The Intersection of Guns, Gender, and Violence

The Intersection of Guns, Gender, and Violence January 10, 2013

The Sandy Hook shooting has brought guns into the spotlight once again, and as I’ve read about this issue in the blogs I follow I’ve been fascinated by the different ways in which gender has been brought into this discussion. I’m going to offer some quotations from several of these articles, along with a bit of commentary.

First, Sam Harris responded to Sandy Hook by arguing that the answer is more guns, not fewer. His argument, which was covered by fellow Patheos blogger Hemant Mehta, was that if more people have guns for self defense, everyone will be safer. Sean Faircloth of the Richard Dawkins Foundation responded to Harris’s comments (Hemant covered this response as well), and in his response he brought gender into the picture:

In an ironic coincidence, Harris’s piece on gun control was published on the same day that The Violence Against Women Act was unjustly shot down in the U.S. House. Firearm assaults on female family members, and intimate acquaintances are approximately twelve times more likely to result in death than are assaults using other weapons. Two-thirds of women killed by spouses are killed with guns. This is not some minor secondary issue, yet Mr. Harris did not delve into it. It is the heart of the matter—a form of chronic and pervasive domestic terrorism.

It is impossible to claim to address gun violence in American while failing to address domestic violence against women.

In his response to critics (which Hemant also covered), Sam Harris addressed Faircloth’s points about gendered violence as follows:

I share Faircloth’s concern about the safety of women. Ironically, the danger that men pose toward women is my primary reason for thinking that guns should be legal and available to responsible adults. As someone who was raised by a single mother, and as the father of little girl, I tend to view all questions of self-defense through the lens of what will enable a woman to protect herself from a man who is bent upon raping and/or killing her.

This is where making the ethical case for guns is easiest. Generally speaking, men are larger than women, and even where no difference in size exists, men tend to be much stronger (especially in the upper body). Women, therefore, are at an intrinsic disadvantage in any form of unarmed combat with a man. That’s not to say that women can’t be trained to protect themselves effectively. The average man would be demolished by Ronda Rousey. But a man with the same skills will always tend to have an advantage over a woman, whether in striking or grappling—or even when fighting with non-ballistic weapons like knives, clubs, etc. As my friend Rory Millerpoints out, “size, strength and reach really matter with any hand-held weapon… and stronger people tend to be quicker as well. This is a huge genetic stack in men’s favor… All of that was neutralized by the introduction of the handgun.”

Yes, drunken fights between couples can turn needlessly deadly in the presence of a gun. But guns are not the reason that so many women live in terror of men—because guns obviate every difference between a man and a woman relevant to violence. Again, I will be accused of peddling NRA propaganda about guns being “an equalizer.” But it’s not propaganda if it’s true. I’m not saying that guns are the solution to the problem of domestic violence. Clearly, there is a need for strict laws, good policing, psychological counseling, women’s shelters, and other resources. Above all, women must refuse to stay in abusive relationships. But when all else fails, a gun in the hands of a woman trained to use it is the best solution that civilization has found for the problem of male aggression. Indeed, there are situations in which a gun in the hands of a woman who is untrained can suffice to save her life. An ethical argument for the banning of guns must tell us why it would have been preferable for this woman to have been armed only with a frying pan.

Fellow Patheos blogger Sierra actually addressed this exact issue in a post last month in which she pointed out that despite what the NRA might say about guns being an equalizer, growing up around guns and even with ready access to guns and the ability to use them did not make her feel safer from her abusive father – in fact, the reverse was the case.

A question occurred to me as I proofreadmy last post about how my father’s violence and gun ownership gave him unnatural power in the household:

Why didn’t guns make me feel safer?

After all, I was a pretty good shot. I knew how to load, unload and clean the guns properly. I knew where they were kept. My father had even instructed me on how to defend myself: Never point a gun at someone if you aren’t going to use it, he’d said, because that gave them the opportunity to get it away from you. Aim for the abdomen and shoot to kill, he’d said, unless you knew you could reliably hit the person in the leg. Even then, he’d warned, you never knew if your attacker had a gun, so crippling him might backfire.

So why didn’t it occur to me that my father’s guns could protect me from my father? After all, the NRA propaganda that saturated my youth said that handguns were equalizing forces in society. It didn’t matter if you were a tiny, skinny person or even a child – if you had a gun, you could defend yourself.

I don’t think that’s true anymore.

When someone initiates violence, you usually don’t get to prepare. Especially not the kinds of violence I would have faced as a young woman.

If my father had decided to attack me, I can imagine two possible scenarios: in the first, he would have premeditated the attack and come after me with a gun. In that case, I wouldn’t have time to grab one myself before he appeared and shot me. Game over. In the second scenario, he would fly into a rage and attack me with his bare hands. In that case, I’d have had to already load the gun and have it ready at my side – which he would have noticed, since he knew where the guns and ammo were kept. Keeping a loaded gun on hand in case he planned to attack me would be more likely to tip him off and incite a rage episode than protect me from one. Besides, if he discovered that I was keeping a loaded gun by my side, he could use that as evidence to discredit my own mental health.

