In December 2015, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reported that 64,747 licensed gun dealers (gun shops, pawnbrokers, or individual sellers) existed in the U.S. Out of that total, Blue Ridge Arsenal of Northern Virginia is one of a handful of gun shops that is Black owned.
We spoke with the owner, Earl Curtis, to get his take on a few topics, including gun control and the right to bear arms. This is what he had to say:
SB: What is it that inspired you to start Blue Ridge Arsenal?
EC: To put it to you frankly, I was in the IT business for forty years and got tired of traveling. I’m a gun enthusiast, so once this business came up for sale, I decided to purchase it from the former owner. That was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
SB: I’ve read that Virginia is the fifth most heavily armed state in the nation. I guess that means business is pretty good right about now and has always been good.
EC: It’s pretty good. Not like during the first term of Obama, but it’s good. Virginia is a gun friendly state, so I can’t complain. Business has been steady.
SB: So, around President Obama’s first term in office is when you had the most sales? I know that after he was elected President, a lot of gun stores saw their sales spike. I also know that there was a time when a news crew interviewed you and you mentioned that you voted for Obama. Some of your customers weren’t too pleased with that revelation.
EC: I wanted to see the first Black President in the Oval Office. That’s what that was about. Being a Black man, you want to see the first Black President in the country. Some people took it as me voting for somebody who wants to take away gun rights. No, it wasn’t about that. It was about seeing the first Black President in the Oval Office, period.
SB: I hear you. Actually, if you think about it from a common sense point of view, why would a gun store owner vote for someone who intends to eliminate the right to own guns. I guess common sense isn’t always common.
SB: There have been several mass shootings in the past few years. What are your thoughts on restricting access to guns?
EC: Guns have been available ever since the fifteenth century or thereabout. There are thousands of guns on the streets. They just don’t enforce the laws that are currently in place. For example, if somebody’s carrying a gun illegally, they might just get a misdemeanor.
They might get a tap on the hand and then, “Don’t carry the gun illegally,” and they go away. But if you were to enforce those laws, if you carry a gun illegally and you’re a criminal, you get three or four years in prison. Enforce the laws that we currently have in place.
I’ll give you a perfect example of a state that has the most gun control laws in the country, Illinois. Do you know that if you’re not a resident of Illinois and don’t have a firearms identification card, you can’t shoot? You can’t even touch a gun.
SB: I didn’t know that.
EC: Yeah. I just can’t go to a gun shop in Illinois and shoot. How are those people getting guns? Are they enforcing the law?
SB: Apparently not.
EC: Yeah. You need a FOID Card – a Firearms Owners Identification Card. That means, number one, you’re registered. Number two, you’ve done some type of training. And number three, if you were to purchase a gun, we now know that you own the gun. How are the other criminals getting guns? Laws need to be enforced.
SB: Usually when we hear about these mass shootings, we hear terms like “assault weapon” and “assault rifle” a lot. Are these the same thing?
EC: With an assault weapon, you’re talking about an AR-15 or something like that. It’s a very popular rifle and a lot of people use it for target hunting and for shooting targets. It’s very easy to shoot, it has light recoil. It’s just like I want to buy the fastest car out there, like the Dodge whatever, the one that has 700 horsepower.
Does anyone really need a car with 700 horsepower? They just want to have something that’s nice and powerful. If somebody wants to have a AR rifle that they enjoy to shoot, they’re not going to go out and shoot somebody. They just want to have it for target practice, or even to go hunting. There is that misconception that people who own a rifle simply want to shoot anything, but that isn’t really the case. A lot of rifle owners simply have a passion for firearms, and we have a lot of people that are interested in all the different rifle scope parts that we have in store.
SB: I think one of the misconceptions is, because it looks like an automatic weapon, people don’t understand that it’s a rifle not a machine gun.
EC: An AR-15 is not a machine gun. It looks like a combat rifle, and most of those guns are fully automatic, the ones that they carry in the Army. Most of them are fully automatic rifles. But the ones that we have aren’t fully automatic.
What people need to realize is, whether it’s ten rounds, five rounds, one round, it still does damage. What we need to do is enforce the laws that we currently have.
SB: What measures are currently being taken to enforce the laws? Are gun associations championing that cause?
