On a blazing Sunday morning, a group of gun owners gathers at a shooting range in Ruskin. They load 9 millimeters and semiautomatic rifles, then aim, fire, shoot. Loud cracks sound as bullets whizz through targets.
Members of Tampa Bay’s Black Gun Owners and Education group say they are drawn to firearms for sport, for protection and for stress relief. They come together for community and camaraderie, to compare notes while preparing for competitions and for the feeling of security.
The relationship between Black Americans and guns in white-dominated spaces is historically fraught. During the civil rights movement, activists saw firearms as necessary protection from racist mobs, but white anxiety over Black Panther militancy jump-started the gun control movement.
More recently, stand your ground cases, media focus on police shootings and the resurgence of white supremacist threats have heightened fears for Black families. Yet the largest and most vocal gun rights group in America, the National Rifle Association, has often been quiet on issues affecting people of color, members of the group say.
Jamarkus Anderson started the local Black Gun Owners and Education chapter. It now has 23 members. “We are out here educating ourselves, fighting stigma and countering the narrative that a person of color with a gun must automatically be a bad person,” he said. Here are the stories of members.
The following interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Software engineer, 46, Tampa
I spent my summers as a kid in Mississippi, and we would hunt and fish and do all the really outdoorsy type things. I guess it started there.
If you look in the media, you see the way white gun owners are portrayed. They may be hunters, they may be fishermen or generally outdoors, but it’s usually not a negative. However, a Black man has a gun in his hand, and he’s a thug, he’s robbing a bank, he’s up to no good.
Sometimes, you don’t know when somebody is just legitimately fearful of guns, or just fearful of you having a gun.
Now, there’s been times where I absolutely knew, for a fact, it was me. Once, I was in a gun shop browsing around and the owner came up and asked me, “Why would you want to own a firearm?” That’s not a question that the owner of a gun shop will generally ask. Like, you sell firearms, that is the business that you’re in. Why would you ask that question, and in a tone as if you have no business wanting to own firearms?
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I’ve had guys walk up to me at the range, who weren’t instructors, and without even seeing me shoot, they’re talking to me as if I’m a complete imbecile and had no clue what I’m doing. They just make that assumption.
I try to make those experiences as positive as I can. Because at the end of the day, that’s how people learn not to judge each other.
Disabled Army veteran, 48, Lakeland
The past four years have been pretty scary for African Americans. Unarmed Black men and women are being shot, by police officers but not only by them. With Ahmaud Arbery, he was just looking at a home, like I’ve done that plenty of times, and he was killed. You’ve got all these crazy people out here. Every time you look around, it seems like there’s a video where somebody has got into some kind of altercation.
Right now, I have this fanny pack. I hate fanny packs. But this particular fanny pack that I carry has a 9 mm and two magazines, and you think it’s a regular fanny pack. And that’s my sense of security.
White people love to show that they’re carrying a gun. But what they don’t understand is Black people and brown people have guns for protection but don’t display them, because it’s a double standard, and we are looked at in a negative light.
Health care project manager, 45, Tampa
My whole family is pro-gun, and they have their licenses, and I was always like: “Don’t you bring your gun in my house!”
My sisters talked me into going to a class. They said, “We’re always going to have guns with us, so we need you to at least know how to use one, in case something ever goes wrong.”
The instructor passed a gun around to show us what it feels like. I was so terrified, I dropped it. Then, you have to shoot three shots to pass the class. The first shot, it felt like so much power, I jumped back. The instructor was behind me, and she pushed me and said, “You got two more to go.” I finished firing the rest, and all three of my shots actually went right into the bull’s-eye. The instructor was just like, “You’re a natural at this.”
The next thing you know, something happened. I was just like, that wasn’t so bad. After the class, I asked her, do you mind if I stay a little bit longer? I ended up staying for an extra three hours. I bought my first two guns that day.
It’s not just for protection. I go to the range, and that’s one of my stress reliefs. I compete. Now, I’m adding hunting to the list. It’s more social and fun for me right now.
Information technology manager, 46, St. Petersburg
I see police officers as human, I don’t see them as the enemy. But I get pulled over a lot. I’m Black. And I’ve been pulled over when armed.
But all the times I’ve been pulled over with my gun in my hip, my firearm has never come up, and I never mentioned it.
I have my car set up in a way that, no matter what I do, he can see what I’m doing. If he asks me for my license, it’s in my wallet right next to my cup holder and console. My insurance card and registration is in the visor. I don’t have to reach in my glove box or my pocket.
Truth be told, what happened to (Philando) Castile prompted me to do that.
I started a chapter of a group called Black Gun Owners and Education, and basically, we are all of the same mindset: There are far too few people of color out there that are knowledgeable, or certified.
In the group, we talked about Castile, we talked about all the major shootings that showed up in the news in recent years. We said — why are these police officers doing what they are doing? If they are so afraid, why are they out on the job? It’s a dangerous job, true enough, but why can you see a white person do the same damn thing and they get to come home, but not the Black person?
Finance consultant, 36, Pasco County
About five years ago, there was constantly this ad on Facebook for an all-women’s concealed carry class. I was in an abusive relationship, and I was feeling like I was helpless. My daughter was seeing this, and I had just had another child. I felt like this was something that I needed to do, because my mom was in a violent relationship, and I always felt like if I don’t do something, I’m going to repeat the cycle. She’s going to think that this is normal. I knew I was a strong person. But I couldn’t understand why I didn’t have that confidence in myself.
Shortly after I took that class, I ended my relationship. I’m a very introverted person. But for some reason, it just clicked in me that I knew that I could defend myself. I no longer had a fear that I was at the mercy of whoever was around me.
The first firearm I ever bought was bulky, but it was a Tiffany blue color, and I loved it.
Now, I have about 30 guns. It’s not a necessity at all. It’s similar to how some people are enthusiastic about shoes or purses. I found that once you start shooting, there’s different firearms for different specialties. I never thought it could be addictive until I was having my firearms customized.
I’m a member of an all-female competitive shooting league. The experience has given me something that I can say is mine. I don’t know if that makes sense. I have other skill sets that I think are amazing, but I’m not a track star. I’m not out there doing anything else. I work for an accounting firm. My only hobby was reading a book. I’m a nerd. I have Funko Pops. I watch anime. I used to draw cartoons.
This is a skill that I can have, apart from being defined as a mom, being defined as a Black woman, being defined as a financial person. It gives me something else that I know I have control over. I can increase my skill set, compete, be an instructor. It’s something just for me.
There’s a huge stigma about Black women and shooting. I want people to understand that some people just shoot because it’s something they enjoy, it’s something that gives them purpose, it’s something that they’re good at.
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.