Wives in Danger from Gun Toting Culture

The following is an excerpt from Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy by Joan Burbick (The New Press, October 17, 2006). You can read an interview with Burbick here.

He was much larger than I am, and he had a beefy football-player build and short dark hair -- the bouncer type. He was going to get physical if I objected. He was ready to push as we walked quickly past the long row of tables covered with guns and ammo, past the woman collecting money for admission. Talk to him, I said to myself. Talk to him. I kept telling him I didn't work for the newspapers as he herded me to the exit.

"No pictures," he kept repeating.

"No pictures," he insisted one last time as he opened the heavy door and gently pushed me out. Then he closed the door and left me standing outside with my camera dangling from my hand.

A hand-lettered sign appeared outside the entrance: NO CAMERAS ALLOWED.

Thirty minutes earlier I had walked into the public fair-grounds to attend a local gun show in Moscow, Idaho. It was the mid 1990s, and I was taking photographs of abandoned lumber mills and deserted mines in the Pacific Northwest. I was shooting what I thought were the industrial ruins of the rural West. I had also taken pictures of men in gun stores eyeing a new rifle and men hunting during deer and elk season, the ordinary lives of rural Westerners. I wanted to add pictures of men and women at gun shows.

At that point, I wasn't writing about gun culture. I was only taking pictures of daily life in small rural Western towns.

My husband eventually found me outside. We talked about what had happened and decided to find out if it was legal to prevent me from taking photographs at a gun show held at a public fairground. We phoned around and received conflicting answers from city and county attorneys.

The phone system in the small town was working well that day. By the time we came back to the gun show to talk with the organizer, an unofficial compromise had been reached with the relevant public officials. I could come back the next morning with my camera and photograph before the public was admitted. I could photograph the exhibitors and their exhibits if I asked permission first and they agreed.

I was disappointed, of course. What I wanted to shoot was the feel of the gun show. How people held guns, bargained with sellers, traded, and shopped for guns. I wanted to inch closer to why guns were so important to rural Westerners. I wasn't certain what I would find.

I agreed to the conditions. Some pictures are better than none.

Before I left, I asked the organizer why they enforced rules against cameras. What was the problem? Was it a distrust of government? Did they think I worked for the ATF, the IRS, or the FBI? Was it anger against gun-control groups? Did they think I worked for Sarah Brady's handgun organization, or for Cease Fire, a Seattle-based gun violence prevention group? Maybe it was about hunting and animal rights? Or worse, I could be a PETA worker.

There was a long list of possible reasons for the no-camera policy.

The organizer looked at me hard when I asked the question. Why no cameras? He responded with one word: "Alimony." "What?" I asked. Had I heard right?


"Yes, alimony." He then explained that the men inside the gun show didn't want their pictures showing up in newspapers where their ex-wives might see them.

I asked him more questions, but he wasn't in a talking mood. It was about alimony, period. I'd have to leave it at that.

Maybe the organizer thought some ex-wife had hired me to track down her husband and prove that he was handing over for a new hunting rifle what should be her cash. Maybe the organizer actually thought that ex-wives scanned the local papers looking for photos of their former husbands to see if they could catch them spending what was legally theirs.

At later gun shows, I started to pay more attention. Were ex- wives and their demands a threat to some guys at the gun shows? I frequently saw books for sale at the shows such as The Predatory Female by Rev. Lawrence Shannon, whose field guide to dating includes a set of tactics to undermine the supposed Gestapo power of women who rule the divorce and child-custody judicial system. In a radio interview, Shannon said that "victims of the predatory female are strewn all over the nation, writing alimony checks, recovering from gunshot wounds, treating cat scratches, trying to see their children, paying attorney's fees, picking through the detritus of their lives, and struggling to recover from ruined years." The Predatory Female is a collection of warnings about women who prey on the feelings and bank ac- counts of unsuspecting men. Female predators have their eyes on one thing alone -- money. They marry and divorce to get alimony. They use emotions of love, trust, and care to undermine the sacred contract of marriage. They are the new scourges of secular life, hunting down unsuspecting men to get bucks and tear out their hearts.

