Monday, December 27, 2004

Blown Away 

New book review

It's posted here

Edit: The original site is down, so the review is reposted here:

Blown Away - Book Review By Janine Peterson

(Published by Expository Magazine, vol. 4, issue 3. Fall, 2004)

Caitlin Kelly claims to write an "unbiased exploration of the right to bear arms - through the eyes of American women." And she succeeds. Kelly interviews women on both sides of this battleground. She interviews politically undecided women and women who were innocent bystanders to crimes that involved firearms. Kelly faces down the "Conventional wisdom [that] suggests that women, pacific by gender, are uniformly opposed to gun ownership" (p 21). But, she points out, women are not unified when it comes to guns. 17 million American women own guns, and many others are actively fighting to remove that right (title page). Millions own them, millions hate them.

She focuses her examination on what it means for a woman to be armed in a male world. Of the 80 million firearms in America, only 17 million are owned by women. The firearm in the hands of a woman represents self-reliance, sometimes obliterating the cultural role of men as "protector," and can be a threat to men who don't know how to deal with an independent woman. At the same time, she explains that the world of guns is the world of men. Women interested in firearms often consult men instead of women, because men are supposed to "just know" about guns. She wonders why women "really, still, need their permission" (p 44) to own firearms. She even claims that "A gun offers women the same pleasures and privileges it offers men: skill, competence, camaraderie, safety, self-reliance, independence" (p 22) and responsibility. She observes that "Only when the guys are gone can girls get strong" (p 81). In movies, "women who fight back, make many viewers...deeply uncomfortable" (p 66, italics hers). In the movies, women tend to be victims, sex objects, or on the rare occasions that they are the heroes, shun guns (ala the Charlie's Angels movies). The female police officers Kelly interviews describe a difficult and frustrating dating scene, as men are intimidated by the sudden reversal of gender roles. "'Men are threatened by it for sure.... My self-esteem isn't derived from my position at work, but I think my husband projected onto me what it would make him feel.... He was always in competition with me,'" Kelly quotes a black, New York City police officer (p 147).

Gun violence is a problem for women. Much violence against women, she says, is committed by lovers and husbands, and gun ownership is unlikely to stop this kind of violence unless the woman is empowered enough to get herself out of the situation in the first place. Abused women often want comfort not empowerment, she claims (p 96). They may lack the money or legal ability to buy a gun. And they lack the will to use one for self-defense, perhaps even fearing that the presence of a gun in their possession may provoke more violence.

She touches on the problem of suicide; suicide attempts with firearms are more likely to succeed than most other methods. "Firearms are the most common means of suicide in the United States for both genders and all age groups," she claims (p 137, italics hers). While women more often attempt suicide with a less lethal method like sleeping pills, when women want to succeed, they choose firearms and are as successful as men. Depressives, Kelly says, should never have firearms in the house - the risk is too great.

She discusses the shift of family dynamics when a husband decides to bring home a gun for the first time without consulting his wife, though to my mind, this problem is not caused by the gun but by the lack of communication, openness, and trust. Any purchase as significant as that of a firearm should be discussed. "Guns raise havoc in civilian life," Kelly says, "when one partner is more deeply attached to them...and/or handles them unsafely" (p 149). She readily discusses how the presence of a firearm can bring a family closer, too, through a common drive for self-defense or a love of being outdoors or a love of training in a sport together. "For them," Kelly observes, "shooting is one more shared pleasure, as unremarkable and as normal a shared activity as eating pizza or watching television" (p 154). She discusses families that hunt or shoot trap together as a way of encouraging self-esteem in their daughters and finding much needed family time together. She quotes one mother as saying, "'It makes us a closer family - we talk the same language. I don't feel excluded from my husband and sons' lives. If I was busy doing the Donna Reed thing, I'd never see them'" (p 154-5).

Anger is a recurrent theme among the women she speaks with. Fear of anger, according to some women, is what keeps them from getting a gun: "'I don't want to find out about myself, so I don't want to buy a gun'" (p 41) one woman says. Anger is an unacceptable emotion for American women. Women are so afraid of their own anger that they sometimes do everything they can to avoid the means of channeling it. Women are afraid of what they might do with guns, so they stay away from them or, in extreme cases, try to have them banned. Many men I know who own guns have found that training in shooting is calming; additionally, the responsibility of being a gun owner is holds them to a higher level of social responsibility. I believe women can feel this, too - I know I have. But even after years of feminism, many women are still afraid of their anger.

Women are becoming more involved in shooting sports. Women compete on a level playing field with men - they compete "not on the basis of comparative strength or speed, but calm, focus, aim, skill, and practice. Women shooters...enjoy several advantages: they're more willing to be coached...they're eager to be taught, while men, even young boys, think they know it all" (p 161). Shooting is the only coed sport in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Ironically, women tend to be better shots than men are. One woman boasts of her skill, saying "It can be intimidating to guys, especially if you can beat them!'" (p 166).

