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Interview: National African American Gun Association

We Sit Down with Philip Smith of NAAGA

The National African American Gun Association is a 2A organization open to people of all races, genders, religious backgrounds, sexual orientations, and political views that has 30,000 national members (60 percent of whom are women) across 75 chapters. The goal of NAAGA is to educate the wider community on the legacy of African American gun ownership, offering training, support, safety standards, and cultural inspiration for everyone who wishes to join. 

The past year has been a tumultuous one for everyone in this country, especially for gun owners. In a normal election year, we can expect shortages, NICS and NFA waits far longer than normal, and ramped-up rhetoric from every angle. Add to that the additional stress factors of COVID, street protests, counterprotests, calls for police reform, defunding, and even removal — and a summer of simmering political violence. It’s no wonder that gun sales have broken all previous records, nobody can find ammo, and the image of the American gun owner is evolving to be, well, anyone who finds themselves lucky enough to be a citizen and wants to be armed. 

People talk about Gun Culture 1.0, 2.0, etc., but the numbers seem to be spinning faster and faster every month and mean different things for different people. With that in mind, we had the pleasure of speaking to Philip Smith, president of the National African American Gun Association, to find out what his gun culture is, and how he founded it.

RECOIL: Mr. Smith, who are you, and what is NAAGA?

Philip Smith: I was born in Vallejo, California, in the part they called “no collar,” the south side. There were no guns in my house. Really I was just worried about having a nice big ’fro and chasing girls, to be honest. Once I’d matured a bit and graduated from UC Davis, my wife, a country girl, and I decided to move to Atlanta in 2009. It was a bit city, a bit country, and easy enough for both of us to like. That’s when I really got initiated with the South. 

It’s a totally different culture from the West Coast — strong roots, they know who they are, ya know, and guns are a part of it. Hunting, competitions, picnics … they were just integrated into daily life. It was around 2015, after years of being around guns all the time with my friends and neighbors when I was at work and two guys asked me to come to the range with them. I said, “Nah, I’ve got stuff to do with my wife,” or some such. Well, they harassed me from Monday through Thursday, and by the end of the week I gave up and said I’d go to get them off my back.

So we went. I got through the safety briefing, started shooting, and I just had a hell of a good time! I don’t know how else to describe it. I met great people, and I went through the whole available arsenal there. I rented ARs, AKs, .44s, everything. My fingers were cramped up by the time I left, and next Saturday, sure enough, I came back and did it again. It was then, my second range trip, that the lightbulb went on. And I realized that I could help people like me who didn’t come from this amazing culture, bridge the experience gap, and find their way to it to have the same experience I did. I sat down and thought about how to create an organization that spoke to my people first culturally, then technically, and finally historically. And that’s what I did. 

All forms of firearms training are encouraged.

What did you set out to do with NAAGA? What is it today?

PS: I was just looking to stay busy and out of my wife’s way to be honest. I got over 300 people the first month with no advertising. I had notifications on my phone to let me know when someone joined, and eventually it got so crazy I had to turn it off because it was just dinging nonstop, and my boss came over and asked me what was going on. Now we have 30,000 members across 75 chapters. We are a 501(c)4. We are neutral on politicians and political parties, but we will back policy as it applies to the Second Amendment, and make commentary on and fight social injustice. 

For instance, we have helped numerous people who have been denied a concealed-carry license for no legal reason. We have applied pressure to get those people the permits they have the right to possess. We also pressure both sides of the political spectrum to speak against anti-gun laws, and social injustice when it comes to shootings of black men and women. We feel it’s our duty to speak to those issues, and I want everyone to understand that we are here to support our black community. We don’t have a blind eye to the reality that our folks are going through. We walk that line, and it’s a fine line, by avoiding sponsors, so we can speak our mind without living and dying on someone else’s purse strings.

What is it that NAAGA is doing right now; what’s your focus in 2021?

PS: We want to grow, correctly. We can’t help anyone without a real anchor in our community. Starting with the fundamentals; simply having our folks capable of safely owning, shooting, and carrying guns. Then, educating them such that they understand existing gun laws, so that we can be active in proposing pro-gun laws from the local to the national level and fighting anti-gun ones. It’s a multilayered fight right now, as we’re dealing with local anti-gun proposals, social justice issues, and a potential assault weapons ban from the current administration. It’s a daily challenge, and you must be able to turn on a dime and be able to speak to various, different points intelligently. 

