Examining the rhetorical deployment of certain discourses can sometimes deepen our explanations of social phenomena. Such analyses can illuminate the intricacies of newly emerging trends and power-plays, whilst perhaps also dismayingly demonstrating how such ‘progressions’ are themselves often underpinned by a set of values carried over from long-past eras. And perhaps it is this double edged view of social phenomena that makes me both excited and disheartened about the recent testimony given by pro-gun activist Gayle Trotter at the congressional hearing on gun-control early last week.
Trotter was brought in by anti gun-control advocates to play a pivotal role in their grand argument: to represent the pro-gun feminist narrative. Her main point fundamentally consists in the view that guns are a valuable component of women’s physical empowerment. Guns are not just a privilege guaranteed by the second amendment, they are – or at least ought to be – a (central) feminist concern.
The methodological, logical, and empirical flaws within her argument have been well-documented. Her use of a single highly-charged anecdote (in which the weapon used is not actually a model that would be banned under the considered statute) can be highly criticized for its dramatic flare, as well as its unabashed premising on the ‘stranger-danger’ scenarios . Moreover, it’s clear that she ignores the vast amount of empirical literature which demonstrates that on the whole women as a group are more endangered by guns because most casualties are inflected by members of the household, i.e. most gun violence takes place in situations of domestic abuse. In fact, a recent study by the Violence Policy Centre demonstrated that for every woman who fires a gun in self-defence, 83 women are critically or fatally injured by an intimate partner.
My aim, however, is not to rehash these astute counter-arguments, but to interrogate the pro-gun lobby’s rhetorical deployment of feminist narrative, showing show why I think it’s both problematic, but perhaps also why it’s made me somewhat optimistic.
If I was – for one ghastly moment – to walk in the shoes of the politician, I can think of two reasons for why feminist arguments are convenient.
First, a key component of the gun-lobby’s case is that the claim to own a gun (and thus the government’s duty to respect that claim by refusing to regulate the gun market) is that guns are a critical tool for self-defence – and who better to construct this argument around than the ubiquitous symbol for helplessness and victimhood? Yes: women. Trotter does not dance around this point, stating quite explicitly that ‘by safeguarding our Second Amendment rights, we preserve meaningful protection for women.‘ What is interesting, but equally as disturbing about Trotter’s argument, is that her insistence on the physical empowerment of women (by arming them with a ‘scary-looking gun’!) is completely reliant on the presumed physical inferiority and vulnerability of women. Some may quibble about the idea of women’s inherent inferiority, arguing that on the whole, plenty of women are not physically inferior to men. Moreover, practically speaking this argument seems odd: is physical inferiority truly overcome by a tool which could be knocked out of one’s hand quite quickly? Moreover, if most instances of violence against women is wrought by intimates (and this is the case) then it follows that owning a gun isn’t very safe, as it would be constantly at the reach of close of potential offenders. I don’t think we need to belabor this point too much, as it is more productive to ask after the consequences of these presumptions: by claiming that ‘guns are the great equalizer in a violent confrontation’, Trotter effectively suggests that women’s ‘natural inferiority’ to men is the problem, rather than the actions of men – and this suggests that the avoidance or mitigation of violence is the responsibility of women.
Trotter adds further urgency to the issue by persistently associating women’s personal self-defense with ‘protection of loved ones’. The message? Women are victims, but with a gun (particularly the AR-51 since it’s so ‘light and easy to handle!’) she can be Mom-bo. This rhetorical sleight of hand does the important work of reinforcing narratives about women’s ‘natural’ and ‘suitable’ role as a nurturing nighwatchman. By consistently presenting the theme of personal defence with maternal duty, Trotter suggests that the value of women lies in their capacities as mothers – and thus the value of a woman’s life is not as glorious or impressive when she’s just defending her own.
Yet, given the recent heartbreak the nation feels in response to events at Sandyhook Elementary School, it makes sense that the gun lobby would be so eager to present gun-use alongside stories of motherhood: they’re trying to tug on the same heart strings that reverberated at that time – but their story leads to a chillingly different conclusion. It suggests that putting more guns within the vicinity of children will keep them safer. However, I think this reasoning is somewhat flawed and at the end of the day, I cannot help but be deeply offended by the gun-lobby’s attempt to appeal to such intuitions. Although mass killings within schools are horrific scenes to behold, children are injured by guns in the hundreds every year. Because the gun-lobby is primarily of a conservative mindset, it is comfortable with locating the full responsibility of protection from the mis-use of guns onto individuals, i.e. parents. To me, this is counterintuitive. A mother cannot always be by her child’s side, armed and ready to shoot an aggressive attacker, but a government can put measures in place that greatly decrease the likelihood that a gun or other lethal weapon will be near her child. This is not to say that parents or adults do not have duties to protect children – they do. Yet, in my view, conceptualizing protects as fully their responsibility downplays the role of social structures.
The deeply conservative directions in which feminist rhetoric is take by Trotter troubles me for these reasons, and I would hope they would trouble you as well. However, in closing, if we jump back into the politician shoes and ask ‘why feminism?’ we may find that some consolation might be in sight.
The second reason I think the gun-lobby presented a pro-gun case via feminist narratives is because the importance of women as a political constituency is starting to become vividly clear. There is increased recognition in both parties, among both men and women, that women’s issues are important social issues, and that women’s political power is strengthening. The fact that conservatives are using feminist rhetoric to make their case shows this very trend, and opens them up to fierce critiques of antiquated thinking. My optimism could be entirely misplaced. If conservatives are slick enough, it’s possible they could use culturally appealing stereotypes about women to push regressive agendas that harm women in the long run, such as measures which maintain the gun-control status-quo. But in doing so, they risk wandering in unfamiliar territory, and being debunked by saavy progressives at every turn – progressives who have a lot of time and practice rehearsing feminist rhetoric in a way that is consistent with its founding principles. And to be honest, this time around, conservatives looked ‘such a fool’ that I wouldn’t be surprised to see it cultivate an undesired impact in moderate segments of the population, for whom it is fats becoming clear that the ‘the next horrible monster in search of soft target’ is really the gun-lobby looking to sell AK-47s to WASPY soccer moms. What a terrifying prospect that would be.