EC: The NRA tries to. I’m a lifetime member of NRA. What they’re trying to do is say, “You already have the laws in place, they just need to be enforced.” that’s all that needs to be done.
There are one percent of ranges, gun dealers, that are criminals, and they should never, ever have a license. Most gun dealers will tell you that if you operate your store illegally, you should go to jail. Guaranteed, 100 percent.
SB: What about gun shows? I hear that’s more like an open market and it’s one of the least restricted marketplaces for people to go and just buy any gun just s long as they have the cash.
EC: At gun shows, everybody is supposed to do a background check, no matter what. The problem is the individual purchases that take place where someone is walking around with a handgun asking, “Do you want to buy this?”
That’s something you can’t control. Even though they say everyone should have a background check, how are you going to control the individual purchases? And as a dealer, that’s what I want to know.
SB: I’ve read the number of Black gun owners is on the rise. Have you seen more Black people coming through your store?
EC: I have. A lot of Black people are hunters that live in rural areas. That’s how they feed themselves. A lot of Black people are also target shooters that just enjoy the sport.
And while you are enjoying the sport, you learning how to protect yourself. But yes, I’m seeing more Black people coming through.
SB: You mentioned that you are a member of the NRA. Two of the most recent police shootings were situations where Black men who both had licenses to carry a concealed weapon, were brutally and unnecessarily shot and killed. Many asked, “How come the NRA isn’t saying anything or coming to the defense of these men who were carrying concealed weapons legally?”
EC: Basically what you’re saying is, “Why didn’t they back the Black guys?”
EC: I do disagree with how the NRA handled that. The victims should been backed by the NRA. I’m a member, but I don’t agree with everything they do. They shouldn’t have refused to comment, because there are a lot of Black people who are members of the NRA.
If you’re going back White people, you should back everybody no matter what color. Because the only color they believe in his green.
SB: How would you describe your typical customer?
EC: It’s the person next door. Sometime you see them and it’s like, “You shoot?” “Yeah, I shoot. I enjoy this.” It’s the mom, the housewife, the teacher, the business man or the engineer. Your everyday person.
SB: I would actually consider myself one of those people. I don’t own any guns, but I understand the importance of protecting yourself and your family in a responsible way.
EC: Everyone should learn how to handle a firearm even if they might not ever be around one. There might be a day where you might see one and not know what to do with it. Everyone needs to know how to safely handle a gun.
SB: That’s a good point. What advice do you have for someone who is interested in becoming a gun owner?
EC: I would recommend an intro to handguns class, number one. Once you take that class, I would recommend going to the range and shooting a number of firearms that feel comfortable in your hand.
The one that feels the most comfortable in your hand, is the one that you purchase. After your purchase, go back to the range and practice, practice, practice.
SB: What is your gun of choice?
EC: I have several. I’m not going to say which one it is, but I have several handguns of choice.
SB: Can you say how many you have or you’d rather not?
EC: I have a lot.
SB: You literally have a store full.
EC: (Laughs) Exactly. A store full.
SB: Congratulations on opening your second location. What advice do you have since most businesses fail within the first five years? What’s the most important part of growing and maintaining a business?
EC: It takes a lot of work. It’s all about customer service and being able to manage your finances for the good and the bad times. Another things is location.
If you don’t have the location, you have to be known for something, such as customer service and being able to provide customers with what they want.
SB: In terms of marketing, what’s been the most useful or effective marketing tool for you? Is it social media? Word of mouth?
EC: Before we got shut down by Facebook, I’d have to say social media and Facebook.
SB: You got shut down by Facebook?
EC: They don’t allow you to promote gun prices online. What they do is they limit how many people can receive our posts. But social media has probably been the most effective marketing tool. It’s the least expensive and it works.
SB: After social media, would word-of-mouth be next effective?
EC: It would have to be word-of-mouth. It’s based on what area of the country that you’re in though. For example, social media works for Northern Virginia near DC. Radio advertising works down in Ashland and Richmond, along with social media.
SB: Lastly, do you have any advice for any other business owners or somebody else who wants to open up a store related to yours?
EC: Make sure you have a good business plan and a good “Why?” You want to have a plan that includes everyone because you’re not just a gun range, you are a community place.
What you do affects the community, and you want to be involved with the community. You want to make sure that gun safety comes number one. As we say, “Safety, education, and awareness.” That’s our tagline.
-Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson