This story is a collaboration with The Trace, a non-profit news organization covering guns and gun violence in America.
The Compound is easy to miss on the first pass. Nestled between trees and a cow pasture just off a country road in the Chicago suburbs, the only indication the gun range exists is the spattering echo of gunfire.
"This is basically one of the many facilities where they train police," says Kourtney Redmond, 39, as he pulls into the outdoor range the day after Juneteenth, in his black pickup truck.
Redmond has arrived to meet about a dozen members of the 761st Gun Club, of which he is president. He and his peers stand out, not just among the group of white men shooting farther up the range, but in the common conception of who owns and shoots guns legally. Redmond and his group sport twists, dreadlocks, silk presses, and crew cuts. Some wear shirts with the club's slogan: "Come Out Fighting."
Over the next four hours, Redmond and his group practice how to shoot at moving targets, fire shots while lying on the ground, and fix jammed magazines. "That's what the 761st [Gun Club] is about — making sure that people get classes, making sure that people have firearm knowledge and knowledge of the law," Redmond said. "A very big part of gun ownership is being within the corners of the law."
The gun club is a chapter of the National African American Gun Association, or NAAGA, which was created in 2015. NAAGA's membership steadily grew during the candidacy and presidency of President Donald Trump, but this year was different. The pandemic, police brutality, and civil unrest sent scores of people to the organization. Membership has grown by more than 25 percent this year, and NAAGA now boasts more than 40,000 members.
"My phone's still going off on membership. People are still signing up," said Dickson Amoah, 40. "I think a lot of [Black] people are noticing that we're in the same boat."
Amoah founded the Chicago chapter in 2016, and spent much of this summer fielding inquiries from prospective members. Other chapters were similarly inundated. In Atlanta, the local NAAGA chapter's president said membership doubled this year, driven by first-time gun owners looking for community. In Phoenix, where the chapter has a large portion of women, some new members joined amid the summer's protests. The message was clear: Black people wanted to exercise their Second Amendment right. The uptick in interest coincided more broadly with skyrocketing gun and ammunition purchases amid the coronavirus pandemic.
We had people that were the only Black person at a gun range, or we had people that were at a [marksman] competition and the N-word was flying out a couple of times.
When Amoah founded the 761st Gun Club and made it a NAAGA-affiliate that same year, he didn't anticipate the level of interest the club would get. Nearly 80 people showed up to the first meeting. "We had one member that actually cried at the first meeting, because they were so appreciative. We had a gun club for us, by us, and about us," he said. The club now has more than 250 members, a third of whom joined this year.
Amoah recalled the experiences people shared as gun owners in other, mostly white, spaces. "We had people that were the only Black person at a gun range, or we had people that were at a [marksman] competition and the N-word was flying out a couple of times," Amoah said. "I went to one [gun store] and they had a Colin Kaepernick target."
While the 761st Gun Club has picked up dozens of new members since May, the majority of people who showed up at the range in June weren't new. Some were former military, like Amoah, and others were just gun enthusiasts. Although they joined the gun club for different reasons, their interest in firearms is almost always driven by a desire for self-protection.
Jon McDonald — who attended in apparel from his alma maters: a faded red Harvard hat and a well-worn Georgetown shirt — has owned guns for years. But it wasn't until he turned on the news one summer night in 2015 that he decided to start carrying one around with him. A white supremacist had entered a bible study group at a historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine parishioners. McDonald, who is a dedicated church-goer, was especially disturbed. "I thought, OK, if I'm not safe there, then I can't guarantee my safety anywhere," he said.
Philip Smith isn't surprised that a lot of Black gun owners have dealt with trauma and lived in fear of racist violence. "Unfortunately, a lot of African-Americans, on a daily basis, go through hell in this country," he said. But Smith's journey to gun ownership was different than most. Before launching NAAGA nearly six years ago, he spent most of his life believing that guns, and the people who used them, were bad. "If you see a Black person walking down the street with a gun, the first initial thought that comes in most people's mind, if they're being honest, is that that guy is about to rob somebody or shoot somebody," Smith said. "Unfortunately, that social narrative that's being pushed out there, that gets people killed."
Smith's views on guns began to evolve in his 50s. One pivotal moment came in 2014, when he reluctantly visited a gun range with some friends in Atlanta, where he now resides. Smith says the experience was eye-opening; he was surprised to find regular people at the range: "They didn't have horns coming out their head and all that stuff."
