When I ask Carrie Lightfoot to describe the most utopian and expansive version of the America she’s working towards, this is what she says: Obviously there’d be less crime, because criminals are lazy, and if all women had guns they would no longer be considered prey.
Incidents of domestic violence would go down, too—not necessarily because more abusers would get blasted, but because education begets confidence, which breeds independence and the strength to walk away. The fearless self-reliance incubated in women who were trained to be “educated self-protectors” would reverberate through society, smashing glass ceilings and counteracting the forces that turn women into nothing but objects of sex.
We’d feel it everywhere, says Lightfoot, as she pads around the dusty land near her home in Arizona. (“Gotta get those Fitbit steps in.”)
“We’re talking marketing,” she tells me. “Advertising, the entertainment industry. It would impact politics. You would get more confident women entering the ranks.”
Lightfoot, who is originally from Westchester, shot her first .22 seven years ago. Now she dedicates her life to the Well Armed Woman, a multi-pronged organization she founded to counteract the United States’ “testosterone-rich” gun culture. Through the Well Armed Woman, Lightfoot sells lacey concealed carry belly bands and slimming bike shorts with holsters sewn in. Her nonprofit, TWAW Shooting Chapters, extends across 49 states, its 280 gun clubs providing training, including NRA certification, to its members. And Lightfoot is a visible Second Amendment advocate, appearing regularly on TV. Juggling all of that is a lot. Her husband works for her, basically as her secretary.
“We have to push through our socialization, how we’re raised as girls,” she says, to turn into the kind of women who carry. Like others who get into guns later in life, she has a vulnerable memory she’s trying to flee. In her mid-40s, fresh out of an abusive relationship, a single mom watching her kids get ready to leave for college, she took a job in what she describes as a dangerous part of town. News stories of women attacked by rabid ex-boyfriends took on a darker edge. So Lightfoot asked some friends to take her shooting.
It was at times uncomfortable, breaking into such a male-dominated culture, she tells me. But it’s so worth it; it’s transformative, it changes the way a woman navigates the world—an analysis that Jane from Big Little Lies, with her handgun and her conviction that “just holding one in your hand has psychological benefits” for trauma survivors, would certainly support.
In the days following my conversation with Lightfoot, I’ll hear a parallel argument from Maj Toure, the founder of Black Guns Matter, a crowdfunded endeavor to bring gun safety, education, and Second Amendment activism to America’s black communities. “If I know exactly what this firearm does, and what its’ for,” he says, “I’m not disenfranchised, I don’t feel disconnected [from America]. And that confidence, it trickles up, it becomes cultural.”
In other words, gun ownership—the private, individual kind; no one is trying to stage an armed takeover here—gives agency to marginalized demographics. This conviction is shared by the Pink Pistols, a movement established in the early 2000s to end hate crimes against the LGBTQ community by arming them. “Playing the victim has won us sympathy, but at the cost of respect,” wrote Jonathan Rauch in Salon. “So let’s make gay-bashing dangerous.” The Pink Pistols surged in membership again in the wake of the Orlando shooting; a member spoke at a recent pro-Trump rally in Berkeley.
Toure partnered with them earlier this year, on tour in California. “We’re willing to work with anyone who’s about this,” he says.
“This,” being, among other things, the expansion of concealed carry and Stand Your Ground legislation, as well as the evolution of paranoid, self-defense-oriented gun culture into something that more accurately reflects the country’s makeup. As Toure told a group of black Boston residents this fall, the NRA and the Second Amendment aren’t just for the Bundys—they’re for you.
It’s an increasingly seductive idea: That carrying could equal the playing field in a society where older white men still own the most firearms by far, that armed queers don’t get bashed, that one of the answers to systematic oppression is to fight fire with literal fire—and, more importantly, that the laws protecting such gun owners would be equally applied. People who rolled their eyes at the post-Obama gun grab are now, in Trump’s America, arming themselves. And no wonder, when coalitions of neo-Nazis and right-wing militiamen are donning helmets and marching in Berkeley. Maybe, to use one of the gun lobby’s favorite cliches, an armed society really could be pummeled into being more polite.
But it’s nearly impossible to talk about lethal self-defense in America without talking about that gun lobby, which has shaped how guns are wielded, legislated, and imagined in our country—or the lopsided, insidious ways in which gun laws are enforced, as in the cases of Marissa Alexander and Philando Castile or the countless others like them who were either arrested or murdered when they reached for their licensed gun.
Over the last decade the NRA has pushed the Stand Your Ground legislation that is now in effect in more than 20 states, building support through political donations and publicity campaigns that frame every civilian as a would-be attacker. If you’re a Second Amendment advocate in America, collaboration with the NRA is nearly inevitable; both Lightfoot and Toure have touched parts of its vast media wing.
