The feminist case for gun rights
There has, in recent weeks, been a relatively vigorous debate over gun control in the US. This was undoubtedly precipitated by the horrendous Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, in which 20 children and 6 adults were gunned down, but the issue has long been simmering in a country alternately outraged by gun violence and resistant to limitations on the people’s ability to keep and bear arms. There are a number of issues here, but perhaps the most general (and ethically interesting) is whether, in modern societies, the state should significantly restrict the ability of citizens to purchase and carry firearms. The New York Times’ blog The Stone ran a nice series of philosophical commentaries on guns; however, perhaps unsurprisingly given the typical liberalism of philosophers, all were to varying degrees in favor of gun control (or even prohibition) and not sympathetic to gun rights. I imagine those in the UK will be similarly disposed, but in this debate it is important to look for the strongest possible cases on both sides. For my own part, I find the most compelling defense of strong gun rights to come not from the need to check government or general libertarian freedom, but feminism. This may be somewhat surprising given feminism’s typical association with liberal causes, but on consideration it is not so strange.
The feminist case for gun control has gained some traction in reaction to a stupid thing said by a Democratic state representative in Colorado. In a clumsily-worded statement, Joe Salazar suggested that women might not know whether they are about to be sexually assaulted and accidentally fire on an innocent passer-by. The statement was rightly derided as paternalistic and disrespectful, but brought attention to a broader line of thought – that contrary to Salazar’s insinuation, women have a special interest in broad gun rights. This argument has been put forward by various interlocutors in piecemeal, and more thoroughly in a 1996 article by Inge Anna Larish defending gun rights from a feminist perspective.
The argument proceeds from the idea, widely accepted in feminist thinking, that we live in a gender-stratified society. This crops up in a number of ways, not the least of which is violence against women. Physical coercion is the oldest method of dominance of any group, and the problem is compounded for women because of physical disadvantage. Due to some combination of environment, social conditioning and biology, women are typically less strong than men. In a given physical confrontation, men are then normally at a physical advantage. This not only means women are at a disadvantage when attacked, but are also more vulnerable to intimidation and compliance in reaction to the threat of violence. Men can take advantage of this inequality to assert dominance in relationships, perpetrate heinous crimes and even gain advantage in the workplace through more subtle intimidation.
Guns, however, can act as “the great equalizer.” Let’s compare two worlds – one where everyone has a gun, and one where no one does. In the no-gun world, the background inequality of strength means women will be at a general disadvantage in conflicts, increasing the risk of abuse, dominance and all manner of related ills. In the universal-gun world, however, that background inequality of strength becomes unimportant; a gun is just as lethal in the hands of a woman as a man. This removes one key tool of male dominance, helping prevent the sort of abuses that go along with physical differentials. Now, gun rights are about allowing access rather than putting a gun in everyone’s hand, but they would at least help alleviate those inequalities by giving those women who so choose the opportunity to level the playing field. There is, then, a strong prima facie feminist case for gun rights.
I take this sort of argument very seriously, though I’m not certain it’s decisive. The case is only prima facie, and must be weighed against the costs. Most pressing, we should worry that the universal-gun world – though more equal – will also likely be more violent, insofar as any given conflict will be more likely to result in injury or death. This points to a crucial empirical question, far outside the scope of this post, concerning the extent to which restriction of gun rights prevents violence. That harm-prevention will have to be weighed against the equality benefits just discussed; how to do so is unclear, but I suspect if one could make the US violent crime rate fall to, say, UK levels, many would agree the costs to gender equality would be worth it.
Moreover, there is some reason to doubt that more access to guns will have the great equalizing effect indicated in the feminist case for gun rights. Intimidation and coercion are about more than just the ability to do harm, but also various psychological factors such as the willingness and propensity to do harm. Take the US, which has relatively easy access to firearms for both men and women. Among 2010 homicides where the gender of the perpetrator was known, 1,282 women were killed by a man with a gun, while 245 men were killed by a woman with a gun. Thus, even when gun laws are very lax, we do not have a great ‘equalization’ – women are more at risk of being killed by a man than vice-versa (though men are more likely to be killed overall, the issue here is about dominance vis-a-vis using violence against members of a different group). Much of this is going to be because, generally, men are simply more willing to use violence of any sort than women. This militates against the central thrust of the feminist argument, as merely having more access to guns does not change the fact that male violence against women is much more prominent than female violence against men, the former of which drives many of the problems of dominance and inequity mentioned above. And to the extent that greater gun rights lead to greater violence, we can also expect there to be greater and more harmful violence against women – again counter to the goal of reducing dominance of and violence against women.
Still, I may be underselling the feminist case here. Counterfactuals are difficult to assess and perhaps without the US’s strong gun rights, there would be even greater gender dominance and inequity. And a stronger feminist case for gun rights could be built not on overall effects on violence and intimidation but instead simply on a woman’s relative ability to defend herself. Whatever the merits of such arguments, I hope the continuing debate will pay careful attention how various policy alternatives can differentially affect groups, including those already disadvantaged in our society.