Ben Bryant sat alone as a sea of white men in cowboy hats, hunting vests or some kind of shirt proclaiming their love of guns drifted past him.
From his bench inside the cavernous Georgia World Congress Center, Bryant took in the opening day of the National Rifle Association convention and asked the obvious question.
“Where are the black people? You are not going to see many of us. Especially a benefactor,” said Bryant, pointing to a flag on his conference name badge indicating that he is a “benefactor,” or lifetime NRA member. “A lot of black people are not interested in guns for hunting and shooting.”
Tamicka Hart, a product manager for a gun manufacturer and one of the few black women roaming the convention halls, said when she goes to large gun events, “most of the black people who look like me are working in service.”
The NRA convention had massive numbers. It had the president of the United States. It had endless displays of weapons. What it didn’t have was more than a handful of African-Americans — a group that has shunned the organization as untrustworthy and heedless of the needs of black gun owners.
In addition, many African-Americans believe that the rise of President Donald Trump gave cover to white supremacist and alt-right groups, which have become increasingly visible since the presidential campaign. While gun sales overall have declined, gun ownership among black Americans is increasing.
In 2016, the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center says it documented 917 hate groups in the United States, double the total in 2000.
“This is a scary time, particularly for minority communities because there has been a rash of hate crimes and hate incidents targeting people of color since the election — the biggest chunk related to immigrants and blacks,” said Heidi Berich, director of the center’s Intelligence Project.
‘The gloves are off’
Jocyln Branch-McCoy doesn’t scare easily.
Last weekend, the Loganville homemaker and mother of three adult children was packing heat.
“When Trump became president, things got a little uneasy for me,” said Branch-McCoy, who moved to Atlanta from New York in 2002. “I was never uncomfortable before. I think he’s a racist, and I think everyone else feels like, ‘Now we have someone who is like us. Now we can do anything we want and it will be OK.’”
She recently bought her first gun — a 9mm Springfield XD.
On a sunny morning two Saturdays ago, Branch-McCoy and more than two dozen others gathered at the QuickShot Shooting Range in Atlanta for a meeting of the National African-American Gun Association.
Tessa Marshall, an Atlanta IT consultant, came with her 23-year-old son, Deynin Akins.
This was her first meeting with the group and part of a three-year conversation with her four sons about the need to protect herself. When the last one left the nest about 18 months ago, Marshall, who travels a lot by herself, began to seriously consider buying a gun.
“It’s a huge responsibility and I don’t take it lightly,” she said.
There were other reasons.
“I’ve seen the decline of a willingness of people to treat each other humanely,” said Marshall, who plans to join NAAGA. “I know when I’m driving through certain parts of the South there is a certain cordiality. I believe some people feel they don’t have to do that anymore. The gloves are off.”
‘Cool to be a racist now’
The gloves may have started to come off in 2008. After the election of Barack Obama, gun sales surged based on fears that Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress would soon move to tighten gun laws and weaken the Second Amendment.
Conversely, gun sales dipped immediately following Trump’s election. White Americans are still more than twice as likely to own a gun than black Americans to own a gun, but interest in firearms is on the rise.
A year ago the National African American Gun Association had four chapters, said Phil Smith, president and founder. Today there are 30.
They include the Atlanta chapter, named after Bass Reeves, the legendary black lawman who inspired the creation of the mythical (and white) Lone Ranger. The organization has 18,000 members, 60 percent of whom are women.
Growth is being fueled by concerns of terrorism, crime in the community and the social climate, Smith said, adding, “It seems to be cool to be a racist now.”
“The political rhetoric is hitting a lot of people,” Smith said. “I don’t care whether you’re Republican or Democrat. Some people feel at times that a civil war is going to be break out. Obviously, that’s not true, but it feels like that to a lot of folks.”
The organization is also a stark contrast to the NRA. Several members of Bass Reeves Gun & Rifle Club were adamantly opposed to joining the NRA and were staying away from last week’s convention. They say they don’t feel welcome in the association, which claims more than five million members and bills itself as the nation’s longest-standing civil rights organization.
King Quick, an Atlanta HR professional, joined the NRA about 15 years ago when he got his first gun. But he quit almost as quickly as he joined.
“I was a member until I looked at the policies and looked at how they treated and dismissed black gun owners,” said Quick. “They never came to our defense in certain situations like they did for their white members.”
‘Seen as an old white-guy thing’
At Thursday’s “soft” opening of the NRA convention, Ben Bryant lamented the lack of African-Americans in the association.
“I have been to at least five of these conventions and there are not that many black people who show up,” said Bryant, who owns about 20 guns. “Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of people go with the statement du jour when it comes to politics. It is a herd mentality.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spotted four African-Americans on that first afternoon of the convention.
“In the gun culture, I am not ignorant to the fact that it is seen as an old white-guy thing and that is not true,” said Derick Adams, who attended the convention from Pennsylvania, where he is an avid hunter. “But I have never had any kind of resistance in the gun world. The media is responsible for that stigma, That is not reality.”
Keith Pantaleon said one of the issues with blacks and guns is the way blacks are perceived.
“If you look on television, when it comes to minorities and firearms the story is often portrayed in a negative light and at the risk of sounding like a tin-foil hat conspiracy theorist, that is by design,” Pantaleon said. “The NRA … might have gotten too comfortable preaching to the choir. They need to go into places where the Second Amendment is not viewed as positively and educate people.”
Pantaleon himself is all in.
In 2013, the former Wall Street IT expert was arrested in his Jersey City home for possession of an assault rifle. He spent 35 days in jail. But in 2015, Jersey City paid him a $20,000 settlement after a judge ruled that his home was illegally searched.
The NRA paid his legal fees, he said.
NRA response a ‘bunch of nothing’
NRA critics say that is an exception. In 2016 Philando Castile, who carried a valid concealed weapons permit, was shot and killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minn. after a routine traffic stop.
While some NRA members took to social media to support Castile, the organization was slow to respond.
“The reports from Minnesota are troubling and must be thoroughly investigated,” the organization said later in a Facebook post. “In the meantime, it is important for the NRA not to comment while the investigation is ongoing.”
Most black Americans found that response, which didn’t name Castile, tepid at best. Quick on Friday called it a “a bunch of nothing.”
But he was returning home Friday night in time to watch the Atlanta Hawks game, having just left the NRA convention. He wanted to stop by the vending area and came home with a new frame for one pistol and a laser for another. And a membership.
His $30 entry fee onto the convention floor included a year’s membership.
“Look, I am not pro-NRA, but at the same time, I realize that in order to get things to change, you have to sit at the table,” Quick said. “I am willing to sit at the table. I don’t buy into most of the rhetoric, but if they are willing to talk about some changes, I can listen.”
Note: Commenting for this article is being moderated by AJC editors.
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