When Dylann Roof, a self-radicalized domestic terrorist, walked into a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot dead nine worshipers last year, it sent shockwaves through the Black community.
Roof, a fledgling white supremacist, had been motivated to carry out his terrorist attack after reading articles on the Council of Conservative Citizen’s website. He was also upset about the Travyon Martin verdict in Florida and anti-police protests in Baltimore. He feared Blacks “were taking over.”
For many Black people, the attack reminded them of the turbulent Civil Rights era, when acts of violence against Black churches were common. Some Black people say Roof’s attack forced them to reevaluate their attitudes towards firearms. Over the last few decades, most Black communities have taken an anti-gun stance as they became aware of the toll gun violence was taking on young Black men. But Roof’s attack made some people decide they need to start carrying weapons for their own protection.
Black people arming themselves is nothing new. Even though Dr. Martin Luther King became world-renowned for peaceful protests, he was protected by the “Deacons of Defense,” a group of armed Black men who served as his security detail. The Black Panthers are still famous for storming the California State Assembly in 1967 and exercising their 2nd amendment rights. (Open carry was legal in California at the time. However, then Gov. Ronald Reagan changed the law making carrying firearms in public illegal.)
However, even today, there are Black gun clubs and self-defense groups who style themselves after the Black Panthers. One group, the Huey P. Newton Gun Club in Dallas, Texas, is named after one of the founders of the Black Panthers. Many of these gun clubs are motivated by individuals who believe in self protection, but also doubt that they can count on police to protect them against violent criminals.
“Police Terrorism, along with ill-advised and racist grand-juries across America, have failed to indict officers for murder even in circumstances where overwhelming evidence has existed to suggest an indictment would be appropriate,” according to the group’s web site. “The emergence of The Huey P. Newton Gun Club has prompted black people specifically, and others generally, to take up arms for self-defense in response to these atrocities.”
Vincent Hill, a gun owner and former law enforcement officer, said Roof’s attack touched him personally.
“My father is an AME minister in Columbia, South Carolina, and he was actually Rev. Pinckney’s mentor while he was in school,” said Hill, who lives in Atlanta. “Rev. Pinckney attended Allen University along with my brother. The shooting in Charleston did not change things necessarily, but rather reinforced the racial issues that hide among us every day.”
Hill believes society has become so dangerous, that all citizens should be armed for their own protection.
“Society as a whole needs to arm themselves,” he said. “Churches, movie theaters, restaurants have all become a common area for mass violence. Nobody is safe from becoming a potential victim. I consider Charleston an isolated incident. However, the threat of violence or the need for being armed exists in current society.”
According to Hill, the main threat of gun violence comes from mentally ill people having access to firearms.
“Guns in the hands of criminals or mentally ill individuals increases the chance of violence,” Hill said. “I never arrested a law-abiding, permit-granted gun owner for committing a felony with a gun or for assault. The person who owns a gun for protection is not a threat to society. Crime is actually lower in areas where open carry is legal. Guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens trained properly in shooting, proves to be a deterrent to the criminal element.”
Although Hill advocates more people carrying guns, he says that it’s important gun owners understand the responsibility of carrying a deadly weapon.
“The most important thing to know is that once the trigger is pulled, there is no turning back,” he said. “If pointing a gun, be prepared to pull the trigger and be prepared to eliminate the threat. A lot of people don’t know what it is to eliminate a threat and will attempt to aim for an area that is non-lethal. However, non-lethal means the threat is still a threat. So anyone owning a gun should know that it is meant to take a life.”
The South Carolina shooting changed Phillip Singleton’s attitude toward gun ownership.
“Prior to the shootings in South Carolina, I have been a strong proponent of not exercising my 2nd Amendment rights,” said Singleton, a lobbyist and political consultant from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. “ I’ve always personally felt that if you have reverence for life then you would never take another’s life. But after the massacre at the Emmanuel AME Church, my perspective changed because there are certain places in this world where you shouldn’t have to fear for your life.”
