The Disinformation Gunmakers Want You to Believe About Women and Guns


The following is an excerpt from the new book Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun by A.J. Somerset (Biblioasis, 2015)

Apparently, women own a lot of guns. Indeed, the media tell us that American women are buying guns like crazy. According to a February 2013 story in the Christian Science Monitor, 15 percent of American women own guns, up from 12 percent in 2007. Anecdotal evidence from various sources backs up the claim, in article after article. Range operators, gun shop owners, and self-defense instructors continually tell us they’re seeing more women with guns than ever before. “The argument that women need guns for personal safety and home defense resonates with many women,” the Christian Science Monitor insisted, which may well be true, depending on how you define “many”; it’s said the Saxons, too witless to consider their thumbs, counted any number above four as “many.” In winter, bemittened Canada struggles to count as high as six, and then only by including her feet. How many women is many?

NBC picked up the story and reported two days later on the evening news that women were suddenly buying guns not like crazy, but like even-crazier: according to Gallup only 13 percent of women owned guns in 2005, but by 2011, that number had grown to a remarkable 23 percent. For some reason, NBC had waited until 2013 to report a poll published two years before. Had they compared the 2011 Gallup numbers to other, more recent polls, they might have concluded that women were in fact selling guns like crazy, ownership having declined from 23 to just 12 percent between 2011 and 2013. Why the selective reporting? Several explanations present themselves, but let’s go with the obvious. You should never let mere facts stand in the way of a good story. And women with guns is always a good story.

It has ever been so. In 1998, More Guns, Less Crime informed us that one-in-four American women owned a gun, about half the number of male gun owners, and that women were buying guns like crazy, based on exit poll data. From the early 1980s on, American newspapers have repeatedly asserted that women are buying guns like crazy. In the late 1980s, the gunmaker Smith & Wesson commissioned Gallup to poll American gun owners, and reported that women were buying guns like crazy: the number of women owning guns had grown 53 percent between 1983 and 1986, making women the fastest-growing group of gun owners. Furthermore, lots of women planned to buy even more guns. Women have always been buying guns like crazy. But that’s women: they just love to shop.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a trailer has a gun,” quipped Thomas McGuane in his 2010 novel, Driving on the Rim. And this is the story the news media push: the women who buy guns are single, live alone, and buy their guns for self-defense—although the media cautiously avoid suggesting that gun ownership relates in any way to trailer park habitation. But the General Social Survey tells a different tale entirely.

The General Social Survey is a periodic sociological survey of Americans, run since 1972 by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. Among the many trends the survey tracks is gun ownership. Tom Smith, a senior fellow at NORC, has long disputed the story that women are buying guns for self-defense. Comparing the General Social Survey with Smith & Wesson’s claim, he found no significant changes in gun ownership among either men or women in the 1980s. And the women who did own guns often owned long guns for hunting or target shooting, not handguns for self-defense. They were more likely to be married and to live in small cities or rural areas. Most started shooting because their husbands were shooters. In spite of what Smith & Wesson and the media kept telling us, they were not single women living in the urban jungle. 

So where are all these women we keep hearing about, the ones who buy guns like crazy and take concealed handgun courses? If history is hard to know, the present is equally murky, and hired bullshit equally prevalent. Look at who pushes the story that more and more women are buying guns for self-defense—Smith & Wesson, for example, and the NRA—and you’ll find yourself a vested interest. Look who feeds the media all that anecdotal evidence: gun shop owners, range owners, self-defense instructors offering special classes for women only. Again and again, the American media takes dictation from a man with a marketing plan.

In fact, there is no clear evidence that women are buying guns like crazy. Gallup routinely polls Americans on whether they own guns, among other things, and the results fluctuate up and down by about 5 percent. The Christian Science Monitor had wrapped an entire article around a supposed trend that was probably nothing more than statistical noise. And the 2011 Gallup poll, which NBC had used to make their story more compelling, appears to be an outlier. It found an apparent jump in gun ownership among women and Democrats, which disappeared in more recent polls.

One thing does seem clear: the overall number of gun owners is shrinking. Since the early 1990s, the percentage of Americans who own guns has steadily declined, even as the civilian gun stock has steadily grown. There are a lot of guns out there to go around. And guns are durable, much more durable than cars or other consumer goods. On any trip to the range you may well see guns fifty years old or more. The market is flooded with used guns. 

Even as they post record sales, American gunmakers fret about hard times being right around the corner. If Americans stopped buying guns—if they decided they had enough guns, which they surely do, or if a generation of young Americans lost interest—the market for new guns would swiftly collapse. This prospect is the stuff of nightmares that jolt the CEOs of America’s firearms industry from their sleep. There, there, coos the blubbering executive’s wife, as she rubs his heaving shoulders and hands him a cup of warm milk: I’ll always love your guns. In the darkness above our executive’s head, a light bulb snaps on: Women are the answer. Perhaps … pink handgrips?

There is no shortage of pink handgrips on the market, nor of pink rifle stocks and pink camouflage. Women hunters are expected to wear form-fitting camo outfits with pink trim while their husbands and boyfriends slouch along in shapeless old jackets. The female hosts of TV hunting shows are universally blonde and ponytailed, and never appear without perfect makeup. The marketing tells us that women who shoot are expected to be perky and cute while doing it. And apparently a lot of them want to be, which suggests that the General Social Survey is right about women and guns, and that most women with guns own their guns because well-meaning husbands and boyfriends bought them as gifts, that shooting is something they do together with their partners. The supposedly booming women’s gun market seems to revolve, as usual, around men.

That the various popular ideas about women with guns exist chiefly in the minds of men with guns is never more obvious than in a brief dive into Guns & Ammo magazine. The image of the armed soccer mom, so beloved of gun bloggers, does not appear here. Neither does our young, single woman, armed against rapists and home invaders. When women appear in the pages of Guns & Ammo, they’re in ads, where they clutch AK-47s while wearing bikinis, or cast seductive eyes at the reader with compact pistols concealed in their exposed stockings. A bikini would be impractical shooting wear, I think, although I hasten to add that I have never shot in one and therefore am not qualified to judge. Neither am I inclined to research the matter. In any case, these ads do not seem to be pitched at soccer moms or young women off at college. They are aimed at the man whose peculiarly limited awareness somehow fails to register that the bikini-clad, AK-47-toting chick was thinking, “The next time my agent calls with a cheeseball job like this I’m gonna tell him to get stuffed,” at approximately the instant the shutter released. As usual, this idea of women with guns is pitched entirely to men. It’s just that this time the bikinis make it obvious.

And this, of course, is why women who host TV hunting shows have blonde, ponytailed hair, perfect makeup, and form-fitting camo with pink trim. The ideal of a woman with a gun is not threateningly feminist, but traditionally feminine: she needs help from masculine “experts,” wears lipstick in a duck blind, and is easy on the eyes. She accepts that men know best, and she doesn’t try to figure out anything for herself. This woman is a walking, talking validation of the masculinity of the gun culture, a reply to all that female skepticism directed at men and their guns, who are otherwise at best goofy, and at worst downright frightening. And so the gun culture claps its hands, absorbs the idea of women with guns, and declares that it is now feminist. It thinks women should be encouraged to do everything men do.

That new-found feminism is suddenly forgotten, however, when gun activists confront women who don’t like guns, and whose idea of doing everything men do includes involving themselves in politics and expressing their views. When Canada’s Coalition for Gun Control made gun control an explicitly feminist issue in the 1990s, things got downright nasty. The same has happened in the United States in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, which spawned Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The moms in question have been stalked, threatened with rape, and in one memorable case, spat on. In November 2013, as Moms Demand Action and Open Carry Texas engaged in a round of protest and counter-protest, a group of open-carry activists used a topless female mannequin, its arms raised in surrender and its pants around its ankles, as a target for a “mad minute,” a minute-long rapid-fire practice that left the mannequin riddled with bullets. C.J. Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas, once called Moms Demand Action “thugs with jugs,” although he later said the expression was “in jest,” as if this somehow excused it. One widely circulated photo showed Watts photoshopped to look like a zombie with a machete stuck in her skull. Another depicted a woman in a short, tight skirt—clearly a prostitute—leaning against a lamp post with the MDA logo and the slogan, “We’re back!” Men slapping women, men spanking women, men putting women in their place: this is the persistent theme in the mildest of supposed gags targeting Moms Demand Action. 

How have we created a culture so defective that people respond to any perceived threat to their guns with insults, threats, and even with violence? For “defective” is certainly the appropriate word. Something here is operating well outside its specified parameters, if it is operating at all. These are not functioning adults. I’m tempted to write that if this keeps up, somebody is going to get killed, but in fact somebody already has been. It’s well past time that gun owners who are functioning adults—and there are many of us—stood up to say, “You do not speak for me,” but somehow, that never seems to happen. I know where the gun culture comes from. I have met the True Man and I know the secret history of the Second Amendment. But what I want to know is, what are these goddamn animals? It’s time to turn from history to taxonomy. It’s time to face the enemy.

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