The police won’t protect a Black woman like me. So I bought a gun.

After my brother‘s killing and a break-in at my home, I decided to arm myself.

Rob Dobi for the Washington Post (Rob Dobi/for the Washington Post)
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I never thought I’d own a gun. But there I was, in Hazard, Ky., in the middle of a pandemic on a Saturday, buying a .38 snub-nosed revolver.

I’m not your stereotypical gun owner, and I’m not entirely comfortable with it. Growing up in Kansas, guns weren’t part of my family’s culture. As a student of public policy, I know that owning a gun increases the likelihood that a person will become a victim of gun violence. And as a Black woman, I am a statistical rarity, since most gun owners in America are White men.

But I had come to believe that I had two choices: take steps to protect myself, or become a victim. I decided I needed to be armed.

My journey toward buying a weapon began on Sept. 16, 2018. That was when police in Colorado Springs called me to say that my brother Sheldon had been shot dead by his White roommate. The shooter, Frank Dillard — who was mentally unstable and falsely believed that Sheldon was withholding rent, according to media reports — then turned the gun on himself and took his own life.

It couldn’t be Sheldon, I thought. My 33-year-old brother’s hugs made everything dissolve. His laughter echoed in a room. He almost was my twin — just 11 months older. But my heart sank when the detective read familiar names and numbers from Sheldon’s phone, confirming his identity.

How could this have happened to Sheldon? It could have been his forgiving and easygoing demeanor. It could have been that he stood up for himself, refusing to pay money he didn’t owe. Or maybe it was just my family’s Black skin. Dillard had previously confided to a friend that he might kill Sheldon and himself. And he had previously called the police on my brother — a call that led officers to conclude that Sheldon posed no threat and that it was Dillard who seemed off, according to records obtained by a Colorado news outlet. I can only conclude that race played a part in why so many people minimized the threat Dillard posed to my brother.

My brother was unprotected by a gun. Unprotected by the police. Unprotected by society.

But it wasn’t until one night last April at my Kentucky home that I decided to become a gun owner myself.

The brightness of the living room light startled me from my sleep. Alarmed, I grabbed my phone, locked the bedroom door and woke my husband.

“Did you leave the light on?” I whispered. “No,” he responded. The rustling sounds confirmed that we had an intruder.

I listened, fear pooling in my gut as I heard someone roaming the halls of our home. The invader eventually made his way to the bedroom door. My husband grabbed a lamp and told me to hide. The intruder slammed against the door like a battering ram in an attempt to take it down. He nearly succeeded, shattering the frame, but my husband held the rest of the door shut while I hid on the balcony and called the police.

It took officers more than 45 minutes to arrive, leaving the intruder plenty of time to wander around, collecting our belongings.

My husband, the victim, who had called 911, was eventually greeted by a police officer brandishing his loaded Glock. The White intruder claimed it was his home. Over and over, I had emphasized to the dispatcher that we were a Black family, but apparently it didn’t register. A second officer finally showed up and confirmed our identities by simply looking at the names on the mail. But in that moment, I was taken back to my brother’s murder, and how the threats to his life weren’t taken seriously.

The intruder was ultimately sentenced to two to five years in jail. But I realized we needed protection. And like my brother, we had none.

Three days after the break-in, with my husband’s encouragement, I went to the gun store and purchased my revolver and some hollow-point bullets. I chose the gun because it was compact and easy to handle, and something about it made me feel closer to Sheldon. I would later discover while reading the police and coroner’s files on my brother’s death that it was the same type of gun and ammunition that killed him.

My brother’s murder has profoundly affected my life. In July 2019, I began pursuing a degree in law and policy with a focus on racial disparities in gun violence and gun policy solutions. Today, I am a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation health policy fellow, leading gun legislation in the office of Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.).

A lot of people have been buying guns recently. According to the Brookings Institution, the spring of 2020 saw a huge spike in gun sales, particularly after social unrest erupted over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry group, reported a surge in gun purchases by Black men and women in the first six months of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, citing a survey of gun retailers.

I strongly support private gun ownership and the Second Amendment, but I also support gun regulations.

Gun violence is a public health epidemic in Black America and among Latinos. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black men were more than twice as likely to have died from gun violence than White men in 2019, the last year for which statistics are available. And Latino children were three times as likely to die from a gun homicide than White kids, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control group.

To be honest, I am still afraid of having guns in my home — and even of having one in my possession. But we are products of a violent nation, and ultimately, I don’t feel like the police can or want to protect me. In fact, because of the relentless killings by police of Black people, I’m actually fearful of the police.

My first practice shot was a couple of feet from my backyard, bordering the woods. My husband created a target for me to practice on. He wanted to give us some peace from the trauma of the home invasion, which left me struggling to sleep or eat for six months. I couldn’t forget that the police treated us as intruders in our own home because of the Black skin we live in.

Terrified, my hands trembling, drenched in sweat, I anxiously grasped the revolver’s handle while searching for the trigger. Then, lining up the target while calming my breath, I pressed the trigger to hear a POP.

Now, I thought, we are protected.

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