ROSELAWN, Ohio – New Prospect Baptist Church is home to one of the largest black congregations in Cincinnati. On any weekend there you'll find weddings, funerals, and three Sunday services.
Not exactly a place you think you'd find 179 women firing .22-caliber handguns in the church basement.
But that's exactly what happened on Feb. 8, when the church opened its doors to what state officials believe is one of the largest women-only, concealed carry gun certification classes held in the state of Ohio.
Over and over, the women cited the same reason for coming to the class. They were tired of being scared – of guns, of being alone in a home, of walking in some neighborhoods.
Karen Bolden, 56, was so scared of her husband's guns she asked him to get rid of them when they got married two years ago. He did, but she's working to conquer her fear. When Bolden's sister alerted her to the class – and suggested they go together – she jumped at the chance.
"This is why this class is so important," Bolden said. "We can't be afraid."
The class was organized by two men: the church's pastor Rev. Damon Lynch III and Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Pastor, a Republican who appeared at the class sporting a t-shirt reading "All gun control is racist."
On Jan. 8, Pastor spread the word of the class on Facebook.
"FREE All Women CCW Course! After hearing about those girls in Columbus being kidnapped and other young ladies around the country being sold into sex trafficking, rape, domestic violence, and other acts of violence against women, I felt the only thing I could do is host another free basic gun course for all women!"
Within a week, the class was sold out.
Two hundred women signed up. Despite an early morning snowfall that made driving treacherous, 179 women turned out for the class, all with varying comfort levels with guns. Some had never touched one. Others owned a gun, but wanted the license needed to carry it with them. Some came because their moms or sisters or friends suggested it.
The class was taught by certified CCW licensing firm Arm the Populace. It was an intense, nine-hour class, complete with a built-just-for-the class shooting range in an empty storage area above the church's community center.
Women paid $25 each to cover the cost of the space, cheaper than the typical $65 class fee.
Arm the Populace, a Cincinnati-based company that offers firearms and personal defense training, donated its time. It billed the class as the largest CCW class of all women ever in Ohio.
A spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General's Office, which keeps CCW records, said the office does not track class size, but from his experience, 179 women in a class could be the largest. The office does not keep CCW permit statistics by race.
A Pew Research Center report in 2017 delved into "America's complex relationship with guns." It found gun ownership varied considerably by race and gender. About 4 in 10 men (39%) said they personally owned a gun, compared with 22% of women. And while 36% of whites reported that they were gun owners, only about a quarter of blacks and 15% of Hispanics said they own a gun.
White men are especially likely to be gun owners: About half (48%) say they own a gun, compared with about a quarter of white women, and nonwhite men (24% each) and 16% of nonwhite women, the report found.
In this class, of the 179 women, 169 were black.
The class was broken into five groups, rotating into lessons about safety, laws, how to actually get a CCW license, which only a sheriff can issue, and then actual target practice.
No 'mansplaining' allowed
Douglas Cooper, Arm the Populace's founder and chief instructor, started the class by explaining: "The Second Amendment is for everyone," he said.
Instructor Bill Maltbie then told the class why women-only classes are important, though they offer classes for everyone, too.
"We do them so there are no men sitting there mansplaining because they've played a lot of video games," Maltbie said. "We're not here for Call of Duty. I just want to make sure I can go home at night and see my family."
For Arm the Populace, it wasn't unusual to hold the class in a church. They work to bring the class to places where people feel comfortable: salons, daycare centers, biker clubs. And, well, churches.
Cooper cuts an imposing figure, over 6 feet tall, bald, with a bushy beard and a body frame that shows he likes to eat.
"I can’t change the way I look, I look like a Sasquatch," he tells the class. "But, if I meet you in a place you feel comfortable, you might come."
For Rev. Lynch III, it wasn't unusual either – even though he's not a proponent of guns himself.
"New Prospect Baptist Church is more than a church," Lynch said. "It's the heart of the community."
Without a recreation center, like many Cincinnati neighborhoods have, the church serves that need.
On the morning of the CCW permitting class, the church opened its doors for a financial freedom class, a Jewish culture class, an AA meeting and a funeral.
"I’m not a gun lover; I don’t own any guns, but people have Second Amendment rights to own a gun," Lynch said. "In the African American community, the conversation is usually about buying guns back. But, if people are lawfully trained and learn how to be responsible, they will probably never use one. It sets them on a different course. As opposed to a person who gets a gun and thinks I have to go shoot."
And that, Lynch said, "is a good thing."
'Practice, practice, practice'
The range was built, with input from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, just for the class. It was bare-bones, a sheet of wood tacked to a wall, on which targets would be placed. And a table, which the women stepped up to for shooting practice. The women could hear gunfire before they were even in the room, causing some to briefly pause.
Inside the room, Instructors handed out earplugs.
Then there was one-on-one training with .22-caliber handguns.
Tape was passed around. Bolden used it to hang her target on the wall.
Arms straight. Legs apart. Ten shots. An instructor guided her stance. She hit the target within a centimeter of the bullseye.
Her sister, Sonya Jackson, was next. Same stance. An instructor lightly guided her arms into better position. Two bullets hit the target.
"I didn't have my glasses," Jackson noted to her sister.
Bolden told her, "You'll just have to go with me to the range. Practice. Practice. Practice."
The room grew smoky, chips off the wooden board littering the floor.
Kai Brown, 35, is a single mom with two small children. She went into the experience afraid of guns. But she signed up because she wanted to be able to protect her family.
"I guess I'm a lover, so I'm not really into like guns and violence," Brown said. "If I have some friends that have a CCW and they have firearms ... I'm like crazy about them, putting them away, getting them out of my sight. It's just a fear that I've always had."
When it came time to practice shooting, that fear emerged. She was apprehensive and flinched as others fired.
She dipped her head into her hands. She took a deep breath. She fanned herself with her hands.
But the instructors were kind. Encouraging. Helpful.
Brown took another breath.
And she fired.
"It's evident that that fear is still there," Brown said.
"I am hoping that just because of the times we live in and now ... you have to be prepared," Brown said. "And so I don't want my fear to keep me from being unable to ... get with the times."
She praised Pastor for giving her the opportunity. And she echoed his opening sentiments to the class.
"It's my right to carry ... so I want to be able to," Brown said. "It's wonderful to be surrounded by many different women from many different walks of life. And we're all ... here to protect ourselves."
Follow reporter Sharon Coolidge on Twitter: @SharonCoolidge
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This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: CCW class for black women at Cincinnati church draws big crowd