As extremist threat rises, Latino Texans say gun ownership is ‘matter of survival’
In the US, gun purchases by Latinos have surged in recent years – including among self-described progressives. Some are anxious about being armed but feel they have little choice
On a crisp Sunday afternoon in Royse City, Texas, 32-year-old Cesar Hurtado unzipped a hardshell case to reveal a custom-built AR-15-style rifle in his living room. Emblazoned on the side of the gun is the tagline “no war, no gods, no masters”.
Hurtado’s interest in firearms started with hunting, but after the 2019 Walmart shooting in El Paso that targeted Latinos, Hurtado felt he had to embrace firearms for his own protection. “For white gun owners, they feel they have a right to a gun,” Hurtado said, “but for Latino gun owners, it’s a matter of survival and safety.”
Today, the Colombian American is a member of the burgeoning Latino Rifle Association (LRA), a self-described progressive organization that sprouted up online during the pandemic to provide self-defense and firearms education to Latinos. Many of the approximately 850 members are worried about the rise of far-right white extremism and an unprecedented wave of mass shootings, while others are looking to connect with gun owners sharing their progressive ideals or Latino identity.
They’re part of a growing group of new gun owners in Texas – a state almost synonymous with loose gun laws and some of the most gun sales in the country.
“Most people wouldn’t bother with firearms if they didn’t think it was necessary – if they didn’t think there were legitimate threats against them,” Hurtado said. “If I never had to worry about being shot, I would never carry.”
Across the United States, one-fifth of new gun owners are Hispanic. Between 2019 and 2020, gun purchases by Latinos grew nearly 50%, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms trade association. Although there are no numbers for Latino gun owners in Texas, people of color constitute 20% of new firearms license holders in Texas. The Texas department of public safety, which tallies the state’s handgun licenses, records the number of white, Black and Asian gun owners, but excludes Latinos or Hispanics from the list (the department records by race, not ethnicity).
Texas was the site of three of the US’s 10 deadliest mass shootings, which took place in areas with significant Latino populations. The state is also home to the country’s second-highest number of school shootings, prompting some Latino teachers to embrace firearms training to protect schoolchildren and themselves.
“The perfect storm of the pandemic, racial justice uprisings and intensely divisive politics pushed people toward gun ownership who were previously on the fence about it,” said Dr Angela Stroud, a sociologist at Northland College who studies gun culture. Historically, Hispanic people, Black people and women were the groups least likely to own guns, she said, but now gun ownership has begun to more closely reflect the US population.
Texas has a long history of anti-Latino sentiment. Organized campaigns of violence against Latinos, such as La Matanza (the Massacre) and La Hora de Sangre (the Hour of Blood), resulted in the lynching of Latinos in Texas during the 19th and 20th centuries. While exact numbers are impossible to confirm, historians estimate hundreds, or even thousands, of Latinos were killed. Latinos not only faced death by gunshot in targeted campaigns, but in the mid-1800s, the capital city of Austin even expelled Mexicans who lacked a white person to vouch for them. In one of the worst massacres of Latinos in US history, 15 villagers in the Rio Grande valley were shot at gunpoint for their alleged link to the Mexican revolution in 1918.
Latinos are still one of the most targeted groups for hate crimes in the US. Last year, Texas saw a 61% increase in white supremacist propaganda, fanning fears that far-right extremism was growing at an accelerated pace in the US’s second-largest state.
More recently, in the Rio Grande valley, LRA members like Isaiah Salas, 27, are beginning to connect this violent history to the current trends of anti-immigrant rhetoric and far-right extremism.
“It really gets you scared, because it’s like, what if I’m next?” asked Salas.
Even as Latinos are taking advantage of their second amendment rights, some remain ambivalent about guns. They often grapple with the risks and responsibilities they take on when they turn to firearms for protection, and the way their choices are perceived by law enforcement, family members, and the communities where they live and work.
Hurtado’s parents lived through La Violencia in Colombia, a years-long political conflict that saw the deaths of an estimated 300,000 civilians. As a result, his mother and sister have a deep aversion to guns, and he has never told his family that he owns one, let alone that he built a custom rifle. Hurtado said he understood his mother’s opposition to guns, but he believed having a gun was necessary in these times of heightened xenophobia.
Meanwhile, he is navigating a Texas gun culture that is not necessarily inclusive of people of color.
Last year, Texas became one of the few states nationwide to pass an open carry law without requiring a license, but Hurtado said his identity as a Latino man affected his ability to comfortably do so. “They might see us as a threat,” Hurtado said. “For the longest [time], I made a point not to get a handgun, because if I were to get pulled over, I didn’t want to be just a brown guy with a gun.”
According to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey, 81% of Latino immigrants believe restricting gun ownership is more important than protecting gun rights. But for Latinos born in the US, the figure drops to 65%. The most support for gun control comes from those who speak Spanish as their primary language – not English-speaking Latinos, suggesting that recent immigrants have not yet embraced American ideas of gun ownership.
Even in Texas, many Latinos oppose firearms. The Democratic Texas congresswoman Sylvia García, who represents a majority-Hispanic district that includes South Houston, has condemned guns and called for greater gun control through legislation. Her district is home to nearly 40% of all gun violence deaths in the state.
“Gun violence must end now across Latino communities and all communities,” she said. “We must enact change now to protect our vecinos [neighbors].”
For others, such as Paul Perez, a Mexican American living on the US-Mexico border, the decision to buy a firearm was “bittersweet”.
