It's understandable that, today, we think of gun control as a divisive political issue above all else. After all, in the last 12 months alone, the United States has seen a number of shootings in public places resulting in multiple deaths and injuries — some widely publicized like the events in Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado; others less so, but no less harrowing.
In the wake of December's Sandy Hook shootings, President Obama announced a firm plan of action for strengthening and expanding current gun-control legislation, including mandating background checks, further banning of assault weapons, and limiting ammunition sales. And, as we all know too well, this is undoubtedly one of the most partisan issues of our time (and given today's political climate, that's saying quite a lot).
But, as with most hot-button issues, it's easy to focus in on pundits and policy, and forget the actual people involved. At R29, living and working where we do, we're exposed quite frequently — almost daily, it seems — to tragic tales of gun violence that, many would suggest, could have been prevented with some tighter legislation. We hear stories of children accidentally killing other children with improperly kept firearms. These are compounded by terrifying accounts of unchecked mental illness combined with dangerous access to assault weapons, not to mention crimes and accidents that go mostly unnoticed in a city as big as NYC. The combination of more mass crimes and sensational headlines leads us to believe that, even with a 39% drop in gun crimes between 1993 and 2011, fewer handguns would mean less senseless violence.
But, what about the other side? What about the people — specifically the women — who disagree, and want their guns for myriad reasons, ranging from self-defense to respect among their peers? Curious to know more, we decided to do some digging and look beyond the stereotypes of the typical Southern, male, camo-wearing gun nut. Read on for their stories and opinions. But be forewarned: What we've found only complicates the issue.
Exactly how many women own guns in America depends on your source; while the NRA says it's some 30 million, other estimates put it at half that. Many more women, it's safe to assume, don't personally own guns but use them at a range, or live in a home where a variety of guns are present. We began our search by talking to some female friends and acquaintances who own guns, use them safely, and stand by their right to do so. First up, Rose Cassard, an engineer living in Arizona, who first bought a gun because her boyfriend had a passion for the sport, but eventually gained "an appreciation for the sport of marksmanship and enjoyed the challenge of target shooting." She eventually purchased a .40 caliber pistol, and though she has since sold it, says she plans to buy a 9mm Glock pistol when prices (currently sky-high) come down. "After being around gun enthusiasts for a couple hours," she says, "I realized that there are definitely people who fit into stereotypes, but there are also people like my boyfriend who are well educated and very safe and smart about their guns." And, after regularly visiting the range with her boyfriend for some time, Cassard says she "began to recognize the benefits from a personal-safety standpoint.... It's not that I feel vulnerable or paranoid without a gun, but I feel much more confident and safe when I do carry one."
For Cassard, the politics of gun ownership are far removed from her own experience. Though she defines herself as "fairly neutral" on the issue, she calls more rigorous background checks a "no-brainer." She also acknowledges — and though it might not sound pretty, we think it rings true given the way gender roles are constructed in American society — that for women, "owning a gun tends to be more about safety (or in some cases fashion) and personal protection than anything else. I think it is a less natural thing for a woman to own a gun because we are not typically in the 'protector' role." And, while she does feel "somewhat abnormal" as a woman with a gun, she also sees herself as "ahead of the curve, like I'm taking positive, proactive steps to protect against potentially harmful situations."
But ultimately, it's the sport (target shooting, not hunting, in her case) that draws Cassard to firearms. Indeed, while self-defense was a recurring theme in many of our conversations — and it's probably the more talked-about piece of the issue in media and politics— we found that recreational gun use was the most common theme among the women we spoke with. That was certainly the case with Porochista Khakpour, who despite being date-raped, mugged, and assaulted on multiple occasions, eventually came to love guns for similar reasons. Even though she has since become outspoken against guns (which she wrote beautifully about in this piece for Slate), she says she still misses shooting as a sport. As for self-defense, "well, it became part of my justification. Because most of my fellow liberal friends were not into guns," she explains. "So, when they'd disapprove, I'd dive into the self-defense issue. And then they'd be more sympathetic. So, it might have been a factor, but it wasn't the whole story."
The issue and image of the lady gun shooter, and the particular habits and politics that dictate that world, is also the subject of a fascinating documentary, A Girl and a Gun, in select theaters July 3. It's directed by Cathryne Czubek, a filmmaker who, despite never having owned a gun herself, was drawn to the subject as an academic pursuit. While making the documentary — a must-watch for anyone interested in digging deeper — Czubek's most surprising find was that guns are much more ubiquitous than most people imagine, both in general and among women. Gun companies know this, and like any good marketers, they're eager to target the niche group (if you can call it that).
