Homicides against women are surrounded by an aura of mythology and sensationalism. These supposedly typical scenarios are familiar to all of us: a woman is depicted alone and vulnerable, perhaps walking on a dark street or at home asleep. Her attacker, according to this archetype, is a depraved stranger who will rape, rob, and eventually kill her.
The firearms industry is particularly enthusiastic in promulgating this image and stoking its attendant fears. After all, the gun business has a unique stake in reinforcing women’s feelings of insecurity: fear sells guns. The gun lobby focuses on the threat of attack by a stranger to promote handguns as self-defense weapons for women. As a result, images of women alone, fending off attack with a handgun, abound in gun lobby publications. The following illustrations are typical.
An article in the May 1997 premiere issue of the National Rifle Association’s American Guardian magazine, “What You Can Do to Protect Yourself From Carjacking,” features a picture of a frightened woman pulling a handgun out of her purse to confront a knife-wielding masked stranger.
A November 1997 Guns & Ammo article, “Self-Defense: Your Primary Civil Right,” features a photo of a bathrobe-clad woman standing in the doorway of her bedroom ready to shoot a suspected intruder.
These images aim to persuade women that buying a gun will protect them from murderous strangers. Yet firearms – whether in the hands of men or women – are rarely used to kill criminals.1 While stranger attack is a reality, it is in fact the most unlikely homicide scenario a woman can expect to face.
Efforts by the gun lobby to equate female homicide with stranger attack not only obscure the reality of violence against women, but also promote the notion that safety is a purely personal obligation. In this view, rejecting this perceived obligation is tantamount to inviting victimization. As a result of such thinking, women who are attacked are often blamed for the violence committed against them.
1) According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports, in 1996 there were only 212 justifiable homicides (the justified killing of a felon during the commission of a felony) committed by private citizens using firearms. Of these, only 176 involved handguns. While firearms are at times used by private citizens to kill criminals or stop crimes, the most common scenarios of firearms use in America are suicide (18,503 in 1995), homicide (15,835 in 1995), or fatal unintentional injury (1,225 in 1995). The April 1994 Justice Department study Guns and Crime revealed that from 1987 to 1992 the annual average of all victims of violence who claimed to have used a firearm of any type (handgun, shotgun, or rifle) to defend themselves was only about one percent (62,200 instances). Another 20,300 claimed to have used a firearm to defend their property during a theft, household burglary or motor vehicle theft. A 1987 to 1990 review of these categories of self-defense incidents estimated that approximately 20 percent were police uses. Also, it is not known whether in each instance the gun was used successfully to stop the crime. In comparison, Guns and Crime reported that offenders armed with handguns alone committed a record 930,700 violent crimes in 1992.