Last August, only a week after Onnie Brown had moved into a rust-colored, ranch-style home in Phoenix, Arizona, a stranger started banging on her door, looking for someone named Ricky. “Ain’t no damn Ricky here,” she retorted to the scraggly white man.
Brown, a petite, 43-year-old single mother with a wide smile, knows how to handle uncertain situations, ones that could veer toward violence. Years ago, she had worked as a nurse in a maximum-security prison, honing a confidence verging on bravado and the ability to read people. “I wasn’t shaking. I wasn’t trembling,” she says.
Resting in her pocket was the .22-caliber pistol she’d grabbed from her desk. This was the first time she had armed herself against potential danger since buying the handgun four years earlier.
But in the middle of this weekday, she didn’t need it. After the stranger realized that neither Brown nor her neighbor — who’d been keeping watch from across the street — were intimidated, he left.
That Brown keeps a weapon at the ready aligns with shifts in why people say they arm themselves. In the ’90s, most gun owners cited hunting and sports shooting as the primary reason. Today, surveys show that two out of three Americans who own guns keep them mainly for self-protection; women especially say it’s the driving consideration. The demographics of who owns guns are also changing. Brown, who is a Black woman, pushes against the embedded stereotype of the American gun owner: white, male, and living in the country.
Brown bought her first gun in 2018, four years after her divorce. Her daughter’s safety weighed on her constantly, and Brown says she “needed to know how to do something more than just scream and scratch” for their protection.
In recent years, story after story has furthered the narrative that Black women are the fastest-growing group of gun owners in the country. While there are some surveys and recent academic research to support this assertion, conclusive evidence remains elusive. Yet the narrative rings true to many Black gun owners, including many of the more than a dozen interviewed for this story. It’s also supported by the gender breakdown of the more than 40,000 members of the National African American Gun Association, a majority of whom are female.
While growing up in Savannah, Georgia, Brown and her two brothers weren’t allowed to touch their father’s pistol. He kept the gun, which Brown calls “itty-bitty,” in the house for protection, like many other Black families in their neighborhood. “We lived in a bad area … and so you had to have something.” She wouldn’t actually fire a gun for the first time until decades later, when her then-boyfriend took her to an indoor shooting range. “I just always thought guns were kind of a little bit scary,” she says, attributing her outlook to a sort of uncritical cultural osmosis. But she went shooting anyway, because she was feeling vulnerable as a single parent and wanted to be able to protect her daughter. The couple took one more trip to the range, but their relationship fizzled out shortly thereafter. Brown’s interest in guns, however, did not. After joining a community of Black shooters in the Phoenix area, she went to a pawn shop and bought her very first gun. It was a brand-new Phoenix Arms .22-caliber pistol — an itty-bitty gun, just like her father’s.
In addition to the pawn-shop pistol, Brown also owns a 9-mm. handgun, a two-shot derringer, and, her favorite, a .22-caliber rifle. “It fires just like a BB gun,” she says. She also keeps a machete, just for good measure. Although each firearm is kept in her room unlocked and loaded, she’s not concerned about her 13-year-old daughter Onna coming across them. This is partly because of Onna’s maturity — “She is 13 going on 57,” Brown says — but also because Onna has spent lots of time at the range with Mom, going back to when she was only 7 years old.
“There are some moms that don’t want their kids in the house that has guns in it. I don’t have them laying around the house,” Brown says. “What happens with some parents is that they shelter and taboo stuff so much that kids are curious.” When kids are properly trained to use firearms, Brown says, their mystique dissipates as well as their potential danger.
The American Academy of Pediatrics would disagree strenuously with Brown’s storage methods. The organization urges gun owners to keep their weapons locked, unloaded, and separated from ammunition, which is also to be locked up. But only three in ten households with children store all firearms locked and unloaded.
Nonetheless, “It makes me feel more secure,” Brown says of her decision to keep her home stocked with weapons. “I never want to draw a gun on anybody, but I’m glad that it’s available if I ever needed to again.”
When Philip Smith founded the National African American Gun Association in 2015, he expected most of its members to be men. Instead, mostly women joined that first chapter in Atlanta. They came from all walks of life: social workers, students, and mothers, sometimes with their children in tow, joined chapters from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Oakland, California.
