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Ubiñas: Philly man's campaign: Black Guns Matter

Is licensing young men to carry the answer to gun violence?

Emmanuel Hernandez , shown at the Philly Firearms Academy on Spring Garden Street, wants to apply for a concealed-carry permit at some point: He represents the demographic targeted in the "Black Guns Matter" campaign.
Emmanuel Hernandez , shown at the Philly Firearms Academy on Spring Garden Street, wants to apply for a concealed-carry permit at some point: He represents the demographic targeted in the "Black Guns Matter" campaign.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

WHAT IF we stopped trying to get guns off the streets and instead started licensing young men in Philly to legally pack heat?

Do I have your attention?

Yeah, Maj Toure got mine, too, when he suggested the idea, which he's pitching through a campaign he's calling Black Guns Matter. Catchy, right? And provocative.

Toure, 29, is a local activist and artist. In many ways, he's also a walking, talking contradiction of what turns out to be an increasingly stereotypical idea of gun owners.

Toure is a young African American man who grew up in North Philadelphia watching the destruction caused by gun violence, but who nonetheless was attracted to firearms, and became an official, dues-paying NRA member and legal gun owner.

"The stigma, especially in an urban environment like Philly, is if you have a gun, you're either law enforcement or the bad guy," Toure said when we talked recently. "What we're trying to do is say that just because you have a gun doesn't make you the bad guy. But while you have your firearm, which you have the right to have, you have to be a responsible, card-carrying good guy."

And a card-carrying good guy, according to Toure, includes those protecting themselves against a bad guy breaking into their home, or a bad guy shooting up a public space, or - and this is where he lost me - a bad guy in a police uniform.

Given the national cases of police killing unarmed black men, Toure's thinking might be defensible to some, but not to me. Arming yourself against any law-enforcement officer sounds nuts to me and can't lead to anything other than some Wild West disaster.

As for the more traditional bad guys Toure talks about, I've never been sold on this idea that good guys with guns - even the best-intentioned armed citizens - could keep madmen from shooting up movie theaters or churches or elementary schools.

But as controversial as some of Toure's ideas are, it would be too easy to dismiss him. There was a lot that Toure said that deserves consideration, especially his suggestion that teaching young people about guns can instill the kind of respect for firearms that could affect gun violence.

While gun-control advocates are forever looking for ways to reduce the number of guns in circulation, Toure favors dealing with a gun culture that isn't going anywhere, believing that legal gun ownership and training can reduce crime. In a city where so many people die by guns, I'd love to believe that solution would work. But my guess is that the people who go to the trouble of educating themselves about what it takes to own and handle a gun legally aren't the yahoos creating chaos with guns on the streets.

Information and education is never a bad idea, especially when it comes to safely handling a deadly weapon. For proof of that, we needn't go much farther than daily headlines.

Just last month, a Philadelphia father accidentally shot and killed his 4-year-old daughter inside their home. In Milwaukee, a mother was accidentally killed by her 2-year-old, who picked up a gun that slid from under a seat in the car. In Georgia, a 3-year-old accidentally shot and killed himself with his parents' gun.

And Toure is hitting on something that is playing out nationally, which is the rise of gun ownership, and gun clubs, among African Americans, and the rise in urban areas of law-abiding citizens brazenly open-carrying. According to a December 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center, 54 percent of blacks said they believed guns were more likely to protect people than to put their safety at risk. That figure was up from 29 percent two years earlier.

"Let's be honest, black people with guns are viewed like bogeymen," said Philip Smith, who started the National African American Gun Association in 2015. "We have to change that narrative."

In the year since Smith started the association, based in Atlanta, membership has soared to more than 10,000 members, he said. Most recently, he's seen a spike in Latina women joining the association.

Coincidentally, Amelia Martinez, 44, walked into the Philly Firearms Academy on Spring Garden Street while I was talking to Toure and the owner of the academy, Jose Morales, about the need for more emphasis on firearms training in the city.

Martinez had recently purchased a gun for protection, she told me, and now she was back at the academy with her 19-year-old son for information about training for them both.

"I want to make sure we do everything right," she said.

Beyond his politics, Toure said Martinez's son represent the demographic he's hoping to reach with the event - young men and women in Philadelphia who might not realize what it takes to be a law-abiding gun owner, and the consequences of that. Toure was 15 when he first found a gun in his house.

"I was 15, walking around with a gun I had no idea how to use and no real respect for," he said. "In hindsight, I wish there would have been somebody to say, hey, this is a firearm, it's not a game. So when I'm seeing other people living out the same scenario, I want to be that adult teaching them properly."

Toure knows the Black Guns Matter idea is probably going to be a tough sell, especially in a city where many feel guns, legal or not, just lead to more gun violence. But he said being antigun shouldn't translate into being anti-education, especially when it could save lives. That I could tentatively get behind.

"I'm probably going to be crucified for even suggesting it," he said. "But we have to do something."

The Black Guns Matter campaign is scheduled to kick off on May 21 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Philly Firearms Academy, 933 Spring Garden St. In addition to a panel discussion, there will be information about applying for a license to carry, firearm demonstrations, firearm safety training, and firearms legal defense.

215-854-5943 @NotesFromHel