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‘It seems cool to be racist now’: The rising profile of the black gun owner

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Mark Warner was hovering over the counter of handguns, about midway through the morning shift at Blue Ridge Arsenal, the black-owned gun store in Fairfax County where he's worked for the past 18 years, when he spotted me.

"I heard you want to talk about black people buying guns," Warner, himself black, declared in the matter of fact, teasing tone that has endeared him to the store's regulars. "So what do you want to know?"

"Let's say that I wanted to buy a gun," I asked as I cautiously approached, prompting a smirk from Warner. "What do I need to know?"

For the next hour, Warner fielded my often-elementary questions between interactions with the regulars, whom he called by name and who arrived in a steady stream of twos and threes to rent a shooting lane or troubleshoot a jam in their favorite handgun. It was a busy day in the gun shop, but it was nothing like what could have been.

Gun sellers have long known that sales spike during election years, driven primarily by an influx of purchases by white conservatives who fear a coming crack-down on availability. This was especially pronounced after President Barack Obama's election in 2008. It happened again in 2013 after Obama was reelected, and the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook birthed a new fervency within the gun control movement. The election of President Trump, an NRA-friendly Republican, has prompted no such fire-sale among white Americans -instead, gun sellers nationwide have noted significant upticks in sales to black Americans.

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"We've seen a small change in who our customers are," Warner explained to me. "More women and more people of color - black, brown. The people coming in are darker shades than usual."

A Pew Research Center poll released earlier this summer found that while nearly half of white Americans live in a household with a gun (49 percent), that falls to 32 percent among black Americans. But gun sellers are now wondering to what extent the recent interest from black buyers will close that gap. At Blue Ridge, the sales staff has fielded calls from across the country from buyers looking specifically to buy from a black-owned gun store. The National African American Gun Association, founded in 2015 with about 300 people, has grown to 34 chapters nationwide and now boasts more than 20,000 members.

"There's this feeling, this fear in today's society, for people of color especially, that the person sitting over there in the corner might be about to attack you," said Philip Smith, who founded NAAGA in 2015 after he, in his 50s, began shooting recreationally. "I'm not going to say it's all Trump, but there is something going on where people feel comfortable openly doing and saying things that - five, six, seven years ago - they might not."

"It seems cool to be a racist now," he added.

For many black Americans, the headlines of recent months and years - nine black church-goers gunned down during a Bible study in Charleston, two men killed in Portland after attempting to stop a white supremacist from harassing two women of color, a black University of Maryland student stabbed to death days before his graduation - have brought an ever-present fear even further to forefront of their thoughts.

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As someone at times tasked with writing about those very incidents, my fear has been compounded by the vocal hatred of the media amongparts of the political right. Recent months have brought a new intensity of vitriol and on several occasions violent threats to my inbox and voice mail. Still, I was taken aback when, after one recent threat, a security consultant asked whether I carry a weapon. "Nope," I answered, before pausing, for the first time in my life, to consider if perhaps that answer should be different.

Growing up, guns were a thing to be feared. They intersected with my life only as characters in narratives of pain: the reason the boy from gym class was in the hospital, the thing that stole the life of a friend's cousin or father. My life has known no fear greater than in the handful of times my eyes have found the opening of a gun's barrel.

It's a fear that is present for many black Americans. That same Pew poll found that 49 percent of us see gun violence as a "very big" problem in our local communities, compared with 29 percent of Hispanics and a fraction of as many whites - 11 percent. While 20 percent of whites and 24 percent of Hispanics say they - or someone in their family - have been personally threatened with a gun, that number jumps to 32 percent for black Americans. And while 43 percent of whites and 42 percent of Hispanics say they know someone who's been shot, it's 57 percent among black Americans.

It was a similar fear that in 2015 prompted Stephen Yorkman to launch the Robert F. Williams Gun Club in Prince George's County, Md., which is named for a civil rights activist who advocated armed self-defense and now has about 150 members.

"For me, it started with the shooting of Tamir Rice," Yorkman, 48, explained, referencing the 12-year-old Cleveland boy shot by police while playing with a toy gun at the playground of a public park. "We need to create a different, better perception of black people with guns so that in an open-carry state the image of a black person with a gun doesn't so alarm a police officer. And we need to make it so it's no longer a sin in the black community to be a gun owner, but that it's more accepted."

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This new crop of black gun clubs aims to educate members on the history of black gun ownership and the centuries of attempts to suppress it and to host pragmatic conversations about the way their members will be perceived, and the dangers they will assume, as black people who chose to be armed - services often abdicated by the leaders of mainstream gun culture.

Owning a gun is not for everyone, the black gun owners explain, but how can the narrative around black men and guns be changed unless more of us give legal gun ownership a try? For me, though, it only took one try to remember what I already knew: My fear of what someone else might do to harm me is far outweighed by my fear of the responsibility that comes with owning a gun. The power to take a life is not one I'm comfortable holding in my shaking hands.

But their argument was compelling enough that, on that morning earlier this summer when I found myself at Blue Ridge - about an hour into our conversation - Warner was handing me "eyes and ears" (protective glasses and ear covers) and leading me into firing range number 2.

My hands wrapped tight around a sleek Ruger SR22, I readied my stance, nervously aimed at the target hoisted about 21 feet down the firing lane and pulled the trigger.

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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