The goal of the National African American Gun Association is to introduce black Americans to guns and also instruct them on how to use them.
Some see the group as an alternative to the National Rifle Association for black gun owners, but it has some notable differences. Organizers say it is a civil rights organization that aims to build community and promote self-protection.
Since its creation in 2015, the group has seen rapid growth with roughly 30,000 members and 75 chapters nationwide. Leaders expect another 25 chapters by next year.
Overall, 4 in 10 Americans say there is a firearm in their household, according to a 2017 study by Pew Research Center. Broken down by race, 24% of African Americans say they personally own a gun, compared with 36% of whites and 15% of Hispanics.
"Black folks and guns usually get a negative stereotype reaction like: 'What is that guy doing with a gun?' " says Philip Smith, the president and founder of the group.
Membership spiked after President Trump was sworn into office, Smith says, attributing some of that growth to a political climate where people with racist views feel emboldened to talk about and act on those views.
Some in the organization say it is time to have a larger platform. Executives in the group are mulling whether to form a political action committee that would raise money and back candidates sympathetic with the cause. The primary focus of the PAC, though, would be to work on solutions between black gun owners and the police.
"Does law enforcement, or more importantly larger society, view black men with firearms in a certain way? Let's have that discussion," Smith Says. "That's a hard discussion, but that's a discussion we need, as an organization, to be involved with."
Smith and others are quick to point out that the group is supportive of law enforcement, but also make the case that carrying a gun while black can have deadly consequences.
The group talks often about Philando Castile who was shot and killed by police in 2016 after he was pulled over in St. Paul, Minn., for a broken taillight.
During the stop, Castile told the officer he was licensed to carry a firearm and as he reached for his wallet, per the officers' request, he was shot.
It's impossible to know what role being black played in those incidents, but for Smith, "My job, and it's a very long-term wish, is to change that socialization process where [when] people see a black guy or a black woman walking with a gun, they won't automatically say, 'He or she is a thug' or 'He or she is doing something illegal.' "
On the group's name, some members call it "NAAG" for short.
Others use all the letters in the acronym: N-A-A-G-A, which, when said out loud, sounds similar to a specific racial slur. Smith says people have had a problem with the name since he started the group, "Some people thought it was offensive. I thought, and still do think, there's kind of an edge to it."
Division On A Shift To Politics
In a sunlit lounge at a midtown Atlanta shooting range, a handful of NAAGA members get together to shoot, but also talk.
Their discussion spans from whether there is, indeed, a need for an Afrocentric gun organization, to deadly incidents involving police and African-Americans, to white nationalism in the U.S.
Casandra Light, 23, wears a black t-shirt with pink lettering that reads: "I carry a [image of a handgun] because my [image of a military-style rifle] won't fit in my purse." She says she is wary of a shift into politics.
"One of the main things we're trying to do is change the perspective of black gun ownership into a positive mindset," Light says. She says she worries that if NAAGA forms a PAC, some may think the group is radical, driving members away. "I would hate to see that happen," she says.
"I think if the organization wants to maintain the openness that we have to everyone regardless of their race, gender, political affiliation," Light says, "we also need to be careful about having a political stance because it's real easy for that to get blown out of proportion."
Michael Doyle, one of a handful of white members of the Atlanta chapter, said the shift is inevitable.
"The colors of our skin is politicized, sadly. Gun ownership is politicized, sadly," Doyle says.
"The idea that an African-American gun association would be blithely silent on matters of race and gun ownership, would be absurd."
Monica Neal, an Army veteran who says she "got serious" about firearms training and self-defense after her divorce, thinks NAAGA elevating its voice might bring more gun owners out of the shadows and into the organization.
"When others see that we're for protection and for gun ownership, I think it would maybe more than likely increase our numbers," Neal said.
Phil Smith, the national president, says the organization's executive team is discussing if and when to launch the PAC. Once group leaders come to a conclusion, the rank and file members will get to have their say as well.
NOEL KING, HOST:
The National African American Gun Association was founded for black gun owners who wanted an alternative to the NRA. Now some people, including its national president, want that group to get more involved in political and social issues, especially those issues involving black gun owners and police. Others in the organization worry that the move could bring unnecessary and unwarranted scrutiny. NPR's Brakkton Booker has the story. And a warning to listeners, this story does have the sound of gunfire.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)
BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: At a gun range in midtown Atlanta, Philip Smith (ph) gives me tips on what to do before firing a weapon.
