Politics

Black Gun Ownership Is Growing. Can It Make Black People Safer?

Black gun rights advocate Kenn Blanchard says Black Americans shouldn’t be scared of the Second Amendment.

Black gun owners march in Oklahoma City
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images.

Gun violence kills thousands of Americans every year, and that pain is especially sharp in the nation’s Black communities. For a generation, a lot of Black political leadership has called for more guns to be taken off the street and has been closely aligned with gun control advocates. But a growing number of Black Americans seem to be choosing a different approach. During the Trump administration, Black gun ownership rates rose, and in 2020, of all demographic groups, Black Americans saw the sharpest increase in gun purchases at the start of the year. For people like Kenn Blanchard, advocating for Black gun ownership has been a crusade for decades. After serving in the military and holding a series of jobs in law enforcement, Blanchard branded himself the “Black Man With a Gun,” with a book, a website, and now a podcast with that name. He rejects the idea that gun control will make Black communities safer and has made it his mission to encourage Black Americans to view gun ownership as an important element of self-defense. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Blanchard about how he reconciles his gun advocacy with his faith, and how he thinks Black gun owners can make themselves safer from police violence. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jason Johnson: You’re a military veteran, a former law enforcement officer, and guns have been a part of your work for years. What led you from law enforcement work to being a gun rights advocate?

Kenn Blanchard: Entrepreneurism, actually. I tried to figure out, what could I do that actually would make a difference? What could I do that I could do without batting an eye? So I thought in the beginning, all I was going to do was become a gun instructor. I was going to hang out near a range, I was going to put up a shingle, and whenever a mom and pop bought a firearm for their home, I was going to be the guy you can call. I was going to make every home safer. I was going to have family classes. I was going to make sure that the undercover gun owner didn’t exist anymore, because we kill a lot of people in our homes because we don’t know about the firearm that we have. Hidden in the closet does not secure it the proper way. We haven’t gone through the education with our kids that tell them that unlike Elmer Fudd, if you point this thing at somebody, your face will not just turn black and you’ll be OK tomorrow. There’s an education that has to go on, and I was going to be that guy.

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But once I got into it, I learned that everybody didn’t grow up on a country farm. Everybody didn’t know about the hunting aspects and the responsibility aspects, and I had to go way deeper than just being the shingle guy, being the entrepreneur. I had to go into gun rights and the gun history. I had to show my people first that you have the right to do this, that it has been prevented since the creation of this country. That African and Native Americans were not allowed to have one of these things, and that has caused us to have a purposed ignorance, and that has hurt us in the long run. So I wanted to demystify this thing, and it took me back—I became an activist before I became an entrepreneur. So the money never came. I became the Black Man With a Gun because I was always advocating for safety and reliability and responsibility, and then getting beat up for sticking up for the person who actually owned one. And that’s what started it.

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Kenn, you’ve heard statistics about how the U.S. leads industrialized countries in gun violence and deaths, how Black men are disproportionate victims of gun crime, and how even legal gun ownership can potentially increase the chances of suicide. If I have a gun in the house and I’m having suicidal thoughts, my chances of going through with it and being successful are greater than if I just have pills or if I have a paring knife. Why do you think it’s important to advocate for gun ownership before the community figures out how to handle the guns out there that we already have?

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Education got us off the plantation and education can keep us free. If you have a problem, the firearm is not going to solve it. We do it on both ends. Gun people, people who are pro-gun, think that if they buy this bazooka, that they will no longer have crime, and that’s false. And the people who don’t have a firearm think that all guns are evil, and that’s false. So it’s a two-way street, and there is no solution because we haven’t fixed humanity yet. We still don’t know “love thy brother and sister.” We still don’t have that part down. So when we’re looking at fixing things, it still is education, it’s information, and there’s no shortage of that right now.

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I want to talk about that, because you’re also a pastor, and there are people who have some particular interpretation of the Bible where they think that advocating for guns is somehow anti-Christian. Talk a little bit about how have you been beaten up rhetorically. Were you getting criticized by other clergy? Were you being criticized by parishioners, if you ran a church? How were you getting beaten up for being the Black Man With a Gun?

