One of our readers responded to my previous article on the construction of rapists vs normal men in the media and the related issue of how to best respond to popular assertion that guns could play an effective role in women’s self-defense against rape. While agreeing with my overall analysis, she is looking for argumentative tools of how to counter ‘pro gun for self-defense against rape’ style arguments. Her question comes down to this: “The ‘change the society’ rhetoric makes the very concrete threats against women on a daily basis too abstract. Arguments [that advocate guns for self-defense against rape] keep the rhetoric concrete and practical and very present for very real women. And I haven’t yet found a gun regulation… argument that adequately challenges [the] point that in today’s society as it is, a woman can defend herself with a gun better than by any other means.” This is a valid question: Could it be the case that a society without firearms would be preferable from a moral standpoint, yet firearms might allow women to protect themselves in the here and now? This article is an attempt to argue why guns do not in fact make the lives of women safer.
As in the Fox News debate discussed in my earlier article, the pro-gun lobby has recently argued that gun regulation harms women and that conversely owning a gun allows women to more effectively defend themselves against rape, sexual violence and other types of harm. Often, guns are portrayed as the great equalizer here: Since men on average are stronger than women, guns provide a means for women to defend themselves despite being physically overmatched, the argument goes. This type of argument can then be used as a pragmatic ‘solution’ to the threats facing women today: “Sure”, proponents of guns for women might argue, “a world without violence against women would be preferable, but since real women are faced with real violence in the real world, having guns to defend themselves is better than not having guns.” It’s a familiar type of pragmatic argument that certainly makes sense in some context (I, for one, would always argue for a world without war, yet I am forever grateful that the allied forces had the military power to defeat Germany in WWII, for instance).
But it is important to take a closer look at the ‘weapons for self defense against rape’ argument to figure out whether it holds any truth. This is especially true because pro gun advocates are actually trying to slip in a more problematic argument than what they openly say. While their argument is presented as ‘deterring a rapist with a weapon is preferable to being raped’ (wouldn’t that me an easy argument?), the implications are different: For their argument to make sense, it would have to be true that more guns and less gun control make women’s lives safer. When looking at the data, it becomes clear, that the opposite is the case:
1. Advocating against gun control means more men are getting their hands on guns:
According to a recent study by the PewResearchCenter, about 37% of American men personally own a gun, compared with only 12% of women. This means, that stricter gun control or banning guns would take these weapons out of the hands of men rather than women. Conversely, given these numbers it is three times more likely that it is the man who possesses the firearm rather than it being the great equalizer in the hands of a women.*
*(To be sure, the fact that men are more likely to buy guns than women results from our society’s constructions of masculinity and femininity and the association of masculinity with violence and guns. Of course, this is contingent and we could hypothetically work towards a world where women are as fond of guns as men are… But if we are trying to deconstruct gendered patterns of behavior, why don’t we work towards making men less likely to use violence (against women) instead?)
2. The majority of rapes are committed by perpetrators known to the victim, greatly reducing the probability of guns as a self-defense mechanism:
The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that only 13.8% of all rapes had been committed by strangers. Instead, the majority of rapists were current or former intimate partners (51.1%), family members (12.5%), acquaintances (including friends, neighbors, first dates, etc.; 40.8%), or persons of authority (teachers, doctors, caregivers, etc.; 2.5%). It is safe to say then that in the vast majority of cases guns would probably provide no protection whatsoever, since it is individuals trusted by the victims who commit sexual violence against them, and these rapes are committed in situations in which we can hardly expect women to have their fingers on the trigger.
3. A gun being present in the house INCREASES the risk of being murdered by an intimate partner:
According to a 2003 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, women are more likely to be killed by intimate partners (husbands, lovers, ex-lovers) than any other category of perpetrator; between 40 and 50% of all female murder victims are murdered by intimate partners. Most importantly, the perpetrator’s access to a gun was a strongly associated with the risk of being murdered by an intimate partner. In other words, living in a situation where a gun is present makes women more likely to die at the hands of an intimate partner. These findings are consistent with earlier research that found that “[i]nstead of conferring protection, keeping a gun in the home is associated with increased risk of both suicide and homicide of women.” Similarly, a 2014 study, which assesses the possibility of recovering firearms of domestic abusers, argues that “[m]ost intimate partner homicides involve firearms, and women are at least twice as likely to be murdered by intimate partners using firearms as by strangers using any weapon. Abusers with firearms are 5 to 8 times as likely to kill their victims as are those without firearms.”
Especially given the fact that more than one third of all US women (p.36) report having experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner, these studies strongly suggest that it is advocating for stricter gun control (or even abolition) that makes women safer rather than proposing that more guns are the solution: More guns means more guns in the hands of men (in absolute numbers and relative to women), women are more likely to experience rape at the hands of an intimate partner than any other category of perpetrator, and having a gun around makes domestic abusers more likely to murder the women they abuse. Rather than being the great equalizer that allegedly protects women from men, it turns out that the presence of guns increases very real risks for very real women in the very real world.
Black, M.C., Basile, K.C., Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Walters, M.L., Merrick, M.T., Chen, J., & Stevens, M.R. 2011. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.