The most recent data to support the claim of surging gun purchases by Black women comes from Deborah Azrael, a public health researcher at Harvard University. Azrael conducted a nationally representative survey of gun owners during the pandemic, and found that overall 10 percent of gun owners were Black and 37 percent were women. But among respondents who said they purchased a firearm for the first time between January 2019 and April 2021, some 21 percent were Black and 48 percent were women. In an interview, Azrael said the data was notable, but cautioned against drawing sweeping conclusions about Black women’s buying habits because of the survey’s small sample size.
Back in 2014, Smith had yet to join the ranks of Black Americans who own a gun. One weekend — in an origin story exceedingly common among his group’s members — he was reluctantly dragged to a shooting range by some friends. Smith had a marvelous time and realized there must have been many other Black people who also needed the right introduction to firearms. So he founded NAAGA in February of the following year, in honor of Black History Month. Today, the group, which welcomes all regardless of background, lists 97 chapters on its website.
The same year that Smith experienced his revelation, Brown arrived in Phoenix. After splitting with her boyfriend, she wanted to keep on shooting but didn’t feel confident enough to visit the range alone. Still yearning to meet others like herself — her new home having about half the average number of Black people as the rest of the country — she searched the social network Meetup for Black affinity groups. The sole NAAGA chapter in the state — the Freedom Firearms and Safety Gun Club — just happened to pop up first.
When Brown joined in 2018, the group had trouble filling out the spare, gray classroom it sometimes booked for meetings at Shooters World, an indoor gun range and firearms store in Phoenix. But as the pandemic began, sending Americans into isolation and toward new uncertainties, “interest has jumped up tremendously,” Brown says. The number of people on the group’s Facebook page catapulted from fewer than 100 to over 1,000 in less than six months, and meetings over video allowed members to more easily discuss training, weaponry, and the history of Black gun ownership, sometimes referred to as the Black tradition of arms.
They weren’t alone. The club’s growth coincided with a nationwide explosion in gun sales — in 2020, Americans purchased an estimated 21.8 million firearms, the highest year on record by a gigantic margin. Sales fell to 18.9 million in 2021, but that was still almost 3 million more than the pre-pandemic record. This heightened desire for weaponry has been largely attributed to the pandemic and the ambient level of unease it created. Then, the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd spurred a stir-crazy populace to venture outdoors and protest. Those historic demonstrations sometimes bent toward havoc and left a number of observers feeling safer with a weapon nearby; with the breakdown in social order throughout many cities, there was no telling if police could respond in time to concerns over rioting or to relatively mundane and personal crises.
Last, the election of President Joe Biden stoked fears that gun-control measures were on the way, further driving up sales. While on the campaign trail, Biden vowed to reinstate an assault-weapons ban and regulate new categories of firearms. (More than a year into his presidency, those pledges remain unfulfilled, and it is unclear whether or not he will push forward any major gun-control bills before this November’s midterm elections, while his party still controls both houses of Congress.)
But there is another reason, rarely captured by research or national surveys, why Black women are arming themselves. It’s the same reason why Brown prioritized being around others like herself before any activity in particular: to cultivate a sense of community.
Brown quickly became a prominent fixture at the club’s meetings. Her commitment caught the eye of Scott Dias, who founded the group along with his brother, and shortly thereafter, Brown was asked to serve as co-vice-president. Dias knew he wanted to attract and retain women in the club, so “it only made sense to me that we should have someone in the forefront that’s a female,” he says. At meetings with new and prospective members, many of whom Brown herself encouraged to attend, she does her best to make them feel welcome. “I hate feeling like I don’t belong somewhere,” says the natural host. When it comes to actually shooting, Dias says his female members “feel more comfortable and they’re more motivated when they see other women and when they connect with other women.”
Azrael, the Harvard gun researcher, understands the appeal of how guns can bring people together, but she is highly skeptical about the promise they hold for the millions of Americans who buy them for self-defense.
A 2016 study co-authored by Michael Siegel, a public-health researcher at Tufts University, found that a state’s rate of gun ownership accounts for 40 percent of its femicide rate. And with each 10 percent state-level increase in gun ownership, the femicide rate by firearm increases by 10.2 percent. “To some extent, whether or not the partner has [access to] a gun is the single most important factor in whether the woman is able to live or die,” Siegel says.
“You get the gun for protection, so the question is, will the gun protect you?” Azrael says. “And I think that the evidence is overwhelming that the answer to that is no.”
