Polls show that an overwhelming majority of African Americans see gun violence as a raging crisis — more urgent than mass incarceration, or abusive policing — and tougher gun laws as the solution. But the policy reforms that might reduce shootings are excruciatingly slow to arrive, which is perhaps why more than half of blacks, according to the same surveys, trust personal firearms ownership to make them safer.
Maj Toure, a 29-year-old African American man, agrees that the United States has a gun violence problem, but he has found his calling among those who reject stricter regulation and embrace guns themselves as the answer. He is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia, where, according to a recent analysis of city police data, a person is shot every six hours on average. Growing up, Toure witnessed gun death up close. As an adult, he joined the Republican Party and the NRA.
Over time, Toure came to believe that the residents of his North Philly neighborhood would inevitably come into contact with firearms, often at a young age. He reasoned that if they learned the proper way to handle the weapons, and understood and obeyed the rules that govern them, Philadelphia might see a reduction in violence.
In August 2015, Toure sought to test his theory, launching a group called Black Guns Matter, which, despite the name’s similarity, is not affiliated with Black Lives Matter. To ensure that he reaches as many people as possible, he teaches free firearms training classes at the Philadelphia Firearms Academy. Next month, he will take his program on the road, holding seminars in 13 cities, including Baltimore, New Orleans, and Oakland.
Here’s Maj Toure in his own words, as told to Mike Spies of The Trace.
I’ve seen someone get shot, okay? It’s an unfortunate situation. Seeing people get shot is not glamorous or exciting. TV makes it like a guy flies through a window. No, it’s not like that. I’ve seen people’s heads open up. Frankly, I wouldn’t explain to someone what it feels like to see someone get shot. I don’t want to traumatize them. They don’t need that gruesome experience inside of them. I want to offer them training so they don’t ever have to get there.
Black Guns Matter is about training. We’ve been going for a year, but because of incidents with law enforcement over the last six months, it’s picked up a lot of steam. We’re getting much more attention. The ratcheting up is both good and bad. It’s bad because it’s due to murders. It’s good because it means more information is getting into the hood.
Our goal is to educate all hoods across America about the Second Amendment rights they have. A lot of times in my community, firearms are available before you have the information to even handle them properly. You can run across a gun at 15. What we want to do is, if anyone runs a across a gun at a young age, we want them to know what to do and not to do. It’s about making sure people from my demographic aren’t doing the wrong thing.
If you’re ignorant about firearms but are also exposed to them at a young age, it will lead to stupid decisions. When I was growing up in Philly, I saw a clear difference between those who had respect for the tool and those who didn’t. I was lucky and had uncles in the military; I saw their attachment to their rifles was different. They respected the tool; they knew how to fieldstrip and care for it. The military mindset is very regimented and very organized. Some of my homies obviously didn’t have that structure.
That’s why I got more and more involved in the Second Amendment fight: I saw too many friends going to jail for the same thing — they were missing the information; they didn’t know the rules. It’s the not knowing that causes them to not take the extra step. Sometimes they’ll be like, “I already have the gun. I bought it. Forget the paperwork.” But not going through the right procedures to carry it can get you five years in jail. Five years based on ignorance. And a lot of guys, they just don’t know you need a license to carry a concealed gun. But they’re not criminals. They work at a job and they take care of their family. They bought that gun legally.
Look, man. Black Guns Matter isn’t just for black people — it’s for anyone who has been disenfranchised, oppressed, or slandered. We’re the ones on the streets, and we’re going to use the Second Amendment to defend ourselves against any tyrant. If police don’t want to protect us, we’ll protect ourselves. We’ll protect ourselves from the scumbags in our community. I don’t call the police, ever.
But violence can be easily avoided. Most of the time, conflict can be handled way before firearms are involved — I’m talking about conflict resolution. I mean, I’ve never had to shoot anyone. Having a firearm doesn’t mean you have the right to commit an act of violence. But unfortunately, if it comes to that — and it very rarely does — you need to be trained to handle the situation. Like when you have a .22 caliber handgun — a small firearm — even that, the first time you fire it, can be overwhelming. It gives you a certain level of respect for the tool. When you see what a .45 can do to a person’s face, or a watermelon, you have a whole new respect. But I don’t think people should go there; you only go there when someone gets violent and you have no choice but to defend yourself.
The rules guiding the use of deadly force are clear: Don’t point a gun at someone unless you fear for your life. But harassment? Harassment doesn’t mean you take someone’s life. If someone says, “Maj, I don’t like your hair,” well, you know what, I can walk away from that. Deadly force is only used in spaces where you have no other option. That’s why it’s key to understand conflict resolution. A lot of gun rights organizations are leaving that out: You only shoot when you have no other option. What George Zimmerman did, for example, was not acceptable.
And that’s why, if you’re going to exercise your Second Amendment right, you need training. I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t have a gun. I’m saying, if you’re going to carry a gun, you need to learn how to do it properly and legally.
[Photo: Maj Toure]