Though I had never fired a gun and never particularly wanted to, I spent three days in 1996 on assignment for the Wall Street Journal at the Smith & Wesson Academy in Springfield, Massachusetts. As a journalist who had moved to the United States in 1988 from my native Canada, I was increasingly curious about why Americans are so attached to their guns and fight so hard to protect their right to own them. What was the allure?
I was also intrigued by what a gun means in female hands, whether aimed at a moose, a paper cut-out or a criminal. I soon found out. In my three days of shooting, the sleek black 9 mm pistol became something I no longer feared but could handle with skill. A private and captivating world opened up to me. A world where a woman’s identity includes knowing she can and will, if necessary, shoot to kill. A world in which women trade notes on whether it’s safer to shoot from behind a concrete column or a car—the car, since its engine block is impermeable to return fire. A world that is, always, feared and poorly understood.
In the summer of 2002, I went to Ohio while researching my book Blown Away: American Women and Guns, my attempt at a neutral examination of how women and guns intersect in American life. I was there to attend the Grand American, the world’s largest shooting event: some thirty-two hundred people at a time, men and women, stand on the same long firing line, barely a mile from the Dayton airport—it looks like they’re aiming at the jets—to compete in trap shooting. There were competitors of every age and description, from thirteen-year-olds to seventy-five-year-olds. Age posed no barrier to success: Whitney Ruesch, Alaska’s top female shooter, was only sixteen.
Sixteen and a half million American women own guns, according to surveys conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. However, with three American women dying each day at the hands of the men in their lives, it would be naive to think that all the women participating in the Grand American were drawn to guns simply for sport-shooting and hunting.
Anita, a small-town Midwestern woman whose story I came across that summer in Ohio, exemplifies this harsh reality. She had, some years earlier, suddenly and in desperate fear for her own life, shot and killed the abusive ex-husband who had stalked her for months. “The time I spent with him was frightening, but the time I spent apart from him was even more frightening,” she confided. “I was being hunted. I didn’t know at the time it was more dangerous to leave [him], but I learned fast.”
Anita’s story shatters the myth we use to distance ourselves from the extraordinary violence that women face, still, in 2004—a violence that leads so many American women to arm themselves. In this myth, the men, we tell ourselves, are simply insane monsters, the women hopelessly weak. They in no way resemble us or people we know or people we would ever meet. If these women were just smarter or tougher or made more money or had better self-esteem, they would just leave. Wouldn’t they?
Yet ask that question of women like Anita—or of the domestic violence counsellors who bear witness to their broken noses, blackened eyes and shattered bones; or of the emergency room physicians who stitch their wounds; or of the police who knock on their doors fearful they, too, may become victims of lethal violence—and you’ll uncover a more complicated set of truths. One of them is this: a woman who leaves a man capable of inflicting such violence endangers herself even more.
For Carrmon Whitehead, a thirty-three-year-old nurse in Colorado City, Texas, a protection order against her ex-husband proved worthless. Though ordered to stay away from Carrmon and their three young children, he had already poured sugar in her gas tank, punctured her tires and cut her telephone lines. A friend encouraged her to get a gun and learn to use it. The next time the ex-husband appeared at the door, drunk and eager for another round of cat and mouse, Carrmon (wearing her “little red nightgown”) raised a .357 Magnum, pointed it in his direction, aiming carefully for the empty field behind him, and fired the gun for the first time. He hasn’t bothered her since: the muzzle of a gun was the only part of “No” this man understood.
There is no “typical” female gun owner. They sit beside you at church or at synagogue, they giggle over margaritas with you while pledging the same sororities, their children play with yours. You’ve sat beside them on airplanes and perhaps, as travellers do, shared stories about work, romance, family. There’s an easy intimacy at thirty-seven thousand feet in the darkness of a long night flight where, after a few drinks, people will tell you just about anything.
But they wouldn’t have told you about their guns. They rarely do. Theirs is a quiet culture, one that closes ranks, as it must, in the face of unrelenting opposition and criticism. Very few people lack an opinion on gun ownership and its effects on society, whether Canadian or American. In addition to race and abortion, it’s one of the few remaining subjects divisive enough to silence a cocktail party or powerful enough to fracture it into loud, self-righteous factions.
