going to lie. I’m just afraid of being stopped whether I have my gun or not.”
At the training session in Lawrenceville, just outside Atlanta, about 20 students gathered on a recent Saturday morning to go over basic safety lessons and instructions. They started with orange plastic replica guns as Tigner demonstrated proper stance and grip. They are taught not to put a finger on the trigger until it’s time to shoot and to keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. Tigner plays to their protective instincts by telling them always to know what is beyond their target so they don’t accidentally shoot a young child or another innocent bystander.
After about an hour in the classroom, the women walked downstairs and into the Bull’s Eye Indoor Gun Range. Some flinched as the crack of gunfire blasted from a series of bays. They were each shown how to load a magazine and given the chance to do it themselves — several of them struggling to get the bullets into the spring-loaded magazine with their long fingernails. Then they took turns firing a Glock 19 semi-automatic 9mm at targets about 5 yards down range.
“The bad guy’s dead. He’s not getting back up,” Tigner tells one student who beams with pride as they look over a target riddled with bullet holes.
Jonava Johnson, another student, says it took her a long time to decide to get a gun. For years she was afraid of them after an ex-boyfriend from high school threatened her and shot and killed her new boyfriend in front of her. She was just 17.
Flash forward about 30 years and her daughter was sexually assaulted in their home. At the time, she thought about getting a gun for protection but decided to get a guard dog instead. But she has since changed her mind.
“I think that’s the way it’s always been in the black community: It was never OK for us” to own a gun, said Johnson, 50. But now? “I hope I never have to kill anybody, but if it comes down to me or my children, they’re out.”