Beneath the surface of the guns discussion in America—one traditionally dominated by men—there's a complex world of females and firearms. Here, in the following 10 stories, we shed light on what often goes unseen: how women feel about, live with, and die by guns.
Chapter 1: The Statistics
The Real Landscape
MarieClaire.com partners with the Harvard Injury Control Research Center on a groundbreaking national survey of women's relationship with guns.
by Emily DePrang and the editors of MarieClaire.com
To read any set of statistics about guns in the United States is to read about men. Surveys typically assess gun ownership by household, meaning that if one person keeps a gun, his or her choice ends up representing the preference of everyone in the home. Counting by household silences the voice of whoever lost the debate, if there was one. And in the important and demographically lopsided issue of gun ownership, the silenced voice is usually a woman's.
It's a blind spot we're seeking to correct. MarieClaire.com has partnered with the Harvard Injury Control Research Center to study American women's beliefs, opinions, and experiences in relation to gun ownership and gun control, the results of which are published here for the first time. More than 5,000 people were surveyed—as individuals rather than households—and the results illuminate a nuanced landscape for women and guns. As you see in the infographics here (and the full survey and methodology here), it turns out that when women are allowed to speak for themselves, they have very different things to say.
According to our findings, 12 percent of American women own a gun. But nearly three times as many men own guns as women do, and male gun owners are more likely to carry their guns in public than female gun owners are—which means the large majority of gun-toting civilians are men. Generally, when a gun is part of an American civilian's life, whether locked in a bedside drawer or holstered to a stranger's hip, a man decided to put it there, and he will decide, moment to moment, how it should be used.
It's a disparity made all the more striking by the fact that 74 percent of the women we polled believe that men have a different mindset about guns than they do. Many attributed this to the fact that men are made more comfortable with guns from an early age, from toys to hunting, and that women aren't as often exposed.
It makes sense, then, that what a gun means to a woman is largely dependent on whether she has one. Only 20 percent of the general population of women believe that having a gun at home makes it a safer place—though the majority of gun-owning women do.
In a country tangled up in headlines about gun violence, rapes, and terrorist threats, women are on edge. While 49 percent of our female respondents report feeling more negatively about guns in light of recent shootings and terrorist attacks, fear for their personal safety has driven others to want to arm themselves—18 percent of the general population of women have become more interested in owning a gun in the last five years.
At the same time, our findings show that it is exceptionally rare for a woman to need to actually use a gun to protect herself—less than 1 percent of women report having used a gun in self-defense. For the majority of women, guns don't even top the list of preferred personal security measures. Home security systems, having a large dog, and taking a self-defense class were ranked higher by more respondents as ways to feel secure.
Of course, in many cases, what women fear most is the gun itself. Forty-seven percent of our respondents say that seeing a civilian wearing a holstered gun in public would make them feel less safe than they do now.
Most Americans favor stricter gun control, but women want it more: Sixty-two percent of women want stricter laws governing gun sales, versus 54 percent of men.
These women will be bringing their beliefs to the polls, and they expect the candidates to speak up before they get there: 63 percent of women surveyed want guns to be a major topic in the upcoming presidential election. Fifty-one percent of women want the next president to take action on guns, including tougher gun control, better background checks, and mental health screenings.
Though largely untapped by the political system to speak up on gun issues, American women want to be heard. The following story series aims to amplify their voices from all corners of the country. For the women you're about to meet, guns are their sport, their source of protection, their greatest fear, their biggest regret, their firmest belief. No matter their reason, it's time for American women to step up to the microphone.
Chapter 2: The Politics
Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina Lay Their Gun Beliefs Bare
The current and former presidential candidates make impassioned appeals from both sides of the aisle.
by Hillary Clinton
Not long ago, at a restaurant in Chicago, I sat down with a group of women who are members of a club no one ever wants to join. One by one, each held up a picture of a beloved child killed with a gun. Pamela Bosley's son was shot while standing outside of church before choir practice. Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton's daughter was shot in a park in broad daylight just days after she performed with her marching band at President Obama's second inauguration.
I tried to find the right words to comfort and console. I fell short; there are no right words. Later I learned that in the time we were together, a 9-year-old was shot and killed just miles away.
America loses, on average, 90 people a day to gun violence—homicides, suicides, and terrible, tragic accidents. That's 33,000 deaths each year. Almost every person I've met who has lost a loved one to guns is like those mothers in Chicago. They aren't looking for sympathy. They just want an end to all these needless, violent deaths. They want to spare other families what they've endured.
