It may not be what you think.
The gun lobby has for several years campaigned to sell women on guns.
Check out the website for "Gun Appreciation Day." Perhaps you didn't know that January 19 -- three days after President Obama's gun control declaration, two days before his public inauguration, and the beginning of the Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend -- had been chosen for that honor. (A coincidence of timing? Probably not.)
Among the many sponsors of Gun Appreciation Day (such as Tea Party Nation) are Women & Guns, Men Who Support Women Against Gun Control, and the Women Warriors PAC. The Gun Appreciation Day website features two blond women, one shooting a delicate red handgun, the prototype of a chick weapon.
Marketers of guns to women have recently begun using a standard PR maneuver: By claiming that there is a trend, they hope to create the trend.
The NRA and its brother organizations are claiming that women are stampeding to buy firearms. These claims then get repeated in newspapers and websites as if they were news rather than wishful thinking.
The NRA actually has very few female members and, it turns out, does not keep statistics on female gun ownership, but reports that the number of women enrolled in its "Women on Target" clinics had 500 customers in 2001 and 9500 in 2011.[i]
The NRA also features individual women's born-again stories, like that of Katherine von Tour of Gun Owners of America, who describes her odyssey from foolish "Sixties liberal" to antigovernment gun enthusiast.[ii]
The manufacturers, who support all the pro-gun organizations, are busy producing pink pistols, pink ear protectors and shell pouches, pink "Pistol Packing Princess" stickers.[iii]
Here's the problem: There's little if any evidence for the assertion that more women, let alone masses of women, are buying guns. The NRA cites a 2011 Gallup Poll for the claimed increase.
But in fact that poll shows an increase only among women who say there is a gun in their household, not that they own it.[iv] And the managing editor of Gallup Poll says that the increase in women with guns is slight and includes many women who already owned guns buying more of them. Nancy Lanza, whose weapon was used in the Newtown school bombing, was probably one of those (she owned five guns).
It turns out that gun lovers tend to buy multiple guns. The editor of Women & Guns magazine says the average subscriber owns seven.[v] The leading scholar-expert on guns in the US, Gary Kleck, who analyzes the best data -- that of the General Social Survey[vi] -- believes there has been no increase at all in gun-owning women.[vii]
The gun lobby also relies on claims by the National Sporting Goods Association that target-shooting women increased from 3.3 to 5 million between 2001 and 2011, and women hunters from 1.8 to 2.6 million.[viii] But the Association offers no sources for their numbers. The National Shooting Sports Foundation says that 61 percent of gun retailers believe there has been an increase in women buyers. But they have no data either, because they have no way of tracking sales by sex.
A few feminist blogs and websites are questioning the women-buying-guns proclamations, but the gun-control websites? Not so much.
Of the five leading gun-control organizations, only the Brady Campaign and the Violence Policy Center present any information about women, but it's hard to find and the data only present women as victims of guns.
The other gun-control groups -- Stop Handgun Violence, Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition -- don't seem to want to touch the question of women as gun owners and users.
Is it possible that gun-control groups are swallowing the gun lobby's claims that women are being won over?
We don't know the facts, but we do know the motives that lie behind these claims by the gun lobby.
One motive is that the "traditional market of white males is dying off," according to Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center. As a result, manufacturers and retailers of guns need a new market. (Similarly, the aggressive marketing of assault weapons was the industry's response to the declining market for handguns.[ix]) "The pitch is very simple," Sugarmann says. "You're a woman, someone is going to attack you, you need a gun."[x] In fact, having a gun in the home kills and injures many times more women than it protects.
Another gun-lobby concern is counteracting women's anti-gun attitudes. The NRA and its brother organizations fear that women could vote out the politicians they fund. So the gun lobby has been trying to soften people's associations with guns, in order to convince women to buy, by picturing women shooters, delicate small pistols, and ominous criminals threatening women.
But just as they have no data to back up the claims that more women want guns, they also have a problem with this propaganda line, because there is another aspect of their approach they can't afford to leave behind: the "hard" gun propaganda that appeals to their core market, especially for assault weapons, by pandering to macho values.[xi] (One sales pitch lists the "Ten Manliest Firearms.")
The hard-gun approach also appeals to misogyny, labeling those who support gun control as man-hating "feminazis." This gun talk appeals to tea-party, Glenn Beck-type white rage. One piece says it bluntly: "gun control as castration." Gun control "comes down to the psychological ... desperate need of such women to control, manage and limit male agency.... An attempt to perform a symbolic castration of all man in society ... The men who favor gun control ... are pro homosexual ...."[xii] Another piece accuses gun-control liberals of cowardice: "These sniveling brats are mostly women and emasculated beta males with children." (Becoming a father is just another form of castration?) The appeal is also bluntly racist: gun-control supporters are "cowardly liberals who think the only thing scarier than a gun is a white man with a gun."[xiii] With rhetoric like this, no wonder the NRA's men in Congress urged it a few days ago to "tone down" the propaganda.[xiv]
Of course many women own guns, and many of them also support gun control. But let's not be misled by the gun lobby: The majority of women know that arming themselves is not a solution to our problems and those of our children.
Linda Gordon is University Professor of the Humanities and Florence Kelley Professor of History at New York University.
[vi] The General Social Survey (GSS) is run every two years by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
[viii] http://www.gunweek.com/2003/hs0082003.html; and http://womenandguns.org/tag/national-sporting-goods-association/. Note that these two websites cite contradictory data.
[ix] Report of the Violence Policy Center at http://www.vpc.org/studies/awamarkt.htm