Wives were threats. Girlfriends were threats. Women who talked too much were threats. And women who held public office and wouldn't shut up were the scourge of the land. I have also picked up bumper stickers at gun shows that said: I JUST GOT A GUN FOR MY WIFE. IT'S THE BEST TRADE I EVER MADE. Or, handouts detailing the "Top 10 Reasons Handguns Are Better than Women," ending with the number-one reason, "You can buy a silencer for a handgun." I had also seen some pretty vicious materials on Hillary Clinton and Janet Reno at local shows in the '90s. A new fear floated above some of the gun exhibits: judges, lawyers, and voters were giving women too much power, and the women were using that power to take guns away from their husbands, their boyfriends, and their constituents. A gun-grabber lurked in the heart of the liberated woman.

Maybe the no-camera rule was about alimony. In this latest male fantasy about the war between the sexes, I could have been hired by a female predator to shoot pictures at a gun show for a ruthless ex- or estranged wife. I was just part of a new generation of bottom-feeders out to get men, one of the vast army of women intent on misandry, a new word invented to capture this hatred of men by women.

At the law seminar in Reno during the 2002 National Rifle As sociation annual convention, I learned about other ways women can grab guns. The atmosphere in the hotel conference room exuded professionalism, with somber and rational panels on topics such as Constitutional and criminal law, nonprofit and tax-exempt information, product liability, and ethics. Sitting in the darkened room, listening to the intricacies of product liability defense, I thought about the contrast in tone between the pumped-up speeches in the other rooms at the hotel and the subdued discussions of the lawyers, policy analysts, and historians working for the NRA. In the midst of these carefully paced presentations, I first heard about the legal problems gun owners dealt with when faced with domestic-violence orders.

Under the terms of certain restraining orders, guns are prohibited. Domestic violence and divorce set in motion a range ofboth state and federal statutes and laws aimed at disarming violent or potentially violent intimate partners. Since the 1996 Lautenberg Amendment that followed passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, it is a federal crime to possess a firearm while subject to a restraining order from an intimate partner or after a misdemeanor conviction of the crime of domestic violence.

No one at the law seminar lingered on why there was domestic violence in the United States, or how this violence affected men, women, and children, or what steps could be taken to reduce or prevent such violence. And for many of the attorneys present, it was strictly a legal issue about due process, federal statutes, and legal precedents.What happened in the living room or bedroom, likely sites of what crime analysts called simple assault, was off the political and rhetorical radar screens. At the law seminar I also heard no discussions on how to protect women from men in their own homes. No, the issue was only about how many individuals convicted of misdemeanors or strapped with restraining orders would lose the right to own firearms. The big issue was how to get them back. It was all about the guns.

I found out that the police were particularly vulnerable. There was mention of how the Minneapolis Police Department was practically disarmed because so many police had present or past restraining orders against them. There was a sense of relief that the courts and Congress might rule in favor of the cops and military personnel, exempting them from the gun regulation. No one talked about domestic violence, because violence in the home didn't have the emotional punch of a violent predator breaking into your home. Then the homeowner was a hero defending his property, not a villain beating up on his spouse. The vigilante gun owner could hang a sign in his window, announcing, "IS THERE LIFE AFTER DEATH? TRESPASS HERE AND FIND OUT. Or, WARNING!! TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT. SURVIvORS WILL BE SHOT AGAIN. But what kind of sign could the battered wife hang up?

In 2005, Ted Nugent, in his keynote address to the NRA annual meeting in Houston, could rant about plugging all the bad guys: "I want 'em dead." But what if the cop or the soldier or the store-owner was the bad guy? Cops were a touchy subject in gun-rights circles. Some police organizations wanted exceptions made for officers under restraining orders, which would make it more difficult for them to lose their firearms. There were complicated legal questions about restraining orders and previous misdemeanor convictions of domestic violence. Other cops wanted "law enforcement persons" held to a "higher standard, not a different standard." In 1997, Ronald E. Hampton, the executive director of the National Black Police Association, testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime. He spoke against exempting police officers. "At a time when the relationship between the community and the police is constantly deteriorating, we believe this effort by police unions and other associations is misguided and will result in the continued widening gulf between the community and the police." He went on to say in 1995, "forty percent of police questioned acknowledged using physical force with a partner in the past year."According to other testimony, police and military personnel were implicated in the crime of domestic violence at higher rates than were the general population. The Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban provides no exemptions for these two groups.

