As more minorities buy guns for self-defense, the organization wants to bring them into the fold. But even in majority-black Atlanta, it’s a hard sell.
BY M. Scott Mahaskey for Politico Magazine / April 30, 2017
ATLANTA—On Friday morning, the first day of the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting, Dwayne Williams was doing a little shopping. At Sig Sauer’s crowded booth, he chatted with a salesperson about the company’s line of assault rifles. President Donald Trump was scheduled to speak in about an hour, but he wanted to keep looking at the aisles and aisles of weapons, maybe find a handgun for his wife. As he ventured toward the Kel-Tec booth, Williams looked around and noticed just the how white the crowd was.
“Right here, in my eyesight,” he remarks, “I’m the only black guy—that isn’t working for the [Georgia] World Congress Center.”
Williams, a 40-year-old project manager, has felt like an outsider in the gun community before. When he brought his first gun to his local range, he could sense the nearly all-white clientele tense up in his presence. However, since his wife was pregnant, he kept coming back because he wanted to do everything he could to protect his family—and that meant becoming knowledgeable about self-defense.
That was 2012, and though his politics were undergoing a huge shift—he turned his back on Barack Obama to vote for Mitt Romney in November and he had become a “prepper” to provide for his family in case civil order collapsed—he did not feel like the NRA was the right fit for him. “Their message wasn’t directed toward my community,” Williams said. “It was directed toward their core audience—white conservative members.”
That changed in 2014, when he paid his $25 to become an official NRA member, one of the roughly 5 million that the gun rights group claims on its rolls.
What happened to change Williams’ mind about the organization is exactly what the NRA had hoped would happen when it made a huge diversity push in 2013. That year, the NRA began running ads featuring minorities and enlisted a lineup of minority spokespeople, including a naturalized Venezuelan woman and a young black man named Colion Noir, whose irreverent YouTube videos seemed to Williams to embody “the NRA’s alter ego—the opposite of staunch white conservative you see.” Unlike ever before, he felt like the NRA was reaching out. “Now the NRA’s commercials are featuring different shooters,” Williams said. “You don’t just see the white guy—you see the white women, the Asian guy, the Hispanic guy, the black guy; not just the NRA, but the gun industry in general.”
That helps explain why when he heard the NRA convention was coming to Atlanta, just 26 miles from his home, Williams cleared his calendar. He wasn’t going to let anything, not even his daughter’s school picnic, stop him from being here. In fact, he brought his daughter.
Though the NRA doesn’t talk explicitly about minority outreach, it is not coincidental that it chose Atlanta, a majority minority city, as the site of its annual meeting. American society is getting less white every year and if the group wants to grow its membership it is going to have to attract more people like Williams. But as Williams’ appraisal of his fellow attendees suggests, that is a hard sell. A national poll last year by the Pew Center revealed blacks and Hispanics were only half as likely as whites to support gun rights. And the NRA’s conservative politics don’t line up easily with Democratic-leaning minority voters, many of whom looked askance at the NRA’s endorsement of a presidential candidate who drew fervid support from white nationalists in the alt-right.
But the opportunity to find common ground has perhaps never been greater. In the first three months of this year, gun purchases have gone down nationally by 14 percent compared with the same period in 2016, according to federal background check data, but gun store owners report an increase in sales to blacks, Hispanics and members of the LGBT community. It’s a surge driven in large measure by horrific incidents such as the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Many in the targeted groups have found themselves reconsidering their opposition to firearms as a means for self-defense. “We had a mix of people who joined up in response to the Pulse shooting, as well as the election,” Sarah Jane Smith, an organizer with the Atlanta chapter of the LGBTQ-friendly gun organization Pink Pistols, wrote in a Facebook message. In California, Redstone Firearms owner Geneva Solomon, who is black, has recently seen black customers double because Trump’s election, she said, gave prejudiced people “a license to talk bad to you, call you out and harass you.”
Many of these new gun owners have found their way to gun groups like the Pink Pistols and the National African American Gun Association, which formed in 2015 and has doubled its membership to 18,000 since the election. The NRA’s surrogates insist that the group is beginning to bring more minority gun owners, especially millennials, into its fold as well, but they don’t have numbers to back that up. Williams sees the change, though he might be one of the few examples of it.
