Philip Smith on African-American Gun Rights, History, and Having Nothing to Prove

The founder of the National African American Gun Owner’s Association discusses why his organization is growing so quickly
Natalie Krebs Avatar
The 761st Medium Tank Bat
The 761st Medium Tank Battalion, photographed in England before shipping over to mainland Europe during WWII. National Archives

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After working long hours as a lone employee of the National African American Gun Owner’s Association since 2015, Philip Smith hired four employees late last year. As founder and president of NAAGA, Smith only sees his organization’s current momentum picking up. With roughly 125 chapters across the country, NAAGA offers some of the lowest membership fees in its space. In turn, members get everything from firearms safety education to dedicated range days, new skill sessions, and more, all while meeting new folks.

NAAGA is adding more than 1,000 members each month and conservatively puts their national membership at about 37,000. Historically, membership has been about 60 percent female. Strictly word-of-mouth advertising has garnered these new recruits, but the potential membership—with some 48 million Black Americans, and as many as 11 million Black gun owners—has a hopeful Smith striving to hit 100,000 members within two years. His ultimate goal is 100,000 members, which he says is feasible within 10 to 15 years.

Smith attended UC Berkeley and graduated from UC Davis with degrees in history and economics. Prior to founding NAAGA, he worked as an HR consultant. Today, Smith considers his job an honor, and one he takes seriously. Here’s how he thinks about everything from the gun lobby to the role that firearms have played in African American history, and much more. This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

What’s the origin story of NAAGA?

To answer that, I have to go back to my beginnings. I was born and raised in Vallejo, which—as in most cities in California—is very diverse. When you are raised in that environment, you learn how to appreciate and embrace other cultures, foods, and different perspectives. In my neighborhood, a person’s difference was a point of strength. So, fast-forward 18 years in that environment: I like diversity. There are all types of diversity. Racial diversity, economic diversity, religious diversity. So that’s been engrained in my DNA.

When I started working in Silicon Valley, something was lacking. I just didn’t feel that I was comfortable culturally. My wife and I wanted to be around other African Americans, so we moved to Atlanta in 2002. It has a large population of us where we really thrive financially, socially, politically. Georgia has a completely different culture. Guns are just etched into the fabric of society. Mothers give daughters guns, fathers give their sons guns, they have family picnics—black, white, or otherwise. It’s just a different way of living. It’s a very nice way of living, but it’s very different from where I came from.

California had given me somewhat of an anti-gun perspective, because they are tough on guns in California. They really don’t want you, as a citizen, to have a gun and they put you through a lot of hoops to get one. In Georgia, it’s just the opposite. They want you to have a gun, they want you to be able to protect yourself, and they want you to feel liberated from a self-defense standpoint. And after about five or six years here, I started really saying, you know, I get it. I started respecting that perspective, then I started embracing it, and then I believed in it. And in 2015, a couple of friends invited me to the range, I went to the range with them, and I really enjoyed it. The next week I went again, by myself. I thought, if I could have this much fun, I know other African Americans in the country can have this much fun and learn about shooting at the same time. I began to develop the framework of an organization that speaks to us culturally, not just legally, from the firearms perspective. On February 28, 2015, I launched NAAGA. I didn’t think I’d get many people. I thought I might get 300. But I had over 300 the first month. By the end of the year, I had 8,000.

A portrait of Philip Smith, founder of the National African American Gun Owners Association.
Smith founded NAAGA in 2015. Today, the organization is adding more than 1,000 members each month. Courtesy Philip Smith

Women are the fastest growing group of hunters and shooters nationwide, but majority female participation in co-ed shooting spaces is unusual. What would you attribute your higher female membership to?

Well, I think our community is very different. We have a set of realities that a lot of other communities don’t have to deal with economically and socially. A lot of our men, unfortunately, are having a tough time of it: of being employed, of having issues with law enforcement. So a lot of young ladies are heading single-family homes. They want to make sure that if two guys do run through the door at two in the morning, they can protect themselves. Also, I think the biggest reason is that a lot of women are just preferring to stay single. They’re professionals, and they want the freedom to do what they want, to go where they want, whenever they want.

