A woman learns to shoot at A Girl With A Gun training session in Dunnellon, Fla. Photos by Anne Marie Tamburro.

Two weeks into Nov. 2016, 18-year-old Malik Abdul-Shaheed Bakr, a Gainesville native, was planning for an upcoming hunting trip with his friends. He had the gear; all he needed was a gun.

Bakr, accompanied by his friend, 19-year-old Heath Smiley, went to the newly opened Bass Pro Shop—a storehouse that sells a stock of hunting, fishing, camping and outdoor recreation-related gear.

The store was swamped that day (it was the first weekend after Donald Trump had been elected president), and Bakr and Smiley waited almost an hour and a half before the store manager asked them if they needed help. Bakr’s friend Smiley is white, at home in a store that has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican politicians and conservative PACs. But Bakr, who is half-Black, half-white and Muslim—with a full beard and afro—began to feel increasingly uncomfortable in the shop.

“I don’t know what I was thinking going to this Bass Pro Shop opening up, ‘cause me and my homie looked around and there wasn’t a single colored person in sight,” Bakr said. “But I’m like, ‘Hey, maybe there are just a lot of white people on this side of town.’ I don’t jump to conclusions.”

Bakr did his research and knew he wanted a hunting rifle appropriate for shooting big game. The manager was accommodating and helped Bakr select the gun he’d seen online.

But as Bakr handed over his ID and paid the five dollars required for the criminal background check, he began to feel the stare of another employee on his back.

In front of Bakr, the employee wrote something down on a sticky note and handed it to his coworker, who at that point was helping Bakr. Together, the two went into the back room to run Bakr’s ID. They returned with the store manager. Though Bakr had passed the background check, the store manager told him he did not feel comfortable selling the gun to Bakr. Because he was with Smiley, who appeared to be coaching Bakr on which gun to choose, they feared he would sell it to someone else, the manager said.

Bakr remained silent, but Smiley objected loudly.

“I said, ‘What, because he’s Muslim, because he’s black?’” Smiley told TV-20 in an interview following the incident. “This is disgusting. He has the right to exercise his second amendment right.”

A spokesperson for the company told him that “Bass Pro Shops takes the selling of firearms very seriously, fully complying with all local, state and federal laws and regulations in place,” but did not address the specific events that had taken place. 

“It was blatant racism,” Bakr said. “I’ll take that to my grave.”

Over half of America’s guns are owned by the 3 percent of the country, and they’re more likely to be southern, white and married. Black men make up 6 percent of the U.S. population but close to 50 percent of those killed by firearms.

Gun ownership in America today is reflective of who has power in this country, historically and in the present-day. As violence against marginalized communities is becoming increasingly visible, some members of those communities are finding empowerment in guns and choosing to arm themselves. It’s a reclamation of what was once denied to them: power, safety and freedom.

The practice of denying firearms to black people in the South goes back to before the Civil War. Most slaveholding states had laws preventing slaves and free black people not just from owning guns, but also from owning anything that could be used in self-defense, even dogs. Some states, like Maryland and Mississippi, had laws authorizing white people to kill a black person’s dog if they believed the dog was unlicensed.

Blatant, race-specific restrictions like these continued after the Civil War and were incorporated into the Black Codes. Posses of white men would patrol southern states, looking to stop any black people who were carrying firearms. This continued until around 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education resulted in a federal clamp-down on the practice.

In the mid-1800s, it became illegal to conceal a loaded firearm in public. During the Jacksonian, frontier era of American history, it was considered unmanly to do so. Thus, open carry was the norm across the country. After Brown, everyone, including people of color, were able to open carry. As long as the firearm was visible and not pointed at anyone in a threatening manner, it was legal.

That is until 1967, when then-governor of California, Ronald Reagan, passed the country’s first contemporary gun control legislation in response to 30 members of the Black Panthers who walked into the California state capitol carrying loaded firearms.

The Black Panthers formed in reaction to the brutal police violence during the Civil Rights Movement, notably during peaceful marches. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself applied for a concealed weapons permit but was denied.

The members of the Black Panthers would famously conduct armed cop-watches, confronting officers who stopped them for being black and openly carrying by using the law to defend themselves. The Black Panthers would also incorporate their firearms into peaceful protests, like they did when they walked into the capitol in 1967.

“We can’t allow communities to be disarmed when we see what happens to marginalized people as far as violence every day.”

After this protest, Reagan signed the Mulford Act into law, which repealed California’s law permitting the open carry of firearms and contained a provision that only law enforcement officers were allowed to carry guns into state buildings. In a press conference following the law’s passage Reagan, the first presidential candidate to be endorsed by the NRA, said he saw “no reason why citizens should be carrying loaded weapons.” He called it a “ridiculous way to solve problems among people of goodwill.”

The next year, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Public violence was escalating in the United States. In response, the federal government passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. It was the first major federal gun legislation since the New Deal, when the government passed a tax on automatic weapons. The law created a federal licensing system for gun dealers, as well as a list of “prohibited persons,” which included anyone with a felony, mentally ill people, minors and illegal drug users.

