When I was six years old, my mother and I were robbed at gunpoint by two men looking for cash. One of them placed the gun at my head until she gave them her mink coat, which looked real but wasn’t, and the bus fare she had in her pocket. The incident was the first thing that came to mind when, more than 20 years later, I started the application process for a concealed handgun license.
I started my career as a reporter in 2001 at an East Texas newspaper headquartered not far from where James Byrd Jr. was dragged to his death by white racists four years earlier. It made me fully aware of the still-present dangers of being black in America. More recently, the attack and sexual assault of reporter Lara Logan in Egypt and the abduction of journalist Dorothy Parvaz, a former colleague of mine at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, reinforced my concerns about the physical vulnerability of female reporters. No matter where we are in the world, no matter our age or race, our lives are threatened by violence.
Journalists must be proactive in the face of bleak statistics and violent events. For me, learning to handle and shoot a gun seemed the most direct way to fend off growing feelings of vulnerability. But what started out as a simple intention to earn a concealed handgun license ended up as a yearlong quest that involved a few stops at the gun range, being fingerprinted by Texas authorities, and staring for months at the incomplete application on my desk.
People presume that tall black women like me are tough and sufficiently able to protect ourselves. But I wanted an additional layer of insurance for my freedom to explore, unfettered, the realms I pursued as a journalist. As my own process unfolded, I noticed that the number of stories about women shooting for recreation or buying guns for self-defense had started to multiply. And in Texas, at least, I wasn’t alone in my quest. Texas Department of Public Safety data show that the fastest-growing group of concealed handgun owners in the state has been, for at least five years, black women.
Red’s Indoor Range gives women shooters discounts on renting guns and ammunition on Mondays, so this past summer I went with two of my homegirls to kick off the week with some practice. We were each given earplugs, which we wore beneath silencing earmuffs. I rented a .380, bought a box of ammunition, and got to it. My hands, which normally never sweat, began shvitzing as I worried about somehow managing to shoot myself; my dear friend Andy, a Texas-bred black woman and a former junior NRA member, showed me where to put them.
“Can we leave? I’m done now,” I said after about half an hour.
“No, we have to finish the box,” she said, patting me on the back. I might have been shaking a little. It was definitely hard to breathe. The only thing that helped me get back my equilibrium was a post-range cheeseburger and fries.
“It just takes some getting used to,” Andy said as I ate myself back to neutral. “You’ll get the hang of it.”
Many other women I spoke to while I was practicing shooting did not own guns and had no desire to pack heat. A few of them said aloud what I believe most of them were thinking whenever I talked about guns: they worried I would become more powerless if I owned a weapon.
For women, part of the tension around this topic is that women with guns are marginalized in a feminist culture that promotes unarmed resistance and “clean” fighting techniques. These send the message that as long as a woman does not have a lethal means of protecting herself, she is still feminine and worthy of “real” protection—either from a man, or from the police. To be a gun-owning feminist, to prepare to protect oneself against two of the most frightening enemies of female-identified people—rape and/or domestic violence—still strikes at the heart of what could be described as a feminist identity crisis, wherein women oppress each other with our inability to make room for alternative models of self-protection.
“Why do you need it?” I don’t remember how many times I was asked this question by a multicultural cast of women whenever I talked about getting a gun.
“I live alone,” was usually my immediate response.
“You could get a baseball bat,” some said. “That’s what the police are for,” others would say.
“I also want to travel and camp by myself and have extra protection to do those things alone,” I would say. This usually provoked a longer silence or a change of subject.
White Southern men, on the other hand, were the most likely to congratulate me on this life decision and follow up with advice on the best kind of firearm to buy.
Gun ownership has long been considered a traditionally white male patriotic expression of identity, privilege, and power. When I told one of my college buddies that I was learning to shoot, she asked if I had suddenly become a Republican. Men with guns abound: Charlton Heston is the pop culture patriarch of contemporary gun culture, but we’ve also mythologized cowboys like John Wayne, action figures like Rambo, Clint Eastwood, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and self-styled wild men like Ted Nugent, to name just a few. The sharp converse of these proud white patriots, of course, are black men with guns, almost always classified in popular culture as amoral gangsters whose firearms are procured for drug trafficking and gangbanging.
In the black community, the social and economic tension between black men and women has made black women appear to have increasingly more in common with white men than black men. Black women, like white men, are often the heads of household, often the primary or sole breadwinners in their homes, and they are simultaneously admired and hated (often by black men) for their successes.
Historian Cheryl D Hicks wrote that since at least 1890, American culture has historically failed to view black women’s protection as a priority. “[T]he protection for white women espoused by the dominant rape-lynch narrative often worked to reinforce patriarchal claims on, rather than to physically defend their bodies,” she continued. “In contrast, black women’s need for protection was, at best, ignored by white society.”
