ATLANTA, Ga. — The country’s largest and best known gun rights association, the NRA, is losing board members amid a spate of deadly mass shootings. But another, lesser-known gun organization is thriving: the National African American Gun Association, the largest minority gun group in the country.
The group was founded by Phillip Smith, who fondly remembers the first time he fired his 9 mm pistol at a gun range.
“I felt free,” Smith said. “I had a chance to kind of have some power in my hands.”
Smith formed the first chapter of the National African American Gun Association, or NAAGA, in Atlanta.
“I didn’t think I’d get more than 30 people…” Smith said. But in just five years, NAAGA has started 75 chapters with more than 30,000 members, over 90% of whom are black.
“We have folks from every walk of life,” Smith said. “Black doctors, gay, straight, Republicans, Democrats. You name it, we have it … We’re not monolithic in why we’re all here. We have different reasons.”
When asked why the members didn’t just join the NRA, Smith said that “the NRA is good for some people that are having that perspective. Our perspective is for black folks.”
Nezida Davis joined NAAGA to learn how to protect herself. She’s not alone: more than 60% of NAAGA members are black women.
“I’m usually looked at like I’m a Martian,” Davis said. “I mean, literally, if I come in and I get ready to go into the gun range, people are looking at me like, ‘Why is she here? Black women don’t shoot.’ But we shoot.”
After black churchgoers were targeted in Charleston and Mexicans were targeted in El Paso, members say they’re prepared to defend themselves.
“It’s crime in our communities, but it’s also a white nationalist,” Davis said. “I mean, I do believe they’re emboldened … And, yes, I wanna be armed. I’m not goin’ down without a fight. So I look at it that way. And so by bein’ able to protect ourselves, by training properly and getting our practice in, and learning how to defend ourselves, at least we will be able to fight back if we are attacked — from white supremacists or white nationalists.”
NAAGA promotes the Second Amendment and social justice. But Smith said he’s aware of the dangers of being black and legally armed in America. He pointed to the Philando Castile case in Minnesota, in which Castile, who was licensed to carry a gun, was shot and killed by a police officer during a 2016 traffic stop.
NAAGA immediately condemned the shooting. Smith pointed out that other prominent gun rights groups, like the NRA, did not.
“Them not speaking up says more to us than anything. Are you in agreement with that? I couldn’t be silent. Tears came outta my eyes, when I heard this brother got shot,” Smith said. “If you’re an organization that wants to get black folks to back you up, that’s the best way. Speak out, when you see injustice. Don’t sit there silently, like you don’t know what’s happening. ‘Cause we’re a very intelligent group of folks.”
NAAGA is talking about endorsing candidates, which could make them a political force. But the group isn’t yet ready, and plans to discuss the issue at their first national conference next year