By Jason Johnson, The Root
“You know that’s just a Klan rally without the hoods, right?”
None of my friends was all that hot about me going to the National Rifle Association’s convention in Atlanta this year. No one. Not even my friends who owned guns. And definitely not those who hunt, and none who otherwise support the Second Amendment.
But who could blame them? It didn’t exactly sound welcoming or even remotely wise to go to an NRA convention full of mostly white, conservative, gun-brandishing folks, and where Donald Trump is the keynote speaker.
I went because the NRA is all about telling Americans that guns keep you safe from everything: crime, terrorists and those jack-booted, gun-hating liberal thugs in the government. Which should be right up my alley as a black person. On top of fearing random crime and crazy white vigilantes who shoot us for being black on a sunny day, black people have much more to fear from an aggressive government, in the form of killer cops, than just about anybody else in America. I wanted to see if the NRA was offering a gun for my type of real-world #SayHerName kinds of fears.
Of course, what I discovered is, there’s no gat for that. We are not the target audience for their gun play. Stoking white fear of imaginary terrorists, black thugs and immigrants – and keeping in place the guns and policies that support it – is what the NRA convention is all about.
I went to the convention on Friday; it was held at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, literally across the street from CNN headquarters. As I walked in with the mostly white, men-of-all-ages crowd, snide comments about “fake news” whizzed past my ears.
Once inside, I saw that there were guns everywhere – free guns, guns from raffles, gun-training classes. Gun companies were handing out weapons as if they were T-shirts at a Hawks game. I thought President Barack Obama spent the last eight years taking everyone’s guns away? Maybe they hid these until they were sure he was out of office.
Almost all the people I talked to at the NRA convention said that they love guns but hate politics. They said that they enjoy and employ their guns safely and just want the government out of their way. Which almost makes sense, given that studies and history show that gun ownership and policy are driven by white racial resentment, not public safety or good government.
However, I didn’t want to let things like facts and history deter me. The NRA is one of the largest, most powerful lobbying groups in America. There had to be a place for gun-comfortable or gun-curious black folks like myself in the NRA protection racket, right?
I spoke to Colion Noir about the connection between “gun culture” and racism, and why places like the NRA convention are perceived as being unwelcome for black folks, even those who are comfortable with guns. Noir is a lawyer, a gun advocate, a host on NRA TV and one of the few black faces I saw on any poster or brochure at the whole convention.
“We’re talking about an issue that has been engrossed in politics. I’m not naive enough to think they (guns, politics, race) don’t crisscross, but I try to separate them. I have to,” Noir said.
He talked about how welcome he was at the convention and how many times, “both sides” refuse to talk to each other about issues relating to guns, race or shootings.
“I get pulled over all the time because I can’t stop speeding,” he joked. One time, Noir was driving with 10 guns in his car and got pulled over by a “redneck cop,” and they ended up having a great 20-minute conversation about gun culture.
“My experience isn’t everybody’s,” he acknowledged. Which is true – just ask John Crawford, Tamir Rice and Philando Castille, all of them black people shot and killed by police while having real or toy guns, despite being in open-carry states. But according to Noir, these shootings aren’t about institutional racism; they’re about ignorance, gun culture and a few bad cops.
I, along with a 30-something black man listening to our conversation, wasn’t trying to hear Noir’s “Gotta hear both sides” rhetoric, so I pushed back.
“The consequences for white ignorance aren’t the same as for black ignorance,” I said. “We have a legal system that has repeatedly said white fear, either out of ignorance of racism, is enough justification to employ lethal force, whether you’re a private citizen or a cop. It’s not the same for us.”
Noir, ever the lawyer, agreed that bad cops should be punished, but he quickly went back to arguing that we have to look at every shooting on a case-by-case basis rather than see an overarching problem. Which would work fine, if the entire convention weren’t selling the exact-opposite message.
Everywhere you go in the convention, you’re being told that the world is a dangerous place and you have to be ready. Even at the convention itself. I started up a conversation with a 50-something suburban-looking white guy named “Chris.” It was his fourth NRA convention, and we were talking about seeing Donald Trump Jr. walk through the building with not nearly as much security as you’d expect for the son of the 45th president.
