For Black Gun Owners, Bearing Arms Is a Civil Rights Issue

MCCLATCHY DC — WASHINGTON — In February 2015, Philip Smith started a Facebook group to make space for the often-overlooked concerns of law-abiding, license-carrying gun owners who happen to be African-American.

Smith was tired of feeling conspicuous as the only black guy at the gun ranges he visited. Surely, he thought, there must be others out there, dealing with the same suspicions he faced when passersby glimpsed the Glock on his hip.

A year and a half later, Smith counts more than 11,000 members, representing all 50 states.

Smith’s forum reflects what researchers see as growing interest among African Americans in gun ownership. But becoming a black licensed gun owner is not a risk-free prospect, a fact brought to light this month by the police shooting of Philando Castile, who had a permit to carry a concealed weapon when he was shot in his car July 6, and by the presence at a Dallas rally of perhaps 30 marchers July 7 openly carrying their rifles. Dallas police mistakenly labeled a black licensed gun owner as a “person of interest” after gunman opened fire, killing five police officers.

Despite the championing in Congress of gun restrictions by black legislators, many African-Americans now see gun ownership as an important civil rights cause, in the spirit of abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ comment in 1867 that a man’s rights lay in three boxes: “the ballot box, the jury box and the cartridge box.” In African-American gun groups like Smith’s, members are expressing a mix of fear and defiance over the incidents.

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