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.”