'Black Man With a Gun'
Rev. Blanchard shoots the breeze on his life's advocation
Kenn Blanchard is creator of the “Black Man With A Gun” franchise.
UPPER MARLBORO, Md. – It may be entirely coincidental that Kenn Blanchard asked me to meet him at the Olde Towne Inn restaurant, but the symbolism isn’t lost on me.
While looking up directions I learned that the establishment, in Upper Marlboro, amidst one of the most affluent African-American communities in the country, was formally whites-only until the 1960s, and remained hostile to potential black customers long after.
Now the chef and owner are black, and the patrons represent a wide-ranging palette.
One civil rights battle won, at least one more to go, thinks Blanchard.
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In his parents’ generation, the battles for voting rights and equal accommodations in public were front and center. To some extent they’ve been resolved, but the 52-year-old Blanchard is still convinced that there’s another Constitutionally-guaranteed right that needs to be protected – the right to bear arms described in the Second Amendment.
It’s a political lightning rod, and he doubles down on the controversy by seamlessly intertwining his quest with issues related to race, another third rail of American public discourse. He’s convinced that history is on his side when it comes to linking the two together.
For example, subsequent to the Civil War, during the period of Reconstruction, there were efforts to disarm recently freed slaves to keep them from gaining their newly-guaranteed rights.
A hundred years later, when members of the newly-formed Black Panther Party took up arms to patrol their neighborhoods and protect themselves, California elected officials proposed legislation that would’ve prevented them from carrying loaded weapons. The Panthers responded by proceeding to the California statehouse in protest. Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, who later changed his belief on the topic, opined at the time that there should be “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”
A Reverend at a Baptist church, Blanchard has twin passions for his faith and firearms.
It’s this type of historical backdrop that led Blanchard – the self-described “Black Man With a Gun” – to prosthelytize the message of gun rights. His evangelistic spirit is diffused throughout other aspects of his life, too, most notably as a Reverend in a local Baptist church. His twin passions for his faith and firearms coexist neatly in his own mind, but not necessarily in the viewpoints of others.
“I thought I would be the guy in the neighborhood who people can go to,” he lamented of his early experiences with gun rights advocacy. “But then reality hit me. They didn’t want to hear it. They were gun-phobic and hostile and it blew me away. It was like finding out there’s no Santa Claus.”
When he was pictured in the Washington Times holding a Bible and a .45, for example, he “caught hell in the church.”
Against that tide, he has built a career.
Blanchard said that his love of firearms emerged early, even if it wasn’t encouraged. He came from a family of athletes, with cousins who ascended to both the NBA and the NFL, but by his own description he was a “horrible athlete” who didn’t fit in in many other ways.
“In my household, if you couldn’t turn a screw and fix something, you didn’t have value,” he said. “I was an artist, so in order to prove that I wasn’t a weakling, I enlisted in the Marine Corps.”
Up until that time he’d had every toy gun under the sun, but nothing more potent that a Daisy Red Ryder.
In the Marines, he found his bearings, describing his rise through meritorious promotions as blistering. He traveled the world guarding embassies, gaining life experience, but remaining, by his own words, “oblivious to politics.”
When he returned to the United States, he went to work as a firearms instructor for the CIA in McLean, Va.
“They were replacing the Federal Protective Service and starting from scratch,” he said. “I was just out of the Marine Corps and found that I had a knack for teaching. I wanted to start a business, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I figured that I could be the black guy people could go to for in-home training.”
The business flopped, but his passion for shooting and teaching still burned strong. Not knowing how to channel it, he decided to attend an annual meeting of NRA directors.
“I rode there on my motorcycle,” he recalled. “I was wearing blue jeans, my leathers and cowboy boots. They were all in tuxedos. Who stereotyped who?”
Despite the inauspicious start, he said that the group welcomed him and gave him opportunities to evangelize for the cause.
His passion for the Second Amendment has led him to meet people like Charleton Heston.
“That just whet my appetite for everything related to guns and black people,” he said. “My mentor told me about groups like the Buffalo Soldiers, and I was ashamed that I hadn’t heard of them so I became obsessed with learning everything, from the barber shop stories to the deacons who were all Korean War veterans. I attended the Safari Club meetings and decided to start my business there. I’d be the CEO of African American Arms and Instruction, because nobody else had the job.”
Through his newfound contacts, he had an opportunity to testify before multiple state legislatures – a process he’s continued many times since – and discovered his natural oratorical skills that serve him equally well in church. Until he grew comfortable in the role, he repeatedly thought he’d bombed, and each time his handlers assured him that he’d done a bang-up job.
He jokes today that he became the “on-call black guy” who was brought in whenever an influential person could be turned. He claims to be a master of reaching people on their own terms.
“I am the son of Uhura,” he joked, referring to the Star Trek character of African descent who could speak multiple dialects. In other words, he doesn’t intend to give up who he is, but nevertheless tries to bring his message in multiple languages.
Building a Political Identity
As Blanchard continued to rise in his government position, including going “Jack Bauer for a minute,” he retained a strong desire to have a business of his own, something that would have his signature and provide for him financially. Even though his wife says today that he’s “the most famous broke person she knows,” Blanchard says that he’s content to have found a niche that involves multiple enterprises.
