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The truth about women and guns

Published March 2, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In recent debates, pro-gun advocates focus attention on a captivating figure: the armed woman. Their story goes like this: A woman in her home is confronted by a male intruder. The female would-be victim is able to defend herself and her children only because she has a gun, which allows this otherwise weak woman to fend off a stronger male aggressor.

This narrative was prominent in recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Gayle Trotter, a lawyer and guns rights activist, referenced an Oklahoma woman who shot and killed an intruder who was carrying a knife. Trotter asserted that violent criminals "prey on women who are at a severe disadvantage."

Guns, she said, in a memorable pseudo-feminist twist, are "the great equalizer." A "young woman," she continued, should have access to an "assault weapon" in order to defend "her babies in her home." Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina echoed this claim: "Six bullets in the hands of a woman trying to defend her children may not be enough."

In an interview, David Keene, president of the NRA, was asked about 10-day waiting periods. He went straight to this by-now-familiar figure: the gun-toting woman acting in self-defense. Keene referenced a "woman who is being stalked" when asserting that 10 days was too long to wait to purchase a gun.

It is understandable that pro-gun advocates would like Americans to call this scenario to mind when they think about gun regulation. The gun-wielder here is pure innocence. She is a vulnerable "mama bear" protecting her cubs. Only the most ardent pacifist would wish to deny her access to a weapon of self-defense. Yet this morally unambiguous story comes at a high price: the facts themselves.

The real story about women and guns is altogether different. First, no matter how many times the image of the gun-toting woman in invoked, it does not change the fact that men are the main perpetrators of violent acts involving firearms. More importantly, the figure of the armed heroine distracts us from the harsh truth that women are more likely to be on the receiving end of a bullet than pulling the trigger.

Finally, the women who experience gun violence are usually not the victims of strangers breaking into their homes; they are most often injured and killed by guns belonging to someone they are close to, usually a husband, boyfriend, or ex.

Still, these facts might not settle the matter for those seeking to maintain and expand access to firearms (see Utah's HB76). One can imagine the argument that women's armament is the solution to intimate partner violence. Yet this claim is hardly persuasive. The presence of a gun in a home increases rather than decreases the likelihood of homicide, and of women in particular. More pointedly, for every time an American woman uses a handgun to kill an intimate acquaintance in self-defense, 83 are shot to death by an intimate acquaintance.

Pro-gun advocates encourage us to forget this reality when they imply that guns are primarily weapons wielded by innocent women trying to save their lives or those of their children. This misrepresentation does more than get the factual details of gendered gun violence wrong, however. It does a disservice to American men and women by suggesting that we are doomed to live in a social world marred by inevitable brutality.

The narrative advanced by gun proponents locks us into a settled script of inevitable male violence, interrupted only by female violence. It reflects an impoverished vision of what is possible for our country.

Ella Myers is an assistant professor of political science and gender studies at the University of Utah.