Carrying Guns, Contesting Gender
I remember looking at myself in the mirror that first morning, the familiar feminine ritual of checking my looks before heading out for the day disrupted by a new concern. I examined my hip for an unsightly bulge, hoping I had adequately concealed the handgun holstered on my right side. Deep into my research in Metro Detroit, I had decided to obtain a concealed pistol license from the state to better understand how people use guns to navigate social insecurity. The day the license arrived in the mail, I joined the roughly 11 million Americans who were licensed to carry a gun concealed.
I was nervous about adequately concealing my pistol that morning and carrying it into public space, but as a researcher, I was even more curious about what it was like to carry a gun on an everyday basis. Would it feel different to grab a cup of coffee knowing that I was armed with a 9 mm pistol—even if I was the only person who knew? How would my status as a licensed concealed carrier change how gun owners and carriers—disproportionately men—viewed me at the shooting range, in the firearm classroom, or at pro-gun events?
In many respects, gun culture is a man’s world. As Scott Melzer argues in his book Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War, the gun lobby’s success since the 1970s can, at least in part, be tied to the way guns reinforce masculine identity in America. In legal gun use, the language of self-defense laws and doctrine suggest that guns are a man’s prerogative: America’s “No Duty to Retreat” doctrine has long been defended by the logic that “a man’s house is his castle.” And in their criminal uses, guns are sometimes wielded to enact gendered violence—especially domestic. According to a 2003 study by Jacquelyn Campbell and colleagues, an abuser’s access to guns ranks (after previous abuse and employment status) as one of the top predictors of a woman being killed by that abuser.
Others, however, highlight the protection guns can afford women. According to a series of papers published by Gary Kleck and colleagues that focus on women’s victimization during street crime, acts of resistance against an attacker—including, but not limited to, brandishing or firing a gun—lessen the likelihood that an attack, such as sexual assault, is “completed.” Indeed, many Americans argue women stand to gain as much as, if not more than, men from armed protection. From the NRA to the firearms industry to gun instructors, gun advocates are cozying up to the idea of women owning, learning about, and carrying guns.
Pundits and policymakers on both sides of the gun issue argue whether armed women represent collusion with the patriarchy or the dawn of armed feminism. But politically evocative as it may seem, this binary just doesn’t capture the dynamic, contested, and at times pragmatic nature of women’s participation in gun culture. At the shooting range, in the gun store, and walking through daily life with a holstered firearm, the women I met during my fieldwork defied a single, straightforward narrative. They engaged in an ever-changing set of gendered negotiations through which women’s empowerment and masculine protectionism were meshed in sometimes familiar, sometimes surprising ways.
I met Kathy at Gun Sports & More, a shop and shooting range nested deep in the suburbs of Detroit. I had heard about the store because they hold “ladies only” shooting nights and firearms classes for women. A blond, SUV-driving suburban mom who wore a smart polo shirt (the store uniform) and a holstered handgun, Kathy led Gun Sports’ efforts with women: she oversaw many of the firearms courses and pressed range owners to open up dedicated range time for women.
In contrast to the male gun carriers I met, who couched their desire to carry in terms of crime and a desire to protect themselves and their families, Kathy offered a different narrative. Sure, she would be capable of willing to defend herself and her kids with a handgun if needed. But, given the low crime rates in the middle-class suburb where she lived, she thought that was unlikely. Kathy’s decision to carry a gun was, instead, motivated by her involvement in gun culture as an enthusiast, an instructor, and a competitive shooter. As we chatted, I saw that Kathy simply enjoyed shooting firearms and loved excelling at a “men’s” sport.
