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Feminine Protection

by Lynn Burke

October, 1999

If someone told you that about 14 million women in this country share a secret, chances are you might think it's about sex, shoes, or obsessive compulsive disorder. You might be surprised to hear the true secret: that those millions of women are packing heat.

"My mother's got a gun," says 26-year-old Robin, who didn't want to be identified further. "She used to drive around with it in the car - I grew up with it. But she'd kill me if she knew I told you that."

Robin's mom is like a lot of women who own guns she's embarrassed. She's not a militia member, she doesn't dress in camouflage. She's an attorney living in the San Francisco Bay Area who wants to protect herself but doesn't want to admit it.

"Women are supposed to be 'nice,' they like to think of themselves as nurturing and they don't like to think about hurting someone," explains Dr. Helen Smith, 38, a forensic psychologist in Knoxville, Tenn. Smith, who works with violent criminals in the courts, sees the aftermath of violence, some of it gun-related, on a near daily basis. Which is exactly why she says she's pro-gun.

"I see so many women shot dead," she explains. "An ex-husband comes back to the house, and if she doesn't have a gun..." She says women hop on the gun-control bandwagon because it feels right, because they don't understand how guns work, and because they don't want to take the responsibility of protecting themselves.

"When women get on their high horse, what they don't realize is they're taking away someone's right to self-protection," she says. "If you want to die on the street, that's fine."

In the most recent Gallop Poll conducted on gun ownership for the U.S. Department of Justice, 27 percent of women surveyed said they had a gun in the home, which means 37.6 million women have access to guns. There is no single source of statistics on American gun owners, male or female, though estimates of women gun owners usually range from 11 to 18 million. Though everyone who buys a gun legally fills out a federal form indicating gender and other demographic indicators, the federal government does not "count" gun owners.

When women decide they're going to get married, the first thing many of them do is pick up a copy of Bride magazine. But where do women go who are considering buying a gun? Or who want to read about other women who own guns?

Many turn to Women & Guns, a bimonthly publication focused on self-protection published by the Second Amendment Foundation, a 25-year-old non-profit publishing group based in Washington, D.C. According to Peggy Tartaro, editor of Women & Guns, when the magazine launched in February 1989, it had fewer than 500 subscribers. When the title hit newsstand in 1991, circulation began to climb and today stands around 25,000.

Gun journalism across the board is experiencing a boom right now. Titles like Guns & Ammo and Rifle & Shotgun have seen circulation rates jump 4.5 and 18.5 percent, respectively, since 1994, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. The same period has also seen handgun sales slump from 4 million in 1994 to 1.5 million in 1998 as the result of federal laws banning some assault weapons.

This month, EMAP Petersen, the largest publisher of gun-title magazines, will launch a magazine called Petersen's Outdoors for Women, aimed at women interested in hunting and shooting sports. Initial copies will be sent to the 5,000 or so women who are members of the Women's Shooting Sports Foundation.

The trick is making traditionally macho gun magazines palpable for women. Tartaro says Women & Gun's success stems from its brand of feminism that treats guns as a potential equalizer. "If you can run a car, if you can operate a microwave, there's no reason on earth why you can't operate a gun," she says.

The magazine firmly rejects the stereotype of a the man-hating, hysterical female gun-owner Tartaro calls a "Thelma meets Louise with a really bad case of PMS." Readers, she says, can flip through the pages and see women they can recognize as real people. And the articles found in Women & Guns are not exactly the kind one might see in Guns & Ammo. A recent issue of the magazine contained features titled "Women-only hunt stalks feral pigs"; "Do I still get to hunt with you? A unique father-daughter relationship"; and "Defensive strategies: Tactics for couples."

Readers of the magazine don't fall into any easy category. They are usually married or in long-term relationships, range from age 20 to 79 with most somewhere in the middle, are college educated, and tend to live in small towns or rural areas (not in the South), though about 25 percent live in cities. And they're not all Republicans. Tartaro herself is a registered Democrat.

Some argue that gun manufacturers and marketers have targeted women as an untapped market, and have tricked them into gun ownership by exploiting their fears. Anti-gun advocates such as Sarah Brady point to the National Rifle Association, the gun-lobby's most powerful organization, as courting women by playing on their fears. Indeed, NRA has campaigns like "Refuse to be a Victim" urging women (apparently there are no male victims) to "even their odds" by attending NRA-sponsored personal safety classes.

But Tartaro says this sort of logic is both flawed and sexist. Women's increased interest in guns was already there, she argues, long before the male-dominated gun manufacturers paid attention. "You don't just see an ad for a gun and suddenly run out and buy one. It's a very narrow kind of a thing," she says. "If you want to see an ad about a gun, you've got to go buy a gun magazine."

Women have always had a visible, if not exactly egalitarian, relationship with the gun industry. Scantily clad, busty chicks clutching long thick guns in their hands appear in glossy advertisements of gun magazines, suggesting that the quickest virility boost is a new Glock.

And puerile fantasy litters the Internet with pornographic images proving that women with guns have always been sexy to men--that is, as long as they stay in the fantasy world created for them.

But this is changing; women with attitude are no longer startling. Slick, kick-ass women such as Linda Hamilton in "Terminator 2" or Sigourney Weaver in the "Alien" movies have become positively mainstream. And grrrl power has brought us female destroyers in more shapes and sizes than ever, from the perky Sarah Michelle Gellar, who plays Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to the lean and mean warrior princess Lucy Lawless of Xena-fame.

Just as women aren't expected to hurl grown men through the air, they're also not expected to own guns. But millions do.

And as long as they remain silent, the debate over gun control will remain incomplete.

Lynn Burke is a Boston native living in Oakland, Calif., and writing about housing and real estate for Inman News. Her articles have also appeared in the Oakland Tribune and East Bay Express. If someone can locate her for us, we'd like to thank her for being a Patriot, and tell her she can add us to the list of publisher's honored to share her insights with others.

Read other articles in our Women & Guns section.


Printer Version

When Pa was at home the gun always lay across those two wooden hooks above the door. ... The gun was always loaded, and always above the door so that Pa could get it quickly and easily, any time he needed a gun. Laura Ingalls Wilder

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