And what does NAAGA offer its members? What’s your mission?

Our focus is to empower African Americans to learn how to shoot a firearm. We want them to be able to protect themselves, their family, their communities, and their loved ones. We believe the firearm is a tool of empowerment for any African American, and anyone who wants to join our organization. Because we do have other folks from other backgrounds and racial entities who have joined, and continue to join, and really have a great time: white, Asian, Latino… I think that’s a great thing, because it says anybody can join our organization and feel comfortable. And that’s something that we really embrace at NAAGA. Regardless of who you are, you don’t have to walk alike, talk alike, look alike, to be accepted. When you come in, we give you a high five, we hug you, we say, “Welcome brother, welcome sister”—regardless of your background, your race, your religious or political leanings. You’re part of the family. That’s the kind of organization that I want to belong to. I’m not saying we’re perfect, but we certainly have a culture of acceptance. And that speaks volumes to folks when they’ve had other experiences with other organizations, where it’s just the opposite.

You mentioned NAAGA doesn’t judge members’ politics. Does NAGA wade into politics, such as 2A lobbying, or are you primarily member-focused?

That’s something we struggled with initially as an organization. Should we get into politics? But we had to come to the final decision that we will not involve ourselves in the political arena. It’s just—it’s a dirty, nasty arena. I mean, they’ve got some sharks in that water. So we have decided to maintain a sense neutrality, because we have folks who are Republicans, Democrats, libertarians, socialists, and people who think, I just want to join, I don’t give a damn about politics. We have some folks who just want to shoot competitively, or practice long-distance precision shooting. They’re into the sport of firearms—and that’s it. We’re not monolithic, at all. As I said, we are very, very, very diverse. So politics is something we avoid. We will back policies and address policy, including social issues, but we will not address a politician who wants us to back them. And trust me, we’ve been asked by everybody, even at the highest level directly, who want us to support them. But, at this point, our official stance is that we will not support politicians. We are here to teach African Americans to shoot.

Are stereotypes a problem for you and your members?

Oh yeah they are. I’ll give you some experiences I’ve had.

You go to the range and somebody looks at you. They know you’re there for a service, but they don’t want to say anything. They don’t want to say, “Yes, how you doing? Can I help you?” They just look at you and they walk away. Ten minutes later, you’re still waiting, and they walk right past you and act like you you’re not there. Finally, you have to reach out to them—“Hey, hello, I need some help.” They act very irritated. And it’s just a very hostile back-and-forth. Begrudgingly, they eventually give you what you want. I’ve had members walk into some ranges and were not served, period, after being there an hour. Some members, when they go to pay—for range time, ammo, whatever—I’ve had people ask them, “Are you gang related?” These are doctors, nurses, federal workers. These are off-duty law enforcement officers. So you get the whole spectrum.

I will say this: There are some ranges and some folks who treat you just like, you know, an American citizen. A human being. “How can I help you, sir? No problem, ma’am. What do you need?” That is the majority of the interactions. But there are some spots in America where it is hostile, at a minimum, when an African American walks into the gun range. And that’s unfortunate.

A man at the shooting range cleans the bolt of his firearm.
NAAGA's goal is to teach its members all aspects of gun ownership and self protection. NSSF

Have those hostile interactions been pretty consistent since you started shooting?

I don’t want to sound like I’m a doomsayer or alarmist. But I think the country is polarized racially and I don’t think it’s getting healthier. Hopefully things will change over the next five to ten years, but right now there is a lot of tension. Some people think they’re losing something, and that they have to fight back because their version of America is going away. I don’t know why that is. Those folks need to take a step back and realize the country is for everybody. It’s not just for you. That’s part of the issue right now, that some feel that they’re entitled to a certain reality that no longer exists.

Could you talk about what gun ownership means for you?

