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Maj Toure on the NRA

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with Black Guns Matter

Black Guns Matter holds its events at The Gun Range, located at 844 N. Percy St. They’ll be holding more events starting in January, which will be announced on their Facebook page.

Rumbling against Tyranny

Gun safety activist, advocate and self-proclaimed patriot, Maj Toure stands at the intersection of race, guns and politics

Gun safety activist, advocate and self-proclaimed patriot, Maj Toure stands at the intersection of race, guns and politics

Launch an organization empowering African Americans’ right to own firearms, and you’ll find yourself in unlikely situations. For Maj Toure, founder of Black Guns Matter, this has included a Fox News green room, with Rudy Giuliani and Geraldo Rivera when a third man walked in and identified himself as a fan of BGM—and a financial advisor to Donald Trump.

One year ago, Toure began Black Guns Matter as a gun safety workshop in a North Philadelphia community center. Now he’s in the midst of a nationwide tour, schooling beyond-capacity audiences on de-escalation techniques and local gun laws, taking any and all questions. There’s never enough time, he says. The audiences are hungry.

Toure is a young black man with dreads, tattoos and swagger; a National Rifle Association member; a celebrity on Breitbart.com; a student of history on his third read of Mein Kampf; an heir to Pan-African awareness; and a devotee of Patrick Henry. He cuts a unique figure in America, 2016.

For Toure, black consciousness and patriotism are aligned. They both call on you, as he puts it, “to rumble against tyranny and injustice.”

“Isn’t it tense, though?” I ask. “Being in the middle of all of this?”

I clarify: This being our nation’s often deadly anxiety over race and violence.

Toure stirs fear in multi-cultural peaceniks, enthusiasm from the white nationalist Alt-Right, and a mixture of both in the ultra-sensitive Left. And then there’s the garden variety racist trolling.

“I’ve been in shootouts,” he says. “This shit is cake.”

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Toure grew up all over Philadelphia. Constantly the newcomer, he’d have to make friends among kids who would dog his last neighborhood, which, Toure learned, he’d have to defend to earn their respect. To win allies, he had to stand alone.

In high school, he found friends among the nerds playing Yugioh and chess, and the dealers slinging crack and pills. Going between, navigating contradictions, Toure became a protector.

“I found joy in it, protecting my cool nerd friends from the bullies,” he says. “I want to protect everyone from the dickheads.”

Throughout his education, both in school and out, those who fought for others resonated with Toure. In textbooks and field trips around the city, these heroes were the Revolutionary patriots.

“They were called thugs and criminals by the loyalists, but they had the gumption to fight for what they knew was morally correct,” he says. “I found honor in that, even though there were contradictions.”

Outside of school, in the poorer, blacker parts of Philadelphia that inherited the patriots’ contradictions, Toure found heroes in Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells and Harriet Tubman, all of whom—like those earlier patriots—took freedom and firearms in hand.

Above all, there was Malcolm X.

Toure’s a radical, but not an extremist. Ideas are for upending, and a cause is not a substitute for inner strength. An unseen cabal may control society, but they can keep their hoods on for all he cares. Toure’s aim is to inoculate the people against tyranny by empowering them to their rights.

X took root. “It was his constant evolution, from a scumbag to a guy moving in the right direction, though still operating with hate in his heart, to evolve again, to become a man on the world stage,” Toure says. X also had the ability to “make it plain,” to see the forces of history in daily life. And when Toure looked around, what did he see? “I saw friend after friend catching the same case,” he says. “Carrying a firearm without a license.”

Toure put his curiosity to the law and soon became the guy who knew how to get your gun legit. He saw that his friends, even those who had bought their guns legally in a gun store, had their futures broken over what amounted to paperwork because they never got permits.

But Toure’s historical mind, tracing the lines of tyranny and rebellion, couldn’t rest on legal technicalities. The ’hood wasn’t simply misinformed; the ’hood was oppressed. As he saw it, when the state monopolizes violence, the people are unable to assert their rights against its will. A gun, he thought, means freedom.