Halfway through August 2020, Phoenix was in the midst of its hottest summer on record. At the time, James Boykin was the Freedom Firearms and Safety Gun Club’s sole licensed gun trainer. Despite the scorching temperatures, Boykin spent many weekends teaching gun classes outdoors at Ben Avery Shooting Facility, near the city’s northern edge. He estimated that 85 percent of his students were women and suggested it was because they were more likely to bring and invite female friends, whereas men tended to come alone.
One azure Saturday morning, Boykin taught one of his recurring and most popular classes, a beginners’ pistol course called Sistas With Guns. The two-and-a-half-hour class cost $35, which included pistols and ammunition for learners to use. Five Black women, ranging in age by a few decades, were in attendance. Some of them were familiar with guns, others were curious, but each was enthralled. Annette Wise, a Medicare sales agent, attended the class to meet new people as much as she did out of any particular interest in firearms. She had taken a few classes but still didn’t own her own pistol, so she borrowed one from her brother. “My goal is to get better than my brothers and challenge them” at shooting, Wise said.
Another student named Liz Holloway said she had never imagined arming herself. But changes in the cultural climate, and the fact she was often by herself, made her think otherwise. “I don’t wanna have to do that,” said Holloway about the prospect of taking a life. “But … I wanna go home.” Alicia Collins was still new to Arizona, having recently moved from Washington, D.C. The Army veteran, who now consults for entrepreneurs and small businesses, was for the first time part of the only Black household on her street, which she found unsettling. “As I get comfortable with firearms, I do expect to get them comfortable with firearms,” she said about passing on what she learns to her two teenage children. Still a novice, she borrowed one of Boykin’s pistols for class. “You don’t just become a gun owner without the education.”
Debbie Cotton was one of the more experienced attendees. “I’ve already taken my concealed-carry class and filed my paperwork,” said the retiree. “My next thing is really just to get on the range more, practice more, ’cause it’s a depreciating skill.” She was also thinking about open-carrying her pistol — keeping it visibly holstered in public — as an added measure of protection. This consideration of whether or not to conceal one’s weapon, a lively debate among Black gun owners because of the potential scrutiny it can invite, garnered mainstream attention after protests following the death of George Floyd, which featured striking scenes of Black demonstrators openly wielding firearms as they marched up and down city streets.
Like Holloway, Boykin, who is also a minister, never imagined becoming a gun owner. One winter night on the West Side of Chicago, he was at home watching ESPN and eating pizza when a man tried to break through his back door. He called 911 and then chased the intruder down an alley with a golf club in hand. Boykin and his wife lived across the street from a police station, but it still took the cops more than 30 minutes to respond. When he asked the officers why it took so long, they said it was because he had called between shifts. What if my wife was home and that guy was able to get inside?, he couldn’t help but wonder. Boykin said that at the time he was a typical liberal, “anti-gun and all of that.” But after the attempted intrusion, his opinion began to change. “If anybody should be pro–Second Amendment,” he said, “it should be the descendants of former slaves.”
Throughout the stiflingly hot morning at the range, the women stood at the firing line and faced off with their target, a paper outline of an armed, rotund man sporting sunglasses. Most of them preferred the Weaver stance, in which the feet are placed shoulder-width apart, the knees are bent, and the strong foot is in back for support. The shooter tilts forward slightly for balance, and the weak arm bends while the hand cups the other for support. It’s a good stance for dealing with recoil, a plus for those who aren’t so heavy.
After checking for ear protection, a scream from Boykin’s whistle prompted a series of pops to echo from their 9-mm. pistols. With magazines spent and another blow from the whistle giving the all clear, they walked the dusty seven yards to assess their accuracy. Some cries of jubilation rang out: “I got ’em in the heart!” Wise exclaimed. Boykin, a jovial and natural teacher, joined in their excitement. Others pierced the negative space surrounding the assailant. “At least you hit the paper,” one shooter quipped. “You got to start somewhere.”
Boykin said that men’s egos tend to get in the way of receiving proper instruction, and women are better shooters overall. That is, “once they find a gun that fits them.” Recognizing the increased interest in firearms from women, manufacturers have been doing more to cater to them by creating smaller guns that are easier to handle. Cotton brought her own gun to class. “I have a Smith & Wesson 9-mm. EZ because it’s easy for me to load the magazines,” she said. “The design works for my hand.”