When she first started competitive shooting, Kathy experienced exclusion and ridicule based on her gender. Then she won a major championship. She was the only woman to compete that year, and she expected to be mocked and dismissed by the other competitors—especially if she placed in the top three. When her name was called for first place in a room full of men, “they all just clapped!”Scholars like Michael Messner have talked about the gendering of space, arguing that certain arenas like sports and the military have long been “masculine terrain.” These social spaces, predicated on women’s exclusion, are where bonds among men are forged and links between masculinity and a variety of social attributes—strength, competitiveness, courage—are naturalized. Women who dare to cross the threshold have historically been rejected and ridiculed, told they can’t cut it in a man’s world. As women enter, these spaces become what Messner calls “contested ideological terrain.” The problem isn’t their innate abilities, it’s how women upset the male monopoly on certain social spaces and social practices.
Betty, who worked in the public sector, was one armed woman who crossed this threshold early in the 1960s, decades before Michigan’s concealed carry law was changed. Back then, the law required demonstrating to licensing authorities that you had a legitimate need to carry a gun. Betty argued that her job made her vulnerable, particularly as a woman, and the gun board agreed. However, she recalled being bullied by her male co-workers: “‘Look at you, why do you need a gun?’ They were just jealous! They told me there’s no way someone as small as me could even use a gun!”
Chris told a similar story: after her dad had been the victim of a kidnapping in Detroit’s infamous Cass Corridor, she decided she wanted to learn how to use a gun for self-defense. When she called a couple of local gun stores to ask about an impromptu lesson, she “basically got laughed off the phone.” She soon found out that in her county, women were being denied concealed pistol licenses because the men on the licensing boards couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of an armed woman capable of self-defense. Chris was angry: “Particularly for women who were in situations where they felt threatened by a former boyfriend, husband, any kind of stalking situation, being denied the ability to defend themselves is absolutely unacceptable.”
Committed to teaching women how to shoot and use guns for self-defense, Chris eventually became politically active in the grassroots effort to pass Michigan’s 2001 concealed carry law, which would remove the discretion of the licensing board to decide who was worthy of a concealed pistol license. As part of her activism, she was slated to speak at a men’s-only hunting lodge. As she described it, she was one of the few women who “had ever crossed that doorway.” In fact, it turned out that her invitation was a mistake: “[O]ne of the guys came over to me and said, ‘I’m so sorry, Chris, we didn’t realize, but with your name, we didn’t know if you were a man or a woman, but we assumed you were a man.’” Instead of leaving, Chris decided she wouldn’t “drop to that level” and lectured the men: “What about your wife? Your daughter? Your aunt? Your mother? Your grandmother? Your neighbor who doesn’t have a husband or boyfriend? When you are not around to defend the homestead, what about them? Don’t they deserve the right to take care of themselves and to do it with good training?”
Ten years later, when I started researching gun politics in 2010, I’d hear the same arguments—not just from women, but from pro-gun men, as well.
the great equalizer
Today, Chris’s arguments about guns as gender equalizers—captured by slogans like “God Created Man and Woman, But Samuel Colt Made Them Equal”—have gained traction. Many of the men I met in Michigan during the course of my research insisted they liked the idea of armed women. And from the looks of shooting ranges, gun shops, and gun magazines, things are changing: at a local shooting range, you’re likely to see pink handguns, pink rifles, and even ammunition labeled with a pink bow in support of breast cancer awareness.
Certain guns are feminized: small guns, pink guns, and revolvers have all become “women’s guns,” and there’s now a whole cottage industry—from designer concealed carry bags to bra holsters—geared at making concealed handguns a fashionable, comfortable option for women. Gendering (and sexualizing) the “culture of fear”—to use Barry Glassner’s term—gun advertisements often highlight women’s vulnerability and promote guns as a ”woman’s best friend.” Glock’s “Wrong Girl” commercial depicts a young woman in a tank top and panties alone at home. She hears a disturbance and grabs her Glock. Before she can shoot, the would-be intruder passes out in shock. Was it the sight of the beautiful woman or the Glock? Either way, the threat is neutralized.
There’s a good reason the firearms industry wants to make guns appealing to women: they represent a largely untapped consumer base in a market already swimming with 300 million guns. Women mean more gun sales, more NRA memberships. This embrace, as Chris intimated, also fits with dominant gender ideologies stipulating men as protectors: how can a man truly committed to protecting his family deny his wife and children a weapon of self-defense?
