Do Guns Protect Women?

by Emma Cueto

Gun violence in the United States is a serious problem, and it's one that has serious effects for women. Contrary to claims that guns make women safer, a new Violence Policy Center report shows that guns are more likely to kill women than protect them, and that gun reform laws are actually very effective at protecting women. And those findings are very much in line with what we already know about guns and violence against women.

Opponents of gun reform often claim not only that guns are important for self-defense, but also that guns are especially important for women who need to protect themselves. All available evidence, however, does not support this idea at all, and the new Violence Policy Center report only reaffirms those findings.

Looking at data from 2014, the Violence Policy Center found that 1,116 women were killed by men in single victims/perpetrator incidents (meaning there was only one victim and one killer) that year. Of those, 93 percent were murdered by someone they knew, usually a husband or intimate partner — and 54 percent were killed with a gun. That works out to just over 600 women in a single year.

And just for additional irony, the most common gun used to kill women was the one most people praise for its self-defense applications: The handgun.

In contrast, the report found that only 15 women used a firearm to kill a man in self-defense in 2014. What's more, other statistics suggest that non-fatal incidents in which women successfully use a firearm to defend themselves are also rare. A Harvard review of research on the subject found that victims use guns to defend themselves in less than one percent of contact crimes, and that the rate of women successfully defending themselves from sexual assault with one is statistically nonexistent — despite the fact that up to one third of American women own a gun.

In other words, more than 1,000 women are killed by guns in a given year and are virtually never, ever saved by one.

Women are almost always killed by someone they know, and the majority are victims of domestic homicide. Local, state, and national policymakers must make preventing domestic violence a priority,” VPC Legislative Director Kristen Rand said in a summary of the report. “Guns in the hands of abusers can escalate domestic violence to homicide in the blink of an eye. Removing guns from a domestic violence situation is crucial.”

There are already protections in some states to protect women from abusers seeking guns. This year, for example, the Supreme Court upheld laws forbidding men convicted of domestic violence to purchase firearms. But although gun control advocates continue to insist that gun ownership makes women safer — and that most gun control laws would deprive women of the protection a firearm brings — these claims contradict the evidence that gun reform works.

Of the 10 states that the Violence Policy Center identifies as having the most per capita gun deaths of women, all are considered by both gun control supporters and opponents to have relatively permissive gun laws. In fact, all 10 get a grade of "F" from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. And this is true despite the fact that the Violence Policy Center report doesn't just take into account gun deaths, but all single perpetrator/victim homicides.

In other words, reducing the availability of guns doesn't make women more likely to be killed by some other means; it makes women less likely to be killed at all.

A lot of the reason that people seem so insistent about the idea that guns can stop violence against women most likely stems from a fundamental misunderstanding about how things like domestic violence and rape happen in the real world. Sexual assault in particular is very misunderstood. The vast majority of victims of sexual assault know their assailant, and many perpetrators either take advantage of victims when they are drunk or incapacitated or even actively try to get them drunk in order to take advantage. So, in order to prevent this, women would have to keep a firearm within reach any time we're in the presence of men, and be willing to shoot people we thought were our friends. And we'd have to be willing to shoot at people while extremely drunk. None of which sounds practical or safe.

On the other hand, making guns available means that men who want to hurt women are much more likely to be able to attain one, and to use it to commit violence against women, including murder.

"The picture that emerges from [this report] is that women face the greatest threat from someone they know, most often a spouse or intimate acquaintance, who is armed with a gun," the report concludes. "For women in America, guns are not used to save lives, but to take them."

Images: Giphy (2)