For black gun advocates in purple Mass, criticism comes in red, white, and blue
Pierre Salomon’s car is what a dorm at boot camp might look like if all the drill sergeants just up and left, leaving freshly minted cadets to their own devices.
Camo fatigues are strewn between seats, while T-shirts bearing the respective logos “NRA” and “BLACK GUNS MATTER” balance on the dash.
A military dress uniform hangs from a hook, its plastic sheath trailing into a carpeting of notebooks, snack wrappers, crumpled documents, and a lone calculator.
In the back seat, two large black gun cases peek out from under a Don’t Tread on Me hat and more camo gear. Pierre grins as he clears off a space.
“Welcome to the armory.”
Salomon first came to Dorchester in 1995 from Haiti, leaving his grandmother and following his older brother and sister after his parents finally saved enough money to pay for everything from lawyers to airfare. He graduated from the Burke in 2008 and shipped off to boot camp the following summer.
Between tours in Afghanistan, where he served as a CBURN specialist (training people how to protect against chemical, biological and nuclear weapons) and as a machine gunner for transport convoys, Pierre double majored in sociology and criminal justice at UMass Boston. Speaking with him in a car filled by markers of his military background and current company’s commitments, it’s clear that he considers this his calling.
“After Afghanistan I worked as an EMT, as a DHS security contractor, some random odd jobs,” he says. “But … there’s just nothing that can compare to building something up with your own two hands.”
Based in Swansea, his Salomon Firearms Training offers classes in hand-to-hand combat in addition to firearms training and courses for self-defense instructors. SFT provides security contracting and armed escorts, and also conducts free trainings in Dorchester and South Boston for residents who wouldn’t otherwise have access to firearms training and education.
For Salomon, this is a way of life as well as a source of income. At the same time, since there are guns involved, his practices and beliefs are inherently political, and therefore have attracted some detractors—from all sides of the spectrum. Since Salomon sometimes offers classes specifically geared toward women or “young black men and boys,” for example, conservatives have accused him of reverse-racism and reverse-sexism. Sometimes they even flame him on Facebook, with one troll going so far as to contact local gun ranges and warn them not to partner with him on the basis of his employing “discriminatory practices.” Others go even further, describing Pierre’s students as “thugs” and “criminals.”
“This is what you get when you try to break the grip of a racist gun culture,” he tells me. “This is why I do what I do, because black people in this country have a constitutional right just like everybody else to arm themselves and to learn how to safely and legally own firearms. Racists have this belief that everything is entitled to them, so witnessing black people picking up guns and redefining what that image looks like of a well-trained black man holding a gun is a scary thing to those people.”
Among the many parties under the anti-gun umbrella, some advocates for public health and safety say the main problem is with the ease of access to firearms. For professor Stephanie Shapiro Berkson, public health lecturer at the University of Illinois and a violence prevention activist, there are several micro issues within the larger discussion about black gun ownership.
“If you want to talk about racial inequality around guns,” says Berkson, “then you have to talk about the disparity in gun deaths. The leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 35 is from gun violence. That is a staggering statistic and the remedy is … effective gun control legislation.”
As for racism in gun culture, Berkson points to the NRA, and the role the organization plays in developing the popular narrative about people of color and their firearms.
“When the NRA comes out and says they support gun rights for all law-abiding citizens, I think this is a pretty racist tactic when you look at our failed criminal justice system, which systematically categorizes people of color as criminals at a vastly disproportionate rate than whites. In my mind, we need to push for both increased common-sense gun control in addition to criminal justice reform … to even begin to combat racial inequity.”
CALLING THE SHOTS
On a Saturday morning in South Boston, people shuffle into a large conference room at the Holiday Inn Express. Coffee percolates in the corner; music from a party in the room next door floats above friendly chatter.
Salomon stands by the door, beaming, as his students of all ages, from 10 to 70, stream in. He jokes and bounces around, shaking hands in front of a hotel table sagging under the weight of assault rifles, an AK-47, even a Dirty Harry-style revolver. They’re just for show, but if people fill out the required forms they can begin the licensing process and, if they qualify, acquire firearms of their own.
Some attendees say they’ve taken time out of their weekend to attend the training because they’ve seen skeet shooting on TV and want to learn for themselves. Others came because they want to get licensed in order to protect their families. All are black, and the vast majority, regardless of their initial reason for attending, view their participation in part as an act of defiance—especially after Salomon’s starting remarks: “If you think it’s hard being a gun owner in Massachusetts, you better believe it’s even harder carrying while black.”
