Black Gun Owners Speak Out About Facing a Racist Double Standard

"I immediately feared for my life," says Mark Hughes, the man misidentified as a Dallas shooting suspect last week

Mark Hughes was wrongly identified as a suspect in last Thursday's police shooting by the Dallas Police Department. He and his brother Cory say they've received many death threats in the week since. Credit: Rich Fury/AP

Cory Hughes marched in Florida after Trayvon Martin was shot, in Ferguson for Michael Brown and in Baltimore for Freddie Gray. Last Thursday, the Black Lives Matter activist stood in a park in downtown Dallas giving a speech about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and his frustration with deaths like theirs.

"I basically told [the crowd] I'm tired of hashtags. We have to get to a place where we find a resolution — to where cops are not comfortable shooting black men and just turning them into a hashtag. That was basically my message: Enough is enough," Hughes tells Rolling Stone. "Not only are these people becoming hashtags, but the cops, in 80 or 90 percent of these cases, they're getting away scot-free, they're getting a paid vacation. Usually, the white supremacist groups start a GoFundMe for them and, if they don't end up back on the force, they get a golden parachute for killing a black man."

After he spoke, Hughes, along with his brother Mark and some 2,000 others, took their protest to a downtown Dallas courthouse, where they held a moment of silence for victims of police brutality. As he marched, Mark Hughes carried a long gun slung across his chest. It's legal in Texas to openly carry such guns, with or without a permit; Mark carried his that day in solidarity with Sterling and Castile, who was shot by a police officer after identifying himself as a licensed gun owner.

The Hughes brothers were marching back to the park shortly before 9 p.m. when sniper shots rang out. Soon after the shooting began, Mark flagged down a police officer and turned his gun in, worried he would be mistaken for the shooter. Their phones dead, the Hugheses didn't realize as they helped redirect cars away from the scene that a tweet sent out by the Dallas Police Department containing a photo of Mark, erroneously identifying him as a suspect and asking for help tracking him down, was quickly spreading across the Internet.

"When I found out that my image had been released to the media as a suspect, I immediately feared for my life, because I thought I would just be another statistic — another, like my brother says, hashtag that would be gunned down at the hands of the DPD," Mark says. "It was very traumatic."

Mark's photo was retweeted more than 40,000 times before midnight, and was re-published by a number of media outlets. The DPD, which questioned and released both brothers that night — Mark had been a person of interest, not a suspect — left the tweet up for more than 16 hours. Over the past week, the Hughes brothers say they have not stopped receiving death threats. The DPD has not apologized to Mark.

The Hugheses don't consider themselves "gun nuts" or "Second Amendment apologists." They're not NRA members. They also aren't members of the recently formed National African American Gun Association, nor the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, a Dallas-based group that advocates for black gun ownership. But Hughes' experience, like Philando Castile's, illustrates a double-standard that black gun owners say they experience regularly.

"When it comes to my brother's case, I am confident that it wasn't open carry that got him labeled as a domestic terrorist. It was him openly carrying as a black man that got him labeled as a domestic terrorist," Cory Hughes says. "My brother can put the gun down, but he can never change his skin color."

Those sentiments are echoed by Babu Omowale, co-founder of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. "We see this happen all the time," Omowale, who attended the march in Dallas, says of Castile's death. "Just because a black man has a license to carry, he's not viewed the same a a white man who is licensed to carry. A black man is still a threat as far as the police department is concerned."

In the wake of Castile's killing earlier this month, the NRA was criticized both by its members and those outside the organization for its slow response to the shooting of a licensed gun owner — an issue the group is typically quick to jump on. When the NRA did release a statement relating to the shooting, it did not mention Castile by name, referring only to "reports from Minnesota."

The sluggish response was, to some, emblematic of what they see as the group's attitude toward African-Americans, who historically have not been visible among their ranks. The NRA doesn't make public member demographics data, but black members have voiced concerns about the group's lack of diversity in the past.

"I am confident that it wasn't open carry that got [Mark Hughes] labeled as a domestic terrorist. It was him openly carrying as a black man that got him labeled as a domestic terrorist." —Cory Hughes

Black gun ownership has a fraught history. The nation's first gun-control law, and many laws that followed it, were explicitly designed to keep black Americans from acquiring firearms. Today, black Americans are on the whole less likely to support the Second Amendment; only 24 percent do, compared to 57 percent of white Americans.

Omowale co-founded the gun club — named for the founder of the Black Panther Party — in 2014 to help more black Americans get guns. Its members demonstrate in favor of open carry and against police brutality, and patrol black neighborhoods, among other things.  

"Instead of going to the NRA, black people come to the Huey P. Newton Gun Club," Omowale says. "We help with some of the training... we help with the familiarity of guns, we show them how to operate the guns correctly. And when it comes time for them to get their license — because we want every man and woman to be legally armed — we refer them to other black people who could get them legally licensed.

