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ShootersMyths and Realities of America's Gun Cultures$

Abigail A. Kohn

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780195150513

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195150513.001.0001

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Tough Americans

Tough Americans

(p.103) 6 Tough Americans

Abigail A. Kohn

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the role of toughness in gun culture in the U.S. Americans have long prided themselves on their toughness. Tough men in American history and characters of fiction and film all invoke images of an American character that included strength and determination. This chapter suggests that it is not surprising that guns should be linked to these values, as guns have long been associated with all of those characteristics in American history and its contemporary mythic rendering.

Keywords:   toughness, gun culture, U.S., American character, strength, determination, guns, American history

Americans have long prided themselves on their toughness. Americans make tough business deals, athletes play a tough game, and consumers buy products like tough trucks and tough tools. Tough men of history—Generals Sherman and Patton, activists like Malcolm X, and greatly mythologized characters of fiction and film like Captain Ahab and Dirty Harry—all invoke images of an American character that included strength, determination, bravery, and moral fiber, definitive (if idealized) characteristics of American masculinity that can be summarized in one simple word: tough.1

Historically, toughness was celebrated and mythologized during America’s Revolutionary and Frontier periods. During those eras in particular, toughness was wedded to masculinity, as well as to republican and revolutionary ideologies. The American Revolution stressed a model of manhood that demanded autonomy and independence, qualities that were embodied in the idealized persona of the citizen soldier.2 Early American republican ideology explicitly intertwined manliness with strength and virtue, civic involvement, and a willingness to fight and die for the protection of the new republic. One of the first successful American comedies, written by Royall Tyler in 1787, entitled The Contrast, centered around the eponymous “Colonel Manly,” who embodied those qualities so important to revolutionary America: “The Colonel was brave, frank, independent in thought and feeling, and free from submission and luxury.”3 These manly virtues celebrated the republican spirit of the era and were explicitly juxtaposed against the supposed feminine qualities of submissiveness and weakness.

During the Frontier era, the harshness of frontier scouting and pioneering (p.104) reshaped notions of masculinity, which was immediately celebrated and romanticized by nineteenth-century Americans, eastern and western alike. General George Custer wrote of Wild Bill Hickok, the scout who eventually became the notorious lawman, “Of his courage there could be no question; it had been brought to the test on too many occasions to admit a doubt. His skill in the use of the rifle and pistol was unerring; while his deportment was exactly opposite of what might be expected from a man of his surroundings. It was entirely free from all bluster or bravado.”4 These kinds of portraits, which explicitly linked masculinity with courage, virtue, and toughness, embraced the notion of a personal moral code as firmly as they did any notion of respect for law and order. Throughout American history, manhood and toughness encompassed not only physical strength but also moral character, all of which crystallized in a celebration of the core values that are present in American society even today. Although its manifestations are heavily influenced by such factors as gender, class, religion, and ethnicity, toughness is recognized and lauded by American men as a quintessential mark of their Americanness.

Tough Men

The constellation of values and behaviors best described as “American tough” have their most colorful and exaggerated manifestations in modern-day popular culture. Toughness embraces a variety of characteristics, including self-reliance, mental and physical strength, and readiness to take action, all of which are apparent in a variety of American cultural and social formulations. The tough guy is ubiquitously characterized as masterful—brilliantly capable of self-control and control over his environment. He is competent and capable of manipulating social, political, and economic situations with equal ease. He is without social class, though he can embody the physical strength associated with the working class; the manner, speech, and morals of the middle class; and the confidence, power, and mastery associated with the upper class. The tough guy is the everyman, but he still manages to be a hero, a celebration of all the core values that are demonstrated in his every word, thought, and deed.5

That guns should figure into this vision of masculinity and thus American toughness shouldn’t be too surprising; guns have long been associated with literal and symbolic power, control, and dangerousness. Thus, guns fit almost “naturally” with toughness in both the historical and contemporary American imagination. Toughness is now an ideology that connects gun (p.105) ownership to wider cultural expectations about appropriate forms of masculinity and femininity in contemporary society.

Manhood and Family Responsibility

One of the themes that arose over and over again with male shooters was their association between guns and pleasurable memories of growing up—learning about shooting from older male relatives, and learning about becoming a responsible man through safe gun usage. Male shooters clearly linked guns to becoming a man; shooting was a family tradition, something they learned from a father or another male family member. These shooters talked about how they take pleasure in the guns that have been handed down through generations in their families, making them meaningful for that reason in particular. Bob explained: “I have a gun that I owned as a child when I was nine years old. I have the same gun. It’s been in my family all that long. I have a shotgun that belonged to my father and his father before him. These are in our family and have been there and will be there. They’ll go to my sons.”

