John Keys became one of the millions of Americans to buy their first gun in March 2020. As an African American, he was part of the fastest-growing demographic to do so.
“Right at the height of all of the craziness is when I bought my first pistol and rifle,” Keys told The Reload. “I didn’t know where all that was gonna go. So I just figured, ‘you know what, let me go to this gun show and just try to pick up a rifle and a pistol before I can’t get it anywhere.’ It was the last gun show before they shut everything down.”
Less than a year later, he’s part of another expanding group: new gun owners who have already turned into activists. He now co-hosts Guns Out TV with Shermichael Singleton, another black gun owner. The pair uses the program to show what black gun ownership in America looks like while being educational and, especially, entertaining.
“The vast majority of new gun owners in 2020 were black people,” Keys said. “We felt we needed to step out. We just noticed that a lot of the content out there looks a certain way and appeals to a certain audience. We wanted to broaden that audience. And what better way than, like Shermichael always says, two black guys handling firearms responsibly, showcasing all of the different experiences and education that people can partake in.”
Keys’ story is one that’s starting to become more common. As gun ownership in American diversifies faster than ever, more people are trying to find ways to reach new gun owners from traditionally underrepresented communities. Groups and programs representing gun owners from all sorts of minority groups–racial or otherwise–have ramped up in recent months.
One example is the group Asian American and Pacific Islander Gun Owners (AAPIGO). Like Keys, AAPIGO co-founder Scott Kane also bought his first gun at the beginning of the pandemic. He went to his local gun store after his wife and daughter, who are Asian, were subject to public harassment. After noticing increased interest in guns from friends and family, he helped create AAPIGO to train Asian Americans in firearms safety and educate them about their gun rights.
How much the appeal of gun ownership broadens beyond the traditional demographic of rural white men who hunt will determine how the debate over guns in America turns out. That’s something Singleton and Keys are keenly aware of.
“More often than not, these types of stories aren’t told; those types of experiences aren’t captured,” Singleton told The Reload. “We want to capture that. We want to tell those stories. Because when people see that, I think it becomes harder to say, well, we’re going to take this away or becomes hard to say ‘all these [gun owners] only white men.’ A lot of people are doing this now, a lot of black people, a lot of women. You literally see a little bit of America. You see a little bit of everything.”
Keys served in the Marine Corps for 12 years when he was younger. He’d been a great shot and got enough consecutive high shooter awards in his annual qualification to be selected for a sniper training course. Before he could attend, tragedy struck. He broke his femur, and he was never able to pursue the program before eventually retiring. After getting out of the Marines, his passion for shooting lay dormant for years.
That was until he felt compelled to buy those two guns at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I literally thought I was just gonna purchase that just to have it just to make sure that I had something before whatever was to come next,” Keys said. “But little did I know that it would reignite my love for firearms.”
He said the responsibility he felt in owning guns pushed him to immediately take training classes, get concealed carry permits in Virginia and Washington, D.C., and start shooting at the range every weekend. He also started to talk with Singleton about gun politics and how Democrats’ drive for new gun-control laws in their home state of Virginia could affect him. That’s when he began to push for Singleton to start a show with him.
“Once he started telling me the bigger picture,” Keys said, “we understood that together, being that I was a veteran and a skilled shooter and he was a political guy and also a skilled shooter, we had enough intellectual capital between the two of us to create what you see in Guns Out today.”
“He knew I was into guns,” Singleton said. “He said, ‘bro, we should do a gun thing together.'”
Unlike Keys, Singleton was a longtime gun owner and shooter. He’d done competitive shooting on and off for years, shooting up to 2,000 rounds a day in training. He was skeptical of the idea at first because he wasn’t sure he wanted to dive back into shooting full-time after he’d changed gears to focus on his political career. He first found a passion for politics as a junior in college and quickly found himself working for leading Republican candidates like Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. He found a major break when he became coalitions director for Ben Carson’s 2016 presidential campaign. In 2017, he became the youngest-ever deputy chief of staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Carson before being pushed out by President Donald Trump over an article he’d written criticizing him during the presidential primary.
