[Editor's Note: The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a ban on assault rifles this morning. The 10-8 was split along party lines, and the bill will go to the Senate floor in the upcoming weeks. --Grace]
Cease fire for a moment in the gun debate and consider this: gun ownership enables some women to empower themselves and their families. Gayle Trotter testifiedalong these lines to the Senate Judiciary Committee this past January, stating a common sense reality: violent criminals often use their size and physical advantage, not guns, to overpower the women they attack. Some critics doubted how many women share Trotter's views that semi-automatic firearms actually empower and not victimize women. I'm not a gun owner myself, but I set out to understand why women own guns.
Image Credit: Elisabeth Sitton
“I’m 65 years old,” said Sandy, a gun owner I connected with recently. “I don’t think I could physically hold off an attacker. I know I would probably die trying, but is that what you want your aunts and grandmothers to have to do? Die trying?”
No, Sandy. That isn't what I want. I want us to have a fighting chance.
Sandy echoes Trotter's testimony. An armed woman becomes a defender instead of a victim. "Guns reverse the balance of power in a violent confrontation," said Trotter.
Theresa, another gun owner, described to me her decision to carry a gun when she left an abusive relationship. "While not an easy choice," she said, "my choice was to never have my head slammed on the ground, never be choked again, never listen to him tell the cops, 'Oh, it was an argument that got out of hand. She swung at me, and I slapped her, or I pinned her arms'".
Tonya, a preschool teacher, was 18 when her older brother was killed in a gun accident. "Years later, I needed to go to the mall one night by myself. It was during the holidays and I was scared walking from my car to the mall," said Tonya. "I finally said, 'That's enough! I'm not going to do this again!'"
She purchased a gun and took responsibility to educate herself and her family about its safe use. Like many of the women gun owners I've talked with, she believes early education and training is a key to curbing gun violence and accidental shootings.
Beyond self-defense, gun ownership can mean economic empowerment for women. In 2009, Victoria Amormino and Windy Borders saw an opportunity to serve the growing number of female gun owners. They founded Pistols & Pumps and developed a full line of trademarked apparel and accessories for women gun enthusiasts. Products include the Flashbang bra-mounted holster.
"Through our research, we were finding a lot of women have guns for sport, protection, and hunting, however there were very few products on the market directed at us," said Amormino. "Women conceal differently than men. It's just how we are made, and there has to be better options out there if this many women have guns."
Women in rural settings depend on guns to protect their livelihood against predators. Jesse Bussard, communications director for a rangeland consulting firm, says wolves and grizzly bears threaten livestock in the Northwest, while drug cartels armed with assault weapons are a concern for ranchers in Mexican border states.
"If you live in a rural area and have a problem, the police are not going to be the first responder," said Bussard. "You are the first responder. You have to be able to protect yourself."
Some women find economic empowerment in guns they own to provide food for their families. Marie Bowers, president of Oregon Women for Agriculture, hunts elk on her land. One elk yields about 300 pounds of lean meat. If you're vegan, that may mean nothing to you. But if you eat meat, three hundred pounds of elk will make a lot of meatballs, stews, and casseroles.
Even women who don't hunt for themselves can benefit. The Missouri Conservation Department sponsors Share the Harvest, a program that allows deer hunters to donate venison for needy families. Last year, the program distributed a record 400,000 pounds of meat. Most states have similar private or government programs, and organizations like Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry and Safari Club International administer game donations nationally.
Gun ownership empowers women to care for the environment in ways you might not expect. Bowers' state enlists hunters to manage the elk population. "Elk reduction helps fight disease in the herd and saves our crops," she said.
Val Wagner of North Dakota agrees. Wagner has documented the heartbreaking problem of deer overpopulation on her land. If there are too many deer, they starve or die from illnesses like Chronic Wasting Disease. Wagner believes more has to be done, but harvesting some of the animals is one way to protect the health of the population.
In addition, many of the women gun owners I've talked with told me they are more confident and self-assured with a gun because they know they can take care of themselves. Competitive shooters like gold medalists Kim Rhode and Jamie Lynn Gray exemplify the poise, strength, discipline, and skill needed to shoot.
"Part of the empowerment comes from having the confidence and independence to enjoy a sport that sometimes brings bad connotations for people in general, especially women," said Karen a gun owner who enjoys target and clay shooting. "We aren't expected to enjoy a sport that is so often stereotyped for men."
"As a professional career woman, who is quite frankly on the liberal side of things, I like guns—and people don't know how to take that," said Karen. "I have my MBA, work for a Fortune 500 hundred company, love my Kate Spade handbags and going to the spa with my girlfriends. I even shoot in a skirt!"
Gun owner Diana Prichard warns of making guns themselves into objects of female empowerment. "A woman's relationship with a gun should be no different than a man's," said Prichard. "It should be one that stems from a place of education and respect. Nothing more, nothing less."
Or, as another wise woman told me, "The greatest empowerment for me when it comes to guns is not actually owning one, but the right to own one."
These examples should be music to feminists' ears. So why don't we see strong support for gun rights from more women?
Aimee Whetstine blogs at everyday epistle
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