One gun lobbyist I interviewed lowered his voice when he told me -- off the record -- that he had no sympathy for the cop who loses his gun to a restraining order. He had scolded one cop who called him up, telling him he wanted nothing to do with the cop's restraining-order complaint. But he wanted me to know that he felt women overreacted with restraining orders: women were abusing their new power in the courts, leaving men defenseless without their guns. Discussions of crime seemed always to come back to crimes by strangers who used or might use violent force. Once again, the armed assailant seemed to be the major threat -- indeed, the only threat. But there was that one nagging exception, the man who turned on his partner with rage.

In 1998, the National Institute for Justice reported that each year 1.5 million women were raped or physically assaulted by intimate partners. Many of these attacks occurred in the privacy of the home. Men were more likely to be attacked by strangers. In contrast, women were seven to fourteen times "more likely to report that an intimate partner beat them up, choked or tried to drown them, threatened them with a gun, or actually used a gun on them."

As a woman at gun shows, I am usually pitched specific guns to ward off the predator breaking into my house or stalking me. At a gun show in the state of Washington, I spent time talking with an arms manufacturer who specialized in variations of the AR-15, originally made by Colt. A semiautomatic rifle that has parts interchangeable with the M16, this rifle can accom- modate a number of different calibers and setups. It has been modified so that it cannot be interchangeable in its lower receiver group with M16 parts, making it difficult to give it full automatic capability.

The marketing specialist at the booth told me that the AR-15 could be adapted for home defense. I could put in a short barrel, less than 16" long -- what cops used in closed spaces to shoot the bad guys. The man at the booth warned me that he couldn't put the short barrel in the gun receiver because he would be breaking the law. No barrel under 16" can go into thegun frame. Instead, he held it about a half-inch from the gun frame and demonstrated how it would work. It was an impressive-looking weapon. Stocky and mean, a dull black. I wanted to ask him if he was serious. Did he really think I would buy a military weapon to defend my home? I always thought if you really had cause to worry about an intruder in your bedroom, and there was no way you could run, you'd yank the shotgun out from the closet and blast away. You wouldn't even have to aim. You wouldn't even have to use buckshot. The noise from rock salt would scare most people to death. But he looked calm and intent, and I wasn't about to get into a quarrel with him about his goods.

Only once do I remember a salesman trying to sell me a gun to shoot my husband or boyfriend if he turned abusive. His personal philosophy on life was that everyone should be armed and packing. If everyone in the world were armed, there would be no domestic violence; in fact, there would be no violence at all. The bad husbands would finally get what they deserved. And all the bad people in the world would be stopped -- killed or executed on the spot. He insisted that even everyone in a bar, the traditional hot spot for assault, should be packing heat. Forget about alcohol. The gun itself would stop the violence. So what if the guy packing was drunk out of his skull? The gun had this amazing magic to prevent violence. It was a talisman of peace. I had reached the logical end of the gun-rights argument. Stop crime: Arm everyone.

Yet something was desperately wrong with this picture, even though I knew that some women, fearing for their lives every day, have decided to arm themselves against their ex-loved ones. Overall, domestic violence took the glamour out of the crime scene that pro-gun activists loved to describe. Husbands and wives shooting it out in the living room didn't have the same appeal as the brave homeowner gunning down a crazed burglar. And what about all those ad campaigns to get me to buy guns? The magazine and book tales of masked young predators generated gun sales. How do you advertise buying guns when the criminal was an ex-husband, a boyfriend, or a guy you dated a couple of weeks ago?

At the law seminar, I sat thinking about how much the right to own a gun owed to the typical crime-scene scenario. Those millions of hours that Americans spent watching cop shows and vigilante heroes helped pump up the psychic investment in guns. Still, I was having a hard time understanding how teams of lawyers for the National Rifle Association and other gun groups were ready to defend men under restraining orders. Maybe I just wasn't listening right.

