When news broke of a shooting at an Oregon college on Thursday, it reignited the ongoing debate on gun control in the US. The gunman, named as Chris Harper Mercer, opened fire inside a classroom at Umpqua Community College, killing nine people. Mercer was later killed in a police shootout.
At a press conference that evening, President Obama called for tighter gun control measures. "Each time this happens I'm going to bring this up," he said. "Each time this happens I am going to say we can actually do something about it."
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But how most women feel about gun control laws is not as clear. A widely-reported Pew Research Center poll in December of last year showed that more Americans supported gun rights than gun control for the first time in over two decades of polling. Fifty-two percent said that it was more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns, compared to 46 percent who said it was more important to restrict gun ownership. The poll also showed an increase in the amount of women who wanted to protect gun ownership, with support growing from 38 to 43 percent.
However, according to a poll conducted by YouGov and the Economist over July and August, 54 percent of women believed that laws covering the sale of handguns should be stricter, compared to 49 percent of men. Twenty-five percent of women, however, thought that there should be no change at all in gun laws, while a further 16 percent stated that laws should be less strict.
Professor Peter Squires, a professor of criminology and public policy at the University of Brighton in England, has studied American gun culture and is currently working on a book about women's attitudes to guns. He told me that women in the US are probably the most armed in the world, "with the exception of Israel."
"I think the split on gun ownership in America is probably 85 percent men to 55 percent women," Squires said. "Globally, it's 96 percent men to 4 percent women." He believes that this is the result of the industry targeting female consumers. "I think the gun industry since the 1980s has been trying to market guns much more prominently to women, largely as a result of the male market being saturated."
However, Squires is not convinced that gun ownership is increasing among women in the US. "I think the evidence is a bit ambiguous. To me, it looks like it's flatlining [in terms of the national picture]. I get this from national polling data, the general households survey and the few polling organizations."
When you talk to gun owners or people who teach courses, they say more women are doing it than did it in the past.
Kate Woolstenhulme, a Dallas-based businesswoman who designs handbags for concealed-carry handguns, believes that more women are actually buying guns and signing up to training courses than before. "When you talk to gun owners or people who teach courses, they say more women are doing it than did it in the past," she said. "A lot of women are taking it more seriously, because there's a lot of courses geared specifically to women, and the gun manufacturers have been catering to women by making smaller guns, guns that aren't so heavy, and guns that are easier to carry. It's [in a way] about supply and demand."
Woolstenhulme estimates that she "probably sells about a thousand" bags a year and sees "more younger women coming into it." Business for Designer Concealed Carry, her label, has remained "consistent." "It's been the same ever since it started—it's consistent. It's not really exploding. It's been a slow and steady progression," she said.
The National Sporting Goods Association is much more bullish about the number of women buying guns. According to the organization, there was a 60 percent increase in the number of women who participated in target shooting from 2001 to 2013. Fortune reports that the firearms industry has seen compound annual growth rate of eight percent over the last 30 years.
"The biggest driver is women getting into the shooting sports, and practicing concealed carry," Brian Ruttenbur, an analyst with CRT Capital, told Fortune. "When you look at the demographics, what has happened is there's been a rise in women being head of the household. So it started with concealed carry, as a protection thing, but now women are going and taking the family to the range for fun. You don't see it in the major cities, but go ten miles outside the city, and gun ownership goes through the roof."
But Women Against Gun Violence, a lobby group set up by Betty Friedan and Ann Reiss Lane, the first female Los Angeles Police Commissioner, argues that an increasing number of women are turning away from guns and are gaining interest in restricting gun usage.
"We believe that women are very interested in gun safety legislation and that interest is growing," Margot Bennett, its executive director, told Broadly. "As more and more gun shootings take place in public places—schools, movie theaters, hair salons, places of worship—where women take their families, there is growing concern and activism to keep our children safe."
It is highly nuanced and it is insane and a disservice to the conversation to act as if it's a question of are you for or against gun control.
Dr. Kelly Victory is a gun owner and a trauma and emergency specialist who offers consulting advice to educational institutions and private businesses to coordinate a first response strategy to incidents like the Oregon shooting. In her view, women are too quickly stereotyped as anti-gun—and that hurts the chances for progress and debate on the issue of gun control.
"It's a stereotype that women think guns are bad," Victory said. "It's partly because women are seen as mothers or protectors. It's absolutely a stereotype that needs to be broken down so we can advance the honest dialogue on this topic."
She points out that American views on gun control—female and male—are often more complex than portrayed in the media. Gun ownership does not necessarily mean that you oppose any and all legislation on restricting the use of guns; Victory describes herself as a "extraordinarily strong proponent of strong background checks [and] limits on certain types of weapons." Whether or not you believe in the right to bear arms, it is necessary to move beyond a yes or no argument for the current conversation to advance beyond its stalemate.
"We like to boil things down to: Are you for or against gun control?" Victory said. "What does that even mean, 'gun control'? In my world, 'gun control' means hitting what you aim at. Honestly, we like to act as if it is a yes or no, as if there's nothing in between. It absolutely needs to be nuanced. Are you for background checks for 100 percent of people who purchase a handgun? Are you for limits on the type of weapons civilians can purchase?"
"It is highly nuanced, and it is insane and a disservice to the conversation to act as if it's a question of, 'Are you for or against gun control?'"