“They’ve embodied the saying, ‘When you know better, you do better,’” Williams said. “If they had not made the effort, I doubt that I would be a member today.”
At last year’s meeting in Louisville, CEO Wayne LaPierre referred to the 146-year-old NRA as the world’s “oldest, largest, and most effective” civil rights organization. Staunch NRA supporters, self-conscious of the group’s reputation as inhospitable to minorities, hearken back to a time when the gun rights organization did things like charter a black-run chapter in the 1950s so members could defend themselves against the Ku Klux Klan. NRA backers also like to note that civil right figures like Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were gun owners. But there’s no escaping that whatever common ground might have existed between minorities and the NRA eroded as the group’s opposition to all forms of gun control became largely synonymous with the conservatism of the Republican Party and its predominantly white voters. The conservative view that government overreach threatened Second Amendment rights didn’t jibe with a civil rights agenda that many minorities felt could be advanced only through the intervention of government. The challenge for the NRA is to convince minorities that defending the right to carry a gun is as sacred as defending the right to assembly. (Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of the civil rights movement, protested Saturday outside the convention, saying “I must say to the NRA that you are not welcome here in the 5th District, you are not welcome here in Atlanta.”)
“The NRA realized they can’t just operate by the old playbook,” said Robert Patillo, an Atlanta lawyer who hosts a talk radio show on WAOK 1380-AM. In 2013, Patillo filed a federal lawsuit in hopes of overturning Georgia’s Stand Your Ground laws; and though the suit was later dismissed, it led him to work with the NRA on minority outreach on Second Amendment issues. “It can’t be seen as a good old boys club that sometimes includes other groups.”
Patillo says increasing numbers of minorities have embraced gun ownership in the face of threats of terrorism and mass shootings. The same goes for the LGBTQ community: In 2000, Pink Pistols formed in response to the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard—and members have formed dozens of local chapters from Seattle to South Florida. In the week after the Pulse shooting in Orlando, the group saw its membership nearly triple, to 4,500 nationwide. Dozens of chapters formed; others, like the one in Atlanta, rebooted after years of inactivity.
Gun owner and first time convention attendee Dwayne Williams looks over gear at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention April 28 in Atlanta, Georgia. M. Scott Mahaskey for Politico Magazine
Black gun owners like Dickson Amoah, who did not travel to the convention, from Romeoville, Illinois, have embraced handguns for self-defense as a response to the rise of the alt-right. An Air Force reservist, he said he once had reservations about the NRA. “Everybody has this notion that you have to be a white person to be part of the NRA—and I was one of those people,” he said. His wife, who is white, has been a member for many years and he values the resources the organization provides. “But they recognize the [minority] market is there.” That’s something Michael Wade, founder of the Louisville gun club Derby City Shooters, has also seen. “The NRA sees the uptick in [minority gun owners],” he said. “It’s dollars in membership, dollars in merchandise, dollars to their suppliers in weapons.”
During the Obama years, the National Shooting Sports Foundation says the total economic impact of the firearms industry more than doubled, to $51 billion in 2016. While NRA’s membership revenues increased between 2005 and 2015, according to an analysis of its tax filings by The Trace, minority firearm dealers like Solomon and Michael Cargill, owner of Central Texas Gun Works in Austin, Texas, haven’t seen the NRA reach out in meaningful ways to do gun training or youth education programs in communities of color.
“If they really want to reach out, they need to have people who like those communities reach out,” said Cargill. “It’s that simple.”
Louis Dennard, a black gun owner from metro Minneapolis, recently decided to let his NRA membership lapse because he disagreed with its political endorsements: “Ninety-five percent of the candidates, I wouldn’t vote for.” On top of that, he felt dismayed the NRA has refused to defend black gun owners like Philando Castile, a cafeteria supervisor from Minnesota killed during a police traffic stop last year. During the stop, Castile told the officer that he had a concealed carry permit and a weapon in the vehicle. The officer shot him. After he died, the NRA was slow to respond, Dennard said and, when it finally did, called the shooting “troubling” but declined to comment further. Amoah, however, said he thought a more forceful response from the NRA might have been perceived as anti-law enforcement.
“Is it a genuine effort or is it tokenism?” Dennard said. “There’s some outreach—but I’d like to see more.”
