Maj Toure grew up around guns along Cecil B. Moore Avenue in North Philadelphia.
“I was 15. I found one in the house. I put it on my hip. I just started moving around with it,” he said. “So unintelligent. So ignorant. Fortunately, I didn’t get into any altercations, or anything.”
Then Toure’s stepfather, who was in the Navy, came into his life and showed him that the way a lot of his friends were handling guns was careless and dangerous. So he decided to get training.
Toure, an artist and activist, is now 29. And he’s trying to impart a sense of respect for guns to the masses — under the name Black Guns Matter. He thinks the effort could actually curb gunfire in a city perpetually plagued with a seemingly endless barrage of deadly shootings.
And the push should be something that even gun-control advocates get behind, Toure said.
“Being anti-gun is not being anti-education,” he said. “It’s not. I think we’re reaching out to people that are uninformed and uneducated to get them informed and educated about firearm safety and responsibility.”
He held a campaign launch event recently at a gun-training center on Spring Garden Street.
West Philadelphia resident Jane Haney showed up and talked to Toure. Soon, she began filling out an application for a license to carry in the city.
“I was a victim of a home invasion before, and my son been shot at 17, and I want to be able to protect myself and my family,” Haney said.
She said she doesn’t ever want to use a gun, but having one would give her peace of mind. People filling out permit applications to carry like her aren’t the problem, she said.
“It’s the people that buy them illegally. That’s where all the gun violence in coming from,” she said.
Hoping for a chain reaction
Toure’s group is casting a wide net, encompassing legal and illegal gun owners. If one person in a group of friends pays more attention to guns and is trained to use restraint, he said, it might just cause a chain reaction.
“The problem is, in our community especially, maybe even deliberately, there’s a lot of misinformation and ignorance and it’s not being checked,” he said. “And if we continue down that same path, we’re gonna keep getting what we’re getting.”
Historian Charles Cobb, who has written a book on the role guns played in the nonviolent civil rights movement, said Toure’s campaign has a long lineage.
“Daisy Bates of Little Rock had a .38 in her purse. Fannie Lou Hamer had shotguns in the corners of her bedroom,” Cobb said. “Medgar Evers traveled with a rifle in the trunk of his car and pistol beside him in his front seat.”
One reason Toure’s group is so exceptional is that the national gun-rights movement led by the NRA has largely avoided talking about issues involving race, Cobb said.
“Because, really, what they’re peddling to white people, in my view, is that you need your guns because there’s savages out here,” Cobb said.
He said maybe Toure’s grassroots efforts can start to change that.
Questioning the premise of more guns
But in a city that averages 250 homicides a year, mostly from gunfire, not everyone is wholeheartedly embracing the group.
“I disagree with the underlining premise that more guns make us safer. Especially in these neighborhoods where there’s already so many illegal guns. We think that more guns lead to more deaths and more injuries,” said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFire PA, a statewide gun violence-prevention organization.
But putting aside the more-guns-makes-us-safer aspect of the group, she said she can actually support what Toure is trying to do.
“I think the fact that they’re talking to each other, they’re teaching each other, they’re having this conversation in the community — it’s not outsiders coming in. It’s really important,” she said.
Goodman plans to reach out to come up with ways to collaborate.
Toure said he doesn’t know if violent criminals would be interested in attending his seminars, but since he launched Black Guns Matter, he’s gotten direct messages on social media from people excited about his campaign.
“I get DMs on Instagram all the time about people saying, ‘Hey can you bring this down to Chicago, where there’s so many homicides? Can you bring this to Detroit?” he said.
If police officers knew that so many armed black men are respectful with guns and knew conflict-resolution skills, Toure speculated, that could start to undercut police-community strife.