Other male shooters fondly recalled times that a male family member taught them how to shoot, which they saw as a rite of passage to manhood. Those were times not only when they did something pleasurable and exciting with a family member, usually male, but also a time when they were learning to become a man. Andrew explained:

The first person who taught me how to shoot was my uncle in Las Vegas when I was about six or seven years old. He used to have a farm out there…. And he taught us how to shoot. ‘Cause he wanted us to know how to shoot and he thought it would be—and he said, ‘It’s a right we Americans have and you should know how to use one.’ Instead of, you know, picking [one] up…not knowing how to use it and killing yourself. So after that—after shooting a gun as a kid, I think it felt neat, it felt good, how much power was in a gun…. Oh god, the thing kicked me and threw me back on my ass or something…. I was bruised, you know, it’s like the manly thing, I don’t know.

For shooters like Bob and Andrew, learning about guns as children was an important part of growing up, of becoming an adult male. However, teaching children about gun handling is obviously a contentious issue, particularly for those who feel that children of any age have no business near guns. Critics have long taken issue with the idea that any child can learn about guns safely; guns are obviously tempting to children, who presumably cannot begin to comprehend the inherent danger of handling them. Why would any responsible parent want to introduce his or her child to a gun?6

(p.106) It’s important to remember that shooters do not make the same symbolic associations with guns and violence that critics of gun ownership make. For shooters, to teach children about guns is to teach them about being responsible and knowledgeable about something recognized as dangerous. On the most obvious level, as Andrew points out, there are a lot of guns around, and better to know how to deal with a gun than reach for one in ignorance. Thus, Andrew recalls his outings with his uncle as rites of passage that not only taught him about respecting something powerful and dangerous, but also becoming familiar with an item his uncle thought Andrew might encounter later in his life.

Some Traditions Die Hard

Male shooters link their belief in protecting themselves and their family with the basic notion of being a responsible man. But some shooters conceptualize the issue of responsibility differently, or suggest a kind of responsibility that connotes a different set of duties and obligations than simply being safe or recognizing the power of guns. Although most male shooters did not state directly that defending their family was an explicit responsibility, the question of defending the family clearly weighed on many minds.

The issue of being a good protector emerged when I asked shooters if they keep a gun for home defense. All but two of the thirty-seven shooters (both male and female) said that they did, and many stated that defense of family is important to them. This phenomenon may also be a long-standing echo of the early American tradition of coverture, in which a head of household had a duty and responsibility to maintain the physical safety of those dependents under his roof. For shooters, keeping a gun is simply understood as the easiest way to protect the family. When I asked him if he keeps a gun in his home for defense, and if he would use it as such, John stated, “I do…. I would, if someone came in my house, yeah, I would use a gun. Only because if they come in my house and they know I’m there and they know my family’s there, they’re not there to do me any good, and I think that they could probably hurt one of my family members. I have this strong love for my family, and I would never jeopardize that, and I’ll use whatever tool I have.”

Bob stated that defense of self and family is one of the only reasons he would take another’s life, which he insisted he took very seriously. I asked him to describe the circumstances in which he would use a gun defensively. He stated, “Only in the defense of my life or the life of another. What I have in my home, no matter what it is, is not worth taking human life over. If they want to come into my home and take my property, so be it…. But the only (p.107) time my gun comes into play is in the defense of my life or the life of another. Because I’m not gonna let some scumbag put me under the dirt till I’m ready to go. And if it means defending myself with the use of a gun I will do so, or defending my family.”

For some male shooters, there is an implicit assumption that gun ownership demonstrates one’s responsibility to family. Here, then, is how this vision of American masculinity is performance-based: being a good man (and father) means being a good protector, taking steps to ensure the safety of the family. One shooter, a single man in his midforties I knew quite well, remarked that if he needed to, he would absolutely use his gun to protect himself. He added that if he saw that I was in danger as well, he would not hesitate to protect me, too.

There is perhaps an inherent sexism in the idea that men should ideally protect women (even from themselves) because women are supposedly weaker than men, or lack the ability or nerve to take responsibility for protecting themselves. However, the politics of gender in relation to self- and home defense are complicated. The sense of responsibility that some male shooters feel and demonstrate does not necessarily indicate a belief that women inherently lack the capability to protect or defend themselves. The shooter who offered to protect me was ostensibly doing so under the auspices of a gendered form of responsibility and obligation to community (as well as personal) safety. Many of the male shooters interviewed did articulate a concern with protecting their wives and children, but several said explicitly that women (and in some cases, older children) should try and protect themselves. For example, Bob’s wife, Paula, is a former police officer, eminently capable of protecting herself: she had been a good cop and had voiced her personal ethos of toughness to me several times. John offered another example: he taught his wife to shoot despite her initial disinterest in guns. He believes that if his wife should ever find herself in a situation where her life is in danger, she should be capable of protecting herself.