Such ignorance continued into the civil rights era and beyond. Daisy Bates, one of the Little Rock Nine, endured constant threats due to her efforts to integrate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. With bombs thrown at the Bates house and hangings in effigy, the high-schooler had little choice but to grow comfortable with guns—especially since the U.S. government answered her desperate telegrams by explaining that such incidents were a matter for local authorities. Historian Danielle McGuire has documented a long history of sexual assault as a weapon of racists in the South, and black women’s sometimes armed resistance to the threat. All of it was news to me.
Perhaps the most threatening black female gun owners were those like Elaine Brown, JoAnne Chesimard, and their comrades in the Black Panther Party. The guns they carried were symbols of black women’s abilities to be both frontierwomen and nurturing warrior mothers birthing a new generation of revolutionaries. The message such images sent was that black women could both contribute to perpetuating the race and have the strength to eliminate any potential threats to their babies and their men.
It was freedom of movement, rather than insurrection, that was on my mind when I considered gun ownership. I had been meditating on where I felt restricted physically and psychologically. As a nature-lover who was single at the time, I dreamed of taking my less-than-vicious dog with me on a fall camping trip in West Texas. I was frustrated by my resistance to the idea of using more lethal means than my keys to protect myself. I am among the most gentle women I know, but did I really want to rely on muscle memory in the event of an attack?
My decision to educate myself on gun ownership and protection wasn’t quite an “Ain’t I a Woman?” moment, but it was close. Still, because guns are so closely tied to representations not just of traditional macho men, but also of political conservatives, anti-immigration militias, and law enforcement figures who are just as likely to use their power to hurt women as to help them, there is understandable ambivalence among many feminists about the rising numbers of women participating in gun culture.
The spectacle of a pistol-packing woman has mainstreamed since the days when Foxy Brown declared vigilante justice “as American as apple pie.” Sigourney Weaver, Angelina Jolie, and Uma Thurman have cemented their action-film careers with tough, gun-toting characters; Prime Suspect’s Helen Mirren and the women of various Law & Order franchises have made holsters as commonplace on female TV characters as aprons once were. And Asian-made action films featuring gorgeous women who shoot and kick their way to vengeance are plentiful enough to have their own “Girls with Guns” section in many a hip underground DVD emporium.
Yet no matter how many guns we see in the hands of both real-life women and female characters, mainstream pop culture remains a source of judgment on why guns and women don’t mix. From the pulp rape-revenge genre (1981’s Ms. 45) to the big-budget action film (1991’s Thelma and Louise; 1996’s Set It Off) to the impenetrable art flick (1995’s Butterfly Kiss), the message is that women using firearms for their own protection against violence face alienation and, inevitably, death.
Take the reaction to the 2011 video for Rihanna’s “Man Down.” In the video, Rihanna is shown taking aim at a man as he walks through a crowd; shortly thereafter, flashbacks reveal that the man she shoots sexually assaulted her the day before. “Man Down” aired a year after Rihanna’s then-boyfriend, R&B singer Chris Brown, was charged with felony assault on the singer. And whether or not the video was intended as a response to Brown, audiences read it as one, and, not surprisingly, controversy ensued. The Parents Television Council lobbied for the video to be removed from broadcast, saying that it “gives retaliation in the form of premeditated murder the imprimatur of acceptability.” Brown himself responded to the video in a veiled tweet, writing, “I never claim to be no saint but by no means am I trying to promote death, violence, and destruction with my music! #f@ckouttahere.”
Perhaps the most interesting response came from another black woman who had raised a gun in self-defense. Actor Gabrielle Union had written before about being raped as a teenager during a workplace robbery—but it was only after “Man Down” premiered that she elaborated on the story, noting that she had used the rapist’s own gun to shoot at him. (She missed.) Was a narrative in which a rape victim pulls the trigger just not appropriate for the likes of Teen Vogue or Oprah? Or did Union not want to complicate the narrative of “acceptable” self-defense by mentioning it herself? Her reaction, via Twitter, to “Man Down” would seem to suggest the latter; in two tweets, she wrote, “Over the yrs I realized tht killin my rapist wouldve added insult to injury. The DESIRE 2 kill whose abused/raped u is understandable, bt unless its self defense n the moment 2 save ur life, just ADDS 2 ur troubles #mandown.”
I reflected on this as I gathered the documents I needed to complete my own concealed handgun license application, considering whether the time and expense of pursuing this idea of myself as an armed woman was worth it. In another tweet, Union had opined that everyone has an idea of how they would deal when confronted with the threat of assault, but that the reality might be very different. I hope to never find out, but if I have to make the decision to shoot at an attacker, I aim not to miss my target. I’m lucky to have that memory of my mother and me standing on the bridge from Harlem as my only experience of violence. But the persistent memory of the cold metal barrel pressed to my temple remains, 28 years later. I can’t go back and protect that little girl, but I can make sure I never feel that vulnerable again.
J. Victoria Sanders is a frequent contributor to Bitch. She lives, works, and (sometimes) shoots in Austin, Texas. Excerpted from Bitch (No. 54), an independent quarterly magazine that offers a feminist response to pop culture.