Singleton feels that since violence can happen anywhere, people need to be prepared to protect themselves.
“The mass shootings at schools, libraries, churches, community centers and movie theaters have put most people, including myself, on notice that you must be prepared to fight for your life, physically or via self defense with a gun, at any waking moment,” he said. “No establishment in today’s America is safe from gun violence or a mass shooting.”
After Roof’s massacre, Singleton said he thought about buying a gun and is currently going through the process of educating himself on how to handle firearms.
“I have considered purchasing a gun in the last few months and have taken the necessary steps to learn how to properly handle, shoot and understand the local and state laws afforded to a concealed weapons holder,” said Singleton.
But although he has begun training to learn how to use a weapon, he’s not sure he could actually pull the trigger if faced with a life-threatening situation.
“My biggest drawback in making a purchase is actually having to use a gun in an instance and manner where I have to take another person’s life,” he said. “Although owning a gun does not necessarily mean I have to use one, it does open up the window of opportunity that I will if a situation presents itself.”
Like Hill, Singleton says the biggest cause of mass shootings is mentally unstable people having access to weapons. He said the government needs to do a better job of doing background screenings on potential gun owners.
“Look at the mass shootings that have happened at Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Columbine, the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting and Emanuel AME. I’m quite sure we can conclude that those persons, who led these various terrorist acts, were all mentally unstable individuals who had access to a plethora of assault rifles, unlimited rounds of ammunition and other weapons,” Singleton said. “None of these individuals should have had access to these kind of weapons under any circumstance. But now that more people are getting gun permits and purchasing weapons, it would be wise for our elected officials across the country to reform their respective gun laws. Right now there are no barriers between a person applying for a gun permit, an analysis or understanding of their mental health status, and them being able to then go purchase a gun. This needs to change.”
When Singleton decides to become a gun owner, he realizes that he will still have to closely follow the laws of his state.
“I feel every gun owner should take the reasonable time to understand the gun laws in their state. Over the last few years, some states have made changes to their laws allowing exceptions to how, where, and when you can carry your gun, shoot your gun or have it on your person,” he said. “It would be a good choice for anyone that is licensed to carry, and use deadly force, to know the laws before it’s too late.”
Although Roof’s massacre and the San Bernardino, California, terrorist attack may have sent Black people running for their weapons, owning a gun doesn’t always guarantee safety and protection. There have been some cases of Black people who have been killed, even though they were licensed gun owners. Corey Jones, a Florida musician, was killed by a police officer after his car broke down on the freeway even though he had a permit for his weapon.
But Singleton says that scenario doesn’t intimidate him.
“At the end of the day, a concealed weapons-holding Black man shouldn’t be intimidated by the presence of the police,” he said. “And an officer shouldn’t treat a Black man, that is licensed to carry, any different from how they treat other everyday citizens. But we’ll see how it plays out soon enough.”
Hill recommends that armed Black people quickly inform police they are carrying, to avoid any confusion.
“The key to preventing a situation from escalating is for the legally-armed individual to announce they are armed, have a permit and not make any furtive movements that would suggest a threat to the officer,” said Hill. “As a former police officer, I would deal with a Black person legally armed as I would a white person. A gun creates the same damage in the hands of a white as it does in the hands of a Black. So if the officers believed there was an immediate threat, the officer’s action would be the same.”
Hill acknowledges that race relations have gotten so bad, there may be more people like Roof who are willing to carry out violence on Black people. He pointed to supporters of Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who have attacked Black people who have protested his rallies.
“Look no further than the man in N.C. who punches the Black protester then said on live TV ‘next time we’ll just kill them,’ ” he said.
Singleton also says there may be people willing to inflict violence on the Black community, but there are also plenty of people willing to step forward and defend it too.
“The Dylan Roofs of the world exist — but so do other Black men who are willing to take your life then claim self defense,” he said.