Despite media coverage to the contrary, women are not necessarily more at risk because they own a firearm. The real issue for a woman who buys a gun for self-protection is its effect upon her social identity. Who is she? What does it mean if she’s a gun owner? How will people react?
A woman who lives in fear must delicately balance her need for the respect of loved ones with the equally powerful and competing desire to protect herself from harm. She must determine how much fear she’s willing to swallow before she gets a gun, and before she decides to use it. But this clash of identities endures even after obtaining a firearm, because doing so butts up against society’s enduring conception of women as passive and peaceful nurturers. For people already disgusted by guns, there is something particularly abhorrent about the idea of a woman owning one—and, even worse, enjoying it.
During my research, I travelled extensively, from New Orleans to Texas, Massachusetts to Manhattan, talking to more than a hundred people of all ages, races and income levels. Many people I interviewed expressed discomfort at the idea of women owning a gun. Often they conveyed such concern despite having no firsthand knowledge of, or experience with, firearms. One New York City woman who discovered that her co-worker was training for the summer biathlon, a sport that combines running and shooting skills, was horrified. “Guns kill. Men kill. Women don’t kill!” Blinded by her immediate prejudice against firearms, this highly educated woman seemed unwilling, or unable, to remember that shooting at a paper target does not involve killing at all.
A recent book, Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, lays out the results of survey after survey showing that women of all ages are still hesitant to ask for more: higher pay, more equitable division of household labour, greater political power. So many women continue to be socialized from birth to avoid conflict, both verbal and physical, and continue to be bombarded with the message that “nice” girls are the ones who get and keep lovers and partners, boyfriends and husbands, friends and jobs.
Women gun owners, naturally, do not fit this neat, uncomplicated idea of femininity. By owning a gun, whether for sport or safety, a woman threatens the stability of her relationships and risks being socially stigmatized.
Having the ability and willingness to kill means seizing tremendous power. And such power still remains a predominantly male perquisite. It’s 2004, over thirty years since Ms. magazine started publication and Helen Reddy sang what felt like an anthem for a new time: “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman!” That was a giddy time, women dancing for joy at the shining future they thought awaited them, full of promise and excitement, empowerment and possibility. Yet how much has changed?
Is it time, then, for women to—quite literally—seize control of their lives in the mould of a Ruger, or a Glock, or Toronto’s own Para-Ordnance? Deciding whether or not to own a gun is a logical extension of feminist choice. Owning a gun remains for women an issue of autonomy and independence.
When women choose not to own a gun, especially those who have been victims of crime or violence, it’s not necessarily a failure of nerve or feminist principle. They may also fear for their children’s safety or, if living with an abusive man, fear escalating the violence to its deadly conclusion.
For many women, a gun is nothing more, or less, than a tool, something they’ll pick up and use when necessary, just as they would heft a hammer or drill or pair of pliers. It’s as unremarkable and familiar a part of the household inventory as a hair dryer or dishwasher or flashlight. For other women, though, it’s a necessary expression of their ability to protect themselves.
America was founded in the face of armed opposition: from bandits, Indians, escaped prisoners, army deserters, Civil War soldiers. Self-protection was something people kept at home, not sought from authority. The Second Amend-ment of the Constitution gives all Amer-icans the legal right to own fire-arms (to the letter of the law, as a militia member) and it’s a right millions of Americans take to heart.
For Nancy Johnson, who won a gold medal for the US in the 10m air rifle event at the 2000 Olympics, “Shooting is what gave me the ability to find out what I was capable of, to focus and maintain my self-discipline.”
For three black and Hispanic convicted felons I met in midtown Man-hattan, all under the age of twenty-four, who had been arrested and detained on Rikers Island, guns were simply an indivisible part of their world—and of their sense of identity and power.
“I felt in control when I had it. Every-one I was with felt uncomfortable when they knew I had it. If you have a reputation for taking no shit, and you have a gun, they’ll talk to you differently. They’ll behave with you differently,” said Esta, a nineteen-year-old who was arrested for illegal possession of a small handgun. “You feel like God.”
We may continue to dismiss these women as freaks, and publicly express our distaste for their gun ownership at every possible chance. But these millions of women are all around us. Their guns are loaded. Their decision is made. And their world comprises, so often out of necessity, the ability to shoot to kill—whether you, or society, likes it or not.