When I was 6 years old, my mother and I were robbed at gunpoint by two men looking for cash. One of them placed the gun at my head until she gave them her mink coat, which looked real but wasn't, and the bus fare she had in her pocket. Because of that experience, I grew up associating random violence with the crack-addled neighborhoods of 1980s New York City. But the incident was the first thing that came to mind when, more than 20 years later, I started the application process for a concealed handgun license.
I started my career as a newspaper reporter in 2001 at an East Texas newspaper headquartered not far from where James Byrd Jr. was dragged to his death by white racists four years earlier. It was the first place that made me fully aware of the still-present dangers of being black in America. More recently, the attack and sexual assault of reporter Lara Logan in Egypt and the abduction of journalist Dorothy Parvaz, a former colleague of mine at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, reinforced my concerns about the universal and global physical vulnerability of female reporters. No matter where we are in the world, no matter our age or race, our lives are threatened by violence.
Journalists, like activists, must be proactive in the face of bleak statistics and violent events. For me, learning to handle and shoot a gun seemed the most direct way to fend off growing feelings of vulnerability. But what started out as a simple intention to earn a concealed handgun license and buy a weapon ended up as a yearlong quest that involved a few stops at the gun range, being fingerprinted by Texas authorities, and staring for months at the incomplete application on my desk.
People presume that tall black women like me are tough and sufficiently able to protect ourselves. But I wanted an additional layer of insurance for my freedom to explore, unfettered, the realms I pursued as a journalist. As my own process unfolded, I noticed that the number of stories about women shooting for recreation or buying guns for self-defense had started to multiply. Each made me think about the limits of self-protection and question what, if anything, gun ownership would mean for my work and life not just as a journalist, but as a womanist/feminist.
It's illegal in Texas to carry a weapon outside of one's home or vehicle without a concealed handgun license. The licensing process itself is rigorous: Applicants must take a 10- to 15-hour class in gun safety and gun laws, followed by a qualification test to make sure they can shoot properly. There are fingerprints and submissions of notarized affadavits and color passport photos. And in Texas, at least, I wasn't alone in my quest. Texas Department of Public Safety data show that the fastest-growing group of concealed handgun owners in the state has been, for at least five years, black women.
Gun ownership in general has been on the rise. A 2005 Gallup Poll showed that 30 percent of Americans were gun owners, which equates to about 92 million Americans. More recent data from the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) found that 61 percent of gun retailers saw a marked increase in female customers between 2009 and 2010. Experts correlate the quantifiable rise of the overall popularity of guns among both men and women to the election of President Barack Obama. At a San Francisco fundraiser in 2008, as he talked about small towns facing job loss, he added, “It's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them…to explain their frustrations.” Obama's comments were widely criticized, but they also seemed to validate theories that his presidency would advocate for stricter gun control, and concealed handgun ownership rose dramatically in the wake of his election.
But long before Obama's comments, as early as the 1980s, in fact, the National Rifle Association and the gun-rights lobby had started aggressively marketing gun ownership to women. The magazine Women & Guns, purchased in 1989 by the Second Amendment Foundation, presented what John Sugarman called “a newfound firearms-feminism” in his 1992 book National Rifle Association: Money, Firepower, Fear. Through adopting fear-based rhetoric that Sugarman likens to pro-life propaganda, the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation created television ads and pamphlets depicting graphic examples of women beaten bloody by rapists. These advertisements and pamphlets were meant to inspire women to take up firearms in self-defense, Sugarman posited. “The pitch to women is simple,” he wrote. “You're a woman. Someone's going to rape you. You'd better buy a handgun. People buy handguns out of fear, and rape is perceived as what women fear most.”
While media coverage of women learning to shoot, for both hunting and self-defense, has increased since 2008, it seems less reliant on fear-based marketing tactics. Academics like Angela Stroud, a doctoral student at the University of Texas, say that data about women and guns is difficult to trust because gun-rights advocates and organizations like the NRA inﬂate data to move firearms. And indeed, reporting on female gun ownership generally reﬂects a reluctance to validate the phenomenon with hard numbers.
A 2008 National Opinion Research Center survey reported that women owned 10.5 percent of the country's guns in 1980, compared with 10.8 percent in 2008. According to Rebecca Gerome and Sarah Masters with the International Action Network on Small Arms, these statistics show that the number of women who own guns remains low. But in 2011, the Daily Beast and MSNBC both covered a rise in American women gun owners of all ethnicities, with estimates from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the NRA, and others suggesting that millions of women in the United States now own guns.
