Code Switch
4:35 pm
Thu December 12, 2013

African-American Gun Club Hopes To Help Curb Youth Violence

Originally published on Thu December 12, 2013 8:17 pm

More than 200 people have been killed this year in Baltimore. Most of them were black, and most of them were shot to death, despite Maryland having one of the nation's toughest gun laws. This comes two years after the city recorded its lowest murder rate in more than two decades.

Members of one of the few African-American social firearm clubs in the nation think teaching young people different ideas about guns might help deter them from a life of violence.

The Maryland Tenth Cavalry Gun Club, based near Baltimore in Marriottsville, Md., is an African-American firearms club that focuses as much on discipline and black history as it does on shooting. It has 163 members and takes its name from the 9th and 10th Army Cavalry, an African-American regiment known as "Buffalo Soldiers."

Ken Brown is a big man, and the Ruger Mark III .22 long rifle semi-automatic pistol he's loading at an outdoor gun range looks almost tiny in his hands. He's hoping the lessons he teaches and practices at the range where the Maryland Tenth Cavalry Gun Club shoots are something he can pass on to young people in a larger context.

"See, the whole shooting discipline in and of itself is behaving responsibly, and that's what we hope to give to our youth. [Behaving] responsibly can be a lot of fun," Brown says.

Brown says the club proudly focuses on teaching people about what he calls the deep history of blacks and firearms. One of his favorite examples is Salem Poor, a Massachusetts slave who bought his freedom in 1769 and fought at Bunker Hill in 1775.

Brown thinks knowledge about this history will help steer kids away from drugs and gangs: "We have something that will give them a stake in this country."

Club member Courtney White-Brown owns a firearms and security training academy. She believes young people thinking of heading into the drug trade or joining gangs could be dissuaded by learning that there is honor and responsibility in the association of African-Americans and guns.

"It also gives you an opportunity for... education, scholarship activity," White-Brown says.

She thinks teaching teens the discipline of using firearms also gives them a skill that can take them away from a life of crime: "If these young people would learn properly, safe gun handling, and the proper use their firearms, then they would not be swayed or persuaded by the negative element."

But not everyone feels the same way.

"We know that some kinds of mentoring programs are effective," says Dewey Cornell, a clinical psychologist and University of Virginia education professor. Cornell, director of the Youth Violence Project, agrees mentoring can be helpful. But in an age where people with firearms training have committed mass shootings, Cornell says groups that want to help young people should look to other programs.

"It's much more important to have a relationship and to be dealing with the other problems in a young person's life, which sometimes require more than mentoring — if there are mental health issues, if there are gang issues, if there are family issues," Cornell says.

Back at the Maryland Tenth Cavalry Gun Club, Brown admits there are some problems, such as working with young people who have already committed felonies, that the club isn't equipped to deal with.

But fellow club member Larry Smith, a retired Social Security worker, says that as members of a community being decimated by violence, they have a special calling to get involved.

"It's up to us as African-Americans to address these issues," says Smith, who like some other club members, grew up hunting. "So I know that black people can be around guns and not shoot each other."

Smith says the African-American community needs to develop a healthy respect for guns, and he hopes that will lower the level of violence.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.