PHILIP SMITH: The object, when you shoot, is to be relaxed.
BOOKER: All right. Tell me the gun that you're shooting with.
SMITH: I just have a Smith & Wesson .38. My favorite's my Glock. But I don't have my Glock .19....
(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)
SMITH: ...Today so we're shooting a good old-fashioned revolver.
BOOKER: He locks in on his target 15 feet away, steadies and fires.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)
BOOKER: Smith is the founder and president of the National African American Gun Association but says he's a novice shot at best.
SMITH: If I had to grade myself from a A, B, C or D, I'd probably give myself maybe a C, C-plus.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)
SMITH: There's definitely room for improvement. (Laughter).
BOOKER: Becoming a sharpshooter is not why Smith created this organization. It started in 2015 so black gun owners could learn about firearms, and for members to come together, Smith says, to shoot comfortably. Another reason it formed, to change the image of what it means to be black and carry a gun.
SMITH: Black folks and guns usually get a negative stereotype reaction, like, what is that guy doing with a gun? My job - and it's a very long-term wish - is change that socialization process where people see a black guy or a black woman walking with a gun, they will automatically say, he or she is a thug, or he or she is doing something illegal.
BOOKER: Membership spiked after President Trump was sworn into office. Smith attributes some of that growth to a political climate where racist views went from America's fringes to the mainstream. The group now has 75 chapters, including ones in Albuquerque, Buffalo and Tallahassee.
SMITH: I was surprised. And what I was really surprised at, and I'm still surprised to this day - more black women are joining than black men.
BOOKER: But what about that name, though? Some members call it NAAG. Others, like Smith himself, say all the letters in the acronym, NAAGA.
SMITH: I tell you, when I start the organization, just the name itself, I mean, people had a problem with the term NAAGA. Some people thought it was offensive. I thought it was, and still do think it's - kind of a edge to it.
BOOKER: Whatever you make of the name, Smith says NAAGA has got to be more than just edge. He wants the organization to form a political action committee. It would raise money, perhaps back candidates, but the PAC would primarily tackle issues related to black gun owners. Think Philando Castile, who was killed by police at a traffic stop in Minnesota in 2016. Or the incident in Alabama last Thanksgiving. That's when a black man with a gun was helping others get to safety after someone else began shooting at a mall. Police killed Emantic Bradford thinking he was the shooter. He wasn't.
SMITH: Does law enforcement or, more importantly, larger society view black men with firearms in a certain way? Let's have that discussion. That's a hard discussion. But it's a discussion that we need as a organization to be involved with.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD AMBIENCE)
BOOKER: In a sunlit lounge area at the gun range, a handful of members agree to chat. We talk about deadly incidents involving police and African-Americans, the recent mass shooting in Virginia Beach and white nationalism in the Trump era. But it's when I ask members if the organization should speak out on social issues where not everyone was in agreement. Take 23-year-old Casandra Lite (ph). She's skeptical of the move.
CASANDRA LITE: One of the main things that we are trying to do is change the perspective of black gun ownership into a positive mindset.
BOOKER: She says guns in the hands of black people is still seen as taboo, even though Black Panthers and the Deacons of Defense and others pushed for black Americans to arm themselves for protection decades ago. Lite worries a shift to political and social issues might be seen as radical, and the unwanted attention might drive members away.
LITE: I think if the organization wants to maintain the openness that we have, we also need to be careful about having a political stance because it's real easy for that to get blown out of proportion and for that narrative to change. And I would hate to see that happen.
BOOKER: Michael Doyle (ph), one of a handful of white members of the Atlanta chapter, says the shift is inevitable.
MICHAEL DOYLE: The colors of our skins is politicized, sadly. Gun ownership is politicized, sadly. The idea that an African American Gun Association would be blithely silent on matters of race and gun ownership would be absurd.
BOOKER: And then there's 57-year-old Army veteran Monica Neal (ph). She says she got serious about firearms and self-defense after her divorce. Neal adds that NAAGA elevating its voice might actually bring more black gun owners out of the shadows and into the organization.
MONICA NEAL: When others see that, you know, we are for protection and for gun ownership, I think maybe it would more than likely increase our numbers.
BOOKER: Phil Smith, the national president, says the organization's executive team is discussing if and when to launch the PAC. Once group leaders finalize a decision, the 30,000 rank-and-file members get to have their say, as well. Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.