During a break toward the end of the class, Cotton mentioned a friend of hers, a Black woman, who was a competitive shooter and judge with over two decades of firearms experience. “We do everything,” said Holloway, the reluctant gun owner, about Black female achievement. “Yes we do — to excellence,” asserted Cotton.
Collins, the recent transplant from Washington, D.C., said she wanted to become a gun trainer once she got good enough. “James [Boykin] is great,” she continued, “but to have somebody …”
Cotton completed her thought: “That looks like you.”
When Stephanie Marie moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, about seven years ago, she couldn’t find a trainer with a similar identity to hers. The five-foot-one-inch, headstrong former Army paratrooper decided to fill that void by obtaining her concealed-carry permit and launching a local NAAGA chapter herself, the Tri-City Shooters.
Marie found most of her students through events that were geared toward Black women, and oftentimes they had bad relationships with firearms. Some were survivors of domestic violence, and others had lost loved ones in shootings. When she engaged with them about guns, “it’s a hard conversation when it’s rooted in such a traumatic event,” Marie says. But she found those discussions to be necessary, ones in which she’d try to change their thinking by presenting firearms as tools to be used for good or for ill. “It’s ladies that are realizing no one’s protecting them. No one’s going to come and play Captain Save-a-Person,” she says. “So they gotta do it themselves.”
More than two years ago, Marie relocated to Houston and joined a NAAGA chapter there. Now, she trains students and aspiring gun instructors through her own company, Family Ties Firearms Training. Unlike in Florida, living in Texas allows her to open-carry her weapon. “I think it turns heads, but I think that’s part of why I do it,” she says. “I want to open up that dialogue for people that are questioning.”
Some NAAGA members have spoken of experiences at gun stores and shooting ranges where they received differential treatment or even outright hostility. As a result, the sometimes forbidding nature of gun culture has meant that an untold number of would-be shooters have kept their distance from it. Marie sees this turnabout — in which women are deciding to arm themselves — as “progressive” because “[we’re] taking those shackles off of our minds and actually becoming self-reliant.” She’s witnessed such evolution firsthand and within her own family.
Marie hails from New York City, a place with stringent firearms regulations. She believes that local laws strongly influence residents’ attitudes about guns and are the reason her family in Brooklyn is leery of them, as she once was. That was certainly the case when her grandmother once came down to Florida for a visit. It took some cajoling, but Marie was eventually able to convince her elder to go shooting. And once she finally did, “You could just see a transformation,” Marie says, “like the key that unlocks that door, and she’s like, I get it. I understand.”
As do her children, who both started shooting at the age of 5. “We just had a ladies’ night Monday, and she was out there with us,” Marie says about her daughter, who is now 6. This may shock the gun-averse, but one of the main reasons people sign up for her lessons is so they can teach their own kids how to shoot. Another impetus is so that parents can learn how to protect those same children. “Mom, Dad — we are our family’s first responders,” Marie says.
Nonetheless, the number of unintentional shooting deaths of children went up during the pandemic, according to data from Everytown for Gun Safety (which provides grant funding to The Trace). In 2019, 119 children were unintentionally killed. In 2020 and 2021, 142 and 154 were killed, respectively. But those numbers rely on news stories, and those stories normally rely on official records that reflect roughly half of the actual total, according to a 2013 investigation by the New York Times.
Some of these deaths resulted from an adult mishandling their weapon, and others happened when a child gained access to one. A 2018 study Azrael co-authored found that “approximately seven percent of U.S. children (4.6 million) live in homes in which at least one firearm is stored loaded and unlocked, an estimate that is more than twice as high as estimates reported in 2002.” Texas and Arizona, like most states, do not have laws requiring owners to keep their guns locked.
Marie takes firearms training as seriously as her mothering, and because she’s determined to pass down her knowledge the two are often inseparable. To those who naysay her gun-loving ways, “Ultimately, their viewpoint is invalid,” she says. “They’re not protecting my home, and that’s really the bottom line.”
Black Americans carried guns before the Founding Fathers gathered in secret to draft the Constitution. They carried them during the Civil War and again afterward as members of the Buffalo Soldiers, established in 1866 as the nation’s first all-Black military regiments. They carried them for protection after their emancipation from slavery, although the Black Codes of the Reconstruction Era tried to put a stop to that. They carried them out west on what was then America’s frontier, in search of greater freedoms. They carried them throughout the South to guard against white lynch mobs. Later, they carried them to protect scions of the civil-rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., who famously preached nonviolence; less well known is that King applied for, and was denied, a permit to carry a gun, and his Alabama home at one point held so many firearms it was described as “an arsenal.”