This dream of individual, firearm-mediated agency is one the NRA has fueled in its decades-long campaign for looser gun laws. Once a sporting organization, it has come to rewrite the Second Amendment: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms” is embossed in golden script in the lobby of its DC headquarters, while the slipperier “well-regulated militia” bit has been edited out. This ideology is distilled in its “Don’t be a victim” and “We Don’t Call 911” posters, and in the ad campaigns focused on nebulous, lurking threats.
A few years ago Jennifer Carlson, a sociologist, spent a few years in Minnesota talking to gun owners in a book-length attempt to understand the effects of expanded concealed carry laws. She opens the book with a white guy who keeps a shotgun under his grocery counter and a black man who describes himself as a role model for his ability to self-police.
Their reasons for carrying a gun were rooted in a fundamental sense of American decline, in a distrust in government, wrote Carlson—and, she argued, had been largely shaped in NRA training courses emphasizing “transformation” and “empowerment.” A “major, but overlooked accomplishment of the NRA,” she concluded, has been to promote a version of citizenship from the ground up: the “citizen-protector” stepping in to secure order where the state can or will not. “In fulfilling what they see as a duty, gun carriers do not just respond to the threat of crime—they reclaim a sense of dignity.”
There’s a lot that’s undignified about living in America right now. Trust in the government is at an all-time low, across demographic lines. And right now the gun lobby is winning, its favored laws expanding, the sense of persecution and paranoia it’s fostered in its largely white, male base blooming. But faced with a shift in the country’s demographics, the NRA has also been begrudgingly (if selectively) diversifying.
America’s judicial system weighs citizen-protectors like Toure or Lightfoot differently than it does people like George Zimmerman. In 2012, after Zimmerman shot the unarmed Trayvon Martin and brought national attention to the then-obscure Stand Your Ground defense, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that the logic of such laws “incentivizes the armed citizenry where the beneficiary of justice is simply the last man standing. Your side of the story is irrelevant if you are dead.”
Five years later, in a wildly different political climate, Second Amendment advocates from marginalized groups are claiming that right to use justified lethal force, to be the last person standing. But the question remains: Who actually gets to stand their ground, and under what conditions?
White men over 30 still dominate the market, in that they own the most guns. But the Americans who have a single handgun for self-defense are far more likely to be women, to be a person of color, and to live in urban or suburban areas instead of under wide open skies. Since the ‘90s, the number of people with concealed carry permits has risen from 1 to 13 million; more than half of all gun owners cite self-protection as their primary reason for owning a one. (A sharp increase since the ‘90s, when crime rates were higher.) Over time companies like Smith & Wesson have adapted, marketing smaller pistols that are more attractive to the DIY security crowd. And since the 2016 election, fearing lagging sales, even gun manufacturers known for their shotguns and hunting gear have started advertising with slogans such as “Bad Guys Don’t Ring Doorbells.”
Such vague invocations of evil is advertising at its finest; everyone has a bad guy. For Niecee X, of the Austin-based Black Woman’s Self-Defense League, he’s a domestic abuser, and a bigot. She’s not “one of those Second Amendment nuts” but she thinks more people are coming to her gun-range trainings because of hate crimes against Muslims and people of color. “I don’t think that anyone dreams of the day they’re going to have to shoot somebody,” she says. “But I don’t dream of the day that I die either.”
Neither did Marissa Alexander, who testified in late February in front of a Florida Senate Committee in favor of an expansion of the state’s Stand Your Ground laws. But she also sure didn’t dream of going to prison.
In 2010, Alexander fired what she described as “warning shots” to deter her abusive husband in Jacksonville, Florida. She had no prior criminal history, and no one was injured. Instead of taking a plea deal, Alexander took her self-defense argument to court and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Three years later, she was released on bail and put under house arrest, and took a plea deal in 2015 that capped her sentence at the years she’d served.
Alexander, who lost years of her life and an estimated $10,000 for firing her registered weapon, has emerged as an unlikely proponent of expanded Stand Your Ground legislation. She gave three numbers at the testimony in February: “Number one. Number 12. And number 20. For me, one shot, a 12-minute verdict got me 20 years.” The new version of the law which could shift the burden to prove the life-threatening nature of an attack from the defendant to the prosecutor, would have prevented her from doing time, she said.
