In 2020, John Keys bought his first gun. Things were spiraling. The coronavirus pandemic forced unprecedented lockdowns across the United States. George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Protests swept the nation. In many areas, they devolved into riots.
“My splash into gun ownership, I felt like it almost came out of necessity because so much was happening in the world that I honestly didn’t expect to see happening,” Keys, who is African American, told Discourse. “Buying a gun wasn’t the only thing that changed at that particular time. But a gun was one of the things that I added to my repertoire of must-haves in order to be self-sustainable as the leader of my household.”
Keys is far from the only one to have such a revelation. The National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates that more than 13.8 million Americans have bought a gun for the first time since 2020, a trend that may accelerate following yesterday’s Supreme Court decision that will likely make it easier for people in some states to obtain concealed weapons permits. According to the NSSF survey, 44% of dealers reported a jump in African American gun buyers.
Results from a University of Chicago NORC survey were even more stark: 69% of first-time buyers during the pandemic were people of color. By comparison, only 26% of pre-pandemic gun owners surveyed were minorities. “New gun owners during the pandemic were much more likely to be younger and People of Color compared to pre-pandemic gun owners in America,” NORC senior fellow John Roman said in a press release.
Searching for Safety
Eugene Lee, a Korean American who serves as head of range partnerships and chief safety officer for Asian American and Pacific Islander Gun Owners (AAPIGO), told Discourse that a majority of new gun owners coming into the Pennsylvania gun range where he works are Asian Americans. He said they’re looking for the same thing Keys was at the height of 2020’s chaos: a means for personal protection.
“The kind of unifying thing that we see is they’re looking to get a firearm to defend themselves, to defend their homes, to protect themselves when they go out,” Lee said. “They always talk about how concerned they are with the rising crime rate, the lack of action on either police or prosecutions by the DA.”
AAPIGO president Malcolm Dang agreed, saying things have been “getting worse day by day” from what he’s seen. “Every time I am on social media or reading the news there’s Asian Americans being attacked in your big metropolitan cities in California, in New York,” he told Discourse. “It’s basically become kind of a second wake-up call for our community.”
27% of gun dealers told the National Shooting Sports Foundation they had seen an increase in Asian American customers during the pandemic. As the virus spread, so did hate crimes against Asians. It’s a problem AAPIGO says many in the Asian community feel has not abated and has not received nearly enough attention from police and prosecutors alike, as evidenced by the sky-high support among Asian Americans for the recent recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
“The younger generation of Asian Americans are exposed and normalized to firearms,” Dang said. “We’re seeing our elders, our parents or grandparents, are the ones that are constantly being targeted as victims by criminals. So when we see that, it creates a change. Maybe we need to rethink those methods of protecting ourselves and our families and our loved ones.”
Lee noted that the feeling that Asian Americans are vulnerable is not new, even if the feeling has increased during the past two years. “The LA riots kind of cemented the idea for the Korean community, there’s no one really there that’s coming to help us,” he said. “It’s kind of, you have to do it on your own.”
Raphael Platte, who runs AAPIGO’s public policy efforts, said he believes the way racism and gun regulation have intertwined in America has also driven recent gun purchases by minorities. He said many minorities have started to grapple with how the nation’s history of discrimination extends into its gun restrictions, some of which were passed with the explicit intent of keeping African Americans and Asian immigrants from exercising the same rights as whites.
“This correct mindset that gun control is racist has been spreading,” he told Discourse. “A massive component of what’s going on is people are realizing that ‘Oh, these laws were made against people like me, but I still have this right.’”
Keys said other factors have also contributed to the uptick in minority gun ownership. He cited the growth of media showing gun culture as part of what’s helped bring new gun owners into the fold.
“As you further look into the gun culture, as it’s portrayed on Instagram, on YouTube, on Facebook, by these content creators and enthusiasts and collectors and whatnot,” he said, “it just really opens you up to a world where people are really out here making so much more of firearms ownership than just protecting and defending their own. There are so many different categories. You have collectors. You have people who customize. You have people who compete.”
He said new buyers, especially minorities, often start by looking for “people that look like you, maybe even sound like you and live where you live” before taking the step of actually going shooting.
“Then you go to the range, and you see people that don’t look like you and maybe some that do look like you, but everyone’s inclusive,” Keys said. “Everyone wants to enlighten you in the same way. And people are maybe even asking you about ‘What are your experiences? What is that you’re shooting? What kind of ammo are you using?’ It almost immediately breaks the stigma of what someone expects when they are going to the gun range for the first time because the intimidation factor is through the roof for a new shooter.”
A Shift in Gun Politics?
Polling has long indicated that gun owners are less favorable toward gun restrictions than those who don’t own guns. Every recent major poll on the issue shows that remains the case. The University of Chicago survey indicates this effect may be especially strong on new pandemic gun buyers. It found they were even more skeptical of a number of gun restrictions, such as mandatory waiting periods, than their pre-pandemic counterparts. If more people from demographics that have traditionally seen lower rates of gun ownership begin purchasing firearms, it could have a profound effect on gun politics at every level throughout the U.S.
The effect is unlikely to be as swift and total as some gun-rights advocates hope, however. Lifelong Democratic voters probably won’t become party-line Republicans just because they bought a gun for the first time. However, if they do eventually change their views on gun policy, it could affect which Democratic candidates they support in the future.
And the more involved in shooting new minority gun owners become, the more likely they are to become politically active on the subject. Certainly, that’s been the experience for Keys. After his initial purchase, he started down what ended up being a fairly short road to a professional role as a gun entertainer and activist.
“It’s interesting; I was looking through some old photographs and videos on my phone the other day that showed my first time going to the range with the new AR that I bought,” Keys said. “I mean, it was a basic firearm, I was just zeroing the sights, and in that moment, it was so fun. I realized how much fun I used to have in the Marine Corps going to the rifle range.”
He said the experience “rekindled the flame” he had for the shooting sports. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is really cool. You know, I could get back into this.’” That’s when he started tinkering with his guns in his garage. He’d buy and install accessories. Then he got into painting his guns. “As this started to unfold, as the rabbit hole started to get deeper, I just embraced it,” Keys said.
That’s when he partnered with his longtime friend, former competitive shooter and MSNBC contributor Shermichael Singleton, to start a TV show focused on gun culture. They came up with GunsOutTV, created a successful YouTube channel, and got picked up by the streaming service Warrior Poet Society Network.
Most minority gun owners won’t end up hosting their own successful gun culture show. Many may not even buy a second gun or join a group like AAPIGO. But the more time they spend shooting, customizing their guns or even just watching the GunsOutTV guys traveling to interesting places and shooting exotic firearms, the less likely they are to support policies that make those things more difficult. The impact may not be instantaneous, but it’s set to be monumental.