On the range with NAAGA, safety is paramount.

How do you know when you’ve “made it?” What does success look like for NAAGA?

PS: I don’t know if I’ll know when I’ve “made it,” but I’ll say this: The basic, core foundations of our organization sit well for the future. When I say that, I mean down the road, the country is becoming more and more of a rainbow. More brown, more white, more black, etc., at a high level. Not that it wasn’t previously, but people of color are being put into positions of power that they never were before. We believe that diversity is a strength. To me, I think you hurt yourself as an organization if you have all one kind of person. If you only have one experience represented in your boardroom, you’re literally missing money. I don’t think that’s a good mindset to have. We have a statement that goes, “We agree to disagree, but not disconnect.” You can be who you are, whoever you are, and you’re gonna get a high five, and a “welcome, brother/sister” or a “what’s up, fam?” when you hang out with us. You can be gay, you can be straight, you can be rich …

I mean we’ve got some real smart guys, and some real dumb guys, ya know? If you enjoy firearms, we’ve got that in common, and we can build from there. We get into debates, heated sometimes, for sure, but at the end of the day we don’t have to agree, because we’re still brothers, and that’s more important.

That kind of attitude is impressive, and not something you find everywhere. Do you ever have challenges with this kind of inclusivity?

PS: I’ll say this, we have people that are black and white who have had trouble with the diversity, and we’ve had conversations where we had to say, “This is us; we’re a welcoming organization and always will be, so if you have difficulty with that, this may not be the place for you to be.” But those are rare, and before it gets there, I’ll sit down with someone and try to work it out. 

Usually it’s a very respectful discussion, and often we can agree to disagree and shake hands. And we have our own internal debates, be they black-on-black crime, which we must have an honest discussion about, or black preachers who largely are extremely anti-gun. These are sometimes even more difficult topics that we must approach like brothers just like everything else.

We have over 1,000 white members, and as of late we have had a surge in Asian and Latino membership. The recent attacks on Asian-Americans, I think, seems to have flipped a switch, and we’ve had 200 new Asian members in the last month and a half, from all over the country, but mostly the West Coast. I’m not in the mind of those folks who signed up, but if I had to guess, I’d say the anti-Asian hate crime stories going around the news have something to do with that.

Self-defense training is a popular topic with NAAGA.

We’ve heard people talk about Gun Culture, from 1.0 to 3.0, etc. Within that mindset, what is your gun culture as an individual, and how does it differ from what we see in the media as “mainstream” gun culture. 

PS: I think the 1.0, 2.0, etc., framework is a good way to look at it. We started with what most people think of as an older white man, which is still the mainstream perception. But now we have a new gun culture, which is driven by integration. A new vision of firearms and what they mean that is totally different from what it used to be, and by extension what most people not in the culture expect. That’s what I see happening right now: a totally different view of firearms in my community than it’s been in the past. The reason we get firearms is totally different from why someone else would have a generation ago. Shooting guns is always going to be basically the same; for black folks, it’s quite different before we buy a gun and after as well, by leaps and bounds, compared to the mainstream perception.

What do you love about gun culture, and what drives you crazy?

PS: What I love is that you can find a hobby that can literally save your life. It’s not incredibly likely, but if it happens, you’ll be prepared. That’s what I like about it, you can go from victim to victor, powerless to powerful. I know women who have joined our organization who have been sexually assaulted who have thanked us for teaching them to have confidence and to feel less like a victim. 

As for what drives me crazy? It’s people who seem to have their own insecurities that think the gun is going to give them what I call “keyboard courage,” walking around looking for confrontations. Those folks, I hope they never get a gun, because their own insecurity just comes full force to bear.

Where can someone find out more about your organization if they’re interested, and what’s the one thing you’d like everyone to take away from this?

PS: If you’re interested in learning more about the organization, just head to our website www.naaga.co. It’s got a lot of information on the history of black arms, from Buffalo soldiers to the Harlem Hellfighters, Tuskegee Airmen, Harriet Tubman, and Nat Turner — lots of people who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our organization to exist.m

In closing, the one thing I want everyone to take away from this, is that the African American community is not a monolith. We are so different in many ways, just like every other community. We have the same human diversity that everyone else has, and we aren’t crazed gun fanatics looking to shoot up the place; we’re normal law-abiding people just like you who happen to enjoy firearms and want to keep them. 

NAAGA meet-ups are for everyone — strength through diversity.

National African American Gun Association

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