This NRA-backed version of Stand Your Ground is nationally unprecedented; it is widely expected to pass this spring. What it may not do, however, is significantly change the prejudices that inspired the sentencing judge to decide Alexander, a black woman, was “angry” when she fired her licensed firearm, rather than afraid for her life. As a group of researchers recently found upon analyzing a database of Florida Stand Your Ground cases between 2005 and 2013, juries were twice as likely to convict the perpetrator of a crime against a white person than of a person of color. Other national data sets show that when white women kill white men, their use of force is considered justified in less than 3% of cases.
Caroline Light, a Harvard professor and the author of a recent history of Stand Your Ground laws, thinks the NRA is brilliant—“and freaking terrifying,” she says. “They’ve done this dual-advertising where they can put on this game face that they’re welcoming to women and minorities, and also stoke the fears of their base—this radicalized fear of black men.” These days, sure, she says, they’re all about “multiculturalism.” Since the ‘80s and ‘90s, they’ve been trying to “rebrand as a more inclusive place without alienating their core. Which is white dudes.”
We can assume that when Wayne LaPierre, longtime NRA executive and concealed carry advocate, took the stage after the Newtown shooting to assert the only thing stopping a bad guy with a gun was a good one, Alexander probably wasn’t the hero he had in mind. And the organization has been uncharacteristically silent on the case, through its widely publicized trial and even Alexander’s unexpected pivot to endorse its pet project of a law. But such roaring silences have become commonplace as the agency struggles with its expanding base.
On the website for the NRA’s Institute of Legal Action, “Armed Citizen Stories” from across the country, featuring shotgun moms deterring home invaders or good samaritans preventing assault, are catalogued by state. Needless to say, Alexander’s story isn’t on it. Neither is Michael Giles’, a black man and former member of the Air Force serving a 25-year-sentence for shooting an attacker in the leg in Tallahassee.
And, to the disappointment of a number of NRA members, it took the organization days to tepidly comment on the murder of Philando Castile, a registered gun owner, at the hands of the police. In the days following Castile’s death the organization did find time to tweet news stories, however, about 20-somethings deterring thieves who “couldn’t run because their pants were sagging too low.” In their eventual statement, the NRA referred to itself as “As the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization,” supporting law-abiding gun owners “regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation.” Castille’s name was not invoked. The organization did not respond to a more recent request for comment.
Yet the NRA has taken care to present a more diverse public face recently, with web spots starring Venezuelan-American Olympic marksman Gabby Franco and black “urban gun enthusiast” Colion Noir, both of whom have been definitive fixtures of its post-Newtown ad campaigns.
But promoting an NRA of color relies on some very selective memory: In her book, Light tells the story of the Black Armed Guard, a rural precursor to the Black Panther Party, which in the late ’50s organized a gun club to protect a local NAACP chapter from the Klan. Years later, they’d apply for and receive NRA licensing, in part by obscuring the fact that they were black. The leader of the armed guard, Robert F. Williams, was approached decades later by the new, equal-opportunity NRA to give speeches to its constituents about how the organization had protected him from white supremacy. (Which he did. Ann Coulter blogged about it.)
This selective branching out creates other odd fissures. On one hand: Ted Nugent, a fossil of a rockstar, Nickelback fan, and a person who believes there are upsides to apartheid, has remained on the NRA’s board for more than a decade. On the other, you have people like Toure and Lightfoot. While they aren’t official NRA spokespeople and admit it’s an imperfect organization, they are aligned with its values and enmeshed in its culture. A few years ago, Lightfoot was approached to do a series for the NRA’s women-oriented channel, and Toure has been fawningly profiled and featured multiple times in official NRA publications.
“There’s a skewed representation of the NRA,” Toure tells me. “It’s not just good ol’ boys in pickup trucks.”
He’s right: It’s also suits, and lots and lots of money. The NRA has poured upwards of $2.5 million into lobbying for state-level Stand Your Ground laws in the last decade. In 2005, as LaPierre told the Washington Post on the eve of Florida’s law, the state was the “first step of a multi-state strategy.” Today, more than 20 states have adopted it, with Republican lawmakers promising more to come.
Most recently Maj Toure went to Florida, first to Jacksonville and then to Miami, because that’s where the battle is. But as he told me the first time we spoke: “I’m trying to incept a whole country.”
Toure is made for TV, and he knows it. He references Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and Thomas Jefferson in a single sentence and refers to himself a “solutionary.” And when he’s hoping something doesn’t happen—I rolled back the recording three times to make sure—his favored idiom is “Maj forbid.”
Such dramatic flourishes, combined with a single-minded commitment to using Constitutional originalism as a solution to high crime rates among urban black populations, have made him a sought-after commentator in the age of Stand Your Ground. He calls AWR Hawkins, Breitbart’s gun columnist, a “brilliant dude” as well as a friend. He regularly appears as a talking head on stations from Fox to NPR.