It's time for the rest of us to show that same courage.
Too often, guns are seen as a male domain. But women care about guns, too. Plenty of women own guns. Plenty of women care deeply about their Second Amendment rights. And women have long been at the forefront of the movement to end gun violence in America, from Sarah Brady to Gabby Giffords to the mothers who've turned their grief into action.
Women aren't monolithic; our opinions about guns are as diverse as we are. But just about all of us can agree that far too many people are dying from senseless gun violence—and that we need to do something about it. Any serious conversation about guns has to take into account our voices and experiences—as citizens, mothers, survivors, and advocates on all sides of this debate.
"Women aren't monolithic; our opinions about guns are as diverse as we are."
The good news is that we already have consensus. Ninety-two percent of Americans support universal background checks. (So do 83 percent of gun owners!) So our challenge isn't finding common ground—we've already found it. Our challenge is getting politicians to listen to their constituents rather than the gun lobby.
As a former senator and a candidate for president, I have ideas for how we can reduce gun violence without compromising anyone's rights. We need comprehensive background checks that keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and other violent criminals. We need to do a better job of making sure gun dealers follow the law, and if they don't, we should revoke their licenses. We need to end laws that let the gun industry act without consequences and that shield them from liability. And we need to close legal loopholes that allow dangerous people to buy weapons without clearing a background check if that check isn't completed within three days. That courtesy isn't worth people's lives.
If Congress won't take these simple steps to save lives, we need to elect people who will. The gun lobby's stranglehold on Washington is ludicrous. It has to end.
And for that to happen, women have to decide that guns are an issue worth going to the polls for. We need to say, loudly and clearly, that we will choose candidates who support sensible gun reforms. We need to say that if you're on the wrong side of this issue, you will not get our vote.
Maybe someone you love has been affected by domestic violence, and you care about keeping guns away from abusers. Maybe you love hunting but think felons shouldn't be able to buy handguns. Maybe you're a mom who wants guns nowhere near your kids. Maybe you have a gun in your home for protection and went through a background check to get it and think there's absolutely nothing wrong with other people having to do the same. Or maybe you're just deeply concerned about a political system that can't get the most basic law passed, even as thousands of children die.
Whatever your reason, I hope you'll join me in insisting that ending gun violence is a priority in this election.
President Obama recently announced that he will take new steps to address America's gun violence epidemic. Like most Americans, I support President Obama's actions. But I worry about what will happen if our next president doesn't share his convictions. And beyond the presidency, we need officials at every level of government who'll stand with families, not the gun lobby.
For 20 years, I've been meeting people who have lost loved ones to gun violence. I've listened as survivors of mass shootings recounted nightmarish experiences. I've stood with gun owners as they pleaded for saner gun laws. I've watched the political debate shift and our national conversation evolve—often for the worse, but sometimes for the better. Change is possible. I believe that deeply. But it isn't inevitable, which means we can't give up. We can't become so cynical or heartbroken that we stop trying. We have to keep speaking out. And above all, we have to vote.
There is no more powerful corporate lobby than the gun industry. They fight like hell to get their favored politicians elected, and once elected, they fight like hell to keep them there. But you know what? They're no match for American women. We don't back down from a fight worth fighting.
I urge you to join this debate. Let it be known that gun violence is a women's issue—just like any issue that impacts millions of Americans. We care about this issue as women. We care about it as citizens.
And citizens vote.
by Carly Fiorina
How long have politicians been telling you that they want to do something about gun violence? How long have they exploited tragic stories to convince you to vote for them? And how often do they get into office and do nothing until the next election rolls around?
We can all stand in front of the cameras and decry violence. But year after year, politicians say one thing to you from their Twitter accounts while refusing to admit that they aren't enforcing the very same gun laws they say aren't enough.
We have a background-check system in place that is flawed and susceptible to human error—or in some cases that we're not using at all. Had it been used properly, that system would have prevented Dylann Roof from purchasing the gun that he used to murder nine people in a South Carolina church. It would have prevented Seung-Hui Cho from purchasing the gun he used to murder 32 people at Virginia Tech in the largest mass shooting in American history. Both times, it failed.
In 2010, the FBI reported tens of thousands of failed attempts by felons and fugitives to buy guns. The Department of Justice only prosecuted 44. The professional political class isn't enforcing the laws we already have—in fact, they're vilifying the issue to score points with you.
