Sheila “Mother” Drake is a self-described “potty-mouth,” a reformed alcoholic, a widow, avid churchgoer, and a Gemini. She came up with the idea of revealing her zodiac sign in the opening paragraph to “let everybody know” one thing…
“I’m crazy as the day is long,” she deadpanned. “My body may be tired and worn, but my trigger finger gets a lot of exercise.”
On Tuesdays and Thursdays each week, around noon, Sheila pays a visit to the IHOP located between Manchester Avenue and Sepulveda Boulevard. She usually orders buttered toast, hard scrambled eggs and two rounds of unsweetened coffee.
“That’s my fuel – so I don’t get tired when I’m at the range,” she explained. “All that shooting takes a toll on me.”
The LAX Firing range attracts thousands of gun enthusiasts and thrill seekers from all walks of life. It’s where Sheila goes to exercise her Second Amendment right, a liberty she was first introduced to by her father and elder brothers in rural Mississippi during the 1940s.
“My granddaddy was a freed slave,” Sheila recalls. “Living in the south, his life was always in danger, and since he couldn’t be out in public with a gun, he would let White folk treat him any ol way. He kept a shotgun under his bed in case the family needed protecting.”
She continued, “I have 10 siblings – and my father taught us all how to shoot, how to load a pistol, how to clean it. I guess it’s cause he watched his father walk on pins and needles around White folk.”
After losing the Civil War, Southern states quickly adopted the Black Codes, laws designed to reestablish White supremacy by dictating what the freedmen could and couldn’t do.
One common provision barred blacks from possessing firearms. To enforce the gun ban, white men riding in posses began terrorizing black communities.
In January 1866, Harper’s Weekly reported that in Mississippi, such groups had “seized every gun and pistol found in the hands of the (so called) freedmen” in parts of the state. The most infamous of these disarmament posses, of course, was the Ku Klux Klan.
In response to the Black Codes and the mounting atrocities against Blacks in the former Confederacy, the North sought to reaffirm the freedmen’s constitutional rights, including their right to possess guns.
Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, the commanding Union officer enforcing Reconstruction in South Carolina, ordered in January 1866 that “the constitutional rights of all loyal and well-disposed inhabitants to bear arms will not be infringed.”
When South Carolinians ignored Sickles’s order and others like it, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of July 1866, which assured ex-slaves the “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings concerning personal liberty … including the constitutional right to bear arms.”
Despite this controversial decision, efforts were still made to disarm African Americans, culminating with the 1967 Mulford Act, which was supported by California Gov. Ronald Reagan and the National Rifle Association (NRA) in an attempt to inhibit the gun rights of the Black Panther Party.
Today, gun ownership among Black Americans has steadily risen, according to studies by the Pew Research Center. In 2016, 19 percent of black adults said they owned a gun, up from 15 percent in 2015. That increase tracks with a change in perspective: In 2013, just 29 percent of black adults said owning a gun makes people safer; the following year, that number was 54 percent.
I recently spent time with “Mother” Drake on a dreary Saturday morning despite her stern warnings that if I tried “anything funny” she’d grab her pistol and “aim low.”
“Mother” is a term of endearment used within the Black church to describe elderly women – a title Sheila embraces proudly, but feels misrepresents her youthful disposition.
“N*ggas around here call me Clint Eastwood,” the 78-year-old retired school bus driver declared with a twinkle in her eye, ironically sipping from a coffee mug that says: “Filled with the Holy Ghost.”
“I’ll shoot [Barack] Obama if he brings his ass to my doorstep unannounced. Let somebody come up in here trying to steal from me – thinking I’m feeble and defenseless. Aint’ gone be no talking … the police can ask questions later.”
I dropped by Sheila’s home in Gardena to observe “the arsenal of doom” she raves about on Sundays at my grandfather’s church.
Her message to the congregation during “testimony service” recently was:
“God gave you Negroes fangers [fingers] to pull that trigger in the presence of evil. We live in perilous times. Keep a Bible and some hardware on your nightstand.”
Sheila’s robust collection of handguns includes a Beretta M-9, a Glock 32, a 357 Magnum, and her late husband’s service pistol that she keeps sandwiched between a Ziploc bag of prescription drugs and a Bible she “borrowed” from a baptist Church in South Texas more than 30 years ago.