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Hence, Black Guns Matter, an effort to bring informed gun ownership to African Americans, and with it, an enduring defense of black freedom.

In real terms, BGM is a social media presence of tweets, posts and videos, and—more importantly—a class. With help from conflict resolution facilitators, attorneys, and NRA-certified firearm safety instructors, Toure holds seminars that cover de-escalation techniques, gun safety and local gun laws, and concludes by taking as many questions as time allows.

It began as a monthly workshop run out of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (a legacy of Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey) at 16th and Cecil B. Moore. BGM filled the room and broke across the span of American media from The New York Times, to Fusion, to Ebony, to public radio (Here and Now, Newsworks and Morning Edition), and into Fox’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention.

BGM has no membership. Toure is not a fan of keeping names on a list, he says. He and a small crew of volunteers run the campaign on the strength of donations and sales of t-shirts and hoodies that declare Black Guns Matter in a typeface reminiscent of both Run DMC and the bygone Parental Advisory stickers. (Here, Toure has some expertise as he makes his living with apparel stands throughout the city. “You might have bought thermals from me and not known it,” he says.) After less than a year in operation, BGM is on a 13-city tour, taking the workshop from Atlanta to Oakland.

This success is due not only its audience’s hunger for information, but to Toure himself. He has a unique worldview and the ability to put it across. He’s deeply thoughtful and brash at once, fueled by a conviction that hypersensitivity around race is itself a tool of racism. He looks cool (there’s no other word for it), and is unafraid to have wild (albeit well-reasoned) opinions. His charisma matters.

On this, he’s skeptical. “It’s about the work, man,” he tells me when my questions become too personal.

“It’s a little about you,” I say. “Isn’t it?”

He doesn’t concede. He won’t say his age. “Tell ‘em I’m 65,” he says with smile. He won’t say where he went to high school. “That’s not important,” he says. And he won’t tell me whether he voted for Trump. “The sanctity of the ballot box . . .”

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“Am I a slave?” I ask him.

We’re sitting in a pair of overstuffed chairs in the lounge of The Gun Range on Percy Street, just off of 10th and Spring Garden. A day or two before, he tweeted out, Free men own firearms. Slaves don’t.

“In there is a lot of destructive force,” he says, pointing toward the range where the spray of a machine gun crackles and thuds. “If any one of them comes in here and says, Thom, do this … How can you stop them? You’re a slave to their will.”

Silence gathers. The machine gunner on the range could be reloading.

“But you might be free in ways I am not,” Toure says. “I might be a slave to my firearm.”

Toure is a young black man with dreads, tattoos and swagger; a National Rifle Association member; a celebrity on Breitbart.com; a student of history on his third read of Mein Kampf; an heir to Pan-African awareness; and a devotee of Patrick Henry. He cuts a unique figure in America, 2016.

Toure’s a radical, but not an extremist. Ideas are for upending, and a cause is not a substitute for inner strength. An unseen cabal may control society, but they can keep their hoods on for all he cares. Toure’s aim is to inoculate the people against tyranny by empowering them to their rights.

“You’ve never shot?” Toure asks me, an edge of disbelief in his voice. “Where are you from?”

That’s why I wanted to come to the range, I explain. To shoot. An hour later, after a thorough safety clinic and 50 bullets fired from a Glock 19, I’m both calm and at the edge of myself, walking down the stairs to catch Toure on the sidewalk. It’s raining, and Toure shelters in a doorway, taking a call.

On the other end of the phone is an elder black activist. He’s telling Toure to take it easy, to do the work but know that the FBI is watching. I think of Fred Hampton, the young Black Panther who was sedated and shot in the back of the head by the Chicago Police in 1969; Toure and I have talked about Hampton. Engrossed in his phone call, Toure nods intently. He respects the man on the other end. “No doubt. I take heed,” Toure says, eyeing the cars on Percy St. “I take heed.”

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