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.

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