Stand Your Ground laws are good for gun owners, he tells me, “and the reason urban people seem to have a problem with it is that we’re conditioned not to be [responsible] gun owners.” A 29-year-old native of Philadelphia, Toure has been traveling the country for the better part of the year using money from T-shirt sales and a GoFundMe page, preaching the gospel of the Second Amendment to crowds that reach a couple hundred. He appears in regular self-produced YouTube videos, explaining why gun education is crucial to lifting up communities of color, in his regular uniform: a backwards hat covering his waist-length dreadlocks and a hoodie stamped with the name of his organization, Black Guns Matter.
Toure, with his mission to transcend white supremacy by bringing the Second Amendment to his community, at turns embraces and rejects comparisons to the Black Panthers, one of the last high-profile group of people who tried to arm America’s black men. At one point, he tells me he doesn’t think he’ll get assassinated by the government because he’s a single-issue kind of guy: This isn’t about organizing cells or a full-on revolution. It’s about guns, and teaching people how to use them, and teaching them about the law. (He does joke, however, that if he takes enough money out of the prison industrial complex by lowering crime someone will probably come for him.)
Trying to wrestle with his politics, it’s hard not to recall the version of the Second Amendment, sanitized of the militia line, that the NRA favors.
But this movement will start a chain reaction, Toure says, a complete transformation. There are already guns in black communities, but they’re being used poorly, illegally, by people who don’t understand them. With safety education and training, people in the cities he visits would have fewer homicides, less crime. The police might not be so quick to gun down black men if the culture of gun ownership was integrated into all areas of the society. “I don’t want to be another hashtag” is one of his oft-repeated slogans.
The first time Toure handled a gun, it was illegally, as a teenager. He says many of his friends have been locked up for carrying without a license or for preventable violent crimes. So he grew up around tons of guns, but no one knew how to respect them—except for his uncle, he says, a veteran, who could take one apart and put it back together in seconds. Toure was in awe; he started researching; he got licensed. He’s been shooting for years. In 2015 he held an event in partnership with a local Philly gun range and the turnout was so massive he decided to dedicate himself to the cause.
In the last year Toure has had a lot of opportunities to sell his merch and explain his point of view: Over the last year he’s been on tour, in Compton and Baltimore, Chicago and Boston. The trainings he does today go through the basic points of gun safety, then jump fluidly into Second Amendment activism: On the small scale, he says, it’s about individual self-defense; on the large scale it’s about not being docile, about the human right to self-defense, about the Constitution, which in a profile in the NRA’s magazine he referred to as one of his favorite texts. He’s hyper-aware of how he comes off, as a black man with tattoos who carries, as an unlikely activist beloved by the conservative media. (“You sir, are a disruptor,” Fox’s Stuart Varney told him a few months ago.)
“I like breaking people’s stereotypes,” Toure says. “I can’t wait to see people’s faces at the NRA convention.”
Here’s another story about stereotypes. It’s about Ky Peterson, a trans man from Georgia doing time for shooting and killing the person who raped him—the second one, actually. Peterson had the gun he used in the first place because he’d been assaulted on his walk home before. As he told the Advocate and Al Jazeera, in the fall of 2011, the then-20-year old was walking home from the the convenience store when someone started slinging rocks at him. One made contact with his skull, and he blacked out. When he came to there was a naked man on top of him, shouting homophobic slurs, and sexually assaulting him. According to Peterson, the two wrestled while his younger brothers, both with criminal histories, came running. He got the man off him, reached into his backpack, and fired a lethal shot.
They didn’t report the incident until the next day. Peterson didn’t think anyone would believe him and his brothers; when he’d been assaulted before, the police barely filed a report. They were three black kids in a trailer park with a dead man. But the next day, sobered and afraid, they did talk to the cops.
Peterson was told he “didn’t look like a rape victim” by one of the clinicians who administered the rape kit. It came back positive and the identity of his rapist was later corroborated by DNA taken during his assailant’s autopsy. His brothers backpedaled on the story, but his public defender believed his account of what happened—though as he told the Advocate, “that doesn’t mean I think we’re going to win in front of a jury.”
There were three strikes against him, according to the defender: He was black, he was “stereotypically gay” in the South, and he had a record: a juvenile probation stemming from a domestic dispute when he was a teen. Georgia had, at the time, a Stand Your Ground provision. In the course of Peterson’s case, it was never mentioned by his attorney. Peterson signed a guilty plea for involuntary manslaughter. He’ll be out of prison by middle age.
This story has been updated to more accurately describe the relationship between George Zimmerman’s case and Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.