Ironically, some men who have heard the messages that the women’s movement has been communicating for decades may feel they are in a double bind. Even while they may be embodying certain patriarchal prerogatives by taking it upon themselves to try to protect the women they know, if they pretend that these women don’t face real dangers (dangers that demand some form of proactive response), they in effect dismiss or minimize the ways that (largely) male violence continues to endanger women. If a man sincerely believes that guns provide an effective means of self-defense, and he recognizes that the women around him are occasionally vulnerable, how (p.108) would he be more responsible if he advocates that women should stay away from guns?

For the female shooters who commented on men and guns, being a shooter is something to be lauded in male partners. Several women were comfortable with the idea of protective male force. Thea explained: “I think of men who have guns as somebody who would be more likely to be able to protect me than somebody who didn’t. I know that with respect to my daughters, that as I’m talking this through, and I’ve never thought about any of this stuff before, that having somebody who will protect them is very important to me…. I know this last boyfriend that Ellen had, Edward, was such a wuss. I mean, a really nice guy, and talked literature and books and movies and fit right in and he was just a nice guy, but I never had the sense that she was protected.” Thea herself certainly ascribes to a vision of toughness and does not find her own ability to be tough incompatible with a potential partner’s desire to protect her. She explicitly harked back to a certain conception of masculinity that centers on a willingness or a potential to do violence. While she couches this violence as defensive, and thus ostensibly morally legitimate, her comments raise several important issues that have been highlighted by the critique of defensive gun ownership/enthusiasm7 offered by antigun critics of the gun culture, particularly gender theorists and academicians interested in the gun debate. I discuss this issue later in the chapter.

It’s All-American: “Plain Man Patriotism”

One of the ways that toughness is expressed by male shooters is in their description of gun ownership as simply a convention of American masculinity: they see familiarity with guns as the status quo for American manhood. However, for some shooters this assertion has a distinctly patriotic undertone. The toughness exemplified by owning guns was woven into shooters’ narratives, particularly ones that touched on American history and tradition, incorporating the colonial and Frontier ideologies to give their rhetoric a firmly “all-American” flavor. These narratives provide a window into what Rupert Wilkinson calls “plain man patriotism,” which encompasses strength (both physical and of personality), attention to history, civic virtue, and love of country, all of which come together to form the foundation of a modern-day heroic everyman.8 One of the most powerful ways that some shooters understand their gun ownership is to equate it with simple Americanism.

The shooters interviewed here are not literally “plain men”; for the most part, these shooters embody a middle-class professionalism and worldview (p.109) that differentiate them from the early American republican portrait of a true patriot. However, early American patriotism as a standard and an ideal echoed through many shooters’ pro-gun ideology, demonstrating the extent to which guns symbolize a vision of citizenship and morality. It is in “plain man patriotism” that shooters demonstrated their most populist tenets, as gun enthusiasm expresses patriotic sentiment through a celebration of and attention to local, anti-elitist concerns. The sentiment reflected in this conceptual paradigm also recalled the nineteenth-century middle-class easterners’ romanticization of the western frontiersman, who by that time were already mythologizing themselves.

Bob, a white cowboy shooter in his late forties who worked as a range manager and gun dealer, illustrates the plain man sentiment effectively. Inherent in Bob’s notion of being a shooter is the assumption that owning guns does not necessarily indicate straightforward aggression. Rather, it signifies a willingness to stand up to those who would hurt or abuse others. Guns maintain a balance between aggression and defensiveness. This balance would not exist if guns remained the sole property of either the state or violent criminals. For Bob, gun ownership indicates the potential for different social collectives to balance each others’ aggressive and violent tendencies. He stated:

We want to live in a safe culture. We want to live in an environment where we can come and go as we please and not have to worry about the bad guys. That’s an ideal culture. Well, the gun helps us to keep that ideal, to keep things balanced a little bit. If the bad guys knew that none of us were allowed to carry guns and none of us did, then we would be at their mercy. We would be prey for the bad guys. I would be beat up. You would be raped, or your kin, murder [ed], whatever, at their whim. The ideal is that we need a balance in our culture. We need a balance that says, maybe I got something that’ll keep you from doing this to me. And there’s only one way you’re gonna find out. Maybe you should just kind of back off. Maybe it’s our attitude, maybe the way we speak, the way we walk. Maybe it’s the persona we present, when we’re out there alone. Maybe it’s that intensity in the way we ward off somebody. Maybe we just give them thought for a minute…. Maybe she’s not as fragile as maybe we think she is. Maybe we should go around and go the other way. Maybe we should find another prey who is weaker. Symbolism? I don’t know. An ideal? I think so.