In the abstract, sure, having a gun could make me safer. Being able to shoot does even out whatever physical disadvantage I could have against an attacker. But in the real world, it doesn’t work that way. In the real world, guns don’t equalize power; they give more power to those who already have it. In the real world, there are variables. There’s a lot of guesswork to defending yourself. And frequently, those who are most in danger of violence are the least able to use guns to their advantage,  because their attackers are already close to them, already familiar, already more likely to instigate gun violence and better able to rationalize using it.

Based on everything I was taught, my father’s guns should have been a source of self-defense and safety to me, even against his own violence. Instead, they were instruments of terror, reminders that he held my life in his hands. It didn’t occur to me that I could have used them to defend myself against him then; now, looking back, I still don’t think I could have. They didn’t equalize anything. Guns don’t defend the weak; they empower the powerful.

Of course, an anecdote’s just an anecdote, right? Well, yes. Except that the facts back up Sierra’s argument. Here’s an excerpt from a fascinating article from last summer that looked at what science has to say about whether owning guns increase a person’s safety:

One article published in 2011 by the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine (which isn’t indexed by PubMed) had several damning things to say. The article, written by David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health, summarized the scientific literature on benefits and detriments of keeping a gun at home. He writes:

For most contemporary Americans, scientific studies indicate that the health risk of a gun in the home is greater than the benefit. The evidence is overwhelming for the fact that a gun in the home is a risk factor for completed suicide and that gun accidents are most likely to occur in homes with guns. There is compelling evidence that a gun in the home is a risk factor for intimidation and for killing women in their homes.

On the benefit side, there are fewer studies, and there is no credible evidence of a deterrent effect of firearms or that a gun in the home reduces the likelihood or severity of injury during an altercation or break-in. Thus, groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics urge parents not to have guns in the home.

Regarding the statement about killing women, it appears that there is a gender differences at work. ”Whereas most men are murdered away from home,” wrote Hemenway, “most children, older adults, and women are murdered at home.” Women tended to be murdered by a spouse or a close relative, and “the increased risk of homicide from having a gun in the home was attributable to these homicides.” Lethal assaults were 2.7 times more likely to occur if a gun was present, suggesting that the idea of guns being used for protection is evidently mostly a myth.

“Most of the women were murdered by a spouse, a lover, or a close relative, and the increased risk for homicide from having a gun in the home was attributable to these homicides.” In the case of battered women, lethal assaults were 2.7 times more likely to occur if a gun was present in the house; no protective effect of the gun was found.

Read the whole thing.

Even as I have watched gender being brought into the discussion on guns in the context of domestic violence, I have also seen it discussed in the context of the Sandy Hook shooter’s own identity – like all but one of the 62 mass shootings over the past thirty years, the perpetrator was male. This reality has led to some feminists arguing that we need to discuss the connection between masculinity and violence.

The fact that 61 out of 62 mass murders which happened over the past 30 years were committed by men is not considered particularly noteworthy because, in a country where 95 percent of violent crime is committed by men, it’s not noteworthy. It is expected. We’ll assume the shooter is a man unless told otherwise and then we’ll be surprised.

Can we talk about how fucked up that is for a just a second, please? Because we don’t talk about it–or if we do, we talk as if it’s somehow inevitable. We accept essentialist beliefs about the genders and consider it “natural” that men are aggressive and women are nurturing, and so–while we hope that community norms and social conditioning will keep men’s “natural tendencies” towards violence in check–we are in no way surprised that when those checks fail, those who turn violent are overwhelmingly men.

That is exactly backwards. The social conditioning that happens is in the reverse. We teach men to be aggressive. We teach them that is the very essence of “being a man.” We say that women are supposed to be caring and compassionate and we tell men not to be like women–to beanything but a “girl.” We teach men that anger is the only acceptable emotion for them to express–and violence is an appropriate way of expressing it. We police their masculinity in a million small ways every day from the time they are even younger than the children who died in Sandy Hook. In Katz’s words“We socialize empathy out of boys all the time.”

And then we act as though this state of affairs is natural–as though the rules of masculinity are ordained and not systematically enforced. It’s not. There is nothing inevitable about the fact that 95 percent of violent crime in this country is committed by men.

The author of this piece asks why we haven’t been discussing the fact that almost all mass shooters, and nineteen out of twenty murderers, are male. I think the answer isn’t that complicated. First, given that male is the default category anyway, people don’t always notice the pattern. If all but one of the shooters had been, say, Asian, we would be talking about that. But the other part of the reason, I think, is that feminists are accused often enough of being men haters that we shy away from doing things like discussing connections between masculinity and violence.

But you know what? I think having discussions about why the vast, vast, vast majority of mass shooters are male is actually the pro-man route while ignoring those discussions is the anti-man route. Why? Because not trying to figure out why gun violence is overwhelmingly male means buying into an assumption that men are somehow just naturally more violent than women, and that assumption leads to some less than positive ideas about men. If instead we ask why men commit more gun violence than women, we can look for the various social factors that result in men committing more gun violence than women and then work to bring about change rather than simply assuming that men are naturally more violent than women.

Anyway, like I said, I’ve been finding discussions of the intersections between guns, gender, and violence thought provoking. What have you read on this nexus? What are your thoughts on the articles I’ve excerpted from above? What do you think about Sam Harris’s suggestion that women should arm themselves against domestic abusers and Sierra’s contrasting personal testimony? What are your thoughts on masculinity and violence? I’m especially interested in hearing some male voices.

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