How many times have you heard that gun owners are the problem and that the NRA is evil? That all those Americans clinging to their guns and religion just don't get it? Whenever the political class uses gun violence to push their own partisan agendas, they prove once again that they are politicians—not leaders.
"The professional political class isn't enforcing the laws we already have—in fact, they're vilifying the issue to score points with you."
I support the Second Amendment not because I'm a hunter, or even a skeet shooter. I'm not. I've never had to protect myself, my home, or my family from an intruder—though nothing levels the playing field between a 230-pound man and a 120-pound woman like Smith & Wesson. I support the Second Amendment because it's our God-given right and our constitutional right.
I'm sick of being told otherwise. I bet you are too. But too many people in government are willing to give away our rights when it is politically expedient, when it makes for a good talking point, or when a consultant tells them it will poll well.
Gun violence is a problem that must be solved—but creating new laws that weaken our constitutional rights is not the answer. Our Founding Fathers designed a government that was supposed to work for the people, not in spite of them. But President Obama's new executive actions do exactly that. They undermine our legislative process, our Constitution, and the will of the people. He is working hard to enact something that Congress has rejected twice on a bipartisan basis. Unfortunately for him, that is not how the Constitution works.
(And even if you cheer the result this time, process matters. These same checks and balances you may decry for slowing down the process today will be the very thing you want in place the next time you disagree.)
So before we politicize this issue and pile on onerous regulations that infringe upon our constitutional rights and punish law-abiding citizens, I believe we must enforce the laws we have.
We need to take some commonsense steps. We need to prosecute the people who shouldn't have guns. We need to invest in mental health so we can tackle this problem at its root. We need to fix our broken systems and defend our unenforced laws.
But here's the real problem underlying this and so many other festering issues that only seem to get attention during election years: Our government has grown too big, too complex, and too corrupt. It is run by a professional political class that no longer serves you.
The highest calling of a leader is to unlock potential in others. The highest calling of our president is to restore a citizen government to this great nation. And at the core of that citizen government are women like you.
We need a proven, tested leader in the White House. He or she must be prepared to change the order of things because they haven't spent their whole lives in the system. We need a president of courage and conviction who will engage you to solve our nation's problems.
You know something is going desperately wrong in this country and it's on us to fix it. It is time to take our country back.
Chapter 3: The Victims
"The Last Time I Saw Her"
Six women from across the country open up about the sisters, daughters, and mothers they lost to mass shootings.
by Abigail Pesta, with photographs by Madeline Ziecker
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Special thanks to Everytown For Gun Safety for their help with research and sources.
Chapter 4: The Gangs
The Rise of the Girl Gang
The new wave of women gang members aren't girlfriends on the sidelines. They're fighting their own violent battles on the street.
by Colleen Curry and Michelle Mulligan
In neighborhoods where buildings burn until they flame out and schools shut down forever, gun violence isn't a tragedy, a shock, or an aberration. It's a way of life. For 28-year-old Chicago native Tina*, the first shooting she witnessed at 9 years old didn't even feel like an emergency. She and her sister watched from their house as a car full of men pulled up, got out, and started shooting at a house across the way.
"They kicked the door in shooting at the man, the man's brother come out the window. They were all shooting. But that's my whole life," she says. "My whole life."
After the shooting, there were no TV cameras or public cries for justice. Kids on the street call Tina's neighborhood the "Holy City," a string of Vice Lords-controlled blocks so forsaken they could be confused for the scene of a permanent war. In fact, in this case, it is: By 2011, Chicago's 10-year murder rate exceeded the number of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
Though they go largely ignored in the media, neighborhoods like these in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Selma are ground zero for the bulk of gun violence in this country, and the gangs that form within them are responsible for 48 to 90 percent of America's violent crime. For girls like Tina, who are raised on these streets, joining a gang isn't a choice—it's a default.
"Growing up it's like, before it's even called a gang, it's just your friends. You're all just hanging out every day," she says.
Tina was expelled from high school her senior year for a fight, and began spending more time on the street. But unlike in the '80s or '90s, when her choice would have been to take a beating or to hook up with the right gang member to get into a gang, for Tina, her future was about finding her sisters.
In the modern girl gang, protecting yourself is about showing swag. It's about proving you're the baddest bitch they've ever seen. And a lot of it happens on social media.
"First there were three of us, then five of us, then eight of us. At school, people got scared of us, because we'd all cliqued up, and then in the neighborhood they were like, 'Oh you part of a gang.' That's how it is," she explains.