“I’m a proud gun-owner,” she avowed gleefully as I cautiously watched her aim a loaded weapon at several invisible targets. The corners of her mouth elevated to form a mischievous grin. “I used to own a shotgun.”
She added, “They’re all [handguns] registered, legal, and fully-operational. If God calls me home today I might end up in the fiery lake [hell]. My temper still needs fixing when my trigger finger starts itching.”
Research shows that Black gun ownership has increased significantly since the 2016 presidential election, and the National African American Gun Association (NAAGA), a black alternative to the NRA, doubled its membership in just a few short months thanks to a surge in purchases from Black women.
A Detroit firearms instructor, Robert Ector, spoke with Fox News about this sudden trend.
“Minority women are definitely increasing in numbers,” he said. “Women overall — in particular, minority women — are looking towards guns to protect themselves against crime.”
Black conservative columnist, Stacey Washington, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, echoed those same sentiments.
“I believe the reason we’re seeing more women of color joining this movement to use firearms is because they’re realizing this in not a political issue,” she said. “It really never has been. It’s about personal safety and protection.”
Ector thinks the spike in women owning guns is due to the issue of rape. He says women make up half the classes he teaches.
According to national studies, approximately 1 in 5 Black women have experienced rape in their lifetime. Most of these cases involve someone known to the victim – a family member, intimate partner, or acquaintance. Perpetrators often use physical force, coercion, or substances to gain compliance.
Philip Smith, a soft-spoken consultant from Atlanta who founded NAAGA in 2015, says that owning a firearm gives women a sense of empowerment, safety and control. His membership is 60 percent female, he calculates, many of whom aren’t married, are rearing children alone, or do not have a significant other and need a reliable source of protection.
“Women, more than men these days, have the means to purchase firearms and the various accessories,” he added. “This is an expensive undertaking. There’s no getting around the cost. But I’ve been told on many occasions by women that the sense of security they feel from owning a weapon is worth the money.”
According to Niecee X, a founder of the Black Women’s Defense Fund, Black women are purchasing more guns because of the threat of political harm.
She says now that President Trump is in office, “a lot of people are feeling unsafe.”
Amid the protests and vitriol that have spread across the country in the past year, numerous reports of hateful intimidation and racially charged attacks have erupted in the lingering aftermath of the presidential election.
Many have been directed at African Americans, Muslims and immigrants, and many appear to be in support of Donald Trump, who promised during his campaign to keep Muslims from entering the United States.
“The presidential election and the resurgence of certain racist elements have motivated a lot of people to buy firearms,” contends Jae Simpson, president of NAAGA’s Los Angeles Chapter, the Bobby Seale Gun & Rifle Club. “It’s definitely a concern, and recent events have illuminated the need for individuals to arm themselves.”
The past two months have seen two of the deadliest shootings in the nation’s history.
As of Nov. 24, there had been 321 mass shootings in the US this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks gun-related violence. October saw the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history in Las Vegas, when Stephen Paddock killed 59 and injured more than 500 concert-goers at the Mandalay Bay hotel.
On Nov. 5, Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 and injured 20 at a Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the deadliest shooting in a place of worship in the US’ history. These tragedies have energized calls for increased gun control legislation.
Simultaneously, the far right has seen a surge in support after the election of Donald Trump, whom they view as sympathetic to their cause. US hate crimes have risen for the past two years. Minorities have taken to arming themselves for self-defense as a result.
“NAAGA addresses issues of gun rights in a holistic manner, particularly in regards to African Americans,” says Douglas Jefferson, vice president of organization.
“The recent spate of mass shootings are just as tragic as past shootings. However, the reflexive response of many people is to blame the guns used to perpetrate such tragedies. This is a mistake in that this response does not actually solve the issue of mass shootings in a meaningful manner.”
He continued, “ NAAGA seeks to address Second Amendment rights (those that guarantee gun ownership in the US) in a holistic fashion in regards to the African Americans community. When most people think of what a gun owner looks like, African Americans don’t come to mind. Generally, this is true even amongst African Americans. NAAGA seeks to change this reality by educating African Americans on the rich history of the Black tradition of arms in this country, which has been integral to every moment of African Americans self-determination which created conditions for African Americans to live as fully fledged citizens of a country that historically has not recognized us as full citizens.”