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For Some African-Americans, Gun Ownership Underscores Segregated Past


Black people are disproportionately victimized by gun violence, and prominent African-American leaders are among those calling for tighter gun control. Yet as Karen Grigsby Bates of NPR's Code Switch team found out, many other African-Americans believe that owning guns is crucial to protecting themselves and their rights.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Know how some people can't do without something? April Howard has three possessions that are non-negotiable.

APRIL HOWARD: I have a .22, a .38 and a rifle.

BATES: And she's keeping them all. Howard's had guns for several years now, the result of a close call at her D.C. metro area home that still makes her shudder.

A. HOWARD: Someone was breaking into my home while I was home alone at 7 a.m. in the morning. That prompted me to immediately get some form of protection for me and my home.

BATES: That doesn't make Howard unusual, says Charles Cobb. Cobb's book, "This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made The Civil Rights Movement," looks at black Americans' historic relationship to guns. For decades, Cobb says, most blacks lived in the rural South and had guns.

CHARLES COBB: And this is a tradition that goes all the way back to the end of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. Black people have traditionally used guns for self-defense.

BATES: Cobb says guns were kept on farms for hunting, for pest-control and to repel white vigilantes. Even non-violent participants in the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King for a time, kept guns at home to protect their families. In the mid-'60s, Malcolm X responded to a rumor that the Nation of Islam was urging blacks to buy guns by reminding the press they were legally entitled to do that.


MALCOLM X: America is based upon right of people to organize for self-defense. This is in the Constitution of the United States.

BATES: In California, the Black Panther Party carried loaded rifles to the State Capitol in Sacramento to remind residents in black neighborhoods like Oakland they could.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) The revolution has come, time to pick up the gun.

BATES: After that, the state's shocked lawmakers made carrying loaded firearms illegal. And in 1968, after several urban riots, the Federal Gun Control Act was passed, which attempted to ban the sale of cheap handguns. What that did, said Robert Cottrol, a law professor at George Washington University, is to leave black residents in high-crime areas vulnerable.

ROBERT COTTROL: One of the problems, I think, that we have in places like Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C. is we make it very difficult - in some cases almost impossible - for the individual who is law-abiding, who is peaceful, to defend himself.

BATES: That's exactly why gun owner April Howard and her husband Ken don't live within Washington's city limits. Ken Howard says that was a very deliberate decision.

KEN HOWARD: D.C. is strictly very prohibitive, legally. It seems as though the only ones who are able to have weapons like this are the criminal element.

BATES: Those arguments don't sit sway Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: We have way too many guns in our community at this point.

BATES: Brown is associate pastor Roxbury's Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston, and has spent years in faith-based coalitions trying to reduce gun violence in the city's black neighborhoods. Reverend Brown says many people think the country's gun problem has a racial component, but he believes race is only part of the puzzle. Economic disparity, residential segregation, chronic un- and underemployment, he says all those create depression, anger and hopelessness in many black communities that allows gun violence to flourish.

BROWN: When you see all of these factors coming together, the gun piece makes it more horrifying. And so it's a little more complex than just guns and race, but the problem's there for us.

BATES: And the solutions remain elusive. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.