In the modern girl gang, defending your group and protecting yourself—from rival gangs and sexual abuse—is about showing swag. It's about proving you're the baddest bitch they've ever seen. And a lot of it happens on social media.
Two years ago, Gakirah Barnes, nicknamed Lil Snoop after the Wire character, went viral when she posted an Instagram of herself with her .357 Magnum. Before she was fatally shot in the chest by a hooded gunman at the age of 17, she'd been involved in 20 gangland murders, mostly for revenge.
According to Keith Woodley, program director at outreach program SLAM in Chicago, the girl-group clashes he's witnessed have started as disagreements on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. "There was a story here where a girl was arguing on Facebook and said, 'Why don't you meet me at this place and I'll shoot you,' and the girl actually brought a gun and shot her," Woodley recounts.
Though girl gangs aren't considered the primary perpetrators of gun offenses, it's easy to see how they could grow into the role. Gang violence in the United States is on the rise after decades of decline—James Howell, Ph.D., of the National Gang Center says there's been an 8 percent increase in the number of gangs over the past five years, and a 23 percent increase in gang-related homicides.
What's driving it, according to the center, is the dissolution of major gangs like the Bloods, Crips, and Latin Kings into smaller factions that fight each other. And this time, girls are standing their ground. According to the National Gang Intelligence Center, young women represent about 10 percent of all gang members, and in some places, they're "forming their own sets and committing violent crimes comparable to their male members."
Tina's story is one of thousands of similar stories playing out across the country.
"Historically, the view was that bad girls join gangs to hang out with bad boys," says Robert Lombardo, a gang expert at Loyola University in Chicago. "But now they join gangs for the same reasons boys do." Namely: friendship, safety, and a potential way out of poverty.
"My ex used to buy me nice shoes, fresh new shoes. I was popular and all that," Tina says of a guy she dated during her gang years, who supported her with the money he made selling drugs. "Some girls, the real pretty girls, real pretty from nice families who dress nice, they just want to come out for the boys. But then there's girls who know what's going on and like what's going on, like me. They like the game and the fame."
Tina says she was never involved in homicides, but she racked up a slew of misdemeanors as a gang member: obstruction of justice, contempt of court, domestic battery. When she had disputes at home with a boyfriend—which sometimes escalated—she knew her gang would back her up. "My child's father, we shot at each other. I shot at him, he shot at me," she says. "But I wasn't scared, because I knew once I go outside with my friends, they'll be like what's wrong, who did it."
And while male gang members used to refrain from shooting at women, or at men when women and children were around, that's no longer the case. "The girls is treated no different from the boys now," she says.
It's been three years since Tina realized how dangerous her life had become. Dealing drugs and hanging outside with a gun, she knew she was just waiting for violence to find her; she needed to get out or risk leaving her three children motherless. "I realized how real it was," she says. "Hindsight, I don't know who invented it, but wow, you see how stupid you were."
Tina made the transition quietly, without drastic incident—a dangerous process that many don't attempt. "A gang is something you can't get out of," Tina says. "I've been living the life since I was 12 years old. The only way out is to move out of state."
She could have run, or followed the informal "witness protection program" of changing her name, changing her life, changing her friends. But she didn't have that luxury. "My kids are still young," Tina explains. "I ain't ready to take them away from their dad." So instead, she stayed in plain sight: "I started working, going out of town. I got married."
She still lives in her former clique's neighborhood, and now her life is a balancing act between respecting their boundaries and avoiding danger by staying indoors and keeping her head down. "I don't stand outside carrying guns. I still gotta watch my back—they haven't forgot about the times I shot at them. But I'll be like, 'Hey, how ya doing.' I've learned how to move around."
But for thousands of young women like Tina, in Chicago's tough neighborhoods and cities around the country, the violence continues, unabated.
*Name has been changed
Chapter 5: The Lobby
How the NRA Is Rebranding—with Women
The steadfast group takes a progressive tack.
by Julia Sonenshein
In a slick, well-produced roundtable discussion hosted by Susan LaPierre, NRA Women's Leadership Forum co-chair and wife of NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, members sit together on plush leather couches and declare women the new face of the NRA.
"It's no longer some grubby, dirty, unshaven guy in camo," observes executive committee member J.P. Puette in the View-type video, available on NRAWomen.TV. Sandy Froman, former NRA president, says, "Haven't you noticed that women seem to be so much more receptive and interested in the NRA than maybe five or 10 years ago?"