But old habits die hard. With this openness comes new narratives that negotiate women’s presence in a “man’s world.” Today, Chris wouldn’t be laughed off the phone or stage. Instead, she’d be encouraged: women are often assured that their gender makes them great shooters. Why? Male gun instructors told me women are more docile learners. And if they aren’t quite the warriors that men are, they still have a natural, maternal instinct to protect. Their smaller fingers, which apparently make women “naturally” more dexterous, don’t hurt either.I seemed to be a prime example of just how wrong those generalizations were. It took a while for me to understand the feel of the gun at a tactile level, knowing just where the pad of my finger should sit on the trigger or how to roll with the recoil. Like other women I met, I became irritated that a gendered standard had already been set for me and my shooting abilities; it added another layer of stress to conducting fieldwork. And I found that while increasing my firearms proficiency and knowledge made me feel more comfortable and even, like Kathy, a bit “empowered” on the range, it didn’t really change how men saw me and my gun. Most often, I was treated as a novice until the man saw how well I shot a .460 Rowland (“My wife would never shoot that!”) or how detailed my knowledge of ammunition became (“You know what a 9mm Kurz round is? Most men don’t even know that!”)
Gender still matters on today’s shooting range. There are men insisting that women carry uselessly small, but “gender appropriate,” .380s or familiarize themselves with revolvers (semi-automatics might be too mechanically complicated). There are women “surprising” men with their full capability as shooters. But rather than a politics of exclusion, gender works more through a contradictory, contested politics that informally segregates everything from handguns to holsters into gender appropriate categories.
The shooting range is contested ideological terrain. Under new concealed carry laws, the gendering of guns and gun paraphernalia extends into public space, too.
Thanks to the passage of “shall-issue” laws in dozens of US states, guns can become part of everyday life. These laws require licensing authorities to issue a license to carry so long as the applicant meets a predetermined list of criteria. In contrast to Betty and Chris, who had to convince a gun board that they were fit to carry, in most states license applicants today can simply take a firearms course, fill out an application, pay a fee and—assuming their criminal record comes back clean—receive their license in a matter of weeks. In the US, there are roughly 11 million licensed gun carriers, and over 400,000 of them are in Michigan. Though there is no national database of concealed carriers, state-level data—such as Michigan’s—suggests that about 1 in 5 of these licensees are women.For many women, the experience of carrying a gun—even if it is concealed—means experiencing public space differently. Angela, a woman in her 50s, became interested in guns during a camping trip “up north.” She explained her first exposure in gendered terms: “You know how the story goes: the girls are talking about sewing, and the guys are talking about hunting. So I overheard one of the guys saying he wanted to go shooting. Nobody had any interest. So I said, ‘I will!’ ” Angela’s comfort on the range soon translated into a desire to learn more; she found herself in a concealed pistol licensing class. She didn’t intend to ever carry her gun until she became friends with one of the instructors, who offered to go out with her on her first day as a gun carrier. No one could see her gun, of course, but she still felt nervous with it on her hip. What if someone saw? What if it somehow popped out of its holster? Angela told me stepping out of the car, going to the grocery store, or just walking around all felt different. But carrying her gun (eventually, two guns) gave her a degree of confidence: even if her concealed gun was her secret, she’d proved she was capable of carrying it.
Though she was acutely attentive to gender as she described her own turn to guns, Angela didn’t use the term “feminist.” In fact, only one woman gun carrier I met described herself in explicit feminist terms, jokingly calling herself a “feminazi”. Nevertheless, Angela’s story evokes Martha McCaughey’s argument that self-defense is a form of “physical feminism”: teaching one’s body to “fight back” provides women with a skillset should they find themselves in a violent confrontation such as an attempted sexual assault. Carrying a gun, as well as the confidence that they can defend themselves, thus transforms how these women move through and experience space. It entails an embodied rejection of dependent femininity. Put differently, Angela’s gun is a challenge to what Iris Marion Young calls masculine protectionism: the idea that men have an exclusive duty to protect women and children. With a gun at her hip, Angela feels confident she—and she alone—can protect herself.