Shooting sports are often either stigmatized or ignored by the media. When they are covered in the media, it is rare that someone will point out that the tools used in the competition are indeed firearms. There is no similarity, it would appear, between the guns used in the Olympics and the guns used for hunting or for self-defense. The tools are not identical; a sporting rifle easily costs in the tens of thousands of dollars. Obviously, most skeet, trap, and target shooters work with cheaper tools. But the basic mechanisms are the same, they all use the same ammunition (whether bullets or shells), and they are all considered guns or firearms. Many teenagers go to college on shooting scholarships. However, the general mechanism of the firearm is the same, whether the gun is used in crime or in collegiate sports.

On the whole, I was impressed with Kelly's knowledge of firearms, especially since she readily admits not to owning a single one. She knows the difference between a .38 and a .357 Magnum. She knows the difference between a semiautomatic pistol and a revolver. She has fired many different guns and is accurate in describing the experience, from the acrid smell to the noise to the rush of self-reliance.

Her inaccuracies are minor. She claims New York is the toughest US city to obtain a concealed carry permit; I maintain that DC is, since it is legally impossible for a civilian to own a pistol she did not own in DC before 1977 (DC Code, D. I, T. 7, Subt. J, Ch. 25, UNIT A., Subch. II). She claims 33 states have concealed carry laws; this overlooks the difficulty ordinary citizens can have in obtaining these permits in certain states, where permits are given only to those with political connections or financial power (see http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-284.html). DC, for example, has a concealed carry law, even though most citizens are not legally allowed to possess firearm to carry. She implies that the AR-15 is not a rifle even though it is. She describes the NRA (National Rifle Association) as extremely hard-line, when many pro-gun groups criticize the NRA for compromising too much. At the same time, many pro-gun advocates do find the NRA goes too far. These shortcomings are understandable, given the legal complexities of gun ownership and the fact that she's never owned a gun.

Her advice is limited in scope, as this is a sociological study, not a how-to book or rant. Proving herself an apolitical realist, Kelly writes, "When it comes to guns, ignorance is not bliss—it usually proves deadly" (p 155). Firearm accidents kill too many children: a total of 86 under the age of 14 in 2000 per her citation of the CDC (p 155). Perhaps knowledge, or a deglamorization of guns, could have prevented some of these deaths.

The only advice she offers to women interested in gun ownership is couched in "if" language. Gun ownership is "a purchase like no other" (p 290, italics hers). If a woman decides to buy a gun, she has the responsibility to keep herself and her family safe from the danger of having a lethal object in the house. She has the responsibility of learning how it works and how to maintain it. Guns are not talismans against crime; they are tools, and they are only as effective as the wielder - and hesitation can be lethal. Some people, she acknowledges, should never have guns, for personal, family, or emotional reasons. Even in her advice, she is carefully apolitical. She understands, "Overly simplistic answers cost both sides credibility" (p 278).

Kelly does an amazing job of portraying the complexities of both sides of a very passionate issue. She understands both sides and shares her own personal hesitations about owning a gun while being unwilling to deny that right uniformly to all women. Unfortunately, shooting really is a male-dominated field. Women are naturally better shooters, and women can find the "equalizer" aspect of firearm competence more useful than men. We won't reach equality with men until our voices are heard in the gun debate, not as "women" but as individuals with individual opinions on how to deal with a problem that all of America faces.

Self Defense is a Feminist Issue 

Self Defense is a Feminist Issue

originally published on expositorymagazine.net

I lived alone in DC for several years.

I watched the police chase down and arrest people outside my apartment window. I nervously walked by the muggers, trying to be casual – luckily for me, I lived near several gay bars, and the muggers set their sights on the drunk gay men, not on a young female. I lived 50 yards from the park where intern Chandra Levy was found dead. My neighbors were robbed. I embraced luck as my tool to keep myself safe and alive. What else could I do? I despaired over how I could defend myself, even in my apartment.

I studied karate for five years, long enough to earn a black belt. I began studying aikido in college, and my instructor there began to show me more authentic forms of self-defense. He taught me moves from Silat and from some straight-up self-defense programs. I learned a Silat spin kick that won me a friendly spar with an Italian former military officer in a pool hall.

The only time I used my martial arts skills I won without throwing a punch. I was in a bar, sitting with three male friends. Someone had grabbed me from behind. I knew my friends were brawlers, so I needed to do something fast before there was a fight. I could get hurt in a fight. The stranger ignored my attempts to shrug him off of me, and he started to reach under my shirt. I spun around, blocking the hand around my shoulders and raising my other hand in preparation for a palm-heel strike to the bastard’s nose. In a split second I decided to hit only hard enough to hurt and draw a little blood; if he didn’t back off then, I would slam a flat fist into his throat. In another split second, I stared into his eyes. He saw my determination, he backed down, and I decided I didn’t need to strike. I kept my hands up as he let go of me and backed away, apologizing profusely. “That’s okay,” I mumbled, and I noted that he didn’t turn his back on me until he was well out of range.