While the image many Americans have of the National Rifle Association is predominantly male, these women are right: That's all changing. In the past few years, the NRA's messaging has developed a distinctly female tone, actively courting women members across ages and gun literacy levels.
In 2013, the NRA launched NRAWomen.TV with the tagline "Armed and Fabulous." A year later, women began to appear prominently in NRA advertising. And in 2015, the NRAblog began to include content specifically for women: hunting recipes, female guest bloggers, a personal essay entitled "Yes, I'm a Girl and I Shoot Guns."
"Haven't you noticed that women seem to be so much more receptive and interested in the NRA than maybe five or 10 years ago?"
For a group not often seen as progressive, it's a surprisingly forward-looking shift. Jeremy Greene, director of marketing and media relations at the NRA, tells MarieClaire.com that the organization believes women are the fastest-growing cohort of firearms owners in the United States. And the NRA is keen to welcome them. (External data doesn't reflect the same spike in women's gun ownership—according to the MarieClaire.com and Harvard Injury Control Research Center survey, 12 percent of American women own guns, which is consistent with previous ownership rates.)
Greene highlights the NRA's long-standing Women on Target program, an instructional shooting course developed in 2000 "in response to persistent calls from women who wanted to learn how to hunt and shoot, preferably in the company of other women." Annual participation in the program's shooting clinics has grown "between 12 and 20 percent per year since its inception, and over 70 percent since 2008," he says (the NRA does not release overall membership numbers by gender). It's been so popular that the NRA has even added a Female Instructor Development initiative "to help meet the demand for more women instructors across the country."
New NRA member Gabriella Hoffman, the 24-year-old founder of the blog Counter Cultured, is the daughter of immigrants who "lived under tyranny in Soviet-occupied Lithuania—and that's what compels me to support the Second Amendment and responsible firearms use." She believes that "guns, not government, are the great equalizer," and has found the NRA very welcoming since she joined in 2015.
Twenty-two-year-old Rebekah Hargrove, president of Florida Students for Concealed Carry, who also joined the NRA in 2015, echoes similar sentiments: "They're doing a wonderful job of reaching out to women. As a Hispanic woman, I feel that they adequately speak to me—even through age and cultural barriers."
A major talking point in the NRA's women-centric messaging is personal safety—and for women, that means self-defense. Greene points out that "women say the single most important reason they decide to purchase or own a firearm is protection, both personal and at home."
NRA member Shayna Lopez-Rivas—who joined in November—says she was raped twice while she was in college, once at knifepoint. "I was actually very anti-gun before that," she says, but she became a gun user when her friend took her to a shooting range to teach her how guns could be used to defend herself. She is now an activist for the group Campus Carry.
Hargrove also feels that being gun literate keeps her safe: "Being a trained woman who carries a gun gives me a much better chance at survival if my life is ever in danger, and the NRA defends that right."
"Women's issues are highly intertwined with equality and freedom. And that, to me, is what the NRA exemplifies."
Statistically, self-defense gun use in the U.S. is so rare that it's hard to get a realistic picture of it, says David Hemenway, Ph.D., director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. In fact, in the MarieClaire.com and Harvard Injury Control Research Center survey, less than 1 percent of women used a gun in self-defense in the last five years.
And the NRA's inclusivity of women, both in branding and in membership, isn't necessarily new, points out Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center. He maintains that the association has been trying to reach women since the 1980s—but with different, and less empowering, tactics. Back then, the NRA focused on fear. The idea of rape was ever present, and "the pitch to women is simple: You're a woman. Someone is going to rape you. You'd better buy a handgun."
Sugarmann attributes the NRA's renewed focus on women to a decline in firearm owners more broadly. A 2015 report from NORC at the University of Chicago, an independent research institution, found that gun ownership has been steadily decreasing since the 1970s, even though the relative number of female gun owners has risen. As the core group of gun owners—white men in upper income brackets—die off, women are more crucial to the NRA than ever.
It's a smart political move. Women represent a huge portion of the electorate: The Center for American Women and Politics says that since 1964, the number of female voters has exceeded male voters in every single presidential election—the 2012 election saw 9.8 million more female voters than male voters. With gun control already a factor in the upcoming presidential race, the NRA's increased female ranks could help further its cause.
Whether the NRA is retaining the women it recruits remains to be seen. But to new member Hargrove, the organization is critical to her sense of what she's entitled to as an American woman: "Women's issues are highly intertwined with equality and freedom. And that, to me, is what the NRA exemplifies."