His book was recently reissued as "Black Man with a Gun Reloaded."
There’s his website, his podcast, and his book – originally printed as “Black Man with a Gun,” more recently reissued as “Black Man with a Gun Reloaded.” While the title was serious, playing off the title of Rob Williams’s 1962 book “Negroes with Guns,” Blanchard can still joke about it.
“Black Man with a Gun would’ve been a great name for a porn star,” he said. “I’ve gotten some crazy emails over the years.”
He’s pursued various television projects off and on, and he is now working on a project related to motorcycles to channel his love of his Harley. “I’d like to be the Howard Stern of motorcycle radio,” he explains.
Now that he’s retired from Federal service and the Hatch Act is no longer an obstacle, he is also running as a Republican for a seat on the Prince George’s County (Md.) County Council. In some ways it is a quixotic quest, but he said that holding political office is a bucket-list goal.
He’s frustrated by his state’s general take on gun rights issues, noting that “Virginia and Arizona probably do the best legislatively.” He’d like to move, but as he’s gone from a political agnostic to an evangelist for multiple conservative causes, and he’s come to see his work as unfinished.
“You’ve got to educate. If the people listen to you, that’s half the battle. I’ve seen the rah-rah-rah guys and I’ve seen the people who say we need to find a middle ground,” he said. “There is no middle ground. We’re still stuck on thou shalt not murder. Poverty, drugs, the loss of hope, government can’t fix that. You can’t legislate behavior.”
As Blanchard has become more entrenched in the political arena, his firearms training efforts have dwindled, but he carves out time for certain such endeavors that are close to his heart. He founded the Maryland Tenth Cavalry Gun Club, named after the regiment better known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.” It’s given African-American shooters and potential shooters, whatever their motivation, an opportunity to enter the field without feeling intimidated, while also learning the history of abolitionists and other historical figures who preceded them.
There’s safety in numbers, he said, and he’s comfortable being their “pied piper.” Nevertheless, there are certain acts that he still feels his color prevents him from making. For instance, the open carry movement that has become popular among some gun enthusiasts doesn’t strike him as a wise choice for himself: “I would never openly carry, just for my own safety.”
Blanchard said that upon first glance he can break down most black shooters into one of five categories: “There’s the college educated civilian who can quote you Nat Turner. There’s the veteran. There’s the traditional hunter, usually from a rural background, now living closer to the city. The fourth group is a little scary. They’re the black nationalists, usually quoting Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X. They’re dressed like preppers in all-black fatigues.
“And the fifth group is the victims, the ones saying ‘never again.’ The victim thing is really delicate. That’s where the preacher thing comes in handy. I can talk to someone who’s had a traumatic loss and help them make progress, but if you do it wrong you can make a bad situation worse.”
Besides speaking engagements, he appears at shows and has a website and podcast.
Getting an Advanced Degree
Blanchard believes that his people skills have helped him to spread his message, and that the process has continued to build his understanding not of any particular race, except for the human race. “I have a PhD in sociology, just from the gun stuff,” he said.
He’ll be the first to admit that while the fire still burns, some of the battles, and the passage of time, have worn him down. He’s been called a token, by all walks of people, but remains resolute in his beliefs.
“It’s unbelievable the abuse you take to take a stand,” he said. “I applaud that guy.”
Blanchard hasn’t lost family or friends over his stances (“They say ‘We like you anyway,’ ” he jokes), and claims that the constant battles have allowed him to live the examined life that Socrates said made life worth living.
Accordingly, over time it has become “less politics, more me, more discovery. Realizing I wasn’t the angry black man anymore. I really know who I am.”
Whatever anger stirred inside him, making him a firebrand, has subsided a bit, and while that suits him fine, he fears that it may dull his message on occasion.
“Yoda faded into the background now that there are plenty of Jedis,” he said, once again displaying a penchant for invoking popular culture. “I’m like a Bill Cosby of the gun rights movement. I made them laugh. I did it with humor. If I was Samuel L. Jackson, I’d do better. The snarky, angry black man works really good, but I don’t like the fight.”
That’s why he’s glad to see a legion of advocates following in his footsteps, like Colion Noir of NRA News. Now Blanchard works behind the scenes, vetting the sincerity and potential effectiveness of people and campaigns, passing the torch when it’s wise to do so.
“I was so far ahead, people are finally catching up. I’ve been the gun ambassador. I made a niche out of nothing,” he said.
As he finishes his life story, and his dinner, I point to a line of African-American men sitting at the restaurant’s bar, representing different age ranges, possibly different socioeconomic classes, and perhaps different levels of experience with firearms, and ask him if he could convince them of his viewpoints.
“I think I could get 90 percent of the bar. It’s just in the approach,” he said. “A gun is an inanimate object. It could be used for good or bad. My process is to educate. I’ve learned to go line by line to debunk the misconceptions. It’s the exact same as witnessing for my church, evangelizing for Jesus Christ.”
And would he consider changing the name of his podcast, or his book, or his website, from “Black Man with a Gun” to something potentially less confrontational, perhaps a little bit more conventionally politically correct?
“When nobody bats an eye at the phrase, I can quit,” he replies.
Kenn Blanchard may no longer be angry, but he’s no quitter, either.