Guns and Feminism: a disturbing alliance

Last week’s mass school shooting in Newtown in the US has put guns back into centre stage. So now seems a timely moment to explore how the gun lobby in both the US and the UK is looking to expand its market by targeting women and children. In this post I look critically at this and ask: What does it mean when guns are presented as feminist or postfeminist woman’s new accessory? And, what kind of education does shooting for sport offer our children?

Writing in the immediate aftermath of Newtown, Gary Younge notes that, however many people are slaughtered, and however short a time it is since the last gun-enabled murder spree, it never seems to be the time to talk the politics of gun control. As Clive Stafford Smith documents in his powerful book on the US system of criminal Injustice, there are an estimated 200 millions guns in the US, and these are used to commit more than 10,000 murders, nearly 20,000 suicides and more than 75,000 injuries every single year. He asks: “Surely the government has the right to regulate this carnage?” Yet control looks increasingly unlikely – indeed, since 1982 gun ownership has been mandatory in the town of Kennesaw, Georgia.

From the vantage point of the UK, the US insistence on the right to carry a gun seems at best bizarre and at worst a form of national insanity. It’s easy to feel smug about our more ‘progressive’ position. And yet as Animal Aid’s recent report Gunning for Children highlights we have our own very powerful, active and damaging gun lobby.

When we think of young people carrying guns, we probably imagine hooded gang members from Hackney or other urban working-class areas. These are the images carried by the media and recurring through the coverage of last year’s riots. Yet we have another, far less visible gun culture that is the province of the rural upper-middle classes.

As Animal Aid documents, lobby groups such as the Countryside Alliance and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, “direct considerable resources towards the recruitment of children. They organise shooting lessons for youngsters, produce educational materials for schools, and even encourage sympathetic parents to become school governors in order to ‘educate the educators’”. Just as the army seeks to recruit teenagers to killing so does the gun lobby. The UK has opted out of that part of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that sets 18 as the minimum age for recruitment to the armed forces. Similarly we have no minimum age for owning a gun or using it to shoot animals.

Peter Squires opens the report by arguing that: “fostering healthy and environmentally-conscious attitudes to nature and wildlife conservation is fundamentally inconsistent with deriving pleasure and enjoyment from shooting animals for fun”. The report takes apart the myth that shooting is necessary for pest control. Why have magazines to celebrate pest control? In fact a shocking 50 million birds are released into the British countryside every year in order to enable this so-called sport to continue.

As well as working with children to secure the future of gun ownership and shooting, the gun lobbies in the UK and the US have identified women as an under-exploited market for their products. Even the irreverent, parodic and playful pop culture space of Tumblr has a celebration of Women and Guns. Many shooting ranges now organise ‘Ladies’ Nights’ and other special events for women; there also numerous websites where women can purchase gun bling to accessorise their shooting experience.

There is a disturbing marshalling of feminist arguments in this promotion of gun ownership to women. In the US this focuses on the need for women to defend themselves against sexual violence. As Alessandra Ram writes:

For women, that reason is often self-defense. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, or RAINN, a woman is sexually assaulted in the U.S. every two minutes. This adds up to 207, 754 victims (age 12 or older) of sexual assault each year. Many self-defense experts believe in arming women in the event of an attack. One of the best known, Paxton Quigley, says she became an advocate after the rape of a close friend. “I asked my friend, ‘If you’d had a gun, do you think you could have stopped the attacker?'” Quigley recalled in an interview with The Daily Beast. “She said yes.”

However, as Ram goes onto point out – like campaigns about the dangers of women walking alone at night or getting into unlicensed cabs – this creates an image which denies the truth that most women who are raped are attacked by people they know. In the UK around half of murders of women are carried out by their victims’ partners or ex-partners. The argument that women need to own guns for their protection also fails to take account of how guns increase the chances of suicide and domestic violence.

A perhaps more interesting intervention into gender debates is offered by Lindsay McCrum whose book of photographs Chicks with Guns uses US women’s relationship with guns to explode stereotypes about women.

In one memorable photograph in “Chicks with Guns,” Alexandra Knight, 38, of Houston, Texas, is pictured with a gun in one hand and her naked baby boy in the other.

“As much as I have an affinity for the beauty of guns, it’s not so much about that with me, and the act of hunting I could really care less about,” Knight said in an interview. “For me it’s the camaraderie and the time spent around the idea of hunting and guns that I love. It’s about being with my children and being with my father and being with people I love in beautiful parts of the country. … It opens up beautiful dialogue about the respect of guns and how that translates to respect of nature and respect of other humans. Ironically, it brings up a lot of things I’m passionate about.

Knight said she knows her portrait with her then-9-month-old son Truett has the potential to generate strong reactions from the people who see it — but she had strong reasons for wanting it to look just so. The gun she’s carrying used to be her grandfather’s, and her father taught her how to use it. She’s also wearing her father’s belt buckle in the photograph.

“It was all about family and tradition,” Knight said. “Here it was the gun that was passed on to me, and I’m holding in my right hand what I’m going to pass on to my son. It was kind of that circle of life and tradition and everything else.”

This appropriation of guns into practices of mothering, generational continuity and relationships is challenging. Disrupting ideas of women, maternity and violence has been part of what feminism has been about. The idea that women are born more peaceful and caring than men surely leads feminism to an essentialist deadend. But a liberal feminism that sees it work as being done when women have been included into business-as-usual seems also to lead to a deadend. I want feminism to be able to use gender as a way into much wider debates on militarism, capitalism and the rights of non-human animals.

Heather Mendick, Brunel University, UK

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