The writer is a contributing columnist, based in Chicago
US gun owners: they may not always be who you think they are. And that could affect what can — and cannot — be done to stop America’s shooting spree.
After several months in which one mass shooting has seemed to stumble over the heels of the next in America, I found myself developing a mental picture from the headlines of those who buy the semi-automatic weapons that are mostly used in the attacks: young, male, mostly white. Just like the shooter charged with killing seven people at the Highland Park July 4 parade, on the doorstep of the town where I live in the northern suburbs of Chicago.
But, just as America is becoming more diverse, so are its gun owners.
The coronavirus pandemic brought a dramatic shift in the people who buy weapons. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearm industry trade association, says that gun sales to African Americans rose 58 per cent in 2020 over the previous year — the biggest increase in any demographic category, although they remain very much a minority. Women represented an unprecedented 40 per cent of sales.
The crowd at the AR-15 booth at the Crown Point gun show, which I attended over the Independence day weekend in neighbouring Indiana, demonstrated this changing demography. At the booth that was selling semi-automatics, most shoppers were either African American or Latino.
Matthew, 22, a slight African American with horn rim spectacles, a gentle smile and dreadlocks tucked under a black hoodie, meticulously counted out a wad of dollar bills to cover the $740 purchase of his new rifle and ammunition.
When he came up short, he borrowed five dollars from a friend, and proudly tucked his purchase into an unmarked black plastic carrier bag, the barrel peeking just above the rim.
As a pacifist, I couldn’t help asking Matthew what he could possibly need an AR-15 for? “I need it for self-defence, in this world we are living in,” he said, referring to violent crime in his hometown of nearby Gary, Indiana, where three people were killed in another mass shooting at a July 4 block party.
He is not alone. The NSSF estimates 8.4mn Americans bought a gun for the first time in 2020 and that there are 20mn AR-15-style weapons in the US today.
James McConnell, 23, father of a one-year-old, was also at the booth. “I have a love for guns. We have the Second Amendment for a reason, the right to bear arms,” he said.
The young African American grew up in the crime-ravaged southern suburbs of nearby Chicago and says he moved to rural Indiana to escape the violence. He spent $1,500 on an AR-15 in 2019, to protect his family and to hunt deer.
Would stricter gun laws stop the carnage, I asked him? US vice-president Kamala Harris last week called for a ban on all guns like the AR-15, saying “There is no reason that we have weapons of war on the streets of America.”
McConnell disagrees: “All these laws are going to make it harder for a law-abiding person like me to buy a gun,” he said. “We need laws against crime, not against guns.”
Essie, a 72-year-old African American I found shopping for a handgun nearby, said that she doesn’t want to be prevented from buying a gun to protect her mother, who is 96 years old.
“Democrats are now saying ‘bad people have AR-15s’ — but wait a minute, I have an AR-15,” says Philip Smith, founder of the National African American Gun Association.
“A growing part of [the Democrats’] voting bloc now has those same guns,” Smith says, so the party should not assume their entire base is behind measures such as an assault weapons ban.
“Ten years ago,” he says — before the recent epidemic of mass shootings like Highland Park, and before the pandemic — “a majority of black homes didn’t view a gun as a positive thing but now we feel nervous about going to the grocery store, about going to church, and we are looking at guns in a different way.”