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Eight years ago, Rick Ector had just pulled into his driveway in Detroit after work when two men approached him. They asked for money and pulled out a gun. He handed over his cash, and they left. Though he reported the incident, to his knowledge, the two men haven’t been caught.
"If I survive this incident, I will no longer depend on the police, who have a legal obligation to protect me," Ector recalls thinking. "I had to do what I needed to do to protect myself."
Ector had never before owned a gun. After the incident, he not only legally armed himself; he became a certified firearms instructor and a National Rifle Training counselor; he now runs the Rick’s Firearm Academy in Detroit.
Unlike most members of the National Rifle Association, Ector is black. Since guns are the leading cause of death among African Americans age 14 to 18, black people tend to favor gun control.
But Ector and other African-Americans who share his views on firearms see gun rights as a civil rights issue and tighter regulations as a way to keep power out of the hands of minorities.
"Gun control has racist roots and when you deny people the opportunity to own a gun and to protect themselves, that is the epitome of racism," he told Al Jazeera.
His thinking, he says, is shaped by America’s segregated past. As far back as the 1860s, gun control has been used to keep arms out of the hands of black people. After the Civil War, a group of discriminatory laws known as the Black Codes limited the civil liberties—like the right to bear arms—of newly freed slaves.
Ector says he believes that even today, gun control is doing just that.
"If you live in a community that has a lot of gun control, there’s going to be a lot of crime," he says. "People in New York can get guns, but here’s the thing, you can only carry one if local authority like the sheriff or police chief say it’s okay."
Ector is referring to rules in nine states that give local law-enforcement officials discretionary authority to deny people gun permits even if they meet all criteria for ownership – the same power Alabama’s police department exercised when Martin Luther King Jr. applied to carry a concealed weapon.
King, an advocate of nonviolence, wanted to legally arm himself in 1956 after his house was bombed. But despite threats to his life from the Ku Klux Klan, the police denied the civil rights leader permission to own a gun.
The NRA and the Republican Party rallied behind King’s right to bear arms, but were ultimately unsuccessful.
Of course, the majority of would-be gun owners in New York and the other states where these rules apply are not targets of death threats. And as the NAACP’s Hilary Shelton, a strong advocate of gun control, says, "Over a hundred years of lynching African Americans by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups -- those numbers are not nearly as high as the deaths of African Americans by gun violence."
While the gun-rights group doesn’t keep information on its membership by race, black NRA members say they are in the minority. Rev. Kenn Blanchard, an African-American pro-gun activist and longtime hunter based in Maryland who calls himself "Black Man with a Gun" and produces a weekly Urban Shooter podcast—which reached over one million downloads on Aug. 24—estimates that there were only about 800 blacks among 80,000 people in attendance at the last NRA convention in Houston in May.
Blanchard told Al Jazeera that African Americans who are outspoken about their pro-gun views can expect to face pushback from family members and friends.
"It’s the hardest thing in the world to decide I want to be a gun owner in a black community. The church, your synagogue, your temple, the mosque… nobody supports you," he says. "You have to be the lone guy in the community and before you know it you’re one percent."
Initially, Blanchard expected NRA members to be unwelcoming because of his race. "I went with my mind and my body prepared for battle," he says. But his experience was a positive one and he began encouraging other African Americans to join the organization.
However, most African Americans favor limits on guns. Fifty-three percent of blacks say that gun ownership makes people less safe, compared with 33 percent of whites, according to a December poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
A week after performing at President Obama’s inaugural ceremony in January, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was shot dead in broad daylight in a park in Chicago. Hadiya’s parents, Nathaniel Pendleton and Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, joined the fight against firearms.
In February, Mrs. Cowley-Pendleton appeared in an ad sponsored by Mayors Against Illegal Guns Action Fund to encourage Congress to pass expanded background checks.
They also started Hadiya’s Foundation as a "peace effort," they say, to offer college scholarships and extracurricular activities like sports and computer courses for youth, mentorships for teen and adult parent, and employment training.
"Personally, we never really thought about it (gun control) to this extent until this tragedy happened to our daughter," Pendleton told Al Jazeera.
For Ector, meanwhile, it is the laws that limit gun ownership that are fostering the high rates of gun violence among African Americans.
"People in these gun control areas are experiencing a lot of crime and they need a lot of help,” he says. “Anyone that gives you a gun is an ally."
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