"It's strictly an economic thing; it's not a racist thing," he says. "It's about having that money rotate in our community."

Gun ownership among black Americans has risen in recent years, according to studies by the Pew Research Center. In 2014, 19 percent of black adults said they owned a gun, up from 15 percent in 2013. That increase tracks with a change in perspective: In 2013, just 29 percent of black adults said owning a gun makes people safer; the following year, that number was 54 percent.

Shortly after Philando Castile's death, his sister Allysza recalled expressing to him safety concerns about carrying. "I used to tell him all the time that I do not carry my gun on me," she told The New York Times, "because they will shoot first and ask questions later."

Philip Smith, a soft-spoken consultant from Atlanta and the founder of the National African American Gun Association, rejects the idea that carrying a gun puts him in greater danger. "This is what I tell everyone: They are killing us anyway. They are shooting us anyway, gun or no gun," he tells Rolling Stone.

Smith grew up in Northern California, and didn't touch a gun until, shortly after moving to Georgia, he accompanied a client to a gun range. "I caught the bug, but I did notice at the range, there was no one else who looked like me," Smith says.

He founded his group last February. A year and a half later, his club boasts 11,000 members — 65 percent of them women, he points out, proudly. It's free to join, and "not political in any way, shape or form," he says.

Omowale declines to share the gun club's specific numbers, but says interest in membership is up nationwide. "We have more applications than we can process at this time," he says, attributing the spike to the current political climate in the U.S. "We're not doing anything to make the gun club grow. That's happening by the people who are running the country, by the police departments, by the politicians — they're the ones growing our gun club."

Omowale originally got involved with the New Black Panther Party — one of four black organizations that eventually formed the basis of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club — after his friend Allen Simpson was killed by a Dallas police officer in 2003. The city ultimately paid out more than $800,000 to Simpson's family and lawyers.

In recent years, though, the Dallas Police Department has been commended for implementing de-escalation training that has help drive down the number of excessive force complaints. Just 13 such complaints have been filed this year so far, compared to 147 in 2009. If the current rate holds, 2016 will have the lowest number of complaints in 20 years.

Omowale, for his part, says he has not witnessed those improvements firsthand. "We don't see any changes. We go back to 1972 — there has not been one violent police officer indicted for the murder of unarmed black men in this city. We feel like it's business as usual," he says. "They just patrol our black communities like the gestapo and the S.S."

Even as their ranks are growing, Omowale and Smith remain the exception rather than the rule among gun supporters. Seventy-two percent of African-Americans say gun control is more important than gun rights. That might be because black Americans — and black men in particular — bear the brunt of homicides by gun. A 2015 analysis by the Brookings Institute found the firearm homicide rate among black men in their 20s was about 89 per 100,000; for white men, the next highest category, the figure was 21 per 100,000.

Even as Mark Hughes felt compelled to carry his gun openly and symbolically in Dallas last week, and says he would do it again, he supports reasonable restrictions on guns.

"I don't carry guns around everywhere I go," he says. "But if there is another protest or another rally about another individual getting gunned down at the hands of a police officer because he was rightfully carrying a gun, then yes, I would take my gun again and use it as a symbol again."

During a CNN special Tuesday night, Mark Hughes asked House Speaker Paul Ryan what he would do to make sure mentally ill individuals, like Dallas shooter Micah Johnson, can't pass a background check. "What we don't want to do is pass a law that we know violates a law-abiding citizen's rights, take away their rights without their due process," Ryan, who has opposed efforts to bring any gun legislation to a vote in the House, replied. "That is unfortunately what I think many people are asking Congress to do."

That answer didn't suffice for Hughes. "Paul Ryan is a politician, and what he did [Tuesday] night is what most politicians do. He skated around, and never really answered the question," Hughes says. "I just wanted him to answer the question, and he didn't."

Paul Ryan is not the only one with nothing of substance to say. The NRA, Hughes says, has not offered any kind of support for the ordeal he endured for openly and lawfully carrying his firearm in public. "They have yet to reach out to us about what we're going through. I would think this would be something they would stand behind," he says, noting that the group "is blind to the simple fact that we don't get the same treatment as other individuals would."

Though responses from the NRA and Dallas Police Department would be well warranted, it's hard to imagine what would make the situation right for the Hugheses, as their lawyer, S. Lee Merritt, acknowledges. "We're not looking for an apology. An apology doesn't really do the guys any good," he says of the DPD, noting that their families are still staying away from their homes out of fear for their lives.

"There is a large sector of Dallas — there is a large sector of America — that is still out there looking for additional shooters, and Mark's face is the only face they have," Merritt says. "What we're looking for is for the Dallas Police Department to say what they already know — that he wasn't involved — [and say it] with the same enthusiasm with which they put his face out there all across the country, all across the world."

From the UT Tower shooting to the Dallas police attack, these are the deadliest mass shootings in Texas history.