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Dismantling the stigma of guns 

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."

Gerald Vernon has been a firearm owner and activist for decades, but he doesn't fit the stereotype of a gun nut. - JOHN STURDY
  • Gerald Vernon has been a firearm owner and activist for decades, but he doesn't fit the stereotype of a gun nut.
  • John Sturdy

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.

Participants in Vernon's two-day conceal-and-carry course spend a full day in the classroom before heading to the firing range. - JOHN STURDY
  • Participants in Vernon's two-day conceal-and-carry course spend a full day in the classroom before heading to the firing range.
  • John Sturdy

Vernon found a home for his intellectual interests at the Center for Inner City Studies, a south-side division of Northeastern Illinois University with a curriculum rooted in African and African-American studies. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in history and education before holding a number of positions there over the next 35 years, including admissions officer, retention specialist, and instructor.

In 1999 Vernon was nearly killed when a driver, confused at the Lake Shore Drive turnoff near the Museum of Science and Industry, slammed into his car head-on. Vernon had to rehabilitate for a year and a half before he could return to work. He now has screws in his right ankle and left arm and an artificial hip.

As soon as he was healthy enough, Vernon resumed taking gun training courses. He formed a business, Personal Protection Consultants, and began teaching more of his own classes in gun safety and self-defense (including one on "hand-to-hand fighting skills" that, according to the class description, "the average, everyday, unprepared, out of shape, person can use to defend themselves"). He says most of his students are middle-class south-siders.

He never discloses how many guns he owns. "I'll put it this way: would you trust a plumber who only has one wrench?"

Of course, up until a couple of years ago he was required to store most of them in the suburbs.

"Legitimate self defense has absolutely nothing to do with the criminal misuse of guns."—Gerald Vernon, veteran firearms instructor

One Sunday in 2009 Vernon's girlfriend decided to walk the half mile from his house to Trinity United Church of Christ to attend early services. On the way she was robbed at gunpoint.

Security officials at Trinity recognized her description of the assailant—they believed he'd tried to rob several other people before her. A short time later, the suspect was captured on video trying to use one of her credit cards at a nearby gas station. Yet he was never arrested—a fact that continues to infuriate Vernon five years later.

Like other advocates, Vernon argues that violent crime drops when citizens are allowed to carry loaded weapons. "Everyone benefits from conceal and carry, even if they don't own a gun, because if someone decides to jump on them, that person has to take a moment and ask themselves, 'Could they be packing?'" He has statistics ready to back up his argument.

Still, other studies have found no clear correlations, and a recent analysis in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that gun owners are actually more likely to be murdered or to commit suicide.

To Vernon, the debate is settled by the example of Chicago, which banned the sale of handguns in 1968, the possession of handguns in 1982, and the possession of assault rifles in 1992. "So Chicago ought to be the safest place in the country, right? No, it's the murder capital. The criminals who want to have access to guns have access now."

After his girlfriend's mugging, Vernon decided it was time to make these arguments more widely. He and some like-minded friends formed an organization called the Chicago Firearms Safety Association and connected with IllinoisCarry, a statewide group pushing for a change in the law. Vernon then helped organize IllinoisCarry's first town hall meeting in Chicago, at the Center for Inner City Studies. It attracted dozens of south-siders interested in carrying weapons.

Valinda Rowe, one of the IllinoisCarry leaders, was impressed with Vernon. "For the most part he's kind of a soft-spoken individual, but there is a firm determination there that is not dissuaded by obstacles. He is relentless."

Reverend Michael Pfleger insists that firearm activists push for easier access to guns with "little concern for black and brown lives." - STEPHANIE DOWELL/SUN-TIMES MEDIA
  • Reverend Michael Pfleger insists that firearm activists push for easier access to guns with "little concern for black and brown lives."
  • Stephanie Dowell/Sun-Times Media

In June 2010, Vernon organized another town hall meeting in Chicago, this time at Tuley Park on the south side—not far from where an off-duty police officer had been gunned down by robbers that spring. But a week before the meeting was scheduled to be held, Park District officials informed Vernon that his permit had been revoked. He was convinced the order had come from Mayor Richard M. Daley, a fierce gun-control advocate. "This just sounds a whole lot like Daley's bullshit," Vernon told me at the time.

Vernon and IllinoisCarry moved the event to Chicago State, where they made their case to an audience of at least 250. But they were countered by dozens of gun-control advocates led by Reverend Michael Pfleger, the activist priest from Saint Sabina.

Vernon accused Pfleger of dishonesty. "Michael Pfleger's going to come in there with traumatized teens he's bused in from somewhere. These are people who've lost friends and people who got shot, and what he's doing is preying on their emotions to try to create a political statement. To me it's just as wrong as two left feet. Legitimate self-defense has absolutely nothing to do with the criminal misuse of guns."

Pfleger counters that most guns on the street were purchased legally before being sold on the black market. "Then it shows up in a crime months or even years later, and no one is taking responsibility for it." Too many advocates push for easier access to firearms, he says, with "little concern for black and brown lives."

In the spring of 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city's handgun ban was unconstitutional. In his majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that "Chicago residents now face one of the highest murder rates in the country" and that black communities were hit hardest. "The Second Amendment right protects the rights of minorities and other residents of high-crime areas whose needs are not being met by elected public officials." The city complied with the ruling by setting up strict rules for keeping handguns in the home: owners had to undergo background checks, take a safety course, and register with police.

The next game changer came in December 2012, when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that there was no legal reason that gun possession should be limited to the home. "A Chicagoan is a good deal more likely to be attacked on a sidewalk in a rough neighborhood than in his apartment on the 35th floor of the Park Tower," Judge Richard Posner wrote. Under orders from the court, the Illinois General Assembly passed a conceal-and-carry law last July. Anyone who wants to carry is now required to undergo 16 hours of training and a criminal background check.

Gun-control advocates said the new law was hastily written and does little to ensure firearms won't end up in the hands of criminals or the mentally ill. "The NRA has done this magnificent job of convincing America that you need a gun to be safe," Reverend Pfleger says. "So we jump to make guns available, but we have not worked to make gun owners responsible."

State senator Kwame Raoul, who helped write the new legislation, says he isn't worried. "Particularly in northern Illinois, there's a sense that the sky is falling," says Raoul, who represents a liberal district stretching from downtown Chicago to the southeast side. "But people who've traveled the country probably haven't thought about the fact that the places they visited had conceal and carry. In fact, in a lot of the places they traveled to, they probably felt safer."

Raoul stresses that he's never been a gun-ownership advocate. "But it can't be as simple as, if you're a true fighter against gun violence you're for everything on this side of the line, and if you're a proponent of gun ownership rights, you're somehow for gun violence."

Vernon's two-day conceal-and-carry course is detailed and intense. Before heading to the range to shoot, participants spend a full day in the classroom. On the day I sat in, Vernon focused on basic firearm safety. "Number one, treat every gun as if it was loaded," he said. "Number two, never point a gun at anything you are not willing to destroy."

One of the men in the class nodded. He recalled how his aunt once waved her gun at another car that cut them off in traffic. After she was able to pull away, someone in the other car shot out her back window. "My mom was like, 'Bitch, what are you doing?'"

"That's right," Vernon said.

He told that class that he takes at least one gun everywhere he's allowed, but he repeatedly stressed that a gun should never be pulled unless it's a matter of critical urgency—and in those instances, you need to be practiced enough to put the threat down. You don't shoot for the legs, like on TV—you aim for the central nervous system, and you can't afford to miss.

As the participants took notes or typed on iPads, Vernon demonstrated the proper ways to hold and load a weapon, then had the class practice repeatedly with dummy bullets. He dispensed advice of the most practical sort. He said the best gun to own is one that's reliable, fits your hand, and feels right to shoot; he prefers a semiautomatic Glock 22. Women don't need to limit themselves to tiny guns—"Oh hell, no!"—and just need to find one that's comfortable to handle. When leaving a gun at home, he said, make sure to lock it up someplace thieves won't think to look—definitely not under the mattress or in a nightstand drawer.

And then there was the question of what to do when you're packing and have to use a public toilet. "Try to find a single-use bathroom, or a stall next to the wall," Vernon suggested—adding that it was a bad idea to set a gun on top of the tank, where it can slide into the toilet or be forgotten.

He also methodically reviewed the specifics of the new law, such as the prohibitions on carrying guns in government buildings, in bars and any other business that posts a sign out front, and on public transportation—a provision that he found so absurd that it inspired him to act out how he would have to unload and break down his gun when he sees the bus coming and then reassemble and reload after reaching his stop.

One of the women in the class wondered what would happen if she accidentally carried a gun into a Starbucks that banned them. "They could charge me with a misdemeanor?"

"If you stick around for the police, sure," Vernon said. But he pressed them to comply with all the provisions of the law, however illogical they might seem.

Most of the participants in the class were wary of giving their names or talking to me on the record about their interest in guns. But afterward I received an e-mail from Karl Hubert, a 63-year-old attorney. "If the 2nd Amendment had actually been available to African American citizens in the past, all over our country, then past atrocities committed against Black citizens, such as lynching, rapes, tortures, and many other horrible atrocities, would not have been visited upon our African American mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, children and friends," he wrote, "as these citizens would have had the ability to protect themselves, and not be at the mercy of societal bullies."

Vernon has the same view. But, he says, that's not the ideal. "In theory, it would be good if we didn't need guns at all. It would really be good if the world could be at peace and people could treat other people with respect and dignity. That's the world I want to live in. But that world don't exist. Not on this planet. So I have to prepare myself to live in the world that exists."

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