As Marin Cogan detailed at length in her New York Magazine article "The Rise of the Female Gun Nut", this effort began in earnest in 1989 with the debut of the Smith & Wesson LadySmith. But Czubek's film explores, in part, how the rise of gun ownership among women actually has its roots in earlier 20th-century pop culture. It began in earnest with Annie Oakley and evolved with the rise in sensationalist coverage of crimes by women, painting them as glamorous rogues (the stuff of Roxie Hart legend).
Today, a whole host of organizations exist to support female enthusiasts like Cassard and, formerly, Khakpour. Babes With Bullets teaches women how to use guns safely and effectively, as well as offering camps for recreational gun use. A Girl's Guide To Guns is, well, exactly what it sounds like. And, The Pink Pistols group offers support for LGBTQ gun owners and activists.
But, while it's definitely progress that a community exists to support and empower women who own and use guns, it's doesn't entirely counter the long history of fetishizing female gun owners — and guns. The brazenly titled Right Wing News, for example, has a gallery of the "20 Hottest Pictures Of Women With Guns" — which was basically impossible to avoid while researching this article online. And for the more moderate among us, there are plenty of pop-culture figures like Lara Croft, Alice in Resident Evil, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, and the ever-powerful Tank Girl, who represent a conflation of violence and guns with female sexuality.
Khakpour readily admits that there was a layer of sex appeal both for her and for her boyfriend when she first started shooting. "I felt dangerous, tough, in control. I never felt those things growing up. And being victimized several times — rape, muggings — made me feel even smaller. I remember thinking those things as my interest grew. Also, I think I took some pleasure in how subversive it looked, especially on a Middle Eastern female." It was, in a word, "badass." There's no point in denying the phallic symbolism of a gun, and Czubek is not one to sidestep the hyper-sexualized cultural context of female gun use. "It's an obsession, I've found, with some women, because it was always kind of a guy thing. Some of the women I met grew up learning that the best way to spend time with their dads was to adopt his favorite hobby." Still, she's careful to insist that she didn't detect any serious inclination to go G.I. Jane among the subjects of her research. Rather, she says, most women are drawn to guns for decidedly less dramatic reasons.
Probably the most poignant statement Czubek offered about her movie and its message is one that also applies to America as a whole: "It all comes down to privilege." While some came to guns for recreation or basic protection, others deal with gun violence on a daily basis. "One of the women I profiled, Stephanie, deals with gun deaths in her neighborhood all the time," including a non-fatal, but permanently damaging, incident with her own daughter. "She doesn't see the recreational side." Plus, there's the additional, ever-looming problem of domestic violence. Czubek is right to say that it's a "huge issue," and one that has been leveraged by both sides in the quest for political dominance around gun control. Another woman in the film goes as far as to say that to be a woman who hasn't found herself in direct, immediate need of physical protection is a privilege in and of itself. The tragically commonplace nature of rape, domestic abuse, and violence against women is, we imagine, what led Khakpour, at one point in her life, to cynically call these things "rites of passage" for women today.
So, given these nuanced learnings, where does a well-informed woman like Czubek stand? "We're encouraged to see guns as a black-and-white issue. My experience in the journey of this film was that most men and women fall in between those extremes — it's not a Republican/Democrat thing," she explains, and it's that gray matter that remains her chief concern. "I prefer not to talk about my own political views. My goal with the film was to really strip it of politics and show the human side." As for the future of gun control in America? "How do I answer that!" (Of course, she managed). "I hope more women will enter the conversation...so many women's issues about power, vulnerability, fear, and even motherhood are wrapped up in this. What I experienced with this film was a dialogue I hadn't heard before about guns — and it's a conversation managed by men right now."
Talking to all of these women about their professional and personal experiences, we glimpsed the human face of gun control, not to mention the gender politics of defense and marksmanship. We learned first-hand, as we knew we would, that not everyone who owns a gun is a dedicated NRA zealot or a Tea Party devotee.
These women are educated; they are intelligent; they are thoughtful. They are strong, but sometimes vulnerable, marginalized, and victimized. All of them have chosen to use and sometimes own firearms. They possess, like most non-Patrick Bateman humans, a nuanced combination of values and experiences that is largely ignored by mainstream media.
But ultimately, it's the words of Porochista Khakpour that really stuck with us. Though she spent an admittedly safe and happy period of her life as an avid gun enthusiast, her views have now changed. "It's a fallacy that guns protect. I once thought that. But it's not true," she says. "They don't protect anyone. They are often turned around on the shooter themselves — sometimes in that very moment, sometimes much later, as in the case of Nancy Lanza." It's a change that took place gradually, as she grew up, and as she saw her friends and family have children against the backdrop of increasingly horrifying events in the news. Today, when we asked her to imagine if anything at all could convince her to own a gun, she put it quite simply: "I am done with guns. We should all be."
Illustrated by Peter Karras