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Culture

This Is What It’s Like to Be a Muslim-American Gun Owner

Hassan Shibly on sticking out at the range, pork-laced bullets, and double standards.

Last week, a Florida gun shop owner named Andy Hallinan declared his store a “Muslim-free zone” in response to the deadly attacks carried out by Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez on two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The policy outraged many, but it wasn’t the first time a gun dealer or range has attempted to exclude Muslims: At least one other gun store announced a similar policy after Chattanooga, and in January, an Arkansas gun range owner was praised by the firearm-advocacy group Gun Owners of America for instituting a similar ban.

After hearing about Hallinan’s proclamation, Hassan Shibly, the chief executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Florida (CAIR-FL), asked him to rethink his Muslim ban. The two men engaged in a measured debate on a local news channel; a kind of peace summit was scheduled, but Hallinan pulled out at the last minute. On July 29, CAIR-FL filed a discrimination lawsuit against Florida Gun Supply. “American Muslims have a right to browse and purchase guns, take classes on gun safety, and shoot guns at a range without having to be profiled and discriminated,” said Shibly in a statement.

For Shibly, the suit is not just a professional matter but also a personal one: Along with being a Muslim activist, he’s a proud Florida gun owner. The day before the suit was filed, he spoke with The Trace about his experiences navigating gun culture, and why defending his identity as a gun owner is so important to his civil rights work. A lightly edited transcript of that conversation appears below.

I personally own two firearms. They’re both rifles. At least once a year, if not more often, I go to a range and shoot. I like outdoor sports, regardless of what they are: horseback riding, archery, jet skiing — you name it. I’m very visible at shooting ranges: I have a beard; I wear a kufi cap out in public.

I don’t believe I’ve been treated in a negative way at a gun range. But I did go to a gun show in Tampa once with a friend, and I wore a plaid shirt and replaced my normal hat with a cowboy hat. We didn’t want to deal with all the baggage that some people associate with us because we’re Muslim, so we thought it was best to go appearing almost overly American, like farmers or cowboys or something. I’m glad I did that, because one of the gun sellers there wore a shirt that said ‘Infidel’ in Arabic. Well, it supposedly said it — they mistranslated it, so it didn’t actually say infidel. But it was clearly an anti-Muslim shirt that he was sporting.

Growing up in Buffalo, it was not strange for my friends and I to go out shooting at a gun range, even in high school and college. It was never zealous, it was just something we did along with skiing and other outdoor activities. It was a competition, right? But what I started noticing was this double standard applied to the Muslim community when it comes to guns, even back in our high school days.

One very specific example: One of our favorite pastimes growing up — and again, it was kids of all different faiths — was playing paintball. We just had so much fun playing paintball, to the point where all of my friends and I chipped in money to buy, like, half a dozen paintball guns. There was this great outdoor park, and we’d just play on the weekends and have a lot of fun. But one day, when we wanted to get together and play, we learned that one kid’s parents had thrown out all of our paintball guns. Just thrown them out. Hundreds of dollars gone down the drain. They didn’t think it was a good idea for a group of Muslim teens to be seen playing paintball because it could be perceived as a threat. When the white Christian kids played paintball, they were just kids being kids, having fun in a safe way. But Muslim kids, they must be terrorist trainees. Our parents obviously didn’t worry about us being terrorists, but they worried about the perception of young Muslim kids playing paintball, and that it would bring extra scrutiny by the government.

Gun ownership is seen as a central part of American identity for a large group of people, and so by excluding Muslims from that, it reinforces the idea of Muslims as the “other.” And that’s a big problem.

Since the Chattanooga shootings, there have been about three or four cases of gun store owners declaring their stores “Muslim-free.” And for them, it isn’t about safety or security. It’s not even about the Constitution. It’s about their prejudice and bigotry and fear and insecurity. We’ve seen about two cases of “Muslim-free” gun shops that sold Muslim targets at their ranges. Not a bin Laden figure or anything, but just a generic Muslim image that people would use as a target. We’ve seen instances of “pork-laced bullets.” And it’s very hypocritical because those very same gun store owners were silent in the face of Lafayette or in the face of Charleston.

Honestly, there’s so much discrimination that we’ve had a hard time keeping up. It’s been extremely disappointing that gun-rights associations have been silent, at best, in the face of gun shop owners who wish to openly discriminate against a class of Americans. It really exposes a lot of the hypocrisy and the double standards that we deal with. Take Chattanooga as a perfect example. This shooter clearly had issues of mental instability, of abusing drugs, and of depression, but that was never explored in the same way that it would be explored had he been a white shooter. Now, I don’t want to associate people who suffer from depression with gun violence. I’m against that position, as well. But when you have a white American shooter, a white Christian shooter, the media asks, “Was he having mental health issues? Was he depressed?” And they talk about that for hours. For Muslims, we throw everything else out and only look at their religion. Which doesn’t make any sense.

When you say you want a Muslim-free zone, you’re essentially labeling the Muslim community as a threat, regardless of how you try to justify it later, and that ultimately leads to violence being perpetrated against those people. But it also masks the fact that the biggest threat facing Americans is other Americans with guns, and that threat is exponentially greater than the threat of ISIS or any other terrorist organization. A 2015 study by the University of North Carolina found that since September 11, terrorists who called themselves Muslim took the lives of 50 Americans. In that same time period, more than 200 people have been killed by white supremacists, and 200,000 were murdered. In 2014 alone, 136 Americans were killed in mass shootings.

I wish people would promote policies that truly address the real threat we face, instead of ones that promote bigotry and prejudice. It’s extremely disturbing to see people take advantage of a national tragedy to score political points or to make a profit at the expense of dividing our nation. I do believe that gun ownership is seen as a central part of American identity for a large group of people, and so by excluding Muslims from that, it reinforces the idea of Muslims as the “other.” And that’s a big problem. Owning guns is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution. The Constitution either protects all of us or none of us. Our position is that you can’t let our enemies win by allowing us to divide ourselves as Americans.

[Photo courtesy of Hassan Shibly]