“He didn’t really want people working for him who had criticized him during the presidential contest,” Singleton said. “I didn’t necessarily agree with that, but the president is the president.”
But Keys was able to convince Singleton to give the show a shot. The pair saw quick success after filming a pilot episode at a local range that featured a pair of reporters (including the author of this very piece). Their comfort on camera and undeniable chemistry made an impression on Sinclair executives, who immediately greenlit the show to air on WJLA, the broadcaster’s ABC affiliate in D.C.
Things went great for the first two episodes. Then the Capitol Riot happened, and Sinclair got cold feet. The mega-broadcaster decided it was a bad idea to have a show involving firearms even though the content had no conceivable connection to the riot.
“We weren’t doing anything violent,” Singleton said. “We weren’t doing anything quote-unquote ‘thuggish’ as some people would probably describe black people with guns. We were trying to educate everyday black people who were buying guns and educate people in an entertaining way.”
Sinclair Broadcast Group did not return a request for comment.
The pair were distraught at the show being canceled right as it was just beginning. And for something that wasn’t their fault.
“We were disappointed, man,” Singleton said. “I mean, Sinclair is considered a conservative-leaning company. We thought that they would stand by us, and they did not.”
But what seemed like a disaster at first ended up turning into a blessing. As word spread about the pair being kicked off WJLA, support poured in, and a broader audience took note of what Singleton and Keys brought to the table. That audience included the guys behind the new streaming service Warrior Poet Society Network (WPSN). And they liked what they saw in Guns Out TV.
“They have the ‘it’ factor,” Brendan Nieto, co-founder and executive producer of WPSN, told The Reload. “They’re just like a couple of cool guys. I joke that they sound like an old married couple—just the way they give each other grief and are constantly getting on each other. And I like that. That comes through on the screen.”
Nieto, who helped build up a million-follower YouTube channel alongside John Lovell and Evan Temple before the three launched WPSN, said the company wants to be a “Netflix-type alternative for the freedom community” that focuses on professional production quality. WPSN is now producing the second season of Guns Out TV.
“Firearms training is really meant for everyone, but I think people relate differently to different people,” Nieto said. “They have the understanding of one of the largest growing demographics in the firearms community, and they’re really wanting to go after that.”
He said a teaser trailer WPSN made for Guns Out’s second season is already generating a lot of excitement from subscribers.
“We feel like with our production quality and their talent that we can really explode their brand,” Nieto said.
Singleton and Keys said the Sinclair cancelation only ended up fueling their desire to make the show a success. And the new partnership with WPSN will raise the quality of Guns Out.
“That seemed to be something that was going to stagnate our progress,” Keys said. “It actually fueled it even more.”
It’ll be hard to top a season that featured an exclusive factory tour from leading handgun manufacturer Staccato, an insightful fact-check of AR-15 myths, a bunch of machine guns, and an actual freaking tank. But Keys said they plan to travel around the country to explore the far reaches of American gun culture.
“Now we’re going deeper down the rabbit hole of firearms culture,” he said. “We don’t think that people really understand how far the rabbit hole goes. We don’t think people really understand how serious you can actually take this as a civilian.”
Season two of Guns Out will begin filming with the WPSN crew this summer. But the pair, ever the hustlers, aren’t taking a break from producing content for the show’s YouTube channel. They’ve seen a steady growth of about 1,500 subscribers each month but expect that to grow faster.
“It’s only been five months. It hasn’t even been a year,” Singleton said. “So, just imagine if we can continue on our path of building relationships and working hard to produce top-quality content. I think we’re going to blow up at some point.”
It’s difficult to watch the pair in action and see anything other than stars in the making. And they’re rising to prominence as the landscape of American gun ownership is changing. They have an opportunity to speak to many of those new gun owners from a fresh perspective. That’s the recipe for a good show. One that could shape a new era of gun culture and gun politics.