Chapter 6: The Access
"What Happened When I Tried to Buy a Gun"
The process isn't as simple as we've been led to believe.
by Whitney Joiner
Technically speaking, I grew up in a house with guns. "Family guns," my mother called them: old shotguns passed down from grandparents and great-grandparents, locked in a cabinet in our basement in Louisville, Kentucky. But I'd never thought about owning one myself. I'd never even shot one until my late 20s, out on a West Texas ranch with my girlfriends, taking turns aiming at a lineup of old Tecate cans.
A record 3.3 million background checks were conducted this past December for Americans hoping to acquire firearms. It's a process President Obama wants to make more stringent (although that's proving to be harder than he'd hoped), and according to the MarieClaire.com and Harvard Injury Control Research Center survey, 62 percent of women agree with him. But amidst all the discussion and debate about access to guns—with Facebook and Instagram banning private gun sales on their platforms just two weeks ago—what does gun access really look like on the ground? When you're a woman trying to buy a gun for the first time, what happens?
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Chapter 7: The Need
"I Wish I Had a Gun That Night"
Amanda Collins was raped after class on her college campus. Now she's haunted by what ifs.
by Amanda Collins, as told to Kaitlin Menza
I had just taken a midterm. It was 10 p.m. on October 22, 2007, a chilly night for Reno, where I was an undergrad at the University of Nevada. A few classmates and I walked to the parking garage together after the test—my car was parked on a different level from theirs, so I wished everyone a good week and broke off from the group.
I didn't see the man hunched down by the wheel of a truck. But I felt his hands grip my body when he grabbed me from behind and shoved me down on the cold asphalt. He pressed a pistol to my temple—I heard the click as he switched off the safety. He told me not to speak. And then he raped me.
I felt each vertebra in my back grind into the ground as this large man thrust himself on top of me. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the university police's cruisers parked nearby, but their offices were already closed. No one was coming for me.
If you're going to be a target, don't be an easy one. That's the lesson my parents instilled in my sister and me from a young age. Growing up in Reno, we were taught to take responsibility for ourselves so we didn't have to rely on anyone else.
The desire for a gun was intrinsic for me. One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my dad's workbench in the garage while he cleaned his rifle. As soon as we could talk, my sister and I got the gun-safety speech from our parents: Always treat a gun like it's loaded; here are the different parts; a gun is not a toy. My dad took me to target practice for the first time when I was 6 years old. Eventually, I was on the rifle team in high school. Guns have always been a part of my life.
So as soon as I was old enough—for my 22nd birthday—I asked my father to pay for the class to get my concealed-carry permit. He did even better, and supplied me with a firearm and ammunition as soon as I obtained my permit. I carried my gun with me at all times.
Until I couldn't. My college, like many schools in the U.S., doesn't allow students to carry a firearm on campus. Even if you're licensed, even if you've been trained.
I didn't want to break the law, so I left mine at home.
As my body was being ripped apart that night in the parking lot, I wondered if these were the final moments of my life. I could see in his eyes that he might kill me. If I'm being honest, a part of me hoped I was on my way to meeting Jesus; living after this disgusting invasion seemed impossible.
The question I've faced ever since is: Would things have been different if I had had my weapon that night? I replay those eight minutes over and over and over again when I'm trying to sleep, imagining what I could have done, and I always reach the same conclusion: I could have stopped the attack if I'd had my gun.
Sometimes it fills me with rage. I did everything right. I stayed in well-lit areas, I never walked alone at night. I took martial arts classes. I learned to shoot and got my permit. I had a gun that I was—or should have been—allowed to carry with me. My rapist certainly did it.
Thirteen months after my attack, he was captured by the Reno Police Department. In the year since, he had kidnapped and raped a second woman, and then raped and murdered a third. He was tried and convicted.
Guns in schools is a sensitive, emotional subject for many. But the law meant nothing to my attacker. And when I tell my story, people often change their position. Even if they wouldn't carry a firearm themselves, they begin to understand why the government shouldn't prevent everyone from doing it, so long as they go through the proper channels. That's all I ask: for people to consider the other side.
I wish I'd had a gun the night my entire life changed for the worse, and I believe every college student—as long as they're of age and hold their permit—should be allowed to carry one if that's what makes them feel safe. For my part, I know I'll never stop fighting.
