Women make up the fastest-growing group of handgun purchasers. That's a startling fact. The entry of women in the firearms market is partly the result of an aggressive marketing campaign by gun manufacturers, who have played on widespread public fears of crime. Yet paradoxically, many of the women who reportedly purchase guns for self-defense live in relatively low-crime communities.
Some gun control advocates have concluded that the surge in gun purchases by women is driven purely by hysteria. And they have drawn support for that idea from a well-established body of research showing that handguns are far more likely to be used against their owners or members of their owners' family than against strangers. The most recent study, conducted by researchers at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control, reported that women who arm themselves with guns are five times more likely to kill their spouse or boyfriend than to kill a stranger.
There is another way to look at such statistics, however: Women may tend to shoot spouses or boy friends more often simply because the main threat to their lives comes not from strangers on the street but from domestic violence in the home.
That certainly is the possibility suggested by discussion at a recent Ford Foundation symposium entitled "Violence Against Women," which described battering as "the single greatest cause of injury to women in the United States, greater than muggings, rape and car accidents combined." The Ford panel noted that handling domestic violence cases takes up more police time than murder, rape and all forms of aggravated assault.
The symposium underscored that domestic violence against women is part of the cultural fabric in many parts of the world today and affects women's lives even if they are not shooting victims by determining choices about where they can work, what events they feel safe attending and even when and where they walk.
Participants surmised that "if any other group were so systematically tortured, battered and killed, society would declare a civil emergency." Yet even in the United States domestic violence is widely tolerated and accepted in family law and cultural practices.
The surge in gun sales to women certainly may be understood as a desperate reaction to an intolerable situation. Yet no one could condone it as a reasonable response to the deadly cycle of domestic violence. For as the CDC report warned, "unless we are prepared to accept homicide as the best way to resolve abusive relationships or domestic disputes, we need to look for less lethal and more constructive alternatives."