Black women who own guns don’t necessarily fit the common conceptions of gun owners. They’re rarely the picture of recreational shooting or gun classes. And some fear that even if they procure the proper training and licensing, they’re not protected by laws designed to shield gun owners from prosecution.
The distance between perception and reality surfaced this week when The Washington Post reported that imagery of a black woman firing a rifle was used in the Facebook ads that Russians bought to influence the 2016 presidential election. The image, which has not been publicly released, might have been intended to encourage African-American militancy and also fan fears among whites, according to the Post report.
Without context, a picture of a black woman firing a rifle is not a neutral image, said Kaitanya Bush, a 42-year-old paralegal in Austin, Texas, who recently bought a 9 mm pistol to protect herself and her family.
Bush said she immediately thought of the cartoon of Michelle Obama on the cover of The New Yorker before the 2008 election. Obama was depicted as a rifle-wielding radical sporting a bandolier and giving her secret-Muslim husband a “terrorist fist jab.” The cover was meant to be satirical — pointing out the ridiculousness of the worst fears of Obama opponents, given that the Obamas were moderate, well-to-do liberals, not the second coming of Assata Shakur and Fred Hampton.
“You can see how that imagery [in the Russian ads] can evoke the same feelings that those had about Michelle Obama bringing this militant side out of the nice and gentle Barack,” Bush said. The New Yorker cover depicted Michelle Obama as “threatening, and fearful, and manipulative, that there is an ulterior motive to this. That we are the temptress.”
Bush said the fear of black women’s radicalism reminded her of the reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa Diab, after she tweeted an unflattering image comparing Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and Ray Lewis to characters from Django Unchained.
Lewis attributed the Ravens’ decision not to sign Kaepernick to the tweet, which he called a “racist gesture.”
Outside the context of law enforcement, military service, or criminality, images of black people with guns tend to be associated with political radicalism, whether it be the Black Panthers, the photo of Malcolm X holding a rifle and peering out of a window, which Nicki Minaj adopted for the album art of her 2014 single, “Lookin A– N—-,” or The New Yorker cover of the Obamas. Images of gun-wielding black people are metonyms for black militancy.
Black gun ownership is historically connected with defending oneself from state violence or lack of state protection, from Harriet Tubman to violent uprisings of enslaved people. And of course there’s a long history of black people who hunt, or shoot for sport, like the women in this 1937 image of the Howard University women’s rifle team. But such representations of black gun users aren’t as well-known.
Black women with guns don’t enjoy the same positive associations as someone such as Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde or Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, who made the empowered and unafraid gun-toting archetype a key part of their appeal as movie stars. That tide may shift slightly with the upcoming film Proud Mary, which stars Taraji P. Henson as a sexy, skilled hit woman. There’s also Lana Kane, the smart, sensible spy in Archer voiced by Aisha Tyler, whose biting comebacks and uniform of clingy sweater dresses set off by two TEC-9s made her a cult hero. But at the end of the day, Kane is a cartoon.
And so the limited context in which armed black women are seen may have provided an opportunity for Russia.
“It makes complete sense to me that they would do that just to incite some sort of rise out of people,” said Marchelle Tigner, a 25-year-old firearms instructor in Savannah, Georgia, who calls herself the “Trigger Happy Panda.” “When articles came out about me or videos came out about me, I would read the comments. And a lot of the comments were extremely negative, like, ‘Oh, black women have guns now. They’re gonna start shooting people. They’re angry and irrational, and the crime rate in black neighborhoods is gonna go up now.’ They were really hurtful, really mean, and really racist comments coming out, so it makes sense that if Russia wanted to get a rise out of people or incite some kind of hateful feelings in a lot of people, they would post pictures of black women with firearms.”
Tigner is an Army veteran who began carrying a gun as part of her job as a military intelligence officer. It made her uncomfortable, but after she was sexually assaulted at age 19, shooting at the gun range became cathartic instead of anxiety-producing. She now travels the country instructing black women in gun safety. When Tigner saw the news that Russia may have used an ad featuring an image of a black woman firing a rifle as a way to sow division and disrupt the election, she was not pleased.
“Although I might not agree with a lot of people’s beliefs, I would never want to be used as propaganda,” Tigner said. “I never want to be a gimmick. That’s why I carry myself professionally when I’m teaching because I never want my words or my images to be twisted and used against me, or against people for making that decision.”