The sentiment expressed here quite effectively reflects the attitudes of most shooters with regard to crime and society, and their relationship to both. If strong gun controls are passed, then the law-abiding will be inherently disadvantaged. (p.110) They will be at the mercy of criminals. By the same token, shooters simply do not believe that gun restrictions or prohibitions will disarm the population most capable of violence. Such a situation would seriously threaten or even destroy the integrity of the social body and the body politic. In short, gun control signifies a breakdown of the social and moral order— the very fabric of society itself. On the other hand, gun ownership denotes defending the social and moral order; in short, being tough. Tough individuals create tough communities, which in turn create a tougher nation.

The Tough Bind

Shooters understand gun ownership as part and parcel of a willingness to stand and defend yourself and your moral values. But being tough is not simply a matter of a willingness to act; it is also a constant vigilance centered on the possibility of being vulnerable. This was as true for male shooters as for female shooters, though for men it is articulated in more abstract terminology. Both men and women pointed to specific incidents in which they had felt or had been threatened, and both men and women generally advocated a vigilance that is as important metaphorically as it is physically. A lack of vigilance can have serious ramifications. One shooter who was not formally interviewed said to me during an academic meeting, “It’s almost worse knowing that you could have acted, but somehow you were prevented from doing so.” He continued to explain that he is uncomfortable with the idea that in some future emergency, he might be able to do something, but for some reason won’t be prepared at that moment or will be actively prevented from doing anything. To this shooter, such a scenario is worse than believing he never could have acted in the first place. Manuel said that this idea haunts him as well, to the point that vigilance has become an integral part of his life: “I’ve had dreams of people coming in my windows at night, weird dreams. And it’s weird, because every dream that I had like that, I’d have a gun but have the wrong ammo. And I don’t know why. And I couldn’t find the ammo to save my ass. But it always worked out somehow. I’ve had, like, four or five dreams like that in the last three years, where I had the gun but no ammo for it. So I don’t know if that’s why I make sure I’ve got plenty of guns and plenty of ammo. So I’ll figure out which one goes in where before anything happens.”

Manuel’s narrative also exemplifies shooters’ belief that competence, as well as vigilance, is necessary to living safely in a violent society. Accepting responsibility for their own safety and that of their family demands that they (p.111) are always ready for an impending attack, and although having guns does not guarantee that safety, guns go a long way toward ensuring it (as well as peace of mind). This sentiment may also reflect a concern with moral impotence that is articulated in more concrete, physical concerns: How can you do the right thing when you are actively prevented from doing so? Similar beliefs are echoed in Greg’s previous discussion of the necessity for preparation and defensiveness, for honing skills with the tool that provides the best symbolic (and in this case, literal) equalizer.

The American focus on vigilance and defensive preparedness is longstanding. Historians have pointed out that for nineteenth-century middle-class Americans, the institutions so strongly associated with society itself, business and industrial society, were thought to breed softness and laziness. An overt reliance on the workings of society was believed to be making Americans morally impotent.9 Thus, nineteenth-century Americans romanticized that mythological Frontier value: self-reliance. Add to this a willingness to train for defense, and being a shooter in modern-day America becomes one means of soothing ever-present anxieties that are voiced as an issue of personal safety. Greg stated:

What do guns symbolize for [me]? Can we get the American anthem in the background?…The fact that guns are a tool that enables one to be self-sufficient, that enables one to feel that one is not a victim and not afraid…. Because, man, there’s nothing scarier than the abyss. So if we can leave the abyss out there as an archetypical fear, then we can just deal with…[the] predator trying to hurt me. I will prevent that from happening, that’s easy to work with. The things that go bump in the night and the horrors of history and humanity, and serial killers and all this stuff I’m currently studying, all of those horrors are always going to be there. [If] you can take care of your own little bailiwick, you can take care of yourself.

One of the ways that shooters cope with the instability and anxiety of contemporary society is to grasp onto objects of safety, control, and profound symbolic meaning: guns. The value of guns lies in their historic and contemporary sociocultural meaning as much as their solid, crime-fighting allure. In the powerful mythology of colonial and Frontier America, guns make heroes. And they continue to do so even if those heroes are the stuff of imagination more than reality.

