War May Redefine Gun Control

Despite the high emotions that surround war -- or perhaps because of them -- people are focusing again on "normal" life. But what is normal has shifted in ways both obvious and subtle. Consider how war has affected just one issue: the debate over gun control.

For years, gun ownership advocates have agonized over how to make women comfortable around guns. As of 2000, 41.7 percent of men and 28.5 percent of women reported having a gun in their household, and 39.2 percent of men but only 10 percent of women personally owned a gun.

Reaching out to women and minorities has been a high priority of organizations like the National Rifle Association, not merely to swell their ranks but also to convert segments of society that have traditionally opposed the right to own a gun.

Now, the outreach has become easier. As of 2002, over 210,000 women were on active duty within the military, over 150,000 were in the reserves. A steep increase in the number of women in the military means that an unprecedented number of Gen-Next women have overcome their mothers' aversion to guns.

Non-military women also picked up guns. NRA spokeswoman Nance Pretto reported that, in the wake of Sept. 11, women's enrollment in instructional shooting classes increased fourfold from years before. And gun dealers reported a sharp increase in women purchasing weapons.

The sense of insecurity caused by Sept. 11 was heightened as police officers in the reserves left for active duty, depleting police departments. Some politicians began to actively encourage women to protect themselves by owning guns. When a serial killer was loose in Baton Rouge in the summer of 2002, Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster advised women "you have a right to get a [concealed] gun permit. ...if you know how [to use a gun] and you have a situation with some fruitcake running around, like they've got right now, it sure can save you a lot of grief."

Foster received the predictable backlash of outrage from gun control advocates who suddenly sounded sexist. Holley Galland Haymaker from the anti-gun group Louisiana Ceasefire argued: "Maybe if you're a big, white guy who hunts all the time, it might do some good. For a woman who is surprise attacked, having a gun is only giving them [the attacker] another way to kill you."

I will ignore the racist implications of this remark and simply ask, "Why would a white guy who hunts be more competent with a gun than a woman who is trained to use it?"

To judge from how strained their arguments have become, gun control advocates realize they are losing the debate. It would be difficult to escape this realization. Last Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1036 -- the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act -- which grants gun manufacturers immunity from lawsuits resulting from their products. The vote (04/09) was 285 to 140. The measure has now moved to the Senate where it is expected to pass.

As Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., argued, "Manufacturers of legal products should not live under the threat of litigation simply because their product is misused... [W]e don't sue Ginsu when someone is stabbed to death with their knife."

Again, the anti-gun arguments were shrill. A paper published by the Brady Center, entitled "Smoking Guns: Exposing the Gun Industry's Complicity in the Illegal Gun Market," openly accused the firearms industry of "actively and knowingly allowing guns to be sold into the illegal market." In short, gun manufacturers were publicly charged with criminal complicity.

Other gun control advocates are pushing to have guns declared as "weapons of mass destruction (WMD)." For example, House Bill 1210 in Washington State defined a WMD as a "device, object, or substance that a person intends to use to cause multiple human deaths." No specific weapons were mentioned but the Seattle Times opened its March 15 coverage of the bill with the sentence, "An anti-terrorism bill has spurred debate among lawmakers: Is a gun a weapon of mass destruction?" Possession would have been a class A felony had the bill passed with above-referenced language. Many in the pro-gun rights camp view the WMD argument as an indication of attacks to come.

The underlying facts of the gun debate remain much the same as before Sept. 11 and the war. The award-winning criminologist Prof. Gary Kleck states that firearms are used defensively 2.5 million times a year. 48 percent of those incidents involve women defending themselves; most of the time a shot is not fired. The conclusion: women benefit from gun ownership.

What is changing, however, are the faces and attitudes of the debate. A growing number of women feel comfortable with guns and want them for self-defense. In response, anti-gun advocates are using arguments that seem increasingly implausible such as classifying guns as WMDs.

Gun ownership is just one of the issues over which we will stumble on the way back to normal life. And, as people drink coffee and read newspapers in the morning, they will discover that the war has influenced every aspect of public debate, including the words we use to describe and redefine our beliefs.

Wendy McElroy is a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.
Please see her website: WendyMcElroy.com.