Whether it was the election, the pandemic, the riots, the political polarization — I think a lot more Black people see the importance of firearms and the self-preservation of our communities.
He had so much fun, he went again the next week. "It was very empowering to go through that process," he said. "So that's when the light bulb went on in my head and I said, 'You know, as an African-American male, if I can have this much fun, I know folks from my community would enjoy doing this as well."
Smith founded NAAGA the following year.
Around the same time, Smith started digging into the history of Black people bearing arms in America.
The Black Panthers' armed patrols against police abuse in Oakland, California, in the '60s are perhaps the most well-known and visible display of Black gun ownership. But Smith soon discovered that guns played an important role in Black liberation even before the country's founding. Firearms helped aid Nat Turner's rebellion against white enslavers. Harriet Tubman famously carried her pistol along the Underground Railroad. Civil rights leaders felt it was necessary to arm themselves against potential racial violence: from journalist Ida B. Wells insisting that every Black home be equipped with a Winchester rifle, to Martin Luther King Jr. trying to obtain a concealed carry license.
In fact, the racial violence following King's asssination helped catalyze the congressional passage of the 1968 Gun Control Act. The federal law was the first major federal gun control act to pass in 30 years.
For Smith, NAAGA is really about creating a community of Black gun owners. He says the people who join aren't a monolith. The organization's more than 40,000 members are a mix of police officers, veterans, teachers, and engineers who have varied political beliefs and opinions on gun policies. "One of the most difficult discussions we've had in our organization [was about] police shootings," he said.
If you see a Black person walking down the street with a gun, the first initial thought that comes in most people's minds, if they're being honest, is that 'that guy is about to rob somebody or shoot somebody.'
The conversations have occasionally turned into outright arguments. "Sometimes we use the [saying] around here, 'we agree to disagree, but we don't disconnect,'" Smith said. "That's the beauty of our organization — you can have these conversations that you can't have any other place and still be comfortable — and we do, we have them all the time."
Smith is unfazed by the ideological differences between members, and strongly believes that the collective intent of NAAGA is more important. "We are strong people, but that strength is always trying to be diminished, or controlled, or pushed down, and in some cases literally extinguished through killing us," Smith said. "But if you're able to come together — and that's the reason why we have NAAGA — you can make a lot of gains."
So far, those gains have not translated into political action. Although he floated the idea during the summer of NAAGA eventually creating a political action committee, Smith now says he doesn't think the organization has the infrastructure or interest from members to do so. "We're not equipped for that right now in any way, shape or form, and I don't think we'll ever be," he said.
But Smith does believe that NAAGA and its chapters should help Black gun owners navigate laws and policies that might affect them. For the 761st Gun Club in Chicago, that means fielding calls from local Black gun owners and prospective owners struggling to receive a Firearm Owner's Identification card, which Illinois requires for people to legally own a gun.
"We want to know what laws are coming out, what laws they are trying to pass, and also asking the question: How does that work for the Black community?," said Redmond.
Since the training in June, Redmond and other NAAGA members have shown their support for victims of police violence at marches and protests. In September, they drove to Milwaukee to participate in a rally for Jacob Blake, after a police officer shot and paralyzed the 29-year-old Black man. On election night, Redmond helped organize emergency response patrols to assist NAAGA members living in the city and the suburbs, in the event of election-related violence. "Whether it was the election, the pandemic, the riots, the political polarization — I think a lot more Black people see the importance of firearms and the self-preservation of our communities," Redmond said in a recent phone interview.
Smith is so optimistic about the future of NAAGA, that he recently left his lifelong career as an HR consultant to work as the organization's president full-time. He says about a thousand people are signing up for NAAGA each month. Not all of the new members are Black, either, Smith says, adding that people from Asian, Latino, and white communities are joining, too.
"I pray that people recognize our humanity," Smith said. "We're the ultimate American citizen because we were fighting for this country when we weren't even considered a human — we were slaves, we were three-fifths of a person, [and] we still fought and died for this country. So, we make no apologies to anyone. We deserve to be who we are in terms of having the right to carry firearms."
This story was produced by by Alyssa Jeong Perry and Shereen Marisol Meraji, with help from Jess Kung and Maria Paz Gutierrez. It was edited by Leah Donnella, Steve Drummond and Natalie Escobar. The episode is a collaboration with reporters and editors from The Trace: Miles Kohrman, Lakeidra Chavis, Gracie McKenzie, Agya Aning and Alain Stephens.