The anxiety and distress that some shooters feel is not only centered on abstract concerns; it is also indicative of local issues. Shooters recognize that violent crime has real consequences, and the urban parts of the San Francisco (p.112) Bay Area have their fair share of violent crime. Shooters consistently complained that part of the problem of crime today is that violent criminals harm and kill innocent people but then refuse to take responsibility for their actions; they blame their upbringing, the people around them, or even society itself for their criminality. Because shooters understand themselves to be deeply invested in society and the maintenance of law and order, such a lack of personal responsibility is absolutely enraging, particularly to those shooters who have been directly or indirectly victimized by crime.

Tough Women

American women can be just as tough as men; former First Lady Rosalyn Carter, former Attorney General Janet Reno, and American film icons from Bette Davis to Sigorney Weaver have all demonstrated their own brands of female toughness. Toughness crosses gender boundaries just as it does ethnic boundaries, and is celebrated by a wide variety of “true-blue” Americans.10

American women have learned to combine toughness with femininity in a way that makes their toughness seem as natural as their “inherent” ladylike manner. Examples from American history illustrate this point: in the fall of 1776, amid crushing American defeats by the British, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, “We are no ways dispirited here, we possess a Spirit that will not be conquered. If our men are drawn off and we should be attacked, you would find a Race of Amazons in America.”11 A century later, Annie Oakley, the celebrated frontier performer in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, negotiated that fine line of gender-appropriate behavior exceedingly well, demonstrating a distinctly “manly” marksmanship ability, all the while embodying the essence of Victorian womanhood in her “modest, quiet, ladylike appearance.”12 Her performances, undoubtedly that much more ladylike because of her engagement with such masculine sport, exemplified the ways women can embody, challenge, and reject qualities that have been considered the sole prerogative of their male counterparts.

Whether or not women were characterized as tough, either by their contemporaries or the historians who later documented their lives (or didn’t, as some feminist historians have pointed out),13 American women have alternately been lauded and demeaned for demonstrating the kind of toughness designated as peculiarly American. The fact that toughness has been and continues to be considered a feature of masculinity more than femininity (p.113) has meant that if and when women demonstrate their own tough tendencies, the result can be an ambivalence that finds expression both within themselves and in wider social arenas examining their behavior. Although toughness was a respected if not necessary quality for American women historically, its expression has always been shaped and molded, attentive to the demands of the gender-appropriate behavior of the day.

Perhaps not surprisingly, what are considered acceptable expressions of toughness have been configured differently for men and women, both historically and currently. Men and women also experience what it means to be tough differently. The same could be said for any behavior, but toughness in female gun enthusiasts in particular demands a discussion of several politicized issues. Foremost among them is the issue of how women who use violence to repel attackers are thought about and discussed by feminists and other social critics. Women who actively carry guns, particularly for self-defense, tend to run afoul of those who argue that gun ownership for women is not an “appropriate” way to resist attack. However, female shooters believe that defensive gun use is not only legitimate but morally acceptable, particularly because guns are an exemplary way to challenge the broadly construed system of patriarchy.14

Some women frame their toughness as convention, but point out that it is implicitly gendered as male despite its seemingly neutral and gender-free connotation. Such tough-minded women suggest there is a double standard for physical power operating here. If the toughness that men take for granted is overtly advocated for women, it is criticized as traitorous to the feminine ideal. D. A. Clarke puts it this way:

We do respect people who “know their limits,” who cannot be pushed past a certain point—just as we mistrust and disrespect those who have no give in them at all and overreact violently to every little frustration. We respect people who can take care of themselves, who inform us of their limits clearly and look prepared to enforce them. Women are traditionally denied these qualities— the “no means yes” of male mythology—and one reason for this is that we are denied the use of force. To put it very simply, little boys who get pushed around on the playground are usually told to “stand up to him, don’t let him get away with it,” whereas little girls are more usually advised to run to Teacher.15

Toughness, which Clarke describes as the ability to stand up for oneself and use force to impose physical boundaries, is not advocated for girls or women despite the lip service paid to “respecting limits.” Clarke points out that (p.114) women have always been criticized and penalized for behavior that enforces their physical boundaries: they are denounced as acting out, being aggressive, or being “ball-busters.” Women who enforce their own physical boundaries are sometimes even accused of encouraging violent reactions in men: bad things happen to women who are “asking for it.”17

As several feminist firearms researchers have pointed out, this kind of backlash comes from both conservative and liberal quarters.16 While conservatives deem the use of force as betraying femininity, liberals frame the use of force as betraying feminism. In fact, liberals have argued that women who use force, particularly the “excessive” force embodied in gun ownership, are betraying a feminist ideal, which is that