The year 2020 has forced myriad changes upon us all. Across many walks of life and many cultures, one of the most prominent changes has been the rate at which Black Americans have newly become gun owners.
Following the onset of a pandemic and racial justice protests around the country in the spring, gun sales skyrocketed around America. The biggest increase came among Black men and women, who purchased 58.2% more guns in the first six months of 2020 than in the same period of the previous year, according to a report published in August by the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Black Diamond Firearms & Training, a Black-owned gun store and training company in Concord, is focused on educating the growing populace of local Black gun owners and others on gun safety and self-defense, as they’ve done for four years now.
In the wake of the on-video murder of George Floyd during the COVID-19 pandemic, the world seemed to be in the perfect position to pay attention to the struggles plaguing Black Americans in the United States, namely the videotaped encounters between law enforcement and Black citizens in which law enforcement exercised extreme use of force, resulting in the death of the Black citizens involved.
If you are a Black person living in America, this is not new information; the history of this country has been built in large part upon forced labor, segregationist policies, systemic racism and the dehumanization of Black people. With skepticism and distrust of law enforcement running especially high in recent years, many Black Americans have decided to take their safety — and survival — into their own hands.
For the majority of my life, I have been anti-gun and in many ways, I still am. The gun culture in this country frightens me, and I often wish guns were outlawed here like they are in places like Australia. But, the reality is that I live in America, and I would rather be an educated and experienced gun owner than an inexperienced victim because I refused to have guns in my home.
It was that spirit and frame of mind that motivated me to heed the advice of How We Fight and take steps to support Black-owned businesses through initiatives like WeBuyBlack, EatBlackOwned, and EatOkra, in more journey to become more active in the political sphere while educating myself on the safe use of firearms.
Seeking out an education in firearms led me to the National African American Gun Association and then to Black Diamond, a local, Black-owned firearm safety and training group, as well as a Federal Firearms Licensed gun dealership located at 7140 Weddington Road, Suite #104, in Concord. Upon a recent visit, I had the opportunity to speak with two of the owners and founders of Black Diamond, Roman Townsend and Dreak Byrd.
Black gun owners in the South
Growing up in New York, where handguns are outlawed, Townsend’s experience from a young age included shooting BB guns, gaining proficiency in accuracy that way.
“It’s really the same fundamentals and the same safety rules with the BB gun as it is with the real gun,” Townsend shared.
He never owned a gun until he moved to the South, he said. Upon moving below the Mason-Dixon, he felt an immediate need to purchase firearms for the safety of his young and growing family.
“Within a month of moving down here, I bought a gun,” Townsend recalled. “It was easy. I was fascinated with how easy it was, and for the last 20 years, I’ve had guns around all the time.”
Roman believes guns are like cooking utensils or circular saws in that they are “tools that you need to learn how to use, even if you’re never going to need them.”
Byrd, on the other hand, grew up in the South with two parents who were both Black gun owners. They instilled in him safe practices as well as a proficiency in shooting. As such, he grew up comfortable around guns. At a young age, he learned a motto he said he still carries with him today: “You’re in a bad place if somebody comes for you and they have a gun and you don’t. You’re at a disadvantage.”
Both men saw an urgent need for more firearm education and training in the Black community. In fact, a key motivation for starting their company came from an experience Townsend’s mother had with firearm training in 2016.
“My mom had just taken a concealed carry class that day,” Roman said. “Her class was held off in the woods somewhere, and it was right around the time of the Travyon Martin case. ‘Stand Your Ground’ [laws] should have been a significant part of the class discussion and it wasn’t, and we understood from talking to her that everything in the class was presented from a white-male perspective. The things they were telling her to do weren’t practical for Black people. We realized that there was no one to give us proper education.”
Six months later, after taking the necessary classes and filing the needed paperwork, the two men opened Black Diamond, which celebrated its fourth year of incorporation in November.
What Black Diamond does
Black Diamond has many offerings for those wanting to become more savvy with both the fundamentals and technical aspects of safe gun ownership. In addition to the concealed-carry class, which they are licensed to offer for NC and SC residents, they offer handgun fundamentals classes; a book club, currently reading Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms; basic AR classes; AR-building classes; ladies-only classes; hand-to-hand self-defense classes; gun-maintenance classes; and plan to launch a chess club in 2021.
While the team doesn’t yet have an indoor range on-site, they do offer training classes at both indoor and outdoor ranges while even offering Warrior X outdoor experiences for those who want to go further.
Perhaps not surprisingly considering what Roman’s mother went through in her class, the Black Diamond team has been met with skepticism by some white-owned gun ranges.
“We’ve had experiences with some ranges that were very negative. The other thing is that some people are surprised at what we’re doing,” Townsend said.
