Black communities feel the brunt of gun violence, so these Kansas City women are arming themselves | KCUR - Kansas City news and NPR

RaShaun Brown wears glossy pink lipstick, three-inch-long hot pink fingernails and a small black pistol in a cross-body holster. She wants people to know she’s not only a gun owner but one who carries openly.

“Because when I was growing up, I never saw a Black person, woman or man, out in public with a gun unless they were a criminal, and that’s the same on TV,” she says. “I’m a mother, I’m a wife, a friend, and if you see a person that is not a bad person with a gun, it may open your mind. I’m not getting ready to hold up the store.” Polymer Gun Holster

Brown and her husband, Abraham, co-own R & A Accessories, a small firearms and self-defense accessory shop at 79th and Troost Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri. The shop doesn’t sell firearms, but instead is stocked with cases of accessories such as tasers and mace, or lipsticks, combs and pens that conceal small, sharp knives.

A 40-year-old mother of seven, Brown works during the day as a construction company project administrator. Her husband got her a gun when he got one himself, but she didn’t take it out until the pandemic.

“Everybody was scared,” she says. “That was when I actually started going to the range myself.”

After she and some friends posted pictures of themselves at a shooting range, they started the Pretty Pistol Posse, a group of about a dozen Black mothers, wives and professionals.

Since the robust response to the postings on social media, she and the group have leaned into empowering women, especially Black women, to take responsibility for their own personal safety and that of their families.

Brown says becoming educated and trained on gun safety is in recognition of that violence and the fear it’s created. She says it’s not about using a gun, but being empowered how not to.

“Because contrary to a lot of people's beliefs, your gun is not supposed to be your first choice, right, to defend yourself. It should be your last,” she says. “So if I can disable or disarm whoever's trying to attack me and get away before I have to use my gun, that's the priority. But there are a lot of people in this world who believe that women shouldn't be protecting themselves.”

Kansas City is poised to outpace its deadliest year ever, with almost all the homicides committed with a firearm. In response, officials have ramped up conversations about ways to mitigate the surge.

In May, Kansas City Police Chief Stacey Graves announced the department is collaborating with anti-violence groups and other area law enforcement in a citywide initiative. In June, a 12-hour broadcast on radio station KPRS was billed as a "call-to-action" in partnership with Ad Hoc Group Against Crime. And earlier this month, the Kansas City Council approved Mayor Quinton Lucas’ proposed ordinances banning certain firearms, such as machine guns, and accessories like silencers.

But across the country, Black women — who for years have seen their communities disproportionately affected by gun violence — see the issue also in terms of underlying disinvestment and poverty. And they've invested in their own protection by buying guns themselves.

According to statistics from The Firearm Industry Trade Association, retailers saw an increase of 87% among African American women who bought guns in the first half of 2021.

Aleisha Olatunde, 35, a licensed professional counselor with her own private practice, hadn’t owned a gun before she joined the Posse. But she has relatives who’ve been fatally shot. (So have the others.)

She says high unemployment during Covid-19 and racial unrest following the murder of George Floyd made Black communities particularly vulnerable and scared.

“So everybody was like, ‘Oh no, if I’m gonna fight, I’m gonna fight with a gun,’" she says, "because they want to protect what’s theirs, whether that be family or home.”

Brown says she’ll never tell anyone they need to own a gun.

“What I’m gonna tell you,” she says, “is that if you don’t carry a gun you need to always ensure you're situationally aware of what’s around you and that you should have something on your body and your person to protect you.”

Olatunde supports some gun restrictions and is skeptical of the traditionally white, male gun lobby, which she believes has put politics over people.

“It’s tricky,” she says about the politics of guns. “All the politiciness – yes, you know I made up a word – when we’re seeing the divisiveness in our world, and then you hear about all these millions, whatever dollars putting behind a person who’s driving rhetoric like this.”

She’s not getting directly involved in politics herself, but as a therapist, she says any conversation about gun violence must include the impact of decreases in mental health resources.

“As a gun owner and as someone who sees people with a wide array of mental health issues,” she says, “I feel like better laws or restrictions are important.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon in Raytown, Missouri, members of the Kansas City chapter of the National African American Gun Association have noise-reducing headphones cocked on their heads and are waiting for their turns at the small firing range below Blue Steel Guns and Ammo.

They say the group has a mixture of political leanings, but they see gun ownership as a constitutional right they were denied over centuries of brutality and killing.

“People were not concerned about Black men having guns when we were being lynched and targeted by law enforcement,” says Eric Sanders, president of the Kansas City chapter. “Nobody complained then.”

Suave Estelle is one of the 30 women who make up almost half the Kansas City chapter’s membership. She says she grew up in a hunting family and started learning how to shoot by hunting pheasants and duck in 2014 with a local hunting club. “I wanted to challenge myself and learn how to be self-sufficient,” she says.

She bought a gun in 2018, she says, to protect herself and her property. She knows Black women are vulnerable because of their race and gender.

“Not only will the sight of the gun frighten the men, the fact that I’m holding it with stance and education and confidence,” she says emphatically. “They see ‘I’m not gonna be able to take that from her.’”

LaTasha Jacob was a co-founder of Pretty Pistol Posse, but recently broke away to get more involved in educating lawmakers.

She’s a 2nd Amendment advocate and a gun owner, but says you can’t talk about gun rights without acknowledging the outsized impact of guns on poorer communities.

“The gun is the tool,” she says. “People use whatever means available they know to survive, to protect themselves and get to the next level in life. It’s not gun violence, it’s violence in general and the lack of ability to survive.”

Countries like Canada and the U.K. have less gun violence, she says, because they take care of their citizens.

“Health care is provided. And mental health is part of that,” she says. “The main problem, I believe, is the lack of resources: health care, education, more social services.”

So Jacob is meeting with local gun clubs and trying to understand their politics. She says she recently attended a gathering of NRA members to learn more about their activism. She says she was the only Black woman in a room of 75 people.

“I’m confident in my abilities and education and always open to learning more,” she says. “So I’m comfortable.”

Jacob will join Missouri gun lobbyists when they go to the capitol in Jefferson City to talk to legislators this fall.

Minimalist Gun Holster And as one Black woman who has armed herself, she'll be uniquely qualified to remind politicians there are ways to reduce gun violence that don’t have anything to do with guns.