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Up in arms: Fear of violence reshapes the face of gun ownership

Andréa “Muffin” Hudson is an activist for incarcerated individuals, directs two criminal justice nonprofits, and believes prisons do catastrophic harm. She is also a gun owner. 

When Hudson, 50, drives around Durham, her G2C 9 mm pistol sits beside her on the passenger seat. She carries it with her everywhere, wearing it like a “fanny pack.” She leaves her gun behind only when she goes to the Durham County Courthouse to pay cash bonds.

Hudson lives with her son, 18, and daughter, 28. Her round cheeks frame her easygoing smile as words flow out, her deep voice suited to the seriousness of her work.

Each room in Hudson’s house has a gun in it. Even the bathroom.

“So if you’re in the bathroom, and somebody breaks in while you’re in the bathroom, you can protect yourself,” she said, laughing. “You know, I watch a lot of movies.”

Gun violence in the U.S. spiked in 2020–the onset of the pandemic. In Durham, from 2019 to 2020, the number of shootings skyrocketed by almost 70%. But the city saw 721 shootings from early December 2021 to early December 2022, 188 fewer than the same period two years earlier. 

Fatal shootings increased slightly. From early December 2020 to early December 2022, they went  from 30 to 39.

Gun control debates conjure images of white, conservative men who collect arms for sport. Today, a new population makes up a disproportionate percentage of first-time gun owners: people of color, especially women. Like Hudson, they don’t use their guns for recreation. They own them for protection.

In a study conducted between January 2019 and May 2021, researchers found that 22% of Black gun owners and 16% of Hispanic buyers had purchased arms for the first time in the 28 months prior to the survey. The same was true for just 8% of whites surveyed. Additionally, nearly half of first-time gun owners in 2020 and 2019 were women.

During the same period, 7.5 million Americans bought guns for the first time. More recently, mass shootings in Raleigh, the University of Virginia, Colorado Springs, and Chesapeake, VA., have drawn more attention to the issue of gun ownership. 

Some expected the Biden administration to impose stricter gun control measures, which accounts for a portion of the surge in gun ownership, said Becky Ceartas, Executive Director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence. However, that is only part of the story.

White Nationalism and Law enforcement

Donald Trump’s presidency inflamed deep-seated racial animosity, lent new muscle and momentum to white nationalists, and stoked the fears of people like Hudson. She bought her first gun in 2017.

“I got it because Trump won, became president, and people were acting erratic,” said Hudson, who is Black. “I was thinking that folks were going to start doing stuff to harm other people. I was thinking about The Walking Dead and Armageddon coming, and I wanted to give us a fighting chance to survive.”

Hudson’s greatest fear is not people from her own community, but “white men in America.” She recalls when a white man shot and killed nine Black people at a Charleston church in 2015. She also points to Kyle Rittenhouse, who was not old enough to own a firearm and killed two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, yet served no prison time. 

The pandemic has only amplified gun violence. Almost all recent increases in homicides resulted from gun violence, noted Phil Cook, a Public Policy and Economics professor at Duke who studies the economics of crime.

“The objective threat level has gone way up in a short period of time,” he said.

He believes a combination of tumultuous events has contributed to this increase. The pandemic stripped people of vital community services. Lockdowns caused “young men to have more time on their hands” and resort to gang violence, he said. At the same time, he said that police forces are weaker since the racial justice protests of 2020.

“Having an effective police force is part of what creates public safety,” Cook said, “and we lost some of that in 2020.”  

To Hudson, police officers and the “State” are violent threats in and of themselves. In addition to police shootings, she believes that the incarceration and targeting of people of color, along with a lack of mental health services and other resources, are a form of violence. 

“We need protection from the government and the State,” she said. 

Fear of a “tyrannical” state has traditionally been associated with right-wing fringe groups, but it has “now migrated into the center of gun culture,” said Jeffrey W. Swanson, professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and faculty affiliate for the Center for Firearms Law at Duke Law School. 

The fraught relationship between people of color and law enforcement leaves Hudson feeling as though her only source of protection is her weapon.

Arms Race

Gun ownership is the norm in many communities.

“In some places, it’s literally an arms race,” said Kristin Goss, a political scientist at Duke University who studies gun violence. “So if nobody was armed, people probably wouldn’t feel like they needed to be armed. Once other people start arming themselves, then you have this kind of counter effect of, you know, ‘The place seems more dangerous, so I need to protect myself.'”

MarSean Hall, 30, of Durham, grew up in Chicago. Based on what he has seen, he believes that criminals will purchase illegal guns or resort to other modes of violence.

“A lot of people that are advocating for fewer guns or no guns are the people that have been more so sheltered their whole lives,” said Hall, who is Black.

Both of Hall’s parents were in the military, owned guns, and taught him about firearm safety. Most of his friends’ parents had guns, he said, and he knew others who obtained them illegally.