What much of this history shares in common is that Black people were arming themselves, choosing to become self-reliant, in reaction to the vacuum of safety left by the state’s unwillingness to protect them from harm. Throughout the nation, from restless cities to rural backwaters, this attitude, to some degree or another, has remained over time. In the fields of sociology and criminology, this outlook is called legal cynicism. It “is the belief that the law and its agents are unable, unwilling, or ill-equipped to provide for one’s safety,” says Michael Sierra-Arévalo, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. He says this may explain part of why Black women are buying guns, but not all of it. “They experience violence of different kinds, or at least at different intensities, than even Black men do.”
In comparison with their white counterparts, Black women are three times as likely to be murdered; twice as likely to be killed by an acquaintance; and almost twice as likely to be fatally shot by an intimate partner. Neither Sierra-Arévalo nor Onnie Brown is too surprised by these stats. “Nobody protects us,” Brown says, likening these disparities and the overall lack of concern over them with the public’s seeming indifference toward missing Black girls. “When a Black woman is missing, no one will care,” she says. “But you get a white girl up there missing and they get all prime-time news, everything’s all over the internet.”
In her 1892 pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, the pioneering investigative journalist Ida B. Wells observed that Black people escaped lynchings only when they were armed. In its final section, titled “Self-Help,” she writes, “The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.” The Winchester is no longer so ubiquitous, and state-sanctioned lynch mobs are a thing of the past, but Brown has pondered this imperative well.
While growing up in Georgia, Brown’s mother preferred to put their family’s safety in the hands of the lord. Brown, no longer a Christian, puts her faith in a more tangible force: “THIS HOME PROTECTED BY THE 2ND AMENDMENT,” declares the red, white, and blue sticker next to her front door.
Home-gun ownership differs across many different demographic characteristics, but the variance is perhaps most stark when it comes to political affiliation. In 1973, 55 percent of Republicans had a gun at home compared with 46 percent of Democrats. By 2021, that cleavage had widened to 57 percent versus 24 percent.
The political allegiances to be found among NAAGA’s thousands of members cover the spectrum — which includes having no allegiance whatsoever. “No, no, no. I don’t do politics at all,” Brown says. When people ask what party she belongs to, she tells them, “I’m in the Personal Accountability Party … I can’t depend on the government for anything. I can’t depend on others for anything.” Marie, the Houston gun trainer, is similarly nonpartisan: “Anything that supports my Second Amendment, I’m for,” she says.
As an organization itself, NAAGA is a broad political tent. The group had previously considered creating a political action committee, but it ultimately decided against supporting any party or politician over another. Smith, NAAGA’s founder, describes “getting caught up in the political argument” as a “land mine” during a recent interview. “Are you to the left? Are you to the right? Are you a Republican or a Democrat? No, we’re just Black folks that like guns,” he says.
Last July, NAAGA underscored that stance by filing an amicus brief to the United States Supreme Court in support of the plaintiff in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen. The brief argues that the State of New York’s discretion to deny any resident a license to carry a handgun is unconstitutional. As do many Black gun owners, the brief goes on to argue that present-day firearms restrictions are just the most recent in a history of racist gun-control measures dating back to the colonial period: Slaves, and even in some states those freed, were required to obtain gun licenses, which, being at the government’s discretion, was essentially impossible. Today, favor for stricter gun legislation remains a key tenet of the Democratic Party, which has received about nine out of every ten votes from Black voters in recent presidential elections.
Brown’s new home has a five-year lease, and she doesn’t plan on staying any longer, which gives her daughter Onna just enough time to finish up high school. “I’m gonna have an empty nest. Why do I even need a house?” Brown says. “I’ll be close by if she needs me. But I’m getting an RV and going backyard to backyard.” She’s a certified nurse practitioner who used to make house calls, but the pandemic relegated her checkups to being done online. So now she plans on roaming the country with her two pit bull–Dobermans, Coco and Buttercup. She also wants to buy a piece of land: something within a couple of hours of Onna, a place to rest when she’s tired of being on other people’s property.
But Brown’s plans for the future depend on one thing above all else — and that’s the sense of security she gets from having a gun nearby. Wherever she goes, so will it, waiting, ready if ever again hostility should greet her at the door.
This story is published in partnership the journalism nonprofit The Trace.