But just as women’s presence on the shooting range is contested ideological terrain, so too are women’s holsters: men had a great deal to say about how, what, and when women carried. When I met Cheryl and Matthew, an older, white married couple, Cheryl linked the gun she carried to feelings of empowerment and fearlessness: “It’s funny. When you got the gun, you aren’t scared.” She told me she felt freer in public spaces and less afraid of being victimized when working as a real estate agent, entering unknown spaces. Like Betty and other women, Cheryl’s participation in the workforce was tied to her participation in gun culture.
But as I watched Cheryl and Matthew describe their gun carry habits and their politics, I soon realized that Matthew was the “gun nut” of the two. While Matthew emphasized politics, his disdain for the president, and his military service, Cheryl took a no-nonsense attitude—“He’s the political one.” Cheryl recognized the appeal of a gun, but she also asserted that she didn’t need her gun every time she stepped outside. Matthew neither understood nor respected her logic. He insisted his wife always needed her gun, because “you never know.” Motioning to her heavy purse, he argued, “If you can carry all that, you can carry a gun!” Matthew’s words followed what I had observed among many other gun-toting men: they were vociferously in support of armed women, but on men’s terms. By attempting to override Cheryl’s capacity to discern whether and when she needed a gun, he strained to extend his duty to protect into her holster. Cheryl seemed unfazed by Matthew’s finagling. More pragmatic than political, Cheryl laughed off her husband’s insistence. Her embrace of situational self-protection was a subtle negotiation of masculine protectionism.
For all of my anticipation walking out the door that first day, carrying a firearm in itself did not transform—for better or for worse—my own gendered sense of self. No doubt, I felt the sense of confidence women had told me about. I also experienced strong encouragement—even pressure—from men who thought it was great that I was carrying a gun and who believed that, as a woman, I would be vulnerable to violent attack without one.
But, truth be told, that first experience of gun carry was anti-climatic. At the end of the day, the gun at my hip was just… a gun. It was gun culture—and the practices of gun-carrying men and women—that made my 9mm a gendered object.In this regard, the proliferation of gun carry represents neither the dawn of a new feminism nor the resurgence of the patriarchy—at least not at the individual level of individual armed women, still largely outnumbered by men. Lying somewhere between the domain of “physical feminism” and “masculine protectionism,” carrying guns serves—for the women I met—as a way to subtly and not-so-subtly negotiate gender norms around safety, security, and even caring for others. For some women, like Chris and Betty, the gendered world of guns transformed their weapons from tools of self-protection to symbols of women’s empowerment. For other women, like Cheryl, guns simply balanced personal, pragmatic needs and men’s desire to protect.
The visceral, lived experience of guns is contradictory and contested. A woman’s gun can be a tool of embodied empowerment, but it can also be a vehicle of complicity with masculine protectionism. It might even be both, simultaneously. In a complicated, pro-gun country, the gendered meaning of the gun is double-barreled.
Laura Browder. 2008. Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Provocative and detailed, this book uses historical archives to chronicle women’s participation in the world of firearms from the Civil War onwards.
Philip Cook and Kristin A. Goss. 2014. The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press. An excellent primer on the current state of the gun debate in the U.S.
Martha McCaughey. 1997. Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Self-Defense. New York: NYU Press. An engaging ethnography of women’s self-defense courses, including but not limited to gun training.
Scott Melzer. 2009. Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War. New York: NYU Press. An ethnography and interview study of the National Rifle Association and its mobilization of gender politics to promote gun rights.
Michael Messner. 2002. Taking the Field: Women, Men and Sports. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Examines how, despite women’s entrance into sports (thanks in part to Title IX), sports continue to reproduce traditional expectations about gender, especially masculine identity.