Chapter 8: The Sport
Inside the Life of a Teenage Competitive Shooter
Chapter 9: The Danger
For Women, Gun Violence Happens at Home
The most common threat doesn't come from a stranger. It comes from the person you sleep next to.
by Rachel Louise Snyder
When Brandi Moyler first tells me the story of her family, she talks about spring break at Myrtle Beach. She was 14 and had gone with a friend, and the night she returned home, she found her parents arguing. She fell asleep on the couch. Then she was walking through the dark house and her face was wet, so very, very wet. She kept wiping at it, trying to figure out what it was.
Here's the part of the story between the beach and the darkness: Her father fired five shots into the sleeping body of her mother with a .357 Magnum. Then Moyler, shocked awake by the noise, stumbled through the house to her mother's room, screaming, her father threatening her, Shut up or I'll shoot you too. But she can't shut up because her mother is lifeless in the bed, and her father is a beast in the dark, and so he does it. He shoots her. The bullet charges through her neck on the right, explodes her carotid artery, and exits just under her left eye through her cheekbone.
And so he does it. He shoots her. The bullet charges through her neck on the right, explodes her carotid artery, and exits just under her left eye through her cheekbone.
It's been nearly 18 years since that night, more than half her life ago. Her mother died instantly; her father hanged himself eight months later, awaiting trial for her mother's murder. And here's the thing she understands now: She'd always known it was going to happen—she was holding her breath waiting for it her entire life.
Moyler's story is not as unique as it should be. For many women, gun violence and domestic violence are the same thing; there are nearly 33,000 domestic violence firearm incidents in the United States every single year.
Of course, you don't have to be staring down the barrel of a gun for it to endanger you—guns are often used in domestic violence offenses as blunt-force instruments, as threats, as reminders of who holds the power. "It's not always an issue of being shot," says Teresa Garvey, a former prosecutor and attorney adviser for Aequitas, a prosecutors' resource for domestic violence law. "Guns are used to add to the environment of intimidation." Like many domestic violence victims, Moyler recalls seeing her father sit at the kitchen table cleaning his gun, a pointed reminder of his control over the family.
But as is also the case, guns often do the thing they were made to do: More than two-thirds of the domestic violence homicides in America every year are the result of guns. And it's not as though domestic violence homicides represent a small subset of the annual murders of women—they're the vast majority. A 2015 report from the Violence Policy Center reveals that 94 percent of women killed by men were murdered by someone they knew, and of those victims who knew their killers, 62 percent were either married to or intimate acquaintances of the men who took their lives. These statistics don't take unmarried exes into account, which would make the numbers even higher.
In Moyler's house, guns were everywhere. Her family lived on a small farm, and they slaughtered their own pigs every year. Guns hung on the walls as decoration. Handguns, shotguns, and hunting rifles were no more remarkable than the dishes in their cupboards. At the same time, the threat of guns always loomed: Every holiday, when relatives gathered at Moyler's home, her father, at some point late in the evening, would scream at everyone to get out or he'd go get his guns.
The single most common argument in favor of women's gun ownership is that it makes them safer. But "guns increase women's danger exponentially," says Kit Gruelle, a domestic violence advocate and principal adviser on the HBO documentary Private Violence. A New England Journal of Medicine study proves her point: Women who live in homes with guns are over three times more likely to be killed in the home. And when abusers have access to guns, a victim's risk of being murdered increases as much as eightfold.
Perhaps women have more awareness about this risk than we realize. In new research commissioned by MarieClaire.com and conducted by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, nearly a third of American women live in a household with a gun, and yet more than half—in a survey of several thousand women across the country—want the next president to take strong action against guns.
Federal law does prohibit all felons and those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from purchasing or possessing guns. (Misdemeanors, it's important to point out, have a wide range of definitions, from a slap all the way to a near-fatal strangulation, depending on the state. Of South Carolina, Gruelle observes, "You get five years for hitting your dog and 30 days for hitting your wife.") But in a study by two of the country's leading experts on guns and domestic violence, April Zeoli and Daniel Webster, the prohibition made no difference in reducing the number of domestic violence murders. Lack of enforcement means there's very little follow-through. Where the laws do seem to have significant impact, however, is in areas with firearm restrictions for those with restraining orders—temporary or otherwise. Zeoli and Webster's study found that intimate partner homicides dropped by as much as 25 percent in cities where these laws were enforced (currently, only 30 states have such firearm restrictions in place).
Women who live in homes with guns are over three times more likely to be killed in the home.
