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American Women and Guns

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Blown Away: American Women and Guns, (Pocket Books, 2004)
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Caityln Kelly

Caityln Kelly

I didn’t grow up with guns in the house. As a Canadian who lived only in large cities – Toronto and Montreal – it wasn’t a part of our larger culture nor a passion for my fellow urban citizens.

I moved to the United States in 1989, and I live in a small suburban town north of New York City, which still has some of the nation’s toughest gun laws. Getting your hands on a legal weapon there is neither quick nor easy; if you visit the Beretta store at 718 Madison Ave., they’re not allowed, under New York City law, to show shoppers their handguns. Interestingly, the shop’s lower two floors are filled only with elegant and expensive clothing and accessories, with little hint of the firearms sold on the third floor.

This hidden quality of American gun use and ownership, one of many, is something I discovered firsthand while researching my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns  (Pocket Books 2004.) I don’t own a gun nor do I wish to, but I personally found and interviewed 104 men, women and teenagers, of all races and income levels across the nation, to better understand why they do. My book is unique — because I also spoke to many Americans deeply traumatized by gun violence, women who have been shot or who have shot others and those who have lost loved ones to suicide and homicide.

To better understand what it means to own and fire a handgun, I took a three-day weapons training class, along with other civilians, at the Smith & Wesson Academy in Springfield, Mass. I was given a Smith & Wesson 9 mm pistol to use, and fired it for many hours, in addition to classroom discussions of the legal and ethical implications of shooting in self-defense. I had no desire to ever do so, but I wanted to enter the world of gun use credibly as a journalist – not easy to do — and to examine why owning a firearm is seen as such a powerfully American imperative.

While 30 percent of American homes contain a firearm, and some contain hundreds, there’s still very little rational conversation between those who own one and those who find their choice incomprehensible, even abhorrent.     

Why would anyone ever want to own a gun?

There are many kinds of firearms and as many reasons for owning one, I learned, and wrote in my book. A hunting shotgun or rifle might be a prized and valuable antique or an heirloom inherited from a beloved relative, a treasured reminder of happy times spent hunting with them. For hunters, stalking and shooting game and animals like deer, elk and moose is how they socialize and enjoy the outdoors. For some Americans, even those living only a few hours’ drive north of Manhattan, that meat will feed their family for months.

Some gun-owners enjoy competitive shooting sports: cowboy action shooting, trap, skeet and clays. Some find an afternoon at the range, firing round after round from their Glock or Walther or Smith & Wesson handgun, a relaxing form of meditation.

Yes, really.

For every person horrified by the very idea of even touching a gun, there are millions of safe and law-abiding gun users who stay silent and invisible. Only the madmen and women (statistically much rarer), who inflict public killing rampages — or who slaughter their wives, ex-wives, girlfriends and children — have become the default face of American gun ownership.

Women across the United States own and use guns, whether for sport or self-defense. Some live alone, far from law enforcement, some driving long hours at night alone through sketchy neighborhoods or areas where a cellphone call would produce little help in time to be useful. These women believe that a gun keeps them safe; it’s a tool they have bought and trained to use, a feature of their independence and self-reliance.

Some, like me, have become the terrified victims of male-perpetrated crime — and whose local police and district attorney dismiss or minimize our very real fears. Weary of living in terror of attack, some have chosen to arm themselves. (Others, like me, choose not to.)

Privacy laws strictly limit the ability of the American health care system to amass and correlate potentially useful data on mental health, prior criminal violence, aggravating substance abuse and firearm ownership. In a nation with a historical mistrust of government authority and where damaging health data can ruin one’s career and access to health insurance, privacy concerns remain paramount.

Americans, more than possibly the people of any other nation — and I’ve lived in five and visited 38 — also insist vigorously on the primacy of their individual rights. When I’ve politely and respectfully raised the concomitant question: “Then what, in return for your right, is your responsibility to your larger community?” I’m met with silence or puzzlement. Those of us who grew up in nations with more interventionist government and shared community values — like health care cradle-to-grave for everyone, paid through our taxes — are equally confounded by those who believe their individual need to own a gun, or many guns, trumps all else.

Make no mistake. Even politicians eager to stem gun violence face their own pressures, especially those working at the federal level. One of them told me the incredible pressure they felt from gun control groups to do their bidding, even as they were working on bipartisan legislation. Yes, some politicians are in the NRA’s pockets. But not all.

Many Americans are angry and scared and weary of endless gun violence. But every single time there’s the next massacre, there’s a rush to re-arm and gun sales go up, as those who live in fear of government seizure of their firearms buy even more, just in case.

When fear and emotion dominate, rational discourse remains impossible.

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