A visit to the Black Diamond website quickly shows what sets them apart from other companies in the industry. On the home page, visitors are met immediately with an infamous picture taken during protests on the night that Keith Lamont Scott was killed by a CMPD officer in 2016. It shows a row of CMPD officers in riot gear standing amid a cloud of tear gas, silhouetted by the headlights of a CATS bus. “These are uncertain times: Will you be prepared or not?” reads the text.
Below that, there are stats regarding the number of homicides, sexual assaults, aggravated assaults and armed robberies in Charlotte during 2019. A look at the About page shows how the executive team, made up of Byrd, Townsend and co-founder Justin Lewter share interests in survivalism and self-defense.
A Black-owned, Black-centered gun store
Survivalism can mean many different things, as can the company’s slogan, “Survive the Encounter,” which one could apply to outdoor survival skills, environmental awareness, violent crime or a police encounter.
“We teach the law from the way the law sees us, not the way the law is written,” Byrd said. “Billy Bob can get stopped and he can have the gun out, waving the gun, get out cursing at cops and all kinds of stuff, and we [as Black men] would definitely get shot. We always have been shot for much less.”
Byrd recounted a young white man who took one of his classes and whose father was a state trooper. The trooper called Byrd after the class and thanked him.
“‘As a white father, and as a police officer, I would not have ever thought to speak to my son about the things that y’all spoke about,” the trooper told Byrd. “‘The information you told my son was exactly right.’ So our classes may seem to be for Black people, but what’s in our best interests is usually in the best interests of everybody else. But, what may be in the best interests of other people may not be best for us.”
Byrd scoffed at the idea that he’s anti-cop, insisting he’s just realistic about the implications of an encounter between a Black gun owner and an officer.
“I’m saying they have high anxiety, and if you reach wrong, they may shoot you,” he said. “You want to be mindful of that and move accordingly. I understand their anxiety, but they know that if they shoot you on an ‘Oops’ that they could get off.”
Practical advice and instruction
The Black Diamond team focuses on practical advice and practical instruction for everyone, not just Black gun owners. They stress that they have no membership, as they are not a gun club, though they do have a positive relationship with the local Queen City African American Gun and Recreation Club.
I had the opportunity to take the company’s concealed-carry course back in August. While the majority of attendees were Black, there were a significant number of non-Black attendees as well, many coming from out of town.
When asked why they chose Black Diamond for their classes, some shared that they did not feel other gun programs would give them practical insight into concerns facing the Black community, and did not identify with the “good ol’ boy” vibe that many of those groups gave off.
One Black couple admitted they had traveled from out of state because there were no local Black-run gun groups where they live, and when they inquired about taking firearm-safety courses with white-run groups, they were told those were “just for members,” which they came to learn was code for “white only.”
For so many in the gun culture, the right to bear arms is a right given to white folks — one to be wearily shared with Black Americans. Townsend put some of the blame on the media — be it news or entertainment.
“Most of the time, in the media, Black men with guns are portrayed as criminals,” Townsend stated.
Newcomers flock to the gun culture
The majority of people taking classes with Black Diamond are Black themselves, with two-thirds of the total attendees being women. Still, the team gets surprised at how many men take their handgun-fundamentals classes.
“Even if their fathers may have had guns in the home, they didn’t necessarily take them, show them, teach them,” Byrd shared.
That’s also thanks to the large amount of transplants coming to the Charlotte area from up north, where guns aren’t quite as prevalent. Townsend painted it as a “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” mentality.
“In the South, everybody can get them easily,” he said. “You have to be able to defend yourself against someone else who can easily get them.”
When speaking to the rapid rise of new Black gun owners, Townsend and Byrd said they’ve seen how many have felt pushed from the implications of the pandemic. The idea that so many Americans already own guns, mixed with a sense of foreboding brought on by the pandemic and political unrest, have pushed many into an urgency around their own survival.
“If you take a regular pig, like a domestic pig, and put it in the wild, it will grow hair and tusks again like a wild boar. So you take that same kind of thing, like this fellow who says he would kill and eat his neighbor, it doesn’t take much for people like that to go back to their savage nature,” Townsend said.
Black Diamond’s goal is to provide non-traditional gun owners with the tools and knowledge to keep themselves and their families safe from the threat of others expressing their savage nature. The team insists most of the people who are seeking more information about and training with guns are doing it for the right reasons.
“They want to get educated,” Byrd said. “They feel like they need to protect themselves, but it is reactionary. It is a direct response to everything going on. Coronavirus, Black people getting killed by police, and what can be considered the government’s lack of empathy to what’s going on.”
For Townsend, the work is a form of activism in itself, advocating for the survival of the Black American: “The truth is, we really aren’t doing this for the money. We’re doing this for the people.”
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