I have a lot of conversations with my members and the media. And I always like to start out with the following: How many African Americans do you think died wishing they had a gun, that were slaves or who came to this country in bondage? What does that number look like? At some point in their life as a slave, did they think, You know, I wish I had a gun to change my reality and give myself a chance, a chance for my family to get out of here? There is no right answer. No one really knows. Is it a million? Ten million? Fifty million? I would argue it’s in the millions. And that response, or potential answer, is the very reason we are in this place right now as a community. We have never had the opportunity, I think, to truly protect ourselves. We have been sheep for the most part, left isolated, to be attacked, to be taken advantage of, to be killed. You can look at Black Wall Street, how they attacked that community—and when I say “they,” I mean those people who do not like our essence, our hue, our skin color—and that’s the very reason why we have this organization.

When you can protect yourself, when you can protect your community, when you can come to the table and say, “Hey, you don’t have to like me, but if you do anything, if you try to attack me, rest assured we are going to protect ourselves legally and lawfully.” And that is perfectly fine. Having a gun doesn’t guarantee you anything, but at least we have a fighting chance. I’m a firm believer: If you have a gun, you have an opportunity to live, as opposed to being at the mercy of your oppressor. It makes no sense to me, on any level, when someone tells me that I’m better off without a gun.

There’s currently intense national attention on the relationship between Black Americans and law enforcement. What are interactions like with law enforcement for your members who are, say, carrying? How much of a problem are situations like these for your community?

It’s a big problem. You can look at Philando Castile, a lawful gun owner who didn’t do anything wrong, and he still got murdered. It’s a battle. We have to win because we don’t have any other choice. We cannot let one rogue cop, or rogue cops, or any domestic terrorist, or domestic terrorists, push us out of thinking that we don’t have the right to carry a gun. We do have that right. Our ancestors died for us to be here. To me, African Americans are the ultimate patriots, the ultimate soldiers for this country, because we fought for this country when we weren’t even considered human. So we have nothing to prove to anyone. When someone tells me I don’t need to carry a gun, or we shouldn’t carry guns as a community, I have a problem with that.

Nine members of the Harlem Hellfighters from WWI.
Decorated soldiers of the 369th return home from WWI with French Croix de Guerre awards. National Archives

As you mentioned, NAAGA is different from other shooting and 2A organizations. Do your members belong to other firearm organizations?

I think a lot of our members belong to a lot of different organizations because they want to get different perspectives, not just our perspective, and that’s good. That’s healthy. I encourage that. Join other organizations, see what they’re saying and doing. Then look at what we’re doing. And I bet nine out of ten times, you’re going to come back to us and say, ‘You know what? I like the way you guys are doing it.’

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We teach gun safety and laws like everyone else, but one thing that separates us is our new Members Orientation Class. And in that class, you learn about the history of Black arms. You learn about Crispus Attucks, the Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen. You learn about the 761st, the Black tank battalion in World War II. You learn about the Harlem Hellfighters, a unit of Black soldiers who weren’t allowed to fight for the U.S. in World War I. So they helped France. We have a long history: The Black Panther Party, Deacons for Defense, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner—the list goes on of African Americans who have utilized the firearm for liberation. When you become a NAAGA member, you learn about that. You realize that you’re not the first Black person, nor will you be the last. And that’s a good thing. That’s something that we embrace with a lot of pride. And that’s what makes us different.

What would you like our readers to know?

I’d like you and your readers to understand, to grasp—and hopefully embrace—is that African Americans are not all alike. We are very different in terms of why we’re joining NAAGA. It just comes in many different veins, in different views, and different perspectives. We are American citizens, just like everyone else. And we should be respected. It’s not wrong for individuals to come together in an organization that teaches self-protection.

Secondly, while we come for different reasons, we deserve this. We’re exercising our Second Amendment right. We’re not doing something illegal or devious. We just want to be able to walk down the street, walk in our communities, go to church, jog on a Sunday, look at houses—and not get attacked. We just want to be left alone. And I think when people really understand the gravity of that, and what’s going on, they will understand how important it is for us to have that freedom. Just like everyone else.

For more information on NAAGA, visit the website and check out their blog. Photograph at top: The 761st Medium Tank Battalion, photographed in England before shipping to mainland Europe during WWII.