A 2009 NSSF and Southwick Associates study, quoted by the Washington Times, found “80 percent of the female gun-buyers [who responded] said they purchased a gun for self-defense, followed by 35 percent for target practice and 24 percent for hunting.” NRAHuntersRights.org reported that the number of shooting clubs offering NRA's women-only instructional shooting clinics, Women on Target, had increased 37 percent between 2007 and 2009—from 211 clinics to 290. In 2007, 6,066 women attended those clinics, compared to an estimated 9,000 who attended in 2009.
The Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit educational foundation that conducts research on violence in America, has emphasized that whether or not more women own guns isn't as much of a concern as the frequency with which those guns are used against them. A 2007 analysis of homicide statistics published by VPC reported that women with handguns in their homes purchased for self-defense had a greater likelihood of being attacked with their guns—women living with a gun in the home were three times as likely to be murdered as women who were not. The report, “When Men Murder Women,” goes on to say that women “who were murdered were more likely, not less likely, to have purchased a handgun in the three years prior to their deaths, again invalidating the idea that a handgun has a protective effect against homicide. Firearms…are all too often used to inflict harm on the very people they were intended to protect.”
I am easily annoyed and probably unfairly dismissive of statistical data that claim that instruments traditionally used by men become far more dangerous when used by women. I'm not in the habit of arguing with hard numbers, but there are few stories told about women who don't end up dead as a result of having guns they know how to use in their homes. So I stopped reading and went to the range.
Red's Indoor Range gives women shooters discounts on renting guns and ammunition on Mondays, so this past summer I went with two of my homegirls to kick off the week with some practice. We were each given earplugs, which we wore beneath silencing earmuffs. I rented a .380, bought a box of ammunition, and got to it. My hands, which normally never sweat, began shvitzing as I worried about somehow managing to shoot myself; my dear friend Andy, a Texas-bred black woman and a former junior NRA member, showed me where to put them.
“Can we leave? I'm done now,” I said after about half an hour.
“No, we have to finish the box,” she said, patting me on the back. I might have been shaking a little. It was definitely hard to breathe. The only thing that helped me get back my equilibrium was a post-range cheeseburger and fries.
“It just takes some getting used to,” Andy said as I ate myself back to neutral. “You'll get the hang of it.”
Many other women I spoke to while I was practicing shooting did not own guns and had no desire to pack heat. A few of them said aloud what I believe most of them were thinking whenever I talked about guns: Echoing the Violence Policy Center report, they worried I would become more powerless if I owned a weapon.
For women, part of the tension around this topic is that female gun owners are marginalized in a feminist culture that promotes unarmed resistance and “clean” fighting techniques. These send the message that as long as a woman does not have a lethal means of protecting herself, she is still feminine and worthy of “real” protection—either from a man, or from the police. I grew up with the notion that self-defense achieved via martial arts, pepper spray, and the biggest keys on the key ring are how women combat sexual assault. Movies, media, and college self-defense classes reinforced the emphasis on clean fighting as the feminist way. And as I got older, my reporting on public safety in Texas led me to stories about pink personal Tasers and women involved in restorative justice—but never to women (rape survivors or not) who had decided to use more assertive means to protect themselves. To be a gun-owning feminist, to prepare to protect oneself against two of the most frightening enemies of female-identified people—rape and/or domestic violence—still strikes at the heart of what could be described as a feminist identity crisis, wherein women oppress each other with our inability to make room for alternative models of self-protection.
“Why do you need it?” I don't remember how many times I was asked this question by a multicultural cast of women whenever I talked about getting a gun.
“I live alone,” was usually my immediate response.
“You could get a baseball bat,” some said. “That's what the police are for,” others would say.
“I also want to travel and camp by myself and have extra protection to do those things alone,” I would say. This usually provoked a longer silence or a change of subject.
White Southern men, on the other hand, were the most likely to congratulate me on this life decision and follow up with advice on the best kind of firearm to buy.
