Update 5/25: In light of Friday night’s mass shooting in Isla Vista, confronting the relationship between gun violence, misogyny, and pro-gun extremism is more crucial than ever.
There’s a piece in Mother Jones by Mark Follman that’s worth a read, now more than ever. It’s about the experiences of numerous women affiliated with the Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America movement. These women have been the targets of repeated acts of intimidation, including threats of rape and sexual violence, stalking, and more. In one particularly memorable episode, activist Jennifer Longdon, who was left paralyzed after a 2004 shooting by unknown attackers, claims to have been ambushed in her driveway by a man carrying a rifle and dressed in black “like something out of a commando movie.” Follman writes: “He took aim at her and pulled the trigger. Longdon was hit with a stream of water. ‘Don’t you wish you had a gun now, bitch?’ he scoffed before taking off.” Although several of Follman’s sources provided him with copies of the threats made against them – including emails and voicemails – there’s been an inevitable backlash of gun enthusiasts accusing them of fabrication.
I understand that when it comes to debates over gun rights and gun control there’s always an impulse – on both sides – to discount or otherwise question personal stories. Several of the episodes Follman reports do indeed have a sensational character to them, and in some cases the victims may not have filed police reports. I admit, I’m still inclined to believe most of these stories anyway, for two reasons. First, at least in my own experience, violent threats from pro-gun extremists are quite real. Second, it is morally reprehensible to dismiss claims of threatened sexual assault in a nation in which nearly one in five women is likely to be raped in her lifetime.
But whatever you may think about its more headline-grabbing episodes, Follman’s piece offers some evidence that’s indisputable and deeply troubling. It’s hard to see video of a group of men gleefully riddling a topless female mannequin with bullets and then photographing it with its pants down around its ankles, or to watch a Florida firearms instructor shoot up a Moms Demand Action poster as a way of saying “Happy Mothers’ Day,” and fail to recognize that there’s a deeply twisted, violent misogyny at work in certain extremist segments of the gun rights movement.
Let’s be clear about something. I believe that the majority of firearms owners, and even of ardent Second Amendment supporters, don’t actively hate women – they’re decent people, and a not-inconsiderable number of them are in fact women. Saying otherwise paints too many good people with too broad a brush, much like claiming that all gun owners and Second Amendment supporters are racists. But it would also be naive to think that debates about gun control – like practically every other contentious debate in contemporary America – aren’t also shaped by deep-seated cultural problems of sexism and racism, or that gun violence isn’t also an inextricable part of the landscape of gendered and racialized violence. Sociological data, for example, indicates that professed racism correlates with increased odds of gun ownership among whites (although opposition to gun control and racism aren’t as linked). Likewise, 44% of all women killed by guns die at the hands of former or current domestic partners, while men are more likely to die in shootings by strangers, and having a gun in a home where there’s domestic violence increases a woman’s odds of dying by some 500%. Given the extent to which guns are involved in acts of violence, and the fact that American violence all-too-often involves sexual assault, domestic abuse, and racialized fears, the presence of guns on the scene shouldn’t be too surprising.
But what Follman’s article reveals, I think, is something more – a superadded, symbolic dimension to the vehemence of pro-gun extremism that is thoroughly gendered and deeply disturbing. The men shooting that mannequin are having a blast – no pun intend – and it’s hard to ignore the relish in that Florida gun instructor’s voice. Whether or not it bleeds into outright assault (in the legal sense), the symbolic violence they are inflicting on the women who oppose them carries overtones of male sadism at its worst. They’re putting those uppity women in their place – and they’re getting off on doing it.
Frankly, it is unsurprising that female gun control activists receive threats of rape. Women who take public, controversial stances on any issue regularly receive such abuse, and worse. But I think what makes the thinly-veiled imagery of misogynistic violence emanating from the darkest corners of the pro-gun movement particularly inevitable is that it targets women who are ostensibly threatening to take men’s guns away from them. Much as rapists seek to dominate their victims – frequently as a proof of their own virility, or in response to a perceived affront to their masculinity – these men are responding to women who threaten to emasculate them by “grabbing” their guns. In other words, they fear a kind of symbolic castration, and respond by threatening symbolic – and real – sexual violence.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not jumping off the often-caricatured Freudian deep end here. For most sane folks, a cigar is just a cigar, and a gun is just a gun – although NRA Board Member Ted Nugent’s invitation to Barack Obama to “suck on my machine gun” and talk radio host Pete Santilli’s call for Hillary Clinton to be “shot in the vagina” may be the exceptions that prove that rule. Those cases aside, we do live in a nation that associates the ability to wield a gun with sexually successful masculinity, particularly in our popular media. In his excellent book On Killing, former paratrooper and West Point psychologist David Grossman observes that:
Much has been made of the relationship between male sexuality and the power of motorcycles (1,200 cc of power throbbing between your legs) and muscle cars. The continuing popularity of magazines in which motorcycles and cars are displayed along with scantily clad women in provocative positions make this relationship clear. This kind of sex-power linkage also exists in the gun world. A video advertised in gun magazines, Sexy Girls and Sexy Guns, taps this same vein. “You’ve got to see this tape to believe it,” says the ad. “14 outrageous sexy girls in string bikinis and high heels blasting away with the sexiest full auto machine guns ever produced.” The psychological state that is satisfied by Sexy Girls and Sexy Guns is not widely shared among gun aficionados and is often viewed with considerable scorn…Yet, in reality, our Sexy Girls and Sexy Guns video is only a little removed from the not-so-subliminal message of virility implied in the familiar image of a barely clad woman clinging to James Bond as he coolly brandishes a pistol.
I’d argue that the same is true for a great deal of gun advertising – hell, buying a Bushmaster is literally marketed as getting “your man card” back. Of course, in the real world, dropping a grand or two on a tacticool AR makes you an action movie star about as much as spending eight bucks on a pack of Marlboro Reds makes you a cowboy. But when it comes to the theatrical performance of American masculinity – and the marketing bottom line – projecting virility and general badassness is all that counts.
But just because that image is a fantasy doesn’t make threatening it any less dangerous – in fact, the tenuousness of that fantasy translates directly into the ferocity with which it is protected. Shattering someone’s fantasies is a dangerous prospect, because people kill for fantasies all the time. And while I’d argue that, at the end of the day, the threat of nationwide gun confiscation is also pretty much a fantasy – one that also has a lot to do with marketing and unrealistic perceptions of personal power on both sides of the debate – I do think it’s incumbent on all of us, and in this case particularly on gun owners and Second Amendment advocates, to look this particular flavor of ugliness in the face and repudiate it.