Samuel Hayes goes on guard as soon as he sees police officers approaching. The DeKalb County resident watches their body language. He checks the expressions on their faces. He looks for their hands. Hayes is extra careful in these moments because of two things: He is black and he often carries a gun.
The 46-year-old is used to such encounters. Hayes handled private security for several retailers at the Lenox Square shopping center in recent years. Yet, he said, police stopped him about a half a dozen times there based on reports that he was carrying a gun. On the job, he was legally carrying a pistol holstered on his hip.
Hayes sees parallels between his experiences and the recent fatal police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota. Both men — Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — were armed when they were killed. Sterling — who has an extensive criminal history, including convictions for battery and illegal possession of a gun — was reportedly a felon on probation and was not allowed to be armed. Castile disclosed he was legally armed, his girlfriend said. Police shot him multiple times as he was reaching for his identification.
Their deaths — documented by bystanders in gripping mobile phone videos — have sparked painful conversations among black gun owners like Hayes about racial profiling, police brutality and even their own mortality. At the same time, they worry the fatal shooting of five police officers and the wounding of seven others in Dallas will worsen their encounters with law enforcement authorities. The alleged gunman in Dallas, according to officials, is a black military veteran who said his goal was to kill white police officers.
“My biggest fear is that one day a police officer will approach me with the same attitude and mentality that we see in these videos and I am going to die that day,” said Hayes, a New York City transplant who operates a firearms training and personal security consulting business in Dunwoody. “I am pretty much on guard any time I see a cop, regardless of the circumstance.”
Two years ago, 37 percent of adults reported they or someone else in their homes had a gun, according to a national Pew Research Center survey. The same survey showed a wide gap in gun ownership between whites — 41 percent — and blacks, 19 percent.
Hayes and other black gun owners say they would like to see groups like the National Rifle Association speak out in favor of Second Amendment rights in the wake of the shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota. They said they feel alienated from the NRA because it is closely aligned with police. They also pointed to how the group’s CEO, Wayne LaPierre, appeared to refer to President Barack Obama’s race last year when he dismissed him as a “demographically-symbolic president.”
“The NRA has enough political chops and enough juice to really make an effective change in race relations in this country, if they really wanted to,” Hayes said.
The NRA offered no official comment in the immediate aftermath of the shootings by police in Minnesota and Louisiana. That drew scorn on social media from some who accused the influential gun rights group of racism. On Friday, the NRA broke its silence and said the reports from Minnesota were “troubling and must be thoroughly investigated.”
In contrast, the response to the Dallas killings was swift and strong. LaPierre released a statement online, expressing the “deep anguish all of us feel for the heroic Dallas law enforcement officers who were killed and wounded, as well as to those who so bravely ran toward danger to defend the city and the people of Dallas.”
Some gun rights advocates were more blunt.
Larry Pratt, executive director emeritus for Gun Owners of America, said an “African-American civil war” is now occurring in the U.S.
“What we see day in and day out is African-Americans killing each other,” he said, “and that has nothing to do with police. It’s happening in black neighborhoods, and it’s really nasty.”
“At the end of the day,” he continued, “we’re talking about human nature, fallen human beings and making errors in judgment.”
Philip Smith said he founded the National African American Gun Association from his McDonough home last year and has seen its membership grow to at least 11,000 members from all 50 states. Membership, he said, has grown exponentially in the past two months.
“Our goal is to introduce firearms to the African-American community in a very positive way,” Smith said. On the Minnesota shooting, Smith said of Castile: “He volunteered the information about his gun, he seemed to be obeying the law. So why is there suddenly a schizophrenic behavior by the police officer to shoot this guy? I don’t see the justification in any shape or form.”
John Monroe, a Roswell gun rights attorney, referred to what he called “a long history of racism and gun control in this country.” Telling police that Castile was armed may have cost him his life, Monroe added.
“Most police officers want to be told about it (a gun) in a traffic stop,” Monroe said. “You might think if he hadn’t told him, he might still be alive.”
Chad Glover, a black gun owner from Stone Mountain, said he carries a firearm to protect his wife and three children. He keeps it in the center console of his vehicle. Previously, he said that if he were ever pulled over by police, he would tell them he is legally armed to avoid any problems. But he changed his mind after learning of the shootings in Dallas, saying disclosing his gun to police would be a “recipe for disaster.”
“I thought about what happens after I give them my permit, and the police drag me out of the car and lay me face down on the side of the highway as they retrieve my gun from the center console,” said Glover, who writes a blog about gun ownership called “Daddy’s Gun.” “I thought of this happening in front of my wife and my children.”
“I say with confidence that I will keep my mouth shut about the gun,” he said. “I will hand over the paperwork as required by law and take my ticket. I’m not going to volunteer to being spread-eagle on the highway. I can’t.”
Jay Ashburne, another black gun owner who lives in Lithonia, said he also prefers not to disclose his firearm to police, given the possibility that he could be harmed. He carries a firearm to protect himself and is extra cautious when he encounters police.
“I have to be very careful,” he said. “I have to make sure I give them complete eye contact at all times. And my posture has to be a certain way. I can’t get loud. I have to be very calm and collected, whenever I am dealing with them, especially when I’m carrying.”
On Friday morning, Ashburne joined his friend, Hayes, at the Norcross Gun Club and Range, a bustling brick building off Peachtree Industrial Boulevard. Hayes bellied up to a stall in the range and fired his Glock 17 at a human-shaped paper target hanging about seven yards away. His first six bullets pierced the target’s head. His casings clattered on the concrete floor and a fireworks-like smell permeated the range.
“That’s how you get the bad guys to stop what they are doing the fastest,” said Hayes, who is forming a local group to educate blacks about gun ownership. “Shoot them in the head multiple times, if necessary.”
Moments later, Hayes leaned against a counter in front of a large gun display at the range, reflecting on the shootings in Dallas and what they could mean for people like him and Ashburne.
“If I’m being completely honest,” Hayes said, “I don’t know that it is going to affect us at all because things are already as bad as they could possibly be. Black men are being gunned down in the streets.”