Black women interviewed for this story believe they will not necessarily be afforded equal protection under the law as licensed gun owners because of their blackness. As a result, there’s a cost-benefit analysis that takes place. On the one hand, they feel unsafe in America because of their blackness, and that includes experiences as a gun owner. But they have decided that it’s still worth having the gun to protect themselves from, among other things, racially-motivated violence.
Even though North Carolina is an open carry state, Dione Davis, a 32-year-old cosmetologist and mother, said that she chooses to conceal carry her Glock with a permit. The reason is because she’s black, Davis said.
“I guess I feel like I’m covered but I’m not covered,” Davis said. “I would say … there is a double standard as to how we’re viewed, black gun owners versus white gun owners. Nobody’s looking at my husband or myself as … college-educated … law-abiding citizens when we have a gun. Nobody’s thinking about whether I have four kids at home when you look at me at with a gun. Nobody’s thinking about those things. … White America always has the positive view: They’ve got a family at home, they’re always viewed with life behind them. Black Americans, we’re viewed with no life behind us.”
Philando Castile had a permit for his gun, but died in 2016 after the Minnesota police officer who pulled him over shot and killed him, citing fear that Castile, who disclosed that he had a weapon, would kill him. Marissa Alexander, a black woman from Jacksonville, was imprisoned for firing a warning shot in self-defense at her abusive husband after a judge rejected her defense under the state’s “stand your ground” law.
In every class she holds, Tigner said, black women voice their worries about not having their rights respected or acknowledged. “I’ve even had women say that they didn’t want to be in the photo that we take at the end of the class because they didn’t even want anyone to know that they were in a firearms class,” Tigner said. “It’s kind of scary to think that you can’t learn how to defend yourself without being a target or being looked at as a threat. Even Tamir Rice, he was a kid and had a toy. Not even a real firearm, being a child, and was killed in less than two seconds after [police] arrived on the scene. Things like that are why a lot of parents don’t even want their children to learn about firearms or to take a class, because they don’t want them to be seen as a target, like my parents didn’t. We talk about that in the class a lot.”
For Tigner, the decision not to open carry is a tactical one. “If I was a bank robber and I walk into a bank and you’re open carrying, I’m definitely gonna make sure I take you out first. It just makes you an immediate target and an immediate threat. That’s how criminals think. They look for the harder target. Nobody’s expecting me, this 25-year-old black woman, to have a firearm and to be able to draw and defend myself, and I like that. I like that I’m underestimated.”
With regard to the Russian Facebook ads, Tiffany Ware, the 44-year-old Cincinnati-based founder of The Brown Girls Project and founder of the Brown Girls With Guns workshop, didn’t think it was possible for racial tensions to get worse than they already are.
“My only thought was how could they think that would create more of a divide than what already exists?” Ware said. “From where I live, my view, my perspective, there’s always been this huge divide between African-American people and others. Now there’s even more of a divide. I don’t see how they thought seeing that image would create a greater divide, because I come from a very strong and proud background and all I’ve ever received was pushback for being that way.”
She first became interested in guns after a team she managed was harassed while canvassing for Hillary Clinton. Her team members told her they’d been called “n—–s” and that their campaign signs had been destroyed. Ware said she’s lived in Cincinnati for most of her life and before last fall had been called “n—-” twice. Since December, she’s been called the N-word four times.
Witnessing her children’s anxiety after President Donald Trump won the election spurred Ware to action to protect herself and her family.
“It just made me think and I was like, gosh, what if somebody did — anybody, not just some crazy racist person — but what if somebody did run up in this house, what would I do?” Ware said. “Like, how do I handle that? I need to figure it out.”
When Ware began organizing gun training for black women at a Cincinnati gun range, she said, she and the women in her group would draw stares and the owners made it clear they were not welcome. “They told us we couldn’t continue to come because there were so many of us that we were knocking out their Sunday regulars,” Ware said. “We knew what it was.” So they found another range.
“From white supremacists who terrorized that young child’s birthday party to the little boy who took the trash out for his mother and his neighbor shot him down on the side of the street, you know these are realities for us,” Bush said. “And I as a lawful citizen of this country, if I am going to come up against someone who may have a weapon on them, I am not going to be in that position where I have to fear for my life, where I’m unable to protect my family.”