EL PASO, Texas — After overhearing constant racist and anti-immigrant comments made by his neighbors, Tony Martinez said he knew he needed to find a way to feel safer.
He bought his first rifle last month, joined a gun club and has been visiting shooting ranges in Southern California on the weekends.
“It’s more for me to be safe from them,” Martinez, 31, told CNN, referring to his neighbors in his Orange County community. “What if one day something happens, someone gets some idea?”
Martinez is not the only Latino immigrant in the U.S. who has recently felt more concerned for his safety — last year’s shooting at the Cielo Vista Walmart store in El Paso jolted Latinos and immigrants across the United States. Twenty three people died and nearly two dozen more were injured in what is considered one of the nation’s deadliest shootings and the deadliest attack on Latinos in modern U.S. history.
Authorities said the suspected shooter drove to El Paso with the sole intent of killing immigrants and Mexicans in the West Texas border city. In February, he was indicted on 90 federal charges, including hate crimes, according to court documents.
Even before the mass shooting, the number of hate crimes targeting Latino or Hispanic people increased in 2018 and the previous four years, according to data from the FBI’s annual Hate Crime Statistics report.
Tired of living in fear, some people like Martinez have opted to purchase firearms to feel a sense of security.
Martinez, a researcher in the University of California system, lives in a predominantly white neighborhood where he said many families own guns. CNN is using a modified version of Martinez’s name at his request, due to fear of retaliation given the racist rhetoric surrounding immigrant matters.
He said he feels his neighbors would not accept him if they knew details about his background. “I will never reveal that I have a green card,” Martinez, who immigrated from Mexico, said. “I don’t think that would sit very well with them. I feel like they would harass me and my wife, they would damage my property, harass my dog.”
It’s unclear how many Latinos have bought guns in the past year, as there isn’t a national database of gun ownership that shows demographics.
The FBI reported a surge in background checks by individuals attempting to purchase firearms in recent months. But the agency’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is the nation’s gun buying background check system, does not disclose information regarding the race and ethnicity of those who purchase firearms.
But experts say it wouldn’t be unusual for people to gravitate toward purchasing firearms after feeling threatened.
People who in the past have been less likely to own firearms, including Latinos, might become interested in acquiring them after seeing more people around them doing so, according to Kellie Lynch, who has conducted research on firearm ownership among domestic violence victims.
“You know if you feel like you could be in danger, then that might be what you feel like you need to do to protect your family,” said Lynch, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at The University of Texas at San Antonio.
This “implicit threat,” Lynch added, “may be amplified for people of color who are in areas with racism and hostility.”
They want to protect their families
In the first six months after the shooting in El Paso, Rafael Cedillo, the owner and instructor of a firearm safety business in the Sun City, said more than 400 people signed up for his courses.
That meant Cedillo had to triple the number of training classes he offered. He said he went from 10 students to up to 30 students in his license to carry classes, which include four to five hours of classroom training, followed by shooting practice.
The majority of Cedillo’s students, who are Hispanic or Latinos, told him that “they wanted to protect themselves and their family,” the 46-year-old said.
The pandemic has made it difficult to hold as many classes as usual, but Cedillo said he is still getting calls constantly from people interested in his firearms courses. Before the coronavirus hit, he was teaching about 3 to 4 classes per week. Now, that number is closer to two smaller classes a month.
The Socialist Rifle Association, a left-wing gun group that describes itself as an inclusive space for people to explore self defense and community aid, saw an uptick in memberships last year, said Lucas Hubbard, a SRA spokesperson. Hispanic or Latino members make up 10% of the organization’s more than 7,000 members.
“We did see a more vocal Latino population speaking to the issues and a lot of shutting up and listening from everybody else,” Hubbard told CNN.
Marcos Zapata, a veteran and SRA member in Portland, Oregon, said the racist rhetoric toward the Hispanic community and immigrants in America motivated him to join the organization.
“The El Paso shooting just kind of solidified in my decision and increased my participation (in the organization),” Zapata said, adding that he is also now inspired to train marginalized people in firearm safety. He has since been appointed the liason of his SRA chapter.
Gun views among Latinos vary
While some in the Hispanic community in the US have said they purchased firearms in recent months, there are still generally mixed feelings about gun ownership and gun control.
About 30% of Americans said they own a gun, according to a 2017 survey from the Pew Research Center. About 36% of White and 24% of Black adults said they own a gun, the survey found, compared to 15% Latinos.
And not everyone in the Hispanic community is a gun enthusiast — some support stricter or new gun control laws.
“Latinx communities, like the vast majority of voters, believe that in America it’s simply too easy for individuals hoping to do harm to obtain a firearm,” Joanna Belanger, political director at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told CNN.
Nearly 70% of all Hispanic or Latino voters say they agreed that gun laws should be stricter than they are, according to a survey conducted in December by the Pew Research Center. Eighty percent of Hispanic Democratic voters said gun laws should be stricter while only 44% of Hispanic Republican voters agreed with that.
“The tragedy in El Paso last year underscored that hateful individuals, emboldened by extremist groups and with easy access to guns, are a very real part of this country’s gun violence crisis,” Belanger said.