Growing up, Maj Toure wasn’t someone you’d immediately describe as a “gun guy.” But being raised in Philadelphia, where he was surrounded by gun violence, shaped his views and led him to found Black Guns Matter, a pro-gun advocacy coalition dedicated to educating urban communities and minorities on their Second Amendment rights. The idea, at its core, is to bring down gun violence levels by providing more education about firearms. “I’m still not a gun guy, I’m a freedom guy,” clarifies Toure, who started the organization in 2015. “A gun is just a tool to defend freedom.”
What freedom means, in the case of Black Guns Matter, is pushing to educate African Americans and other urban communities on gun safety and knowledge — a significant, impactful undertaking when African American men are 14 times more likely to be shot than their white counterparts. “I’ve been traveling around the country seeing so many of my friends with misinformation that could potentially cost them their freedom,” says Toure.
He refers specifically to people in his community being locked up not for committing crimes, but simply due to misinformation about gun laws and safety. “We’re not talking about bad guys knocking off liquor stores and robbing old ladies,” he explains. “We’re talking about guys who didn’t know the paperwork they had to fill out. Now, they’re facing felony charges, and their life is potentially at risk.”
Take the case of Shaneen Allen, a Philadelphia woman who faced five years in prison for bringing a licensed gun into neighboring New Jersey. The Philly mom of two, who worked as a phlebotomist, had the gun legally registered in Pennsylvania but was arrested after a routine traffic stop when she admitted to having the firearm in her purse, unaware that New Jersey has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. “These are the people we’re trying to get the information to before they make these type of decisions, choices or mistakes, based off that ignorance,” says Toure.
Toure explains that he saw too many of these needless arrests before saying to himself, “Nah, I got to do something about this.” And thus, Black Guns Matter. “Let’s inform that demographic and let them know what’s up. We’re here for the freedom community, basically, whether they know they’re the freedom community or not.”
Besides his concerns around the finer points of gun legality, Toure has also witnessed gun violence firsthand. Before all of this, he had a vastly different vocation, engaged in a job that also risked his freedom. “I was selling drugs,” Toure states, bluntly. “I woke up. … You can only get away with certain things for so long. And it doesn’t help your community.” Now in his early 30s, Toure has taken the lessons he learned on the streets to spread gun safety to urban groups. A common thread for the groups he teaches is a sense of reliability and trust, where he says attendees feel, “This guy is from the same environment from where I’m from — he’s not going to sell me no bullshit. Now you have something that helps and empowers your community.”
Plus: “It clears your karma up.”
Black Guns Matter class attendees are largely beginners — first-timers who have never touched a firearm before, but are looking to do it right. “[BGM] events stressed safety, self-confidence and discipline,” says Blaise Fallingstar, who attended a workshop in Philadelphia after it was recommended to him by a friend who worked for his wife. “Even though I have a lot of firearms experience from decades in the military, I enjoy seeing the classes reaching out to young folks to stress safety and discipline. … Local communities benefit from self-reliance. Fear and hatred of inanimate objects helps no one.”
“It’s the nuts-and-bolts of safety, but it’s also the general concept of what you have to do, and what are your rights,” says Toure. “Whether you choose to exercise them or not — that’s a whole other thing.” A commonality among Black Guns Matter attendees, says Toure, is that, “They want to exercise the ability to defend themselves and defend their loved ones. They want to be safe, they want to be responsible and they want to do it lawfully. You have the human right to defend your life with the most effective means possible, and that’s what I want the hood to understand.”
To fund its seminars (“The classes are all free, so it’s no skin off their back — we’ve removed that barrier of entry,” says Toure), Black Guns Matter raised $164,000 in 31 months via GoFundMe, with nearly 2,000 people donating. Toure now teaches classes in cities all around America, including some with a reputation for gun violence, such as Compton, Detroit and Chicago. The breakdown of a BGM class differs, depending on which city is hosting: The BGM workshop being held this month in Boston, for example, will take place over two days. The first part will cover local gun laws; the process of safe transport of firearms; conflict resolution; and a general understanding the Second Amendment. Since the gun-safety portion of this workshop will be held at a place that doesn’t allow firearms, replica guns will be used. “That emphasizes the safety component,” says Toure. “A lot of places have rules against firearms.” The second day, as with other cities, the class will take place at a shooting range, for those who wish to be more hands on with the real thing.
