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By MAYA KING

 

When coronavirus lockdowns spread nationwide in March, millions of Americans flocked to their local grocery stores and wholesale markets to stock up for what would become months stuck at home. Black Americans did the same, but some had one addendum to their shopping list: a firearm.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been growing interest among African Americans in arming themselves, as evidenced by increased membership in Black gun owner organizations.

That interest ballooned in the wake of George Floyd’s death, which reignited debate about public safety and the role of police in Black communities. Sensationalized stereotypes about Black Americans and guns, however, are also being used by critics of the anti-racism protests to justify a security crackdown in urban areas, many with large Black communities.

The rush to purchase weapons and ammunition is not unique to one race — more Americans across the board are arming themselves this year, including those who are not legally eligible. However, new Black gun owners see firearms as a tool of both empowerment and self-defense.

Philip Smith, president of the National African American Gun Owners’ Association, said his organization’s annual membership has increased by much as 2,000 new members per day — a figure he used to see annually. His organization has grown to more than 30,000 members this year and has an online following of nearly 90,000 people.

The influx of interest in gun owning — and seeking membership in Black gun owner organizations — began as soon as the pandemic set in. Fears of a damaged economy, disrupted supply chain and slow-moving federal response inspired people to take up arms.

“If you have a half a brain in your head even saying, ‘Oh, this might get serious, let me plan accordingly,” Smith explained.

The Floyd protests, he added, were a “line in the sand” for many of his new members. Leaders of other Black gun ownership organizations echo this response, saying the spike owes to a range of concerns many Black Americans have.

“Whether it was fear of a food shortage, lack of a grocery store, the short response times for law enforcement or whether people were just fearful they were going to be attacked, I don’t know,” said Derrick Morgan, national commander of the Black Gun Owners Association. Morgan said interest in his group grew so quickly that his website crashed from a surge in online traffic.

“A lot of people are reaching out to us, mainly new gun owners and people who wouldn’t have considered owning a gun or firearm for their protection, have been lining up to purchase firearms and access information from our website.”

Their reasoning has become much harder to ignore, especially as social media sites and phone videos turned into tools of capturing and responding to instances of police brutality. Floyd’s death catalyzed international protest in part for this reason. The video of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by white vigilantes in a Georgia suburb garnered similar levels of attention, as did that of Atlanta’s Rayshard Brooks, who was shot in the back by a police officer after a confrontation.

While the vast majority of demonstrators across the U.S. this summer have been unarmed, some have sought to make a statement with their guns. In Stone Mountain, Ga., an open carry state, at least 150 African Americans asserted their Second Amendment Right as a tool of protest. Dressed in black and armed with semi-automatic rifles, the group marched through Stone Mountain Park to protest its depiction of Confederate generals.

A similar march organized by black gun owners took place in Oklahoma City in June, timed to President Donald Trump’s rally in nearby Tulsa. Smith said his organization is not affiliated with such groups but empathizes with their members.

“Any time any community has been pushed and pushed like ours has been pushed, I may not agree with what you do as another organization, but I certainly understand where that stems from,” he said, adding that the groups’ efforts were done out of “survival and being able to protect your community.”

Their demonstration and others have drawn the ire of some conservatives. Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler decried the “mob rule” in Atlanta during a June 24 interview on Fox News, as the cable network played images of Black protesters carrying semi-automatic weapons. “We’re a nation of the rule of law and this is exactly what will happen if we defund the police,” Loeffler warned.

Her rhetoric echoes that of the White House and other Republicans in Washington, who have taken an increasingly antagonistic tone towards protesters and members of the Black Lives Matter movement over the past month.

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