At one point a question came up about Attorney General John Ashcroft and his push in the Department of Justice to accept the Second Amendment as an individual right. We were told that the Emerson case would determine whether Ashcroft's position would hold. Over the next couple of years, everywhere I turned in the gun-rights world the Emerson case was heralded as a great Second Amendment victory. Second Amendment activists would hand me copies of the complete legal ruling in paperback form. I have read on dozens of Second Amendment websites praise for the wisdom of the federal judges who wrote a masterly defense of individual rights. It was the greatest news to hit the gun lobby in years.

It came down to this: in 1998, the wife of Timothy Joe Emerson filed for divorce and applied for a restraining order against her husband. At a hearing, Sacha Emerson alleged that her husband made a threat over the telephone. He threatened to kill her "friend." The restraining order was granted. Later, her husband was indicted for "possession of a firearm while being under a restraining order." But, in a Texas federal district court, this indictment was dismissed by Judge Sam R. Cummings. In a memorandum brimming with colonial history, the Second Amendment reared its righteous head. Judge Cummings argued that the federal actions to protect women against intimate-partner violence didn't hold up against the struggles of our revolutionary fathers to found a nation with arms. The estranged and threatening husband had a sacred and individual right to his guns. No "boilerplate state court divorce order can collaterally and automatically extinguish a law-abiding citizen's Second Amendment rights."

The government appealed to the federal Fifth Circuit Court, which upheld the indictment against the husband. The hus- band's attorneys argued that there were insufficient judicial findings that he was a "credible threat"; the Fifth Circuit Court disagreed. Two of the three judges accepted the argument that while the Second Amendment gave an individual a right to own a gun, it did not give an individual under a restraining order the right to own a gun.

Gun activists sometimes lament the fact that it was hard to find a "righteous gun case" that they can take all the way up to the Supreme Court and prove once and for all that the Constitution protects the right of the individual to keep and bear arms. A gun used to threaten and intimidate a spouse was hardly a gun worth Constitutional protection. A gun brandished to scare a burglar was one thing; a gun brandished to scare a wife was another.

Was Sacha Emerson just another gun-grabbing wife? In reading the opinion of the Fifth Circuit Court, I wondered, because most of the opinion was not about the restraining order at all. That question was settled in a concise statement by the judges. Why this case was the great hope of the gun-rights world rested on the fact that two of the three federal judges had used the opinion to expound for more than fifty pages about how the Second Amendment protected individual rights. It was a coup d'état. There were also fourteen amicus curiae, or "friends of the court," submitting briefs to argue for Timothy Joe Emerson, including one from the National Rifle Association.

And the arguments of the NRA's lawyers, or what is called their "2A" attorneys, and the two federal judges overlapped. I wasn't urprised. At meetings of the NRA, including their law seminar, I had repeatedly heard these legal opinions, especially arguments focused on what our founding fathers said or didn't say about the right to bear arms. I guess the two federal judges were hoping that the Supreme Court would jump on their position and finally give the gun-rights activists what they had been claimingin their brand of conservative politics for thirty years.

The final, sweet vindication by the highest court in the land seemed within reach. The prize was finally in sight. Who cared if some frightened wife in Texas was worried enough to get a re- straining order? She was probably overreacting. She didn't need protection; his gun did.

I wonder how Sacha Emerson reacted to this court drama. Her application for a restraining order set off a series of events that cranked up the gun-rights groups for years. They submitted briefs for her husband's position and even set up legal defense funds for his support. He was the man of the hour. He was the case that could go all the way.

Yet John Ashcroft never did win vindication through the Emerson case. The United States Supreme Court refused to hear any further appeals, a decision that depressed gun-rights activists for weeks. The legal teams of the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups would have to wait longer for their triumph in the Supreme Court.

© 2006 by Joan Burbick. This piece originally appears in Joan Burbick’s Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy (The New Press, October 17, 2006). Published with the permission of The New Press and available at good book stores everywhere.
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