A recently released New York Times/CBS poll included headline-grabbing findings about America’s evolving attitudes on gun control. The poll found that the number of Americans supporting a ban on assault weapons is 19 points lower today than it was after the shooting of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others in 2011.
Perhaps more significant, it found that the number of Americans supporting stricter gun control in general has slipped 7 points in just two months. While these numbers may come as a surprise to many, they shouldn’t, because in the last few years the backbone of the gun control movement has been undergoing an evolution of its own. More and more women are buying guns. As the number of female gun owners has risen, so has the number of women expressing skepticism of gun control.
More than a third of the women who participated in the National Sports Shooting Foundation’s most recent survey identified as new gun owners. This data are consistent with those of other organizations, including the National Sporting Goods Association. According to the NSGA’s Annual Sports Participation Report, the number of women who practice target shooting increased nearly 36 percent (from 4.31 million to 5.86 million) between 2004 and 2014, while the number of women participating in hunting increased 23 percent (from 2.68 million to 3.3 million). In response to a request for comment, an NRA spokesman reported tracking a 77 percent increase between 2004 and 2011 in the number of women who own firearms.
Historically there has been a significant gender divide on the issue of gun control. But according to a 2012 Pew Research Center report, there was a 9 point increase in the number of women declaring their support for gun rights between 2008 and 2012. Experts believe there is a connection between more women feeling empowered by gun ownership and shifting their perspective on gun control.
“Gun control has almost nothing to do with ensuring the bad guys don’t have guns. Women increasingly seem to be understanding this,” wrote Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus in an email.
For years the movement for gun control has been driven by women leaders and supporters. The Million Mom March that took place on Mother’s Day 2000 was one of the most significant milestones in the modern-day gun-control movement. Founded by Donna Dees Thomases in the aftermath of the shooting of children by a white supremacist in Grenada Hills, California, the movement built momentum that resulted in a number of legislative wins for gun-control supporters. Advocacy by Million Mom March chapters is credited with tougher gun laws being passed in states from Arizona to Maryland to New York, where Republican governor and current presidential candidate George Pataki signed some of the nation’s strictest gun laws just months after the Million Mom March.
So what happened to the Mom-mentum?
In a phone interview Dees Thomases disputed the notion that gun-control supporters have lost ground or lost the support of women in the 15 years since their triumphant march. She pointed to the Million Mom March activists and alums now serving in elected office (at least three currently), not to mention others whose volunteerism for candidates supportive of gun control swung elections. “They threw a lot of rascals out of office,” she said. “People didn’t leave the march and go home and do nothing. We left that march and got sweeping reform passed.”
She also said that polling data on guns can be misleading, with the phrasing of questions often being key to which way responses tilt. She did concede that the female faces of the gun control movement have lost visibility in media, but she believes they’ve had little choice. “The question is not why we went away,” she corrected me, emphatically noting they have not, “but why we’re not visible.” According to Dees Thomases, in the social media-driven age it is much tougher to be a gun-control activist—particularly a female one. “All women activists on this issue at some point are harassed,” she said. “They try to publish your phone number and addresses,” she said of gun-control opponents. As a result female supporters of gun control have not been as widely represented in media in recent years, which may be having an impact on public perception of the issue.
Colette, a New York-based mother, gun owner, and volunteer with New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, thinks so. In an email exchange she wrote that her “activism was spurred due to the fact that as a group, American gun owners largely reject the NRA (only 6 percent of gun owners are NRA members) — and I felt nothing would really change until average gun owners were better represented both in the media and in the halls of Congress.” While she grew up with guns, anecdotes from friends and acquaintances nationwide indicate to her that gun ownership among women in general has been increasing in recent years. But in her immediate social circle support for gun control has been increasing as well. Though she decided to become a gun-owning gun-control activist following the Sandy Hook shooting, she said, “I’ve received more inquiries in the past three months or so that sound like ‘Tell me what I can do’ than in the past three years.”
Perhaps the real question is why are more women buying guns?
Bill Brassard, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, cited the growing influence of celebrities in the sports shooting world such as Eva Shockey, Julie Golob, and Jessie Duff, but most of those interviewed for this piece said more women are gravitating to firearms for the same reason most people have historically: to protect themselves. Cheri Jacobus, the Republican strategist, argued that as women establish more independence in every sphere of their lives, it is only natural that personal protection would be part of that evolution. Citing the heroism of some of the female teachers during Sandy Hook she said, “Gone are the days when women look to men to keep them safe.” She continued, “Female head of households and single professional women rely on themselves for economic security and now for physical security, as well.”
She concluded, “Our new motto may just be ‘If you see something, say something. But make sure you’re packing heat and have good aim.’”