Fears of racism and civil unrest are driving some Latinos in the United States to buy firearms and learn to use them for the first time, potentially upending a historic trend in which many Latinos have called for tighter gun control.
Ahead of the 2020 election, a survey from Pew Research found that nearly seven-in-ten Hispanic voters (68%) believed their should be stricter gun laws in the US, while 24% said current gun laws are adequate.
The poll found a sharp divide between Latino Democrats and Republicans, however, with 80% of Hispanic Democrats being in favor of stricter gun laws, compared to 42% of Hispanic Republicans.
A separate poll, conducted by Latino Decisions in late 2019, found that 8-in-10 Latinos in Texas alone were in favor of stricter gun laws, with 59% saying that gun laws were critical to how they would vote in the presidential election.
Some Latinos, however, have reported that interest in guns among members of the community have increased as a result of concerns over racism and unrest in cities across the US.
Rafael Cedillo, the owner and instructor of a firearm safety business in El Paso - directly across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico - said that demand began to rise after a deadly 2019 shooting that left 23 people dead at a Walmart in the city. An investigation found that the shooter held racist and anti-immigrant views.
"It's sad, but my business really booms after a tragic incident, like a shooting," he said in an interview with LPO. "After the one in El Paso, my home, I couldn't fit everyone into my schedule."
While before the El Paso incident, Cedillo said that his firearms classes averaged between 7 and 10 people per class, after the shooting, they averaged more than 30 - more than half of whom were Latinos.
"I get a lot of people wanting to learn how to shoot, just to be able to defend themselves," he added. "People who have never owned guns before are actually now buying them for protection."
Cedillo's comments were echoed by PB Gomez, a fourth-generation Mexican-American who in April 2020 founded the Latino Rifle Association (LRA).
"What made me think of the idea of a Latino gun rights group was the El Paso Walmart shooting. This horrific terrorist attack really shook the Latino community," he said. "I knew Latinos were really going to start exploring the prospect of gun ownership for self-defense."
Interest grew further, Gomez added, as a result of the unrest that swept across the United States ahead of the 2020 election as a result of political and racial tensions.
"What made me finally decide that it was time for something like the LRA was the unrest that dominated the country in the beginning of 2020, especially seeing far-right groups storm the Michigan statehouse," he said. "Rates of first-time gun buyers are skyrocketing, and I wanted there to be some guidance for the Latino community."
Additionally, Gomez said that the recent surge in Latino gun buyers forms part of a wider wave of members of "marginalized groups" seeking protection.
"There was an explosion of fire-time buyers throughout 2020, led by Black people and women. I experienced this myself. My usual gun shop in Sacramento began looking a lot more diverse," he said. "I think the recent civil unrest is making people feel as though the government either can't or won't protect them."
Notably, this rising number of Latino gun owners do not identify solely as Republicans, who statistically are much more likely to be gun owners. Gomez's LRA, for example, identifies as "progressive, anti-racist and even anti-capitalist" he said.
"The big gun groups and the usual places where one learns about guns are dominated by white conservatives, and it can feel unfriendly if you're not that," he said. "There is value in offering specifically to Latinos, while still remaining firmly opposed to hostile right-wing attitudes."
"I also think that because most Latinos are Democrats, they tend to follow the platform on gun issues," he said, referencing calls to ban rifles. "A platform which, in my opinion, is extremely disingenuous and grossly misinformed." However, it remains unclear how much gun rights will influence future elections.
Rafael Cedillo, for his part, said that he doesn't believe Latinos will necessarily vote based on where a particular candidate stands with regards to the gun debate.
"One thing that I've noticed about Latinos and the Hispanic community that that I don't think we really get involved that much," he said. "We do things and keep them private. I don't see too many Hispanics or Latinos be political."
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