The argument that asks women to arm themselves in self-defense is "asking them to behave as their abusers behave," notes Gruelle, who is also a domestic abuse survivor. "It's not a character flaw if a woman doesn't have a natural tendency to turn and fire on the father of her children."
And this is the crucial thing about domestic violence homicide, as Gruelle sees it: These killings are, in essence, ambushes—predatory murders like what happened with Moyler's mother, shot while she was asleep in bed. Or just last month, when Gladis Sicajan Albir was shot and killed by her estranged husband as she was getting into her car to go to work.
Brandi Moyler has spent her entire life grappling with what her father did to her family, but she sees the cycle that created him: He'd grown up in an abusive home, too. He had never seen any other way to be in the world.
What haunts her most, she says, is that ominous quiet after the shootings. "I remember so clearly that silence. I could hear everything inside my head."
Chapter 10: The Decision
To Own a Gun, or Not to Own a Gun
Grappling with a timely but troubling question.
by Roxane Gay
I have loved two gun enthusiasts in my life. When I was 20, I dated a man from Arizona who taught me the basics of shooting out on his pool deck, with a target and a gun loaded with wax bullets. There was something deeply satisfying about holding the heft of that pistol against the palm of my hand. I loved the instant gratification of pulling the trigger, a bullet zipping through the space between me and the target. I was powerful, holding that gun. In that moment, I understood the allure of gun ownership, of always having that power at one's disposal. It was a rush.
In my late 30s, I dated a hunter. He referred to his rifle as a "she," and during hunting season, he would spend innumerable hours in the woods, unclean and unshaven, staring through a scope, waiting for the perfect buck. He kept his guns clean and oiled, stored safely in a gun locker. He was a "responsible gun owner," a strong defender of the Second Amendment, but open to reasonable gun control legislation. We still argued about everything, all the time. Sociopolitical disagreement was the heart of our connection. But seeing how seriously he took his guns allowed me to consider some kind of middle ground.
"In that moment, I understood the allure of gun ownership, of always having that power at one's disposal. It was a rush."
As a woman, I always have to think about safety. It's there when I am walking to my car late at night, when I'm in a hotel room in an unknown city, as I lock up my apartment before bed, while strolling through the park. Though I try not to live my life fearfully, I am aware that danger lurks; that by virtue of my gender, there are predators in this world, and I am the prey.
As a woman who has survived a violent assault, I know there is no such thing as safety. The possibility that something terrible will happen is always present. It's not something that occupies much real estate in my active thoughts—instead, concern for my personal safety is a background process. An instinct, like breathing.
I watch the news along with everyone else when yet another mass shooting occurs, horrified by how cavalierly human lives can be taken by people, often men, with deranged agendas. A college campus, a movie theater, a post office, a Planned Parenthood clinic: I could be anywhere, doing any mundane activity, and find myself in a torrent of bullets.
As a black woman, my concerns about safety are multiplied by the nature of my skin. I am forced, increasingly, to worry about police officers who turn their guns, all too often, on unarmed black people. I spend more time than I should wondering, Is my life in danger from law enforcement? I do everything I can to not give a trigger-happy cop a reason to put a bullet in my black body, while I'm painfully aware that they do not need a reason.
Two years ago I moved to Indiana, an open-carry state. At first, it was disconcerting, seeing a random guy in cargo shorts and a worn T-shirt with a gun strapped to his hip, buying coffee at the gas station at 8 in the morning. When it happens, I tense up. I find myself holding my breath. I don't feel safe, but I imagine they do. Then the moment passes. My day goes on. It's almost scary how normal something like open carry can become.
Politicians love to talk about how if more people owned or carried guns, we'd see fewer casualties in mass shootings. We would be safer; we would all be heroes.
Yes, I want to feel like I can protect myself when I am confronted by danger. But I also know that in the heat of a dangerous moment, there is no predicting how I will respond. I might freeze up. I might run. I might start screaming. If I owned a gun and carried it, openly or concealed, I don't know what I would do. My hands might shake. I might not be able to dislodge the safety. I might not be able to shoot straight. I don't know if I would rise to heroics.
Or it comes down to this. Despite the ways in which I am forced to think about safety, despite statistics, despite the gun owners I have known and respected, despite politicians' hypotheticals, I recognize that to own a gun, to keep a gun in my home, to carry a gun on my person means I am taking on the responsibility of using that gun. I am taking on the responsibility of being willing to take another human life. And over and over—even as I lock my doors, even as I look over my shoulder—that is not a responsibility I am willing to bear.
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