At first glance, nothing differentiates Vernetta Robinzine from passers-by in the Beverly neighborhood on Chicago’s Far South Side. On a recent evening, like most people on a workday, she donned business casual attire with a loose, bright blouse. But her daily wardrobe includes something unseen that gives her confidence.
Robinzine, 51, is a gun owner with a concealed carry license. Since she received her permit in late spring, she carries her firearm wherever she goes.
“It’s like a part of me now,” Robinzine said with the smile.
Data show Robinzine is part of a burgeoning group in Cook County: black women obtaining concealed carry permits. Since Illinois began issuing licenses in 2014, the number of African-American women receiving a permit in Cook County has grown every year.
About 800 black women got a license in 2014, according to Illinois State Police. So far in 2017, nearly 1,400 black women have received a concealed carry permit — already more than all of 2016. In all, more than 4,000 black women have received a concealed carry license in Cook County.
To be sure, black women still make up a relatively small percentage of those applying for permits, trailing white women, white men and black men in each of the past three years. And these figures do not include the number of women who have obtained guns and do not have a permit.
African-American women interviewed for this article said they were spurred by a growing concern for their safety, particularly in neighborhoods where crime has surged in recent years.
Robinzine took classes on firearm safety and Illinois’ concealed carry law at JMD Defense & Investigations, a Far South Side business focused on women’s self-defense. After classroom training, many students then practice shooting at a range and eventually apply for a concealed carry license.
The owner, Javondlynn Dunagan, founded the business in Beverly in March, in hopes of increasing opportunities for women on the South Side to learn about firearms and personal safety.
“We do everything else together, but go shooting,” she said.
Dunagan was used to being around guns when she was married to a police officer, but she was afraid to even look at one, she said. After getting divorced, she said, she “felt kind of naked in a house without a firearm.”
Dunagan decided to sign up for a shooting lesson through her work as a probation officer in Chicago and found it helpful and informative. After she retired in 2016, she purchased her firearm and started practicing.
Dunagan drew upon her own experiences with becoming a concealed carry owner when she started her business. She said she noticed she was the only woman around whenever she would buy ammunition or go to a shooting range. When she searched for self-defense classes for her daughter, Dunagan said, she couldn’t find any options on the South Side.
Before using an actual weapon at the range, Dunagan’s clients practice with a laser in her one-room office. In that space, some women share stories about the fears that spurred them to learn self-defense.
“I think women are finally realizing (that) we’re becoming victims out here,” she said.
As part of the business, Dunagan also created the Ladies of Steel Gun Club to practice at a range with other women. Members pay $60 a year and meet once a month at Eagle Sports Range in south suburban Oak Forest.
Dunagan’s club now has 31 women, ranging in age from 30 to 80. She invites an outside expert to teach members on various topics of gun ownership, such as cleaning a firearm, carrying a weapon in a car and practicing general safety precautions.
“We support each other; we’re high-fiving each other,” she said about the shooting practice. “It’s like a book club.”
For Robinzine, of the South Austin neighborhood, purchasing a gun was not an impulsive decision.
In 2008, despite having a security system, someone broke into her house.
“I felt totally violated,” she recalled. Robinzine said she installed so many locks on her doors that she said she felt like a prisoner in her own house.
Still, she had never considered owning a firearm until this year. But recently, she noticed criminal activity closer to her home — a shooting on her block, a home invasion.
Once her daughter moved away for college, Robinzine was left living alone with her dog. When her friend Dunagan started her business, she felt it was time to learn how to protect herself.
“I just didn’t want to feel like a victim or vulnerable,” Robinzine said.
After taking introductory courses on firearms and concealed carry and passing her qualification test, she got her concealed carry license. Robinzine said she feels more secure having a firearm and her fears about going out at night and traveling from her detached garage into her home have subsided.
The Austin area has one of the highest crime rates in the city. The homicide rate increased from 2015 to 2016 and reached 92.6 per 100,000 people last year, according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab. By comparison, Lincoln Park had a homicide rate of 8.4 per 100,000 people in 2016.
Black women in Cook County had the sharpest growth — 67 percent from 2014 to 2016 — of any demographic group receiving concealed carry permits in Cook County, based on applicants who disclosed both their race and gender. It was the only group whose permits rose each year since 2014 after starting from a lower relative total. For all Cook County residents, the number of concealed-carry permits issued fell by about 18 percent between 2014 and 2016.
Today, Robinzine’s gun accompanies her everywhere. She secures it under her top or in a locked box in her car when concealed carrying is not allowed. At home, she unloads her weapon and puts its parts into different closets as a safety precaution. To keep her skills in shape, she practices shooting twice a month at a range.
“My goal is not to use it, but if I do have to use it, it will be used properly,” she said.
Michelle Stewart, another club member, received a concealed carry license but did not immediately purchase a gun. Her parents owned a liquor store, and guns were not an unusual sight at home growing up, she said. When she does buy one, she said, she does not plan to carry it with her at all times.
“Living in Chicago, you just have a sense of awareness wherever you are,” said Stewart, 56, of Chatham. “You just walk with a sense of purpose, so I haven’t had a need to feel that I have to have a gun on me” at all times.
Philip Smith, founder of the National African American Gun Association, said he sees an increase in the number of black women buying guns. Founded in 2015, the Georgia-based organization has grown from four chapters to 45 nationwide. Out of more than 20,000 members, 60 percent are women.
Smith, also a concealed carry owner, said the presidential election in 2016 and racial tension contributed to the increase. For a single woman, especially a mother, a gun replaces a male presence in a home, he said.
“A lot of black women are now going to the range, to the store buying a gun and then going to practice,” Smith said. “It’s a definite trend that we’re seeing at our organization and also in general public.”
Alexandra Filindra, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says the uptick in the number of minorities becoming concealed carry permit holders is surprising. She said there is some resistance to gun rights in the African-American community.
“Given the level of violence and easy availability of guns in minority communities, most people there tend to think guns are the problem, not a solution,” she said.
Accurately assessing a threat and using a gun for self-defense require persistent training and experience, Filindra said.
“More people with handguns in their purses means more likelihood of accidental gunshots and not necessarily a lot more actual protection,” she said.
“I don’t believe that because more people are arming themselves it’s going to be a more violent environment or community,” Dunagan said. “I just think that people will feel much more comfortable in their homes, and maybe the criminals (are) less likely to conduct home invasions or, I hate to say, run up on someone … if they realize more and more people are arming themselves.”
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