Aikido and karate are certainly potential tools for self-defense, but they take years and years to master. Even then, the training conditions are often so different than the conditions of a mugging that the student may not be able to apply the training or may use inappropriate technique. For years I drilled in point-sparring, where the fighting stopped the moment someone was hit, all punches were simply to touch without follow-through, and the fighting ended if someone hit the ground. But a rapist won’t stop if I fall down. A mugger is not looking for a partner for point-sparring. A mugger wants a victim, period.

And I just wanted to feel safe, period, at least in my apartment

I’ll probably be smaller and weaker than anyone who attacks me. I’ve trained for years in different martial arts, and I know that I am not proficient enough to rely only on my training to protect myself. So what could I do?

I owned a few aikido practice weapons. I had a wooden sword and a staff, the length and diameter of a broom handle. I had a vague sense of how to use them – worse comes to worse, I could just keep the weapon between me and my attacker. But what of multiple attackers? My martial arts training was not enough.

A man in DC was beaten to death at a gas station in full view. Newspaper columnists lamented that no one did anything to save him. I wonder what they expected people to do. I can’t imagine being brave enough to challenge a berserk stranger to hand-to-hand combat, not knowing what weapons the man had hidden or what drugs the man was on or what training he had. Not if all I had were my hands and maybe a three-inch knife. Not if I wanted to survive. And I would wager that most citizens feel the same.

I owned pepper spray. I owned a claw-shaped knife with a curved blade that fit into the palm of my hand and was all but unnoticeable. I carried both. But pepper spray is unreliable. It’s ineffective against multiple attackers, because you can get caught yourself in the resulting cloud. Many bad guys have trained themselves not to be put off by something as mild as pepper spray. My knife was effective only up close, and I did not want the fighting to get that close.

Firearms are illegal in DC, even though the bad guys seem to have them anyway. DC is the murder capitol of the country. But other legal weapons seemed insufficient because they require such proximity to danger. When I think back to the dead man at the gas station and I wonder what I could have done to save him, had I been there, all I could think was that my close-contact weapons and training were not enough.

I gave up on the idea of saving faceless strangers. Now I only wanted to feel safe in my apartment.

What could I do?

I read everything about guns and fighting that I could get my hands on. I read websites and blogs long enough to recognize the names that were constantly referenced as experts. I bought and read books by experts like Massad Ayoob and Jeff Cooper and Paxton Quigley. I learned enough about guns to have real conversations with my military uncles about the differences in the various weapons they own. The aura of mystery that surrounded guns dissolved. Instead of being magical talismans with a power and will of their own, they became a means of empowering myself. I came to understand the greater responsibility that a citizen who chooses to be armed faces. She has the power to defend herself and others, and this power must be used appropriately. Empowered, she must face the responsibility of empowerment. I felt ready to take on that burden. But DC refused to trust me with the responsibility.

What could I do?

I moved to Maryland.

I asked my boyfriend to give me a crash course in shooting. I learned to load, chamber a round, and fire a shotgun, then pump the action to chamber a second round. I learned to fire a revolver. I learned to clean and care for guns. My boyfriend taught me everything he could with fake ammunition (rounds that don’t have any gun powder or bullets – they simply have a spring that reduces the wear on the firearm that repeated firing sans ammunition can cause). Eventually I began practicing with live ammunition, at a shooting range near my home.

That was an experience. Theoretically, I was comfortable with guns. Seeing them in action, or more aptly, hearing them in action, was something different. The men there (and, sadly, there were many more men than women) were respectful of me. After adjusting to the noise of the firearms and the smell of gunpowder, I grew to love the place. I loved the attitude of people. I loved the comfortable, relaxed mood that blended with the focused intensity that training with lethal weapons demands. The attitude reminded me of best martial arts dojo that I’ve trained at. I loved how the shooters took responsibility for the safety of their training. I loved the politeness and respect that everyone displayed. These men embraced the responsibility and empowerment of self-defense. I would, too.

I moved in with my boyfriend. He’s also a martial artist, with fifteen years of aikido and a few years of other arts like karate, fencing, and t’ai ch’i. He also hunts, does target shooting, and sometimes goes skeet shooting. I have guns in my apartment now. Firearms are legal in Maryland, so long as you keep them in your home. I feel comfortable using them. I hope I won’t ever need to, but I will not die in my own apartment without a fight.

Initiative saves lives; just being willing to strike can end the confrontation. I learned that when I was grabbed in a bar. I have been lucky enough never to need to hit anyone.

Knowledge of self-defense is empowering. A feminist should not be afraid to leave her apartment. A feminist should not depend on men, whether police, boyfriends, or helpful bystanders, for protection.

It’s my life. It’s my choice whether and how to defend it.

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