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The Sexism of Gun Control
August 13, 2002
by David Graham

Last week, Louisiana Governor Mike Foster reminded women in his state that they have a right to buy a handgun for personal protection. He said this because a serial killer is currently loose in Baton Rouge, and women are scared to death. In response to Foster’s advice, the anti-gun crowd has been making their usual hackneyed prediction that blood will run in the streets if a large number of ordinary people buy guns for self-defense. What’s unusual about the current response is the barely veiled sexism behind their warnings.

An article in the Advocate Online quotes Holley Galland Haymaker from the anti-gun group Louisiana Ceasefire as follows:

"Maybe if you're a big, white guy who hunts all the time, it might do some good," Haymaker said, referring to the governor's recent endorsement for women to arm themselves. "For a woman who is surprise attacked, having a gun is only giving them (the attacker) another way to kill you."

There are so many disturbing assumptions built into this statement that it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the "big, white guy" phrase. What could Haymaker mean by that? Is he saying that only men can be trusted to use guns safely and effectively? And what does being "big" have to do with anything? If you have a gun, what difference does it make what size you are? One of the reasons women need a gun is that they tend to be smaller and weaker than male attackers, and the gun levels this disparity of power. Maybe Haymaker thinks if you’re a small woman, you’re too weak and clumsy to handle a gun. Even more jarring is how Haymaker specifically mentions a "white" guy. Does he think people of color, particularly women of color, are too inept and stupid to learn how to use a handgun or rifle? While Haymaker says that a gun "might do some good" for a big, white, male hunter who is attacked by a serial killer, a woman, he implies, will only lose control of the gun and get herself killed. Can we attribute this thinking to anything but sexism?

I don’t know if Haymaker has personal experience with guns, but his remark suggests complete ignorance of how guns work and the purpose of various types of gun training. With the exception of "big game" hunters who go after elephants with .44 magnum revolvers, the average person who "hunts all the time" would necessarily be familiar with the use of rifles, not handguns. The skills needed for hunting animals with a rifle are different from the skills needed to defend yourself with a handgun. A hunter lies in wait and surprises an animal, such as a deer, who is not trying to harm him. He has to make accurate shots up to 200 yards away, usually with the aid of a scope mounted on his rifle.

A person using a handgun for self defense, on the other hand, needs a different kind of training. She needs to know the law. When is it legal to shoot an attacker? She needs to know how to quickly acquire "sight picture" (that is, aim) and fire shots at an attacker’s chest before he can get to her. If she is carrying a concealed weapon, she needs to practice brisk "presentation" (or draw) of her handgun. And, in case her attacker has a gun, she has to know how to shoot from behind cover and concealment—such as a dresser, bed, or vehicle. Her range of shooting is likely to be around seven yards, not 200 yards.

Given these differences, the mere fact that a man hunts with a rifle is no guarantee that he would be better than a woman at handgunning. In fact, some experts think that, all things being equal, a novice woman is more likely to excel at defensive handgunning than a novice man. Any firearms instructor will tell you that women tend to make the best students. The usual explanation is that women, unlike men, don’t have big egos when it comes to firearms. Men tend to be less receptive to correction. "I know about guns," they think, "and I really don’t need this guy telling me how to grip my gun and aim at a target." Women tend to be more honest about their lack of skill. After all, our society doesn’t expect women to know anything about guns, so there is less pressure on her ego. This makes her more likely to listen carefully to the instructor and take his advice to heart.

Haymaker is not alone in making sexist implications in the wake of Governor Foster’s advice. On a recent episode of Hardball, an anti-gun laywer (whose name I do not remember) debated Paxton Quigley, the pro-gun advocate who has trained thousands of woman to use guns for self-defense. The lawyer said he knew of a couple of incidents in which women mistook their husbands for attackers and shot them. It seems that in each case, the husband had been out drinking all night while his wife slept at home. Hearing someone stagger into the apartment, the wife grabbed for her handgun and shot the shadowy figure, who turned out to be her husband. The first thing to notice is that the lawyer deliberately chose examples in which a woman shot someone by accident. Why didn't he cite a mistaken shooting by a man, such as one of the all-too-common hunting accidents that we hear about? Why didn't he simply cite the total number of mistaken-identity shootings each year? Because he clearly wants to imply that women are more likely to use stupid judgment, and therefore Governor Foster was reckless to tell women they could be trusted with guns. The second thing to notice is the sheer irrelevance of the accidental shootings cited by the lawyer (assuming these incredible cases really happened). Just because a couple of people did something stupid does not mean that the majority of smart and responsible people should not keep a gun for self-defense. Every year a number of children drown in swimming pools because their parents were not watching them. Do we conclude that no parents should have a pool in their backyard? Besides, even if we accept the utilitarian, non-rights premise of gun-control advocates, the number of people who defend themselves with a gun—somewhere between 80,000 and 2,000,000 each year—vastly outnumbers the number of accidental deaths involving guns.

Readers who are familiar with the history of defensive handgunning in America will notice a similarity between the present situation in Louisiana and a situation in Florida over thirty years ago. After a series of brutal rapes in Orlando in 1966, hundreds of women began buying handguns each week to protect themselves. When the anti-gun Orlando Sentinel Star found out, it ran editorials denouncing the trend. Its publisher, apparently sharing the view of today’s anti-gun advocates that women are too weak and inept to have guns, even went to the chief of police demanding that he stop the sale of handguns to women. That was impossible, of course. But as an alternative, the chief and the newspaper publisher came up with an alternative: If they could not stop women from buying handguns, at least they could co-sponsor a training program so that all these women would know how to use their new handguns properly. The newspaper advertised the course, and in five months more than 6000 women had been trained.

What happened next? Although the yearly number of rapes had been increasing before the classes, reaching 36 in 1966, it fell to only four in 1967. Meanwhile the rape rates for the surrounding metropolitan area, Florida, and the entire nation continued to rise. Although a correlation between two events A and B does not necessarily prove a causal relationship, it is quite possible—and in line with highly controlled studies by researchers like John Lott—that all the publicity about women buying guns scared rapists so badly that many of them stopped preying on women for fear of being shot dead in the act. More important, there was no rash of accidental shootings by women in Orlando. Women were not seized by fits of irrational, panic-fueled violence in the pre-dawn hours, causing them to blow away the paperboy or their late-returning husbands.

If the women of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, are independent enough to think for themselves—if they turn a critical eye on the lies, fallacies, and limp self-defense tips of the anti-gun crowd—perhaps they will have a deterrent effect on crime in their area, much like the women of Orlando in 1966. With proper training, they can also enjoy the peace of mind that comes from having the best means possible for defending their bodies and their lives from brutal attackers. They might as well face the hard fact that police cannot protect them, no more than they protected Pam Kinamore, whose throat was slit by the serial killer now loose in Louisiana, or Charlotte Murray Pace, who, according to DNA evidence, was stabbed to death by the same killer. It’s up to women to defend themselves.

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