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Women and handguns--Self-defense or self-endangerment?

By Keri Hayes

A WOMAN WALKS quickly through a dark, deserted parking lot. As she nears her car, she hears movement behind her. With a terrified look on her face, she grabs her purse and pulls out a handgun, rearing to face the camera with new assurance. A scene from this summer's biggest blockbuster? Maybe, but it also bears a striking resemblance to the gun lobby's targeted articles, which appeal to women's self-defense fears with the intent of gaining a new market for handgun sales.

Images of lone women fending off would-be attackers with handguns abound in gun-lobby publications--a typical article in a 1997 issue of Guns & Ammo features a photo of a woman in the doorway of her dark bedroom ready to shoot a suspected intruder.

The truth is that very few women ever use handguns in self-defense. In fact, guns are most often used against them by men they know, in the course of domestic arguments. A new study from the Violence Policy Center, "When Men Murder Women: An Analysis of 1996 Homicide Data," reports that "firearms, whether in the hands of men or women, are rarely used to kill criminals. While stranger-attack is a reality, it is in fact the most unlikely scenario a woman can expect to face."

The study, which analyzes 1996 homicide data reported to the FBI, reveals that more than 12 times as many females were murdered by a male they knew (1,866 victims out of 2,129) than were killed by male strangers (151 victims). More female homicides were committed with firearms (56 percent of cases) than with all other weapons/methods combined. Of the homicides committed with firearms, almost three quarters (74 percent) were committed with handguns.

Only instances involving one female homicide victim and one male offender were considered in the study. "This is the exact scenario that generates such fear, and that is distorted by the gun lobby to promote gun ownership among women--the lone male attacker and the vulnerable woman," study authors wrote.

THE DATA SHOW that the "lone male attacker" is actually more likely to be a husband, common-law husband, ex-husband, or boyfriend (56 percent of all victims who knew their attacker). The number of females shot and killed by husbands or intimate acquaintances (669 victims) was more than four times higher than the total number murdered by male strangers using all other weapons (151 victims). Race comes into play as well; black women were victimized at a rate nearly four times greater than that of white women.

The circumstances of the homicides were also significant. Most often, females were shot and killed by males in the course of an argument. In 1996 there were 398 women shot and killed by their husband or intimate acquaintance during an argument--more than one woman murdered every day of the year. These homicides were most often not related to any other felony, such as rape or robbery (in 84 percent of all cases where circumstance was determined).

The mere presence of a gun in the home often proves to be the determining factor between life and death for women in abusive relationships. The city of Atlanta conducted a study of family and intimate assaults in 1984 and found that "firearm-associated family and intimate assaults were 12 times more likely to result in death than non-firearm-associated assaults between family and intimates."

The VPC study is the first analysis of the 1996 homicide data to offer breakdowns of cases in every state, and rankings of female homicide rates by state. Nevada topped the list, with a homicide rate for female victims murdered by single male offenders of 3.44 per 100,000, which is more than twice the national average of 1.57 per 100,000. Delaware followed closely with a rate of 3.23 per 100,000, and then South Carolina, with 3.03 per 100,000.

The risk factor of having a handgun in the home far outweighs the instances of people (male or female) actually using the gun for self-defense. Findings published in the Archives of Internal Medicine support the VPC's conclusions: A 1997 study found that when there were one or more guns in the home, the risk of homicide increased more than three times (the study examined the risk factors of violent death for women in the home in three U.S. counties). Furthermore, the annual average of all victims of violence who claimed to have used a firearm of any type to defend themselves was only about 1 percent, according to an April 1994 Justice Department study, "Guns and Crime."

Perhaps the gun lobby would better serve women's interests by encouraging them to rid their homes of guns, rather than buy more. Multiple conclusions can be drawn from the study "When Men Murder Women," but the most severe one is simply that "for women in America, guns are not used to save lives, but to take them."

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From the December 3-9, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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