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What I Learned About Gun Owners By Becoming One Myself

A conversation with R.J. Young, author of "Let It Bang: A Young Black Man’s Reluctant Odyssey into Guns" about guns, politics, and how to ask a good question.

R.J. Young never liked guns. The author grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a place steeped in gun culture and awash in Confederate flags. As a young black kid, his parents taught him that guns can get you killed; that not every police officer wants to harm you, but not everyone is willing to give you the benefit of the doubt; that you need to be aware of the gun in the room; that it doesn’t matter how good each person is on the other end of a gun — they still have the same power, the same trigger finger, and they can still squeeze it.

So R.J. didn’t have a relationship with guns. Until, that is, he met the woman he would marry and, in the courtship process, bonded with his future father-in-law over his enthusiastic gun ownership. RJ then decided to delve into gun culture himself and understand why people own guns, why they need them, and why they won’t give them up. So he did. The resulting book, Let It Bang: A Young Black Man’s Reluctant Odyssey into Guns, chronicles his journey and serves as a stark reminder that gun control is not a one-sided issue. We spoke to R.J. about his journey into gun culture, what he learned, and what it means in the larger picture. 

So you’re a card-carrying NRA member. Why did you, after a life of never owning a gun, decide to join?

I didn’t join the NRA because I wanted to be a card-carrying member of the concealed-carry clique. I joined the NRA so I could get the instructor certification.

Why did you want that?

I wanted to answer a basic question: Can a good guy with a gun be better than a bad guy with a gun? To become certifiably masterful with a handgun is one of the best ways to answer that question. I got an NRA certification because nobody could tell me shit about whether or not I’m good with a gun or whether or not I understand them. There’s something very, very important in society about being known as an expert in your field. You need to be to have something important and smart to say about it.

So, as an expert, what do you think about the state of gun rights and gun ownership in America?

People are afraid. Most people are unwilling to acknowledge not just their fear, but the fear of others. Everybody seems like they want a gun or they are afraid of a gun. I say in the book that I fear that black folks and white folks are both getting dumped on because they’re afraid that each other is going to do something to one another.

Given your assertion that gun ownership is about fear, are you currently carrying?

No. I don’t carry a gun because that’s not the way to ask somebody to change their behavior. You can’t change anybody’s behavior by threatening them with violence. A gun on your person is a threat of violence. There is only one reason for a gun to exist: to do violence. It’s a decent paperweight, but I can buy a paperweight. It’s a decent hammer, but I have a hammer for that. If I wanted to kill somebody, I’d get a gun.

And I don’t want to kill anybody. I don’t believe that anybody’s life is more valuable than my own. So I don’t give myself the option of even going near that gun as a way of communication.

Let’s walk through this from the position of a cop. Trayvon Martin was 17 when I was 25. Tamir Rice was a child. Laquan McDonald was a child. Botham Jean was five years younger than I was. Antwoine Rose was 17 this summer. In all those instances, if I had a gun, what is the best outcome?

To have a gun is a lot like having Mjolnir. Do you know what that is?

No, I don’t. What is it?

Mjolnir is Thor’s hammer. So, to that end, if you had Thor’s hammer, would you not use it? This is a mystical weapon. It summons thunder, it summons lightning. It flies through the air. It is made from the most powerful substance in the world. It is also the signature of one of the most respected superheroes in the world. If you had that hammer, and I told you not to use it, what would you say to me? Having a gun is like having a super power. Now, imagine 310 million Thor’s hammers in our country. Now imagine trying to collect all of those hammers. Or ask people to put them all down. Or tell them that there’s a better way to live. I think most people would disagree with you.

What did you learn over the course of your book: of getting guns, going to gun shows, ingratiating yourself in the culture?

One of the most important things that I learned, that is not gun related, is the importance of asking a good follow-up question. That proves to the person that is telling you their story that you are listening attentively, that you are engaging with their story, and that it matters. Because people need to know that they matter. One way of telling people that they matter is if you hear their grievances and hear their story and treat them as if they are just as important as your own.

I have learned how to listen when people say things that I don’t believe or think are true. What I’ve found is, some people have an outstanding rationale for the way that they think about the world, in the way that I don’t. Other people just parrot what they believe. I believe that they don’t really want to unpack why they believe something.

To that end, there are people who still feel on edge when carrying a gun, but their fear outweighs their feeling on edge. Parents that I know who have guns in their house have them to protect their families. Yet, what should happen if their child gets a hold of that weapon? What should happen if they can’t get to that weapon to defend their family? What should happen if, for whatever reason, an argument breaks out and a spouse goes after a spouse? These are all questions that I don’t think a lot of people consider when they go and get firearms because they are being overly simplistic. There is not enough consideration of all possible outcomes.

But you also seem to be sympathetic to gun owners, to people who feel that fear. That’s something that I don’t see a lot of in political discourse these days.

I understand being a scared child. I understand looking at men and boys who look like me wondering if the police officer next to me was going to find a reason to shoot and kill me because he thought I was a threat.

I don’t believe that one kid is more important than another. All children are important. But we don’t necessarily act that way. We don’t actually implement that as our beacon. We say that our children are important. My mother would tell you I’m important. My mother would also say she did not raise that other person’s child so she’s not responsible for that other person’s child.

But aren’t people only responsible for their own kids?

Who goes to school with him? Who goes to school with her? Where do they learn to be like each other? Where does a little boy learn that little girls become people, and not things to abuse or disrespect or assault? Where do they learn those things? It happens in the home, but they have to learn it from the world at large. Interacting with the world at large means looking up at mom and dad and asking how they treated Jimmy as opposed to Joe. How did they treat Jennifer as opposed to Jameson? These are all hard questions for most people to take on, and I understand that.

Nobody wants to believe that their thing is less important than someone else’s. And yet that’s another thing I’m asking people to do. I’m asking them to treat children that aren’t theirs as if they are important. I’m asking them to treat the person with the confederate flag as he would treat me. I get that that’s not a place most people are willing to go. I understand that people have decided that. But I also know that if I were a child, and when I was a child, it wasn’t just my parents who influenced me. It was the parents of other children.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.