“I wish those folks in that church had been armed.”
Those were the controversial words of rapper Killer Mike, on the night that white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black churchgoers during a June prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
It appears as though some pastors have taken the emcee’s words to heart.
On Sunday afternoon, authorities say, a pastor at the Church of God in Detroit shot and killed a man who entered the storefront house of worship wielding a brick. The now-deceased assailant, identified as 25-year-old Deante Smith, reportedly had a negative history with Pastor Keon Allison, largely in relation to an alleged love triangle. And so, according to initial reports, Allison whipped out his Glock pistol when Smith violently confronted him.
It is illegal to carry a concealed firearm in a Michigan house of worship, though state lawmakers have taken up the debate over whether to change that law. And the timing is just right: While calls for stricter gun laws followed the Charleston massacre, some black pastors—especially in the crime-riddled city of Detroit—have taken up the cause of an armed congregation.
Bishop Ira Combs Jr. leads the predominantly black Greater Bible Way in Jackson, Michigan, and has become a staunch advocate for guns in church.
"If they had security, the assailant would not have been able to reload," he declared during a sermon weeks after the Charleston attack, according to Reuters. "All of us here are not going to turn the other cheek while you shoot us."
Combs leads his services flanked by armed security, with several gun-toting guards scattered throughout the congregation like how the Department of Homeland Security deploys undercover air marshals on passenger airlines. The bishop calls it “law enforcement” for the church.
Another Michigan-based pastor, Theron Wiggins of Flint’s Bethel Apostolic Church, told Reuters that his congregation faithfully believes “angels will protect us,” and while they are in his house of worship, he sees himself as “one of the angels." Wiggins is a former police officer.
At the Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church in Highland Park, Michigan, Pastor David Bullock is keenly aware of his many congregants who carry a concealed weapon. He relayed to NPR this year how he told one parishioner it’s perfectly OK to carry a gun for self-defense.
Such a view of guns as a means of empowerment and protection is not uncommon among the black community.
A recent Pew study found that 54 percent of blacks believe gun ownership does more to protect people than put people at risk, almost double the 29 percent believing that two years prior. The same poll found that the percentage of blacks who prioritize gun rights over stricter gun laws has doubled since 1993, from 18 to 34 percent. The inverse—support for gun control over gun rights—has fallen among blacks by 14 percentage points over the same 22-year period.
Perhaps sensing a possible demographic shift, the National Rifle Association has embarked on minority outreach, largely via commentator Colion Noir, whose YouTube videos tout the benefits of gun ownership, especially for black citizens.
“The same government who at one point hosed us down with water… told us we couldn't own guns,” he explained in an introductory video.
And he’s not wrong. Researchers routinely point to evidence that early gun control measures were thinly-disguised Jim Crow efforts to disempower black people.
In This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed, civil-rights historian Charles E. Cobb Jr. explained how Deep South black populations paradoxically reinforced and boosted their nonviolent resistance to white oppression by owning firearms. And in Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, UCLA law professor Adam Winkler noted how white supremacist gangs often rode around terrorizing freed slaves, confiscating their weapons.
Also central to the thesis: The modern gun-rights movement was launched not by conservative white men, but by the Black Panthers, who sought to keep firearms for self-defense.
Ultimately, this is not just a view held by radicals like the Panthers, or preachers and black conservatives. It’s gone mainstream with rap icons like Killer Mike, Big Boi, and Ice-T.
“The right to bear arms is because that’s the last form of defense against tyranny; not to hunt,” Ice-T said in 2012. “It’s to protect yourself from the police.”
In 2013, Big Boi echoed those exact thoughts to HuffPost Live, adding that firearms act as a “back-up plan” for when the government (read: cops) can’t be trusted to protect you.
And that’s what inspired Killer Mike to tweet that he wished the Charleston churchgoers had been armed.
“I can’t trust black leaders who advocate giving your guns up,” he told The Daily Beast by phone. “They want to take away another human being’s ability to defend himself.”
As churches and urban areas deal with targeting by racially-motivated aggressors—and neglect or harassment by the government—Mike is firmly committed to the belief that the black community, like all Americans, have a fundamental right to arm themselves.
“I don’t see the problem with a few armed deacons inside and outside the church,” he said. “In the name of safety and being prepared for the worst, I understand why—especially a black preacher—why they’d be an advocate for that.”