"The Ethicist" Takes On Guns & Women; Reinforces Gender StereotypesS

Perusing the NY Times homepage yesterday, an interesting link caught my eye. One tiny line of type read "Women Need Guns" which piqued my interest enough to click over and check out the argument.

(This post was written by Jezebel contributor & Racialicious editor Latoya Peterson.)

The piece was actually one of Randy Cohen's Ethicist columns, a humorous take on the issues of the day - and normally delivered with a healthy dose of truth. While I was amused at quite a bit of his analysis, I realized the post played on quite a few gender stereotypes - ones I have heard gun advocates use in all seriousness.

Were I to board the subway late at night, around Lincoln Center perhaps, and find it filled with women openly carrying Metropolitan Opera programs and Glock automatics, I'd feel snug and secure. A train packed with armed men would not produce the same comforting sensation. Maybe that's because men have a disconcerting tendency to shoot people, while women display admirable restraint. Department of Justice figures show that between 1976 and 2005, 91.3 percent of gun homicides were committed by men, 8.7 percent by women.

and

Even if some women prove imprudent with firearms - that is, act like men - feminizing gun ownership could ultimately reduce its appeal to men, making gun-toting as unmasculine as carrying a purse. There are occupations whose status (and pay) declined once they were taken up by women: secretaries, telephone operators, teachers. We already endure the mischief of such sexism; why not harness it for good?

Sarah Stern, writing for the New York Press (http://www.nypress.com/blog-4229-nyt-disguises-sexist-ideology-as-fact.html), takes quite a bit of umbrage at the article, asserting:

[I]n Cohen's distorted perspective, a woman has the genetic predisposition to behave herself, so the likelihood of her firing the gun would be slim to none.

He goes on to say that "women display admirable restraint." The word "restraint" reflects socially constructed expectations for women to act demurely and avoid stepping out of line. The appalling truth is that this op-ed was published because we still live in a society that tolerates sexist rhetoric.

But the issues reinforced in the article are a bit deeper than Stern discusses. One, the idea and image of guns is drawn in with ideas of toughness or masculinity. Not only is it seen as an aberration that a woman (coded feminine and weak) would want to even hold a gun, it as seen as something that only "bad girls" would do. However, since many people in our culture see guns as cool, the idea of women with guns then becomes sexualized. (Just trying to find a photo to illustrate this post brought me site after site advertising "sexy women with guns!" "guns and bikinis!" and "macho women with guns!") In addition, gun advocates and companies alike understand the enormous power of the untapped women market. The National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA) has posted quite a few editorialsarguing that women need guns for adequate protection. (Interestingly, they also make the same argument about African Americans.)

Two, the silliness of imagining a world where women are packing heat to hit the Opera feeds into the idea that women carrying guns is a ridiculous notion - effectively erasing all the women who do own guns and carry them for personal reasons. Erin Solaro wrote about her relationship with guns for BlogHer, noting:

To say I liked shooting is an understatement. I like shooting the way I like knitting, and for the same reason: they both express fundamental parts of my personality.

And over at the Daily Beast, Meghan McCain says that guns make her feel "empowered" - both as a Republican and as a woman:

So, yes, the girl who wants to legalize gay marriage and thinks the GOP is out of touch with progressive-minded Republicans is fiercely protective of her Second Amendment rights and finds it empowering, especially as a woman, to fire off a few rounds and get closer and closer to the desired target.

As a woman who has spent a bit of time on the shooting range, and who leans heavily in support of the second amendment, I wouldn't necessarily describe a session spent emptying a clip as empowering. And yet, it is this kind of narrative - the empowered woman versus the victimized woman that dominates our discussion on women and firearms. Rarely is gun training discussed, how one of the first things they teach you is how having a gun makes you an instant target. Anyone with firepower needs to be taken out first, so if you pull your weapon, you had better be prepared to use it.

Nor is it discussed how you have to have a lot of confidence in yourself and your skills before you can think about owning a gun. The heft of a firearm serves as an instant reminder of what it represents: you can use this to kill someone. Sorono describes having a gun as "a terrific equalizer" against a rapist or would be assailant, without ever mentioning the need to come to terms with possibly ending someone else's life. We all joke about doing it - but would you? Every few years, I go to the gun range and make sure I'm not slipping. I need to make sure that I can still hold, load, and fire, and still connect with the target with my glasses off. Just in case. But I do not own a firearm, partially because I'm not sure I could be comfortable pulling the trigger with someone else in my sights.

Still further, only people who are in favor of handgun bans or stricter gun control laws actually talk about the escalation factor - how having a gun near you in an altercation can take things to terrible turns. When I was breaking up with one of my ex-boyfriends, the first thing I did before letting him back into our shared apartment was to run and hide his gun. Now, this boyfriend has never been physically abusive towards me - however, with tensions flaring the way they were, I was not trying to chance it. After all, as a black woman, I have a statistically greater chance of being murdered with a handgun AND a greater chance of being murdered by an intimate partner.

But these topics never seem to stay on the table. Today, the Ethicist posted a follow-up, making a point he apparently had forgotten:

Comment No. 13 notes that Guns for Gals "could be a great boon for American manufacturing, because gunmetal and chrome don't go with everything," necessitating the production of a "teal pistol." I agree. A fringe benefit of this plan is its being a sort of economic stimulus program for the fashion industry, an important business here in New York, as Vera Wang and Betsy Johnson, et al., begin designing chic holsters.

Oh right. I forgot - I have a vagina, so my gun needs to be pink to match.

Glad we remembered what's really important here.