Gun sellers are allowed to exercise extreme discretion during gun sales, a form of gun control favored by conservative politicians. Through discretion, gun sellers can identify an individual as someone who “shouldn’t” own guns by looking at their skin color. This discretion isn’t only directed at black people, but at any person who isn’t white. In central Florida, a gun seller made headlines for a sign on he put on his door in response to the Pulse shooting that read “Muslim Free Zone.”

“I felt as if I had a target on my back, no matter where I went,” Bakr said. “All that you need to see is my face and know that I was in this ordeal, and I’m a Muslim male.”

Bakr was initially angry at the white Bass Pro Shop employees who denied him the gun. He called his dad, who explained to Bakr that he needed to direct his anger at the system of white supremacy, not at the store employees themselves. Bakr and his father had discussed racism before—vigilance is part of their family history.

Bakr’s family name used to be Curry, until his grandfather, who was from Mississippi, changed it in the 1950s when he converted to the Nation of Islam, one of the oldest Black nationalist organizations in the U.S.

“He knew his family were slaves,” Bakr said. “He knew his last name was a slave name. So he changed his name—as Malcolm X changed his name—to start anew.”

For Black Americans, Islam provided a way to reclaim power. Bakr grew up conscious and proud of his race. He remembers his dad showing him Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” on VHS when he was about nine years old. The movie resonated with Bakr—Malcolm X was a Muslim man in the South, just like him. 

While Bakr was talking to his father after the incident, his mother took to Facebook.

“Dear Privileged Friends,” her post began. “My son tried to buy a gun today, and the new Bass Pro Shop in Gainesville, Fl, would not sell him one.” She went on to detail Bakr’s experience at the gun store. Her post was shared by 212 people, prompting TV-20 to pick up the story.

A Girl With A Gun hosts regular training sessions in conjunction with Harry Beckwith’s Gun and Range in Micanopy.

Bakr was naturally curious about people’s reactions to TV-20’s coverage. As he searched for his name in Google, he stumbled across a conservative discussion forum called The Briefing Room. A blood red banner looms over the page, featuring a photoshopped picture of Reagan holding an iPad in the Oval Office, illuminated in a ghostly glow. His friends warned him not to read it, but he did anyway.

The commenters were discussing an article about the incident published by DownTrend, a right-wing website that once claimed child prostitution was legalized by “liberal numbnuts” in California. It was titled “Muslim Cries Racism After Being Denied A Gun.” Underneath the fear-mongering headline was a picture of Bakr, green bushes behind him, the sun casting warm light on his face.

“I felt as if I had a target on my back, no matter where I went,” Bakr said. “All that you need to see is my face and know that I was in this ordeal, and I’m a Muslim male.”

After the TV-20 story, the store manager contacted Bakr and told him he’d sell him the gun personally. But Bakr had already moved on. He began asking himself how he could learn to be self-sufficient so he would be able to not deal with the system if he didn’t want to.

Three weeks ago, Bakr moved to Ninole, Hawaii, where he’s learning to grow his own vegetables and works for a construction company.

“I started educating myself and looking at what is successful and spreading it to other people so that ultimately I can get back at bigotry and racism,” he said.

In response to those who are looking to limit marginalized communities’ access to guns, activists created Operation Blazing Sword, an online database of gun sellers and ranges that don’t discriminate based on skin color or perceived sexual orientation. The database was compiled with help from members of the Pink Pistols, a national organization that advocates for the use of lawfully-owned, lawfully-concealed firearms for the defense of the LGBT community.

“I started educating myself and looking at what is successful and spreading it to other people so that ultimately I can get back at bigotry and racism.”

The Pink Pistols recently opened a chapter in Gainesville.

“We can’t allow communities to be disarmed when we see what happens to marginalized people as far as violence every day,” said Logan Glitterbomb, who started the local chapter.

Michelle Prickett and Crystal Seley, who run the Gainesville chapter of A Girl with a Gun, a women’s shooting group dedicated to empowering women and teaching them self-defense, agree.

“It’s not about living in fear,” she said. “It’s about living in confidence, to know that you can stop at a gas station at 11 o’clock at night and pump gas and know that you’re going to be okay.”

An instructor coaches a woman through the active-shooter simulation.

Glitterbomb points out that gun control can have unintended consequences for marginalized communities.

“Gun control—all that means is the police and the military and those the government deems worthy are allowed a monopoly on the right to self-defense and also tools of potential aggression,” Glitterbomb said.

In conjunction with the Central Florida Pink Pistols, the club has traveled to a Black-owned gun shop in Orlando, Global Dynasty Corps, for concealed weapons permit classes. The club is also currently hosting movie nights at the Civic Media Center and have planned a open forum on gun rights in May.

“It’s a mass effort to educate,” Glitterbomb said. “Knowledge is the best self-defense.” •