Most of all, Toure wants people to know how to handle real-life situations in a practical way. A key piece of knowledge he wants to pass on, for example — one that doesn’t happen as often in the suburbs — is how an underage person should respond if they come across a firearm in their community, and what they should do in that circumstance. Another key factor, he says, is how to deal with the police while legally in possession of a firearm, a scenario that falls under his broader emphasis on conflict resolution. Toure believes that teaching people how to de-escalate an armed situation begins with dealing with fellow citizens, such as abating the tension if someone, say, bumps into you. “You interact more with citizens than with law enforcement,” says Toure. “Interacting with law enforcement is after the fact.”
The need for proper gun education and conflict-resolution skills is especially essential, says Toure, in urban communities, where the relationship with law enforcement tends to be a volatile one. “It’s bad that the police don’t understand the fucking laws of the state they’re in,” says Toure. Case in point: Emantic Bradford, a 21-year-old African-American army veteran who heard gunfire at an Alabama mall and tried to step in as a “good guy with a gun.” Police arrived on the scene and promptly shot Bradford dead. The police department would later suggest that Bradford would still be alive if he hadn’t been carrying his licensed firearm, which pretty much puts the nail in the coffin of the good guy with a gun theory.
As for the Philadelphia Police Department itself, it’s not certain yet which side they’ll eventually take, since they either don’t know about Black Guns Matter, or simply haven’t prepared an official response: “We will have to defer comment at this time, as we continue to learn more about the organization,” a police representative writes via email.
The local cops have certainly seen their share of gun violence of late, with 351 total homicides — up 12 percent from 2017 — last year. In June, a group of shooters fired 41 shots into a crowd, resulting in bullets striking a 5-year-old boy and four men. And in November, three men got out of a car and started shooting, resulting in several people hurt and a 15-year-old being killed. The Philadelphia police, too, have played their part in the climate of local gun violence, with a series of recent shootings of unarmed African-American civilians. In 2017, a police officer was fired for violating department policy after he shot and killed 25-year-old Dennis Plowden. In August of last year, 36-year-old Jeffrey Dennis was shot by a plainclothes officer. In September, another officer was charged with criminal homicide, possession of an instrument of crime and reckless endangerment in the fatal shooting of David Jones, who was shot in the back after relinquishing his own gun.
Whatever the department’s eventual stance, it’s certain that not everyone will be convinced that Black Guns Matter’s tactics will create a less dangerous urban environment. “The increased presence of guns doesn’t make individuals or communities safer,” argues Andrew Patrick, spokesperson for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “The presence of guns both at home and out in society increases the chance of death or injury.” Instead, Patrick believes that education regarding firearms should be taken in another direction. “It’s important for people to be more educated about why gun violence is so prevalent in impacted communities,” he says. “How the push for stronger gun laws across cities and states can actually help reduce gun violence, not the presence of more firearms on their streets.”
Toure, naturally, disagrees. “We aren’t combating guns with more guns — we’re combating ignorance with more information,” he says. “We’re talking about more information, more education, safety and training. The gun choice is up to you, and it’s morally presumptuous of me to tell you to have another gun. But I do believe you should have more information from a right place — not from a media spin place.”
The organization’s belief in a right to accurate information — and indeed, much of its political ideology — stems from a history of American gun regulations originally very specifically introduced in response to people of color exercising their Second Amendment right to bear arms. This goes back as far as the Civil War when, after emancipation, Southern states passed laws known as the “Black Codes,” aiming to disarm African Americans and help sustain white supremacy. “All gun control is racist,” emphasizes Toure. “That’s your pull quote: All gun control is racist.” It’s a sentiment that he’s far from alone in sharing.
