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Why the gender gap in gun ownership is shrinking

Patterns of thought

A recent survey shows that the gender gap between male and female gun owners is shrinking, a trend experts say has resulted in a shift in gun culture. 

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    A woman looks at a handgun at the Glock booth at the Shooting Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show in Las Vegas, Jan. 19.
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The stereotypical face of gun ownership in the United States has long been a white man, one who holds conservative political views and resides in a rural area. But that may be changing, according to an upcoming survey by public health researchers from Harvard and Northeastern universities.

The percentage of Americans who own guns decreased slightly between 1994 and 2015, dropping from 25 to 22 percent, and with it the proportion of male gun owners, the survey found. Forty-two percent of American men described themselves as gun owners in a 1994 study, compared to only 32 percent in 2015.

Meanwhile, the percentage of women who own guns has remained relatively stagnant since the 1980s, researchers said, with a slight increase from 9 to 12 percent over the past two decades. But while the numbers may not suggest, at first glance, that a significant change has taken place, when placed in the context of shrinking male ownership they point to a narrowing gender gap between men and women in the firearms-owning world – and a subsequent shift in gun culture.

The motivations for purchasing a firearm can be different for men and women, as women are more likely to purchase a gun for self-defense purposes than men, more likely to live in an urban area, and more likely to possess a handgun only, the survey found. But experts say the presence of women in the traditionally male-dominated worlds of recreational shooting and hunting has also grown as the gender imbalance begins to level out.

"For so long in American popular culture," American gun ownership has been associated with a "very masculine image," says Mary Zeiss Stange, professor of religious studies at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and author of "Gun Women: Firearms and Feminism in Contemporary America."

The heightened presence of women in various facets of gun culture, from hunting to recreational shooting to working in the military or law enforcement, means we need to "rethink some of those lines that have been drawn culturally and socially," Professor Stange tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "Women taking up firearms are, in a sense, crossing a gender line that used to be very clearly drawn. It’s far more blurry now."

American women owning and using guns is nothing new, says Laura Browder, a professor of American Studies at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Va. Dating back to the Revolutionary and Civil wars, when tales of women cross-dressing to fight enthralled the public, there have been a number of famous female shooters celebrated as American icons, such as Annie Oakley of "Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show," she tells the Monitor in a phone interview.

Throughout the homesteading era, too, it was common for women to hunt either alone or with other women, Stange says. That changed in the mid-20th century, as men returning home after World War II made a push to "convince people ... that there were appropriate female and appropriate male activities" in an effort to earn back their factory jobs then held by women. One of those activities deemed male: hunting.

Women began their migration back into the world of guns and hunting in the 1970s and '80s as second wave feminism hit and women began to move into male-dominated activities, both professional and recreational, Stange says. She also attributes the growth among women to an increase in disposable income, concerns about protecting themselves and their families, and, for some, a desire to provide their own food. 

Reasons for purchasing a gun can vary depending on environment, says Caitlin Kelly, author of "Blown Away: American Women and Guns," in a phone interview with the Monitor.

Urban and rural areas, particularly when it comes to gun ownership, are "politically very different" and "socially very different," Ms. Kelly says. "There are places in America where you feel bizarre if you don't own a gun, and there are places in America where you feel bizarre if you do. It's very, very different, region to region, county to county, state to state."

For many women, both urban and rural, self-protection is a strong motivator, the upcoming Harvard/Northeastern study suggests. Handguns now account for a higher proportion of the country’s civilian gun stock, which suggests that self-defense is an increasingly important factor for American gun owners, with women more likely to report owning a gun for protection than men.

The researchers who conducted the survey said they found the results somewhat puzzling.

"The desire to own a gun for protection – there’s a disconnect between that and the decreasing rates of lethal violence in this country," said Matthew Miller, a Northeastern University and Harvard School of Public Health professor and one of the authors of the study, to The Guardian. "It isn’t a response to actuarial reality."

Some of the growth in purchasing guns for self-defense purposes may be, in part, due to highly publicized shootings, terror attacks, and sexual assaults, suggests a recent study by Marie Claire and the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. While nearly half of the women surveyed reported feeling more negatively toward guns in light of such events, 18 percent said they had become more interested in owning a gun in the last five years. 

Advertising by the gun industry may also play a role. The industry began to target women in the 1980s in an effort to both bring up sales and "help dissociate guns from violence," Professor Browder says. These ads typically feature "a woman walking alone through a dark empty parking lot," or a mother tucking her children into bed, who needs a gun to protect herself.

For women who wish to purchase a gun, whether for self-protection or recreation, resources and support structures are quickly expanding. Organizations such as The Well Armed Woman, based out of Scottsdale, Ariz., offer training classes geared toward women, all-female shooting practice groups, and access to equipment specifically geared toward women. 

The founder of The Well Armed Woman, Carrie Lightfoot, said she was inspired to start the group when, as a single mom whose children had left for college, she decided to purchase a gun for self-protection but was frustrated with the lack of resources for female gun owners in a "male-driven" industry that "oversexualizes," and is "condescending" to, women. 

Since the organization’s founding in 2012, The Well Armed Woman (TWAW) has "spread like wildfire," Ms. Lightfoot tells the Monitor in a phone interview, with 310 chapters in 49 states and over 11,000 members. She says she's seen gun culture become more accepting to women since her own entrance into the gun-owning world, as TWAW and similar groups have produced "a new level of respect [for women] and a new level of interest in providing for them what they need." 

"You shine a light on the subject and you start to normalize it, and it becomes ... a little less scary because hey, there’s other women talking about it. There’s a lot of other women talking about it," Lightfoot says. "It helps women say, hey, if they can do it, I can do it."

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