African-Americans still favor gun control, but views are shifting

Pall bearers release white doves over the casket of mass shooting victim Ethel Lance as she is buried at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church cemetery in North Charleston, South Carolina in a June 25, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/files

By Tariro Mzezewa and Jessica DiNapoli

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Horace Augustine was raised in Oklahoma City by a mother with strong convictions about guns: She didn’t want them in her house. Faith, she insisted, would keep her family safe.

Augustine, now an account executive with a staffing agency in Atlanta, has recently found himself at odds with his mother’s views: He wants to buy a gun, in part to protect the church he attends.

Augustine began thinking last year that he should buy a gun for protection, and the shooting last month at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston intensified his conviction. As an African American and a board member of his church, Augustine worries about someone coming in with a firearm during services, and he wants to be prepared.

“They won’t be the only one pulling a trigger,” he said.

While it’s not yet clear what effect, if any, the church shooting in Charleston will have on gun purchases, a growing number of African-Americans across the United States have changed their position on firearms in recent years, breaking with a long tradition of gun control advocacy among blacks and embracing the kind of pro-gun positions that are more widely held by whites.

To be sure, attitudes toward guns are still deeply divided along racial lines, with 60 percent of blacks prioritizing controls on gun ownership over protecting gun rights, while 61 percent of whites say they consider gun rights more important than gun controls, according to a December poll by the Pew Reserch Center.

But the level of African American support for gun control has fallen by 14 percentage points since 1993, when it stood at 74% according to the Pew data.

During that same period, the number of blacks prioritizing gun rights over stricter gun controls nearly doubled, up to 34 percent in December from 18 percent in 1993.

Collins Idehen, a 31-year-old African American attorney in Texas, said he used to hide his interest in guns because he was concerned about being stereotyped as a “young black thug.” Idehen, who makes YouTube videos under the name Colion Noir as a commentator for the NRA, worried there was no space to openly discuss his interest in guns.

As he put it in one video: “The image of black gun ownership has been hijacked and vilified by an anti-gun mainstream media.”

The NRA has made an effort in recent years to diversify its membership by partnering with millennials like Idehen, especially minorities and women.

“The N.R.A doesn’t care about your gender, race or anything else,” Idehan said. He said he feels welcome in the N.R.A. and believes the organization and the second amendment are color blind.

Still, some African-American gun supporters see a need for gun groups specifically aimed at their concerns. “If anyone should have the right or need to carry a gun, it should be the African-American community,” said Philip Smith, who earlier this year founded the National African American Gun Association, which he says now has a couple of hundred members.

He cited slavery and the Jim Crow-era South as reasons that blacks should arm themselves, noting that “all those things happened to us because we weren’t able to defend ourselves.”

Smith says he expects that the massacre in Charleston last month will draw more African Americans to the idea that guns are necessary for protection. “Just think if one of those folks had a gun, or two or three,” he said.

The idea that guns provide protection appears to be quickly gaining currency among American blacks. In December, 54 percent of blacks polled by Pew said they believed guns were more likely to protect people than to put their safety at risk. That figure was up from 29 percent two years earlier. For whites, 62 percent said guns protect people, up from 54 percent in 2012.

Pew conducted the poll last year shortly after decisions clearing police officers in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and the timing may have had an effect on the black response, said Carroll Doherty, director of political research.

Smith understands that many African-Americans don’t embrace his views on guns, including some of his close associates. He has agreed to disagree, for example, with his friend, Lisa Bratton, a history professor at a historically black college.

“I do know it’s far too easy to get a gun in this country,” Bratton said. “To me, it’s obvious, there’s so much violence in this country.”

Jooyoung Lee, a sociologist who has studied the effect of gun violence on black men in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, said that he hears young black men in the inner city complaining that African American leaders at the forefront of the gun debate are distant from the struggles of those who may need guns to protect themselves.

Lee said his research found a strong sense of distrust between African Americans and the police. The perception was that “police don’t always respond when people are in trouble, and when they do, sometimes they beat and abuse people,” Lee said.

Mistrust of the government is strongly correlated to support for gun rights, said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. People feel like they have to take care of themselves, he said.

In some cases, that attitude has led - as it has with some white gun owners - to deliberately provocative displays of gun rights. At the Huey P. Newton Gun Club in Texas, formed last year after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, members participate in open-carry displays during demonstrations against police brutality.

Club co-founder Darrin Reed, who is also a member of the New Black Panthers, said more blacks are arming themselves now then in the past because the government and police have shown “they’re not able to keep drug dealers” out of African American communities.

“They failed to protect the black community,” he said.

(Reporting by Tariro Mzezewa and Jessica DiNapoli; Editing by Sue Horton)