Georgia GOP minority engagement director Leo Smith, who is black and works with the NRA, says minority-driven ads have been the start of a long-term diversity commitment. “I foresee the NRA doing more,” he said. “Storytelling brings awareness, and then you move to engaged education.” Smith has also helped organize events to introduce black gun owners to the NRA. This past Thursday, away from the spotlight of the convention floor, Smith organized a 100-person minority engagement dinner at the Omni Hotel that had “NRA board members inserted at various tables to have diverse members engaged.” During the dinner, Smith said “sentiments that ‘all lives matter,’ ‘black lives matter,’ that ‘black guns matter,’ were expressed by leadership.”
Attendees line up to enter convention exhibition floor April 29 in Atlanta, Georgia. M. Scott Mahaskey for Politico Magazine
So far, the NRA has hired a diverse cadre of spokespeople to reinforce this idea. Several years ago, they turned to popular commentators like Colion Noir, a black gun activist from Houston, in hopes of breaking the stereotype that its members that were, as Noir has put it, “OFWGs”—”Old, fat white guys.” In his series of YouTube videos, Noir often appears in aTt-shirt bearing the slogan “Ammosexual.”Noir’s message, direct and irreverent, pushes back against stereotypes about black gun owners and inner city violence.
Noir is part of the NRA’s national advertising campaign, “Freedom’s Safest Place,” that has featured pro shooter Gabby Franco (a naturalized citizen from Venezuela), and campus carry activist Antonia Okafor, who is black. A former Obama supporter—she voted for him twice but she said he “did nothing for the country, nothing for my community”—Okafor recently founded EmPOWERed, a nonprofit advocating campus carry nationwide, and serves on an NRA committee that advises on ways to reach out to people “who don’t traditionally know about the NRA, and who have the same values, but need a reason to join.”
“We need to be constant for change to happen,” she said. “Trust won’t be there if you’re not a constant presence.”
This weekend in Atlanta, Okafor was the only female speaker scheduled to share the same stage with Trump. Her speech emphasized the Second Amendment as something that should be protected “no matter the color of your skin, no matter where you come from, no matter your economic status or your education level.”
Dwayne Williams looked around the convention center. He adjusted the holster on his hip as he held a large cup of QT coffee in his hand. “Smells like freedom,” he said with a smile. He might represent a small percentage of the crowd, but he said he didn’t feel unwelcome.
But he still would like it if the NRA board looked a little more like him. There are a couple of black board members—retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. and former U.S. Rep. Allen West, and former NBA player Karl Malone, but Ted Nugent, the famous rock guitarist who has made disparaging statements about Obama, Hillary Clinton and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, is also on there. Like Solomon, the gun store owner, Williams wants to see more gun safety education for minority communities. So far, he’s seen enough progress to keep his membership active. He said he renewed in January so he could get free admission to the convention.
On the edge of the NRA’s exhibition hall, Williams came upon a small booth where his favorite ammunition company had set up shop. He struck up a conversation with a sales rep, one of the few other black people he encountered at the convention. They talked about Polycase bullets, which are made of ceramic, rather than lead. After talking for a while about the bullet business, Williams asked the salesman how he thinks society’s views have changed on minority gun ownership.
“It’s been probably the last two years, [where] the minority community really got into it,” said Sharrod Edwards, a retired U.S. Marine. “Whereas, it’s almost to the point—I’m trying to think about how to say this in the right way…it’s almost like a taboo for a minority to want to get into this because how they think people are going to see them. I carry open—and it’s weird, when you carry open, with a gun on your hip.” No one blinks, he said, if they see a white guy with a gun on his hip. But people “ask me: ‘Do you have a license?’ I’m like, ‘What license?’ To be honest, I don’t need a license. The law says in Georgia I don’t need a license to carry open—that’s why I carry open.”
“Look at a black man with a firearm, and they’re always being looked at in a negative light,” Williams agreed.
In theory, it should be the NRA that helps erase that stereotype by embracing the increasing number of law-abiding minority gun owners, no matter what their politics or reasons for wanting to defend themselves. Williams, who has experienced both sides of the shifting attitudes, said he believes the NRA, even if the convention crowd doesn’t necessarily show it, will ultimately reflect the trend continues to strengthen.
“Now it’s becoming more acceptable to be diverse,” Williams said. “I think the NRA will capitalize on it.”