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'Black Guns Matter' Focuses On Firearms Education To Decrease Violence

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Philadelphia, like many American cities, is trying to control gun violence. Last year, more than 200 residents were killed in gun-related homicides. A group called Black Guns Matter wants to bring those numbers down. The focus is educating gun owners. For NPR's Code Switch team, Bobby Allyn from member station WHYY reports.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Gun violence has plagued the city for decades. Instead of more regulations, Maj Toure wants to get more gun owners, licensed and unlicensed, educated about firearms. His target audience - it's a broad group.

MAJ TOURE: Rappers, drug dealers, lawyers, doctors, firearms advocates, anti-gun people - these are people that I call my circle.

ALLYN: His group, Black Guns Matter, held a kick-off event recently at a firearms training center just north of Center City. Participants learn how a gun works, the kind of damage it can inflict, how to properly transport and store one and methods for toning down a conflict way before a gun is pulled out. Trainer Jose Morales, who's helping out Toure's group, spoke to about a dozen attendees.

JOSE MORALES: Anybody heard of somebody who got their gun stolen from their home or their car? Raise your hand. Keep them up. Keep them up. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven - seven guns right now.

ALLYN: West Philadelphia resident Jane Haney listened. Later, she began filling out an application for a concealed carry permit.

JANE HANEY: I was a victim of a home invasion before. And my son been shot at 17. And I want to be able to protect myself and my family.

ALLYN: She's exactly the kind of person Toure is trying to reach. At first, Toure seems like an unlikely leader of this kind of effort. He's an artist and activist and connected to Philly's Black Lives Matter movement. But he's also a dues-paying member of the NRA.

TOURE: And I have certain questions about the NRA's movement at certain times in American history.

ALLYN: Civil rights historian Charles Cobb says there's a long history of gun ownership among activists. Cobb wrote a book about the role guns played in the civil rights movement.

CHARLES COBB: Fannie Lou Hamer had shotguns in the corner of her bedroom. Medgar Evers traveled with a rifle in the trunk of his car and a pistol beside him on the front seat.

ALLYN: Cobb says one of the reasons why Toure's group is so exceptional is that much of the current gun rights activism is fueled by fear among whites.

COBB: Really, what they're peddling is that you need your guns 'cause there are savages out here. And they're black and they're Latino - or they're not white, anyway.

ALLYN: Back at the event, Toure spoke about changing perceptions about black men carrying guns. He hopes that, with more conflict-management skills, law enforcement will view armed black men as less of a threat. He also hopes that, with his education focus, he should be able to find common ground with gun-control advocates. He's already gotten some qualified support from an unexpected corner.

SHIRA GOODMAN: I'm Shira Goodman. I'm the executive director of CeaseFire PA.

ALLYN: Groups like CeaseFire have been trying to combat gun violence by pushing for increased background checks and ways to stop people from illegally buying guns for others. Goodman disagrees with Toure's underlying premise that more guns make neighborhood safer. But overall, she supports Black Guns Matter's education campaign.

GOODMAN: They're having this conversation within the community. It's not outsiders coming in. It's really important.

ALLYN: And that's part of the mission Toure's on. He sees the Black Guns Matter campaign as a way of changing the narrative around firearms in black neighborhoods.

TOURE: In our community especially, maybe even deliberately, there's a lot of misinformation and ignorance. And if we continue down that same path, we're going to keep getting what we've been getting.

ALLYN: He admits that not everyone carrying a gun on the streets is going to be receptive at first. But he hopes that, as word spreads, more minds will open up. For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.