The 35-year-old’s job in health insurance regularly took him on long drives through swaths of Texas he saw as unsafe because of gang activity and narcotics smuggling. His work also put him in contact with strangers, galvanizing him to carry a gun in a lockbox in his car. To this day, his grandmother does not understand why he stores firearms in a gun cabinet bolted to the floor of her home.
Beyond these family differences, Perez is also unsure how law enforcement perceives him as a Latino man wielding a firearm. On average, 200 Hispanic people in the US are killed by police each year, with Hispanic Americans more likely than white people to be fatally shot by police.
Several Latino gun owners wrestle with the fear that simply carrying a gun can lead to unfavorable interactions with the police, who might erroneously read criminal intent into their motivations for having a gun.
The LRA, which was founded a month before the George Floyd protests in 2020, acknowledges police profiling of the Latino community, and bans members employed in law enforcement – a clear difference between the LRA and the National Rifle Association (NRA), which valorizes law enforcement’s use of guns to protect citizens.
Although ostensibly sharing a common goal of gun education, the LRA and the NRA could not be more different, some members say. The LRA takes on a progressive mantle, with many members identifying with the political left and claiming that the NRA would not accommodate their progressive views.
For Perez, gun ownership is itself laden with anxiety. He belongs to neither the NRA nor the LRA. Though he generally aligns with the Republican party, viewing gun education as vital to his safety, he still worries about the day he might be called to use one. Still, Perez does not necessarily feel safer as a gun owner. Any time his friends post a picture of a new gun on Snapchat, giddily labeling it as a “new toy”, Perez reprimands them. “It’s not a toy … That’s the worst way to look at it,” he said.
For him, gun ownership is part of a careful calculation. “The world [we] live in, it is scary,” he said. A gun at least makes him feel that he can control a situation that is often unpredictable, unscheduled and unfair. “I guess you can say I’m officially a Texan,” he said. “But it is a lot of responsibility.”
Despite its name, the Latino Rifle Association opens its doors to gun enthusiasts regardless of their race, and claims no affiliation with the National Rifle Association. The group exists predominantly online, but to promote the safety of members, it encourages local chapters to initially meet without guns. “Firearms aren’t toys – these are dangerous tools,” said Salas, who is in the process of starting his own LRA chapter in the Rio Grande valley.
Salas, a fourth-generation Mexican American living in a border city, said his family largely supported his gun rights advocacy, except for his mother (almost 80% of Latinas want to restrict guns).
Salas said starting an LRA chapter in the Rio Grande valley would allow him to do his part in uprooting the toxic masculinity in American gun culture. Latina trans women on the border have been among the first recruits, he said. In recent years, Texas has had the highest murder rates of transgender people in the nation, coupled with some of the US’s most restrictive and punitive anti-trans laws. “A lot of them will say they don’t know about firearms, they’re not that knowledgeable about firearms, but they want to learn,” Salas said.
Salas’s own understanding of what gun ownership means has evolved in reaction to both the machismo within Latino culture and a “hyper-masculine and toxic” white gun culture embodied by groups like the NRA.
He hopes the LRA can provide an avenue for Latinos to reshape what gun ownership means, and that the group will dispel myths about gun laws in the Rio Grande valley, where political participation is low and understanding of guns is weak.
With the growth in rates of Latino gun ownership, the NRA aims to bring more Latinos into its fold. Founded in 1871, the organization has incorporated Latinos in its public-facing messaging, including an annual NRA convention featuring an event called Botas y Pistolas (Boots and Pistols) honoring prominent Latino military and law enforcement figures. Gabby Franco, who is Latina, has also made NRA videos to train the public on firearms. But Rick Figueroa, one of the first Latinos to serve on the organization’s national board, said the NRA was still struggling to integrate Latinos meaningfully.
Initially, Figueroa was critical of the NRA’s failure to approach Latinos. “I was telling them how they were messing up – they were missing an opportunity,” he said. “You’re recruiting a bunch of Billy Bobs, and you should be recruiting Hispanics. They’re right there, they’re a bigger market,” he remembers telling them. Today, with Latinos constituting 40.2% of Texas’s population – compared with white Texans’ 39.8% – he sees a demographic advantage that can’t be ignored. “The NRA is pushing to be an educator in the Hispanic communities about the second amendment,” Figueroa said.
One Saturday at Vinson’s Firing Range in the border city of Los Fresnos, 53-year-old Leticia Errisuriz held a gun for the first time. “At the beginning, I was scared; my hands were sweating, I was kind of nervous,” she said after she sprayed rounds into a paper cutout of a man.
She was at the range for a free gun safety class led by a law enforcement officer named Julian Longoria, who walked up to each shooter and helped them steady their guns. “The first thing I want you to [have] is good grip, high and tight,” he said, rearranging one of his student’s fingers on the firearm.
After each set of rounds, Longoria asked his students to load the next magazine cartridge to help build their comfort with guns.
Errisuriz was one of a handful of Latino teachers from the Brownsville school district gathered for lessons at the range that Saturday. Errisuriz said she had been motivated to attend to better protect children in their school district. At the end of the session, the teachers were beaming. “I felt a bit nervous, a little bit tense, because I was never exposed to a gun,” said Nemezia Saldaña.
Before she came to the shooting range, some in her community joked she would transform into yet another gun-toting citizen: “Mija,” they said, “now everybody is going to have a gun.”