Daily Telegraph, 23 September 2016
Few women in this country own a gun. No matter how worried we are by rising levels of violence against women, most of us don’t think buying a firearm is the answer. Not so in America, where gun ownership among women is increasing and clubs are springing up where they can learn how to shoot, many with their young daughters (and often with pink guns). Women who join say they’re doing it for self-defence – yet the evidence suggests that owning a gun actually increases the risk of being murdered.
The statistics are sobering. According to ‘When Men Murder Women’, a new report from the Violence Policy Centre, more than 1,600 women were killed by men in 2014, and the most commonly used weapon was a gun. In the same year, there were only 15 recorded incidents in which a woman shot a man in self-defence. Obviously no one wants that figure to be higher – women killing their attackers is not the answer to America’s huge domestic violence problem. But it does expose the myth that acquiring a firearm makes women safer.
Yet that’s precisely the message from groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most influential lobbying organisations in the US and a fervent supporter of the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Earlier this week the NRA launched a $5m television advertising campaign in support of Trump, exploiting women’s fears of being attacked while alone at home.
The ad shows a frightened woman calling the nationwide emergency number, 911, while a voiceover tells viewers that the average response time is 11 minutes. As an intruder’s footsteps get closer, the woman runs to a safe, unlocks it and goes to grab her gun. But it suddenly disappears. ‘Don’t let Hillary leave you protected with nothing but a phone’, the ad warns, reminding voters that the Democrats’ presidential candidate supports gun control.
Another recent report suggests that some women are listening to the NRA’s claims. According to research published by Northeastern University and the Harvard School of Public Health, the proportion of American women who own guns is rising, although the overall picture is complicated. It’s a little-known fact that gun ownership is actually falling in the US and is increasingly concentrated within a small section of the population who own, on average, 17 weapons each.
Women who possess guns are more likely than men to say they do it for self-defence. They are also are more likely to purchase a single handgun than the terrifying machine guns so often used in mass shootings. ‘Women are the prey and women are generally weaker and there has to be a way to equalise the battlefield,’ Carrie Lightfoot told the Guardian earlier this week. Lightfoot is the founder of Well Armed Women, a business she set up to teach female Americans more about guns. Its not-for-profit branch now has 280 groups in 49 states.
Tempting though some women find this message, it could not be more wrong. Why? Because the scenario that persuades a small number of women to acquire guns – a stranger breaking into their house or apartment, intent on rape, robbery or both – is far less likely than an assault by someone they already know.
‘The picture that emerges from ‘When Men Murder Women’ is that women face the greatest threat from someone they know, most often a spouse or intimate acquaintance, who is armed with a gun’, the report concludes. ‘For women in America, guns are not used to save lives, but to take them’.
In other words, women acquire guns to protect themselves against intruders, not realising that they are handing a weapon to a man who is far more likely to wound or kill them – an angry boyfriend or husband. An incident that might involve an assault with fists can turn into a murder if there is a gun on the premises. Victims of domestic violence are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser has access to a firearm.
It has been known for almost 20 years that women who keep guns at home are three times more likely to be murdered than their unarmed peers. Ready access to firearms is one of the reasons why family annihilation – where a man kills his wife, children and possibly himself – are far more common in the US than the UK, even allowing for the difference in population size.
Violence is never the answer to violence, no matter what the gender of those involved. In this country, the number of women convicted of domestic violence has tripled in a decade, although the overall figures remain low: 5,641 last year, out of a total of 92,779. It isn’t clear what’s behind the increase but some recent high-profile cases have involved a woman striking back against an abusive partner. That scenario has just played out in Radio 4’s long-running series The Archers, where Helen Titchener stabbed her husband Rob after years of abuse.
Our understanding of violence against women often lags behind the facts. In this country, the picture of the stranger-rapist, lurking in a dark alley, persists in the public imagination even though a high proportion of victims know their attackers. This lack of knowledge about patterns of violence leads some women to worry about the wrong thing – and that’s never been more evident than in relation to American women and guns.
Joining a gun club might make them feel safer – but the sense of security it offers couldn’t be further from reality.