There have been few models of free black women (or those of any other ethnicity or race) who are not in prison or otherwise pathologized for gun ownership since the 1970s, when Pam Grier blew away bad guys in Coffy and Foxy Brown. (And it has to be noted that there was an added sexual twist to Grier's lethal exchanges.) Gun ownership has long been considered a traditionally white male patriotic expression of identity, privilege, and power. When I told one of my college buddies that I was learning to shoot, she asked if I had suddenly become a Republican. Men with guns, meanwhile, abound: Charlton Heston is the pop culture patriarch of contemporary gun culture, but we've also mythologized cowboys like John Wayne, action figures like Rambo, Clint Eastwood, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and self-styled wild men like Ted Nugent, to name just a few. The sharp converse of these proud white patriots, of course, are black men with guns, almost always classified in popular culture as amoral gangsters whose firearms are procured for drug trafficking and gangbanging.
In the black community, the social and economic tension between black men and women has made black women appear to have increasingly more in common with white men than black men. Black women, like white men, are often the heads of household, often the primary or sole breadwinners in their homes, and they are simultaneously admired and hated (often by black men) for their successes. And because such women tend to be cast as emasculators of black men in academic, professional, and domestic spheres, a gun-owning black woman could be perceived as even more castrating, her gun symbolically disarming black men of their manly aggression—the one thing they have in common with white men, even as they are pathologized for it.
Indeed, in the 2010 book Talk with You Like A Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890–1935, Cheryl D. Hicks writes that since at least 1890, American culture has historically failed to view black women's protection as a priority. In an era where black middle-class society emphasized uplifting the race through a politics of respectability, black scholar W.E.B. DuBois and others suggested that large numbers of single, independent black women posed “moral problems” in urban spaces without sufficient numbers of equally qualified black men for them to marry.
Sometimes these unmarried and armed women migrating from the South to the new frontier of the North brought shame to the race by taking the matter of protection into their own hands. “Reformers' moral anxieties about single black women in the city only infrequently involved any recognition of the many physical dangers these women faced.” Hicks wrote. “Feminist scholars have noted that the protection for white women espoused by the dominant rape-lynch narrative often worked to reinforce patriarchal claims on, rather than to physically defend their bodies,” she continued. “In contrast, black women's need for protection was, at best, ignored by white society.”
Such ignorance continued into the civil rights era and beyond. Laura Browder, author of the 2006 book, Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America, was the first person to tell me about Daisy Bates, one of the students known as the Little Rock Nine, who in 1957 endured constant threats due to their efforts to integrate the all-white Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. With bombs thrown at the Bates house and hangings in effigy, the high-schooler had little choice but to grow comfortable with guns—especially since the U.S. government answered her desperate telegrams by explaining that such incidents were a matter for local authorities. As Bates recalls in her 1962 memoir, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, “It took many weeks for me to become accustomed to seeing revolvers lying on tables in my own home. And shotguns, loaded with buckshot, standing ready near the doors.” And Danielle McGuire's 2010 book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, documents a long history of sexual assault as a weapon of racists in the South, and black women's sometimes armed resistance to the threat. All of it was news to me.
Perhaps the most threatening black female gun owners were those like Elaine Brown, JoAnne Chesimard, and their comrades in the Black Panther Party. The guns they carried were symbols of black women's abilities to be both frontierwomen and nurturing warrior mothers birthing a new generation of revolutionaries. “Like the 'pioneer mothers' valorized in turn-of-the-century monuments, Panther women could clutch a gun in one hand and hold a baby in the other arm,” Browder writes. The message such images sent was that black women could both contribute to perpetuating the race and have the strength to eliminate any potential threats to their babies and their men. “While fewer iconic images of African American women with guns exist—and virtually no widely disseminated images before the late 1960s—they carry a different charge for viewers schooled in the semiotics of the armed woman: these images generally suggest insurrection rather than criminality.”
It was freedom of movement, rather than insurrection, that was on my mind when I considered gun ownership. I had been meditating on where I felt restricted physically and psychologically. As a nature-lover who was single at the time, I dreamed of taking my less-than-vicious dog with me on a fall camping trip in West Texas. But I was frustrated by my resistance to the idea of using more lethal means than my keys to protect myself. I am among the most gentle women I know, but did I really want to rely on muscle memory in the event of an attack?
My decision to educate myself on gun ownership and protection wasn't quite an “Ain't I a Woman?” moment, but it was close. Still, because guns are so closely tied to representations not just of traditional macho men, but also of political conservatives, anti-immigration militias, and law enforcement figures who are just as likely to use their power to hurt women as to help them, there is understandable ambivalence among many feminists about the rising numbers of women participating in gun culture.