In more recent history, the 1967 passage of the Mulford Act was designed to suppress the Black Panthers, who were using the era’s open-carry law to help protect their community from police harassment — the Panthers would conduct armed patrols of Oakland neighborhoods, an activity known as “copwatching.” The group’s co-founder, Huey Newton, taught classes not only on black nationalism, but also on how to clean, handle and shoot guns, with an eye toward protecting the community’s freedom and defending their lives with the most effective means possible. The Mulford Act came into play after 30 members of the Black Panthers protested on the steps of the California state house armed with .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns and .45-caliber pistols. “The time has come for black people to arm themselves,” they announced. In response, Ronald Reagan — then California governor — helped to pass the state bill prohibiting the open carry of loaded firearms. The Mulford Act was even endorsed by the NRA — ironic, considering it took California down the path to having some of the strictest gun laws in America.
Here in the present day, Toure feels that the racism motivating American gun control has simply evolved to where we’re now seeing much higher gun registration fees in cities with a higher concentration of African Americans. “It’s a parallel to when Dr. Martin Luther King was saying, ‘I want a license to carry,’ and he was denied,” says Toure. “It’s a parallel between Malcolm X saying, ‘The ballot or the bullet.’ It’s a parallel between Patrick Henry saying, ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ The freedom parallel is when Harriet Tubman was exercising her Second Amendment right to defend her life and fight against tyranny.”
Toure’s mission is also to break down the stereotypes of African-American gun ownership. His relationship with the NRA, for example, is somewhat surprising. This is, after all, the organization that endorsed the Mulford Act, failed speak out on Philando Castile (another black man with a licensed firearm who was shot to death by the police) and have never traditionally stood behind African-American gun rights. Yet Toure says he enjoys the camaraderie and support he receives when he attends NRA conventions. “The general reaction is they love the work that we’ve been doing,” he says, relaying that, despite popular belief, the NRA isn’t a whites-only organization. Personally, Toure coins himself a “pro-2a, constitutional guy,” leaning toward the politician who is going to keep guns on the table. “All politicians play to their base,” he says in regard to Donald Trump’s seemingly fanatical embrace of the NRA. A nakedly blatant maneuver to throw red meat to his supporters, it’s a ploy that nevertheless paid off for Trump in the form of votes, which easily explains why, as Toure puts it, “Trump is the most pro–Second Amendment president we’ve ever seen.”
This February, Toure will be speaking at CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) in National Harbor, Maryland, which, to say the least, is a really white event. But he feels that Black Guns Matter needs more support from such right-wing conservative groups. “That’s the criticism that I have of the libertarian and the Republican or the right-leaning people — they’re not reaching into urban America,” he says. “They need to support the work. The Right needs to do that, period. They’re falling behind the wayside. They need to get behind the work that we’re doing so we’re not up against organizations that are anti-freedom, that don’t want Americans to have their rights. We’re fighting guys that have unlimited resources.”
Regarding the other end of the political spectrum, Toure has had no contact with the organization from which his own takes its name. “I haven’t heard from Black Lives Matter, since they got [George] Soros money,” he says. (I myself received no reply from BLM when I reached for comment.) “If they want to give me Soros’ number and he could drop $10 million to $20 million on us, we’ll get some work done. Over the last three years, we’ve made magic happen on a shoestring budget. We need Oprah to donate $100k toward our firearms safety and conflict resolution and political education — for urban America.” Indeed, Toure is pushing forward with plans to take his message all the way to Capitol Hill, to campaign for a nationwide concealed carry law to be passed.
In our current Trump hellscape, where hate crimes have increased and racial threats are on the rise, Toure has a simple message, sporting it on a T-shirt on his YouTube channel: Make Racists Afraid Again. But despite the potentially provocative wording, and despite the pro-gun stance of his organization, it’s important to stress that this isn’t a call for combating racism through violence, gun-related or otherwise; instead, it’s a call for education and — the best revenge of all — living well. “What scares a racist more than anything,” says Toure, “is a group of people — especially the people they call ‘inferior’ — being financially stable, spiritually sound, having knowledge of self and having enough means to defend all those things.”
Or at the very least, not going to jail for the crime of being a black gun owner in America.