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When I first started, I was the janitor of this big church in D.C. I was the guy who came at 4 o’clock, opened the place up, got ready for the choirs, cleaned up things. I was also security for the church, so while little folks was in there practicing the choirs and whatever, I was keeping the thing straight. But while I was there, I was actually writing my first book, Black Man With a Gun, a book for responsible gun ownership, and everybody thought that was a cool thing—until I became a minister. And then they thought, well, how can you advocate for gun ownership? And I said, “Easy—guns do not equal murder.” My grandmother was the first gun owner that I ever knew. She actually shot a water moccasin within feet of me. She became my hero. My grandmother celebrated freedom on watchnight service night, New Year’s Eve, and she fired that thing off in the middle of the night in Suffolk, Virginia. And that was the first gun ownership that I saw.

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So I had to be able to explain that in the church. And then as time went on, I got pseudo-famous, being a pro-gun Black preacher, and that didn’t go over too well as I became a pastor. Folks would snicker and make jokes about it until I even had foreign press come over and they wanted to see this pistol-packing preacher. My deacons weren’t too keen on my notoriety for that thing. But I was trying to tell them that I am still a peace-aholic, still a peacenik, still a hippie. I just have been trained how to protect people. I just know about this thing called a gun. It’s the heart of man that is desperately wicked. It is not the tool that you use.

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When we think about the arc of you changing from law enforcement to being a writer to podcasts and now clergy, did the shooting at Mother Emanuel Church have any impact on your advocacy? That was an instance where, just six years ago, in Charleston, South Carolina, the white nationalist went in, killed nine people after doing Bible study with them. Did that change how you talked about gun advocacy? Did that change attitudes in the Black church? Because I know a lot of churches started bringing in armed security on Sundays after that incident. Did you see that, and how did that affect you?

I actually learned how it feels to be Noah. When you want to build an arc and it never rains, and then when it rains, everybody’s running to you. I had been saying this stuff to ministers, I had been talking to my fellow pastors, and they were like, “Yeah, yeah, you do you, Kenn. I’m not going to do this thing.” And then now they were, “Oh, yeah, man, we’re going to the range next week. You want to come with us?” Or “I just got this whole police detachment to work undercover in my church. What are you guys doing?” And I thought, you guys are already just gone past the whole thing I was trying to do before. That’s where we went. I mean, it went from, OK, nobody ever said “You were right” or “Can we take a class from you now?” They just went in their own direction, and sometimes it was an overkill.

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Something that you and a lot of Black gun advocates talk about a lot is the history of gun control in this country and how it is completely wrapped up in white supremacy and limiting Black people’s ability to protect themselves or liberate themselves from state-sponsored apartheid. What do you think is the key nexus moment in Black gun history that people should know about? What’s the aha moment that people who are like, “Oh, I don’t think we should have guns,” should know about Black people’s history with guns in America that would transform their thinking?

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I used to think that if you knew that they were the Black Codes, that behind many of the whole civil rights and the gun issue that we talk about now—we assume it’s some good ol’ boy somewhere—has a basis in Black history. If you talk about the Dred Scott decision, they wanted to deny Dred Scott the right to keep and bear arms, the right to citizenship. If you want to go to Cruikshank, then you’re talking about the Black gun rights, voting rights, of a crew of people who were denied. If you want to go and look at Louisiana and North Carolina and all the places where our people have originated from, after they were snatched in here and lived, and see how the laws were made to forbid them from even having a musket ball or even a pit bull. If you could defend yourself, then you were outlawed.

Then you know about the Great Migration, of how our people left the South and went to Detroit and to New York and all those places where there was industry. And to be more civilized, our relatives, our matriarchs, didn’t want us to get in any trouble, so they said leave the guns behind, and we started becoming these undercover brothers with our firearms. We still served in the military, we still were police officers, we still hunted. So because we couldn’t keep a gun legally at mama’s house, because she wanted us to be civilized, we have a culture of not teaching safety, responsibility. You’ll never become a convert until it’s you. You can hear our history all day, until you become a homeowner, you become a parent, you have something to defend, and now you need a fire extinguisher in case a fire comes, in case of trouble. You learn that you’re your own first responder.

Listen to the entire episode below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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