Gerald Vernon believes conceal-and-carry laws and responsible firearm owners are crucial to keeping people safe—especially in the communities hit hardest by crime.
The first lesson Gerald Vernon shared with his conceal-and-carry class is, to him, the most fundamental: "The only thing that stops bad people with guns is good people with guns."
His ten students—eight men and two women, all African-Americans—were listening intently. They had gathered in a meeting room at a south-side social service center to learn about gun ownership and self-defense from Vernon, a veteran firearms instructor who was seated at the front of the room next to a table set with an array of revolvers and semiautomatic handguns from his collection.
The students didn't appear to need any convincing. "I'm interested in protection," explained Thomas Brandon, 57, when it was his turn to introduce himself. The others said they were there for the same reason.
Vernon, 57, has a full, round face that's often locked in a look of earnest contemplation, even when he switches to a goofy, higher-pitched voice to make a humorous point. His movements are quick and strong from decades of martial arts, though he jokes about his ample midsection, and he's walked with a limp and the assistance of a cane since a near-fatal car accident 15 years ago. He is polite and patient but will say exactly what he thinks.
"Over the last 20 years, I've been places I don't think a lot of other black people have been," he told the class. "I've spent a lot of time and a lot of money traveling the country and getting this training so I could bring it back to the community."
He added: "Most of what Americans know about guns they learned from TV and the movies, and 99 percent of it is wrong."
Interest in gun ownership has been growing across the country. The FBI conducted more than 21 million background checks of potential gun buyers in 2013, the most since the system was put into place in 1998. In Illinois 1.7 million people currently have firearm owner identification cards issued by the state police, including more than 150,000 in Chicago, up 30 percent since 2011.
Illinois, and Chicago in particular, has historically had some of the most restrictive gun regulations in the country—from 1982 until 2010 it was illegal to possess a handgun in the city—but the laws are changing. Last July, under orders from a federal court, the General Assembly passed a law making Illinois the 50th state to allow residents to carry firearms in public. The state police began accepting conceal-and-carry permit applications in late December, and by late January nearly 33,000 had been approved pending background checks. Residents from rural areas downstate have signed up at the highest rates, but nearly a fourth of the applications came from Cook County.
Vernon has been a firearm owner and activist for decades, but he doesn't fit the stereotype of a gun nut. He's a middle-class African-American who lives on Chicago's south side. A former university administrator, he's studied civil rights history for decades. A framed photo of Malcolm X hangs in the living room of his modest home. He voted against Mitt Romney in the last presidential election—though he can't quite bring himself to admit that he cast a ballot for President Obama.
Vernon is also a member of the NRA, mostly because the organization offers top-notch training and certification courses used by federal law enforcement agencies. But he admits to some mixed feelings. "The only thing we agreed on was guns," he says of the NRA. On the issue of gun-ownership rights, "I'm on the same side as a lot of people who are very conservative and certainly would be considered right of center."
Yet Vernon believes that African-Americans, of all people, should embrace the right to bear arms, even if they don't want to carry a gun themselves. "Black people have been programmed to think that self-defense, our defense, is someone else's responsibility—that good, honest, decent black people have nothing to do with guns, because guns are for white folks, police, and black criminals. I find it to be an absurd notion. The vast majority of gun laws in America have been aimed at trying to disarm black people."
Vernon grew up in the Princeton Park neighborhood, a south-side community of single-family brick homes near 95th and the Dan Ryan Expressway. His father was an electrician, but after being shut out of work by notoriously racist trade unions, he ended up with the postal service. Vernon's mother worked for the state unemployment office.
They taught Vernon and his brother and sister that it wasn't right to fight, even when he was bullied at school. "My parents were like, 'Turn the other cheek.' Then they got tired of walking me to school all the time, so they told me, 'You better learn to fight.'"
Vernon still remembers when one of the bullies called for a truce because he was tired of Vernon fighting back. "It's what I call bully psychology 101," Vernon says. "The only way a smaller person can get a bigger person off them is to make the cost of beating them too high."
Vernon describes himself as a child of the civil rights and black power eras, which left him with a lifelong interest in social justice movements and history. He recalls being taken aback by images of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists being attacked by angry mobs in Chicago in 1966. "I was like, 'Mama, mama, what are they doing?' She said, 'They're fighting for our freedom.' But I said, 'They ain't fighting—they're letting the white people beat them up.' And she said, 'It's not right to fight.' And I said, 'But you told me if I don't fight the boys back at school you'd give me a whupping.' 'Boy, go to bed!'"
As a teenager Vernon started studying kung fu and other Chinese martial arts. He never stopped. He also became fascinated with guns. He discovered that the father of one of his friends had a "serious" gun collection, and he started joining them on trips to the shooting range. At 19, Vernon bought his first rifle and kept it at his friend's house, knowing that his parents wouldn't approve. When he was older and had the money, he began taking training classes.
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