This story is part of an Untold Atlanta special report called Georgia in Trump's America. Watch the full version here.
This summer, President Donald Trump spoke to a crowd of gun owners and gun rights supporters at the NRA Convention in Atlanta. The faces in the crowd looked largely like him: white and male.
But that group looks unlike what's now the fastest growing demographic of gun owners and potential gun owners in the country.
These are some of the women of the National African American Gun Association, or NAAGA. Kim Barbee, Chandra Stacey and Casandra Light attended the group's monthly meeting, billed as a “ladies night out” event, at a gun range in midtown Atlanta.
The women have all become gun owners within the past year and are among one of the fastest growing gun owning populations in the country.
Firearm background checks, which have gone up nearly every year this century, are down 10 percent in 2017. But groups like NAAGA are thriving, with 46 chapters now in over 23 states, and Atlanta is its epicenter.
“I would say about 80 percent of that growth has happened within the past year,” says Marchelle Tigner, a firearms instructor with NAAGA.
Marchelle was in the army for seven years before taking on her teaching position with NAAGA. Marchelle had no weapons experience before she joined the army, but now she’s on a personal mission to teach a million women how to shoot.
Marchelle is a sexual assault and domestic violence survivor and wants to use both her story, and her skills, to help empower women to take control over their personal safety. She recalls how her grandmother encouraged her to “get a husband” or “find a man to protect you.” But Marchelle believes that idea is “starting to slip away as we get more progressive in society.”
“Every woman has their safety in their hands and survival is a choice,” she says. “You have to choose to be able to defend yourself.”
Marchelle also hopes that her being a female instructor will create a safe environment for other women who are exploring the male dominated space that is the gun world.
“There is definitely the sisterhood here for sure," says Kim Barbie after taking Marchelle’s class.
Kim chose to sign up to learn how to protect herself and her family should a dangerous situation arise. For Chandra Stacey, it was two false reports of an active shooter at the university where she used to work that put her on alert. Casandra Light, a recent graduate from Georgia State University, didn’t want to only rely on campus police if she were threatened near campus.
All three women agreed that personal protection is their common reason for arming up, but when pressed about why they felt they needed such protection now, their thoughts quickly steered toward the man who addressed that crowd of Atlanta gun owners over the summer.
“With Trump’s rhetoric, it becomes acceptable to violate other people’s rights,” Chandra explains. “It’s now become a norm, when it wasn’t a norm before.”
Kim agreed, saying she too has felt a shift in the year since President Trump’s election in that now “racial hatred is a lot more accepted, whereas I think we thought we were moving in a more peaceful direction.”
Casandra believes “there’s an uptick in violence, and uptick in people voicing their hatred for groups of people” in part because Trump’s rhetoric emboldens that type of behavior.
Chandra, Kim and Casandra sat down for this interview two days after violence erupted at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. Hundreds of white men, as well as some white women, marched on the University of Virginia campus carrying torches and yelling anti-Semitic and racists slurs. Images that many hoped would be relegated to history books were splashed across television screens and newsfeeds. Street brawls between white nationalists and counter-protesters escalated when a man allegedly rammed his car into a crowd of people. One woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and over a dozen others were injured.
In a news conference, President Trump condemned the violence “on many sides,” and was criticized for his unwillingness to decry alt-right bigotry outright.
“We’re living in some really scary times,” Kim says with concern. “Since he’s been in office, that’s when my husband and I decided to purchase some firearms.”
To be clear, the women in this room are by no means the majority. A Pew Research study in June showed 24 percent of black Americans own guns. The study also shows 73 percent of African Americans would rather see gun control than gun ownership.
But Casandra says the tense social climate that has persisted since President Trump took office validates her reason for purchasing a firearm.
“I got it before he became President, but after he became President it validated the fact that I bought it because, if I hadn’t bought it, I would be defenseless,” she says.
Marchelle Tigner says she will continue to teach her classes regardless of who is in office. Her mission is not about politics and she wants to be clear about that. Just because she and the women who take her classes are choosing to exercise their second amendment rights, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be changing political parties anytime soon.
“I actually started this under President Obama, so it doesn’t matter who it is. Everyone has this right to defend themselves.”
For Chandra, Kim and Casandra, their purpose is one that permeates beyond the gun range. It encompasses their desire for personal protection, their concern about their President, and their ability to assert their agency to express both those things in their own ways.
“I think for us as African American women, we’ve been invisible for so long,” Chandra says. “We are really starting to take control of our lives and put ourselves out there.”
“We’re not willing to take any steps backward.”
This story is part of an Untold Atlanta special report called Georgia in Trump's America. Watch the full version below.