Hall owns a security firm called Category 5 Protection and bought his first gun when he was 21. He has three children and owns several guns that he keeps locked in a safe. 

“I teach [my children] it’s a tool that can give you an upper hand in situations but not to play with them,” Hall said.

In Hall’s eyes, anyone who can legally own a gun should take advantage of that right, because not every instance of potential violence can be “de-escalated.” Still, gun owners must be responsible, Hall believes. He suspects that people who conduct background checks are not as thorough as they should be. 

For Hudson, the arms race is not just between her community. It’s between her community, white people, and law enforcement.

“In a perfect world, no one would need a weapon,” Hudson said. “But I think about all the people who have guns legally, who do the killing, like, when you think about police officers. You think about random, young white men who go into gun stores, go to gun shows, get all of these guns and all of these weapons.”

Yet, Hudson said, just because people like her own guns doesn’t mean they want to use them.

“I would rather have it and not need it,” she said, “than need it and not have it.” 

A Series of Tragedies

Mass shootings have dominated headlines since October. Five people dead in Raleigh. Five killed in Colorado Springs. Six dead in Chesapeake, VA. Three football players slain at the University of Virginia.

“I think if [the assailant] didn’t have a gun, they may still be dead,” Hudson said of the players. “What if it was a knife? What if it was a car?”

Hudson speculated that the athletes must have done some “harm” to the suspect, adding that, “No matter what they did to this young man, they should still be here.” Officials have disclosed no evidence of any conflict between the players and their assailant.

Hall, though, thinks the gun sealed the athletes’ fate. If their assailant had used a knife, a scenario with three men against one would not have resulted in death, Hall said. Still, he does not think that mass shootings should stop people from purchasing guns as a “tool.”

North Carolina’s Gun Laws

In North Carolina, residents apply for a handgun permit through each county’s sheriff’s office. Applicants must meet certain criteria.

North Carolina does not have red flag laws, which allow state courts to confiscate firearms from people who exhibit dangerous behavior, such as domestic violence. There are also no restrictions on the types of weapons people can buy (for example, an assault rifle vs a semi-automatic rifle), or on the number of rounds of ammunition a magazine can hold.

“North Carolina is middle-of-the road or more permissive than other states,” said Andrew Willinger, executive director of Duke Center for Firearms Law.

This could change with a U.S. Supreme Court decision last July. In New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, the Court struck down as unconstitutional a New York law that required individuals to show “proper cause” before receiving a license to carry a concealed pistol or revolver outside the home. Goss said the case may encourage other lawsuits against state gun regulations.

Violence is Systemic

Idrissa A. Smith, a public defender for Durham County, says that violent crime is driven by systemic factors related to employment, education, culture, and financial strain. 

Smith has noticed higher rates of gun ownership recently, particularly among juveniles. The attorney attributes the rise in gun ownership in Durham to several factors, including economic distress, the migration of gangs toward the South, and fears of white supremacists. 

Smith, who is Black, added that law enforcement and government agencies regulate and prosecute crime, but “none of these institutions have anything to do with violent crimes. It’s systemic. It goes to what’s going on in people’s homes, how people were raised (these people being us, our population), the environments we were put in, and our sensibilities.”

Several of Smith’s fellow lawyers have become first-time gun owners in the last few years. But the lawyer vows never to buy one.

District Attorney Satana Deberry agrees that violence is systemic. Critics charge that she has been soft on violent crime, but both Smith and Cook disagree. Still, Deberry notes that violence has gone up across the country, not just in Durham. She says this proves that the problem extends beyond local prosecution. 

Deberry admires Durham’s community efforts to reduce violence. For example, Hayti Reborn Justice Movement is a new coalition aiming to grow and maintain Black wealth in Durham by investing in Black businesses, bringing together community organizations, providing mentorship, and helping people find work. 

DA spokeswoman Sarah Willets also highlighted the Duke Hospital Violence Intervention Program, the City of Durham’s Prescriptions for Repair Pilot program, and the Community Safety Department. 

“What I think is unique to Durham is our ability to really recognize when there was a challenge in 2020 and 2021 and respond to that,” Deberry said. “There are hundreds of people in this community who are working on decreasing the amount of violence.”

When it comes to guns, Deberry chooses not to own one. She grew up in the rural South with parents who lived through Jim Crow, and her father owned guns to protect his family.

“I’m unwilling to deal with the consequences of using it,” Deberry said. “My father always said, if you have a gun, you gotta be willing to use it.”

CORRECTIONS: In North Carolina, residents apply for a handgun permit through each county’s sheriff’s office. Residents do not need a permit to buy other types of firearms, including rifles and shotguns, at any North Carolina gun retailer. The story has been updated to reflect that information. In addition, an earlier version of the story incorrectly reported Andréa Hudson’s age. She is 50.