“The Secret Service must be going nuts, right? With all these guns in here?” he said.
“I’m pretty sure Donald Trump Jr. is safe,” I responded. “Nobody here wants to take a shot at him. These are all responsible hunters, right?”
“Oh, I love the NRA, but I couldn’t bring myself to hunt,” Chris said. “My wife and I have three rescue dogs, and I just couldn’t bring myself to take … to take an animal’s life, you know? But I’m OK if other people want to hunt.”
Despite Chris’ concerns, the NRA seems much more interested in the dangers posed by ISIS terrorists, illegal Mexican immigrants and “urban thugs” than a room full of non-background-checked men with enough weapons to save Morpheus and John Wick in one afternoon. As much as I could find use for a metallic pen that doubles as a glass breaker or a pair of hearing aids so strong I could hear a deer piss on cotton, none of these toys makes me any safer.
At one display, a guy was selling an actual Gatling gun. I’m thinking, who in the hell needs a Gatling gun? For a second I thought maybe it was just for display, like a sword on the wall or old cannons as lawn decorations. “Nope, it’s real; it actually works,” the dealer said.
I’m all in favor of gun ownership, but unless you’re planning on mowing down a group of attacking Zulu warriors, who in his or her right mind needs to drop $47,000 on a functioning Gatling gun? For that much money, I could just buy a nice car and run somebody down in the street.
Moreover, do I really want that person as my neighbor? What if he or she confuses a group of brown kids at a pool party with burglars? Let’s not forget that for years the Gatling gun was used by British invaders in Africa because the weapon was deemed too terrifying and brutal to use against Europeans. Selling this weapon is like selling Zyklon B: Yes, it’s technically a pesticide, but we all know the racial history of how it was really used.
The monetization of the racialized fear at the NRA is perfectly encapsulated in the biggest rollout of the weekend: the NRA’s Carry Guard insurance program. For just $31 a month, when catching these hands isn’t enough, Carry Guard provides legal coverage to individuals who catch a case after shooting someone in “self-defense.” Commercials for Carry Guard are a supercut of horrible crimes, from convenience stores to roadside stops (with mostly white victims), where shooting your way out of it is the only option. The program covers 20 percent of your legal costs up front and anywhere from $150,000 to $1 million in fees if you’re found innocent or the case is dropped.
You’d think this would be a great program for Juwan Alexander Plummer, the 19-year-old from Detroit who shot two cops last week, fearing that they were burglars. Or, even better, Florida’s Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband. Or nah. The NRA isn’t offering plans targeted at black ladies’ fears and safety.
So if the NRA isn’t quite offering you the safety protection and training for black folks’ daily fears, who is? Well, there’s the recently formed (2015) National African-American Gun Association, whose membership has skyrocketed since Trump took office. But if you’re looking for something a little more around the way, you might want to call up the services of Maj Toure.
Toure is the founder of Black Guns Matter, an organization that teaches inner-city youths and families about gun culture, safety and protection. I talked to him after he did an interview with NRA TV in the main room of the convention. Toure knows that the program name is a bit provocative, but he’s trying to make a point.
“I’m not in the business of trying to convince someone else that my life matters,” says Toure. “Imma reach out to whomever and talk to people. If you’re from an urban area and wanna learn, let’s get it done.”
Toure is more concerned with black folks creating safety for themselves, by themselves, since it’s pretty clear that no one else really is. When I asked him how he was treated at his first NRA convention, he was mostly positive.
“I get tons of support here,” he said “People say some slick (stuff) on social media, but whatever; I have work to do.”
How convenient. In the end, the NRA convention was not a Ku Klux Klan rally without the hoods; it was something equally disturbing but much less obvious. It was all of the ridiculous, cognitively dissonant ways that race, guns and American policy intersect. A convention where people of color walk around freely buying guns from people who would justify shooting them out of fear in any other space. A world where a relatively pro-gun person like myself doesn’t see my image or my concerns reflected in any commercials or merchandise. A world where gun advocacy means that some lives matter more than others and some don’t matter at all.
In other words, the NRA convention was a lot like America: at one point familiar, but in so many other ways making it clear that there’s no real space for people who look, sound and live like me.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor, political analyst and public speaker. He is the political editor for The Root, where this piece first appeared.)