Shooting war between the sexes

July 22, 1992

Women are now the fastest-growing group of handgun purchasers -- a development that some have applauded as evidence of a new-found self-confidence and determination on the part of women not to be victimized on the basis of gender.

Yet there's a dark side to this trend, too: Recent studies suggest that women who own guns are far more likely to use them against a spouse or boyfriend than against a stranger. Put another way, while the motivation for a woman to buy a gun may be to protect herself against anonymous "criminals," the actual person she is most likely to end up shooting is a husband or lover.

What accounts for the seeming paradox? Firearms manufacturers during the 1980s promoted the idea that rising crime rates had left the police incapable of protecting ordinary citizens from violent offenders and that women needed firearms for "self-defense." The clear implication of such campaigns was that owning a firearm actually made a woman "safer" from the threat of violent assault.

But assault by whom? The unstated premise was that of an unknown attacker, a horror-flick psychopath who pops up out of nowhere. The majority of assaults against women, however, are committed not by strangers but by people known to the victims. The fact is that domestic violence -- not random street crime -- accounts for more injuries to women than muggings, rape and automobile accidents combined.

It should come as no surprise, then, that as more women acquire firearms, these weapons are increasingly likely to be used to resolve domestic disputes. One recent study found that women were five times more likely to use a gun to defend themselves against an abusive spouse or boyfriend than against an unknown intruder. Such statistics point to the relative ineffectiveness of the criminal justice system to protect women from domestic violence. But the answer surely is not for women to rush out and buy guns, rather for police and judges to do a better job of addressing the needs of women threatened by abusive relationships. It is a sad commentary indeed on our society and its institutions when firearms replace courts and police as the principal agencies for settling domestic disputes.

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