As morning slips into afternoon, students learn about proper gun storage, the application process for a license, and the difference between an automatic and semiautomatic weapon. They also discuss challenges that black gun owners face—from harder access, to restrictions in some urban areas, to sometimes lethal discrimination from law enforcement. Reference is made to both Philando Castile and Emantic Bradford, both of whom were black, legally licensed to carry a firearm, and shot and killed by the police. One student asks about the risk of being added to a terrorist watch list, a nod to the FBI’s recent creation of a “Black Identity Extremism” task force.
While parts of Salomon’s presentation pass for progressive, others lean more toward the right. The NRA, long associated with American conservatives and law enforcement, plays prominently in both the curriculum and the instructor’s wardrobe. I ask Salomon about this potential conflict of interest.
“Look, do I think the NRA is racist?” he says. Then answers, “No. But have I experienced individuals within the NRA who are racist? Yes.”
Salomon continues, “The bottom line is that the NRA protects the second amendment and through their programs I’ve been able to train hundreds of black people who otherwise wouldn’t have the resources to obtain a license to carry.”
At the same time, Salomon says he “is also part of a group called NAAGA (National African American Gun Association), because a lot of black people don’t feel like the NRA supports them. After Philando Castile got shot six times with his family in the car, the NRA was silent. The only time they ever said something was like, Well, he had marijuana in his system.”
Salomon says he was initially inspired to start his community training outreach after meeting Maj Toure, the founder of the group Black Guns Matter, which seeks “to educate people in urban communities on their Second Amendment rights and responsibilities through firearms training and education.” Frequently quoted in the media, Toure travels all around the country holding free workshops in urban centers. NRA spokespeople have joined him to speak to attendees on some occasions, spurring criticism from some gun violence prevention groups.
“Let’s get one thing straight, the NRA is an industry lobbying organization whose sole goal is to represent the gun industry and advocate for their continued ability to make profits by limiting regulations on firearms,” says Angus Mcquilken, a co-founding member of Mass Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. “What has made Massachusetts the safest state in America when it comes to gun violence isn’t safety training, or NRA-sponsored classes. It’s the years of public policy work and dedication of public servants and activists that have made our state the standard bearer for effective gun regulation in this country.”
“Look, the NRA doesn’t own me,” Salomon says about such blanket criticism. “I’m my own person, and while they provide me training resources, I’m still the one calling the shots in the end of the day.”
A few weeks after the safety class I meet Pierre at Boston Gun and Rifle in Dorchester, where firearms instructor and operator Gary Kaplan describes the range as the city’s “best-kept secret for lead-starved tourists and firearm enthusiasts.”
Hidden away in a discreet building in Fields Corner, Boston Gun and Rifle was first opened as a private shooting club for Cambridge detectives in the ’70s and was used solely for law enforcement training until last year, when the range started offering classes to the general public.
Inside there’s a large classroom, a shop selling targets and ammo, and an open locker room plastered in NRA posters and bumper stickers emblazoned with “Liberal Free Zone.” The large firing room is next door.
As we wait for the range to open, I talk to Salomon’s students before he joins us. They’re all in their late teens and say they want to be like their instructor when they grow up, owning a successful business and giving back to people in their community.
“The first time I met Pierre, the first time anybody meets Pierre, it’s like you’ve known him your whole life,” one student tells me. “He’s just got those crazy love vibes, you know?”
It’s true, Salomon radiates an energy and openness that’s hard to match. Beyond that, he doesn’t get flustered or aggravated, even when people ask questions he’s heard a million times, or press him on the politics of gun ownership.
In the locker room, Salomon’s students discuss gun models, jiujitsu, and politics. Everyone is in favor of single-payer healthcare. They’re not so hot on Donald Trump. When the subject of medical bills comes up, Salomon recalls a story from his time spent working as an EMT. Remembering the patient pleading with him not to take her back to an inadequate and underfunded senior care facility, the teacher takes a minute to reflect on the failures of for-profit care.
“We need less time spent on banning magazine capacities and shit like that, and more time spent organizing for lifting people out of poverty in this country,” says Djeneson Noel, a 19-year-old from Everett. “Sometimes all this gun control stuff feels like a distraction from the real killers out there: insurance providers.”
The young men laugh and nod, then walk through a bulletproof door leading to the range.
It’s a motley assemblage of ideologies and political takes, radicals and reactionaries, children and seniors that regularly swirls around here. The scene can be disorienting to an outsider, but for Salomon it is reflective of his personality. Between enthusiastic bites of a hoagie and phone calls from his fleet of security contractors, the instructor says that his political affiliation is staunchly “independent.”
“With the political turmoil in this country right now, I just take people policy by policy where I can,” Salomon says. “Where I can’t, I just keep it moving.
“I’m done with the Facebook arguments and the name-calling. I’m done with people telling me who I can and can’t be. I’m tired of people yelling at me, Pick a side! Pick a side!
“I’m on the side of productivity. I’m on the side of changing lives for the better.”