The firearms market—manufacturers like Smith & Wesson and Sig Sauer, as well as big retailers like Cabela's—now courts women with sassy leopard-print rifle cases, purses with compartments especially for revolvers, and, of course, glamorous pistols in Hello Kitty colors like those pictured in a 2011 New York Times Magazine piece on “purse pistols.” In 2009, the Times' former Ethicist columnist Randy Cohen proposed that allowing women to carry guns openly could help stem violence because women exercise restraint when using guns. He went on to say that “feminizing gun ownership could ultimately reduce its appeal to men, making gun-toting as unmasculine as carrying a purse.”
Magazines specifically tailored to female gun owners and enthusiasts include Women's Outlook, which is published by the NRA, and Women & Guns; both include articles on a range of technical subjects as well as advice on choosing a hunting dog and telling your kids you're a gun owner. And then there's Paxton Quigley, a Playboy executive who devoted her life to women's self-defense after a friend was raped. In 1990, Quigley wrote Armed and Female: Taking Control as a women's guide to gun ownership, use, and safety; today, as an author, speaker, and gun-industry spokeswoman, she's the Suze Orman of female gun culture.
The spectacle of a pistol-packing woman has mainstreamed since the days when Foxy Brown declared vigilante justice “as American as apple pie.” Sigourney Weaver, Angelina Jolie, and Uma Thurman have cemented their action-heroine careers with tough, gun-toting characters; Prime Suspect's Helen Mirren and the women of various Law & Order franchises have made holsters as commonplace on female TV characters as aprons once were. And Asian-made action films featuring gorgeous women who shoot and kick their way to vengeance are plentiful enough to have their own “Girls with Guns” section in many a hip underground DVD emporium.
And yet no matter how many guns we see in the hands of both real-life women and female characters, mainstream pop culture remains a go-to source of judgment on why guns and women don't mix, and, in so doing, is a reliable foil to gun-industry appeals to a female customer base. From the pulp rape-revenge genre (1981's Ms. 45) to the big-budget action film (1991's Thelma and Louise; 1996's Set It Off) to the impenetrable art flick (1995's Butterfly Kiss), the message is that women using firearms for their own protection against violence face alienation and, inevitably, death.
Take the reaction to the 2011 video for Rihanna's “Man Down.” In the video, Rihanna is shown taking aim at a man as he walks through a crowd; shortly thereafter, flashbacks reveal that the man she shoots sexually assaulted her the day before. “Man Down” aired a year after Rihanna's then-boyfriend, R&B singer Chris Brown, was charged with felony assault on the singer. And whether or not the video was intended as a response to Brown, its audiences certainly read it as one, and, not surprisingly, controversy ensued. The Parents Television Council lobbied for the video to be removed from broadcast, saying that it “gives retaliation in the form of premeditated murder the imprimatur of acceptability.” Brown himself responded to the video in a veiled tweet, writing, “I never claim to be no saint but by no means am I trying to promote death, violence, and destruction with my music! #f@ckouttahere.”
Perhaps the most interesting response to the “Man Down” kerfuffle came from another black woman who had raised a gun in self-defense. Actor Gabrielle Union had written before about being raped as a teenager during a workplace robbery—but it was only after “Man Down” premiered that she elaborated on the story, noting that she had used the rapist's own gun to shoot at him. (She missed.) Was a narrative in which a rape victim pulls the trigger just not appropriate for the likes of Teen Vogue or Oprah? Or did Union simply not want to complicate the narrative of “acceptable” self-defense by mentioning it herself? Her reaction, via Twitter, to “Man Down” would seem to suggest the latter; in two tweets, she wrote, “Over the yrs I realized tht killin my rapist wouldve added insult to injury. The DESIRE 2 kill whose abused/raped u is understandable, bt unless its self defense n the moment 2 save ur life, just ADDS 2 ur troubles #mandown.”
I reflected on this as I gathered the documents I needed to complete my own concealed handgun license application, considering whether the time and expense of pursuing this idea of myself as an armed woman was worth it. In another tweet, Union had opined that everyone has an idea of how they would deal when confronted with the threat of assault, but that the reality might be very different. I hope to never find out, but if for whatever reason I have to make the decision to shoot at an attacker, I also aim not to miss my target. I'm lucky enough to have that memory of my mother and me standing on the bridge from Harlem as my only experience of violence. But the persistent memory of the cold metal barrel pressed to my temple remains, 28 years later. I can't go back and protect that little girl from the scary and very real possibility that I could have died over a fake mink coat. But even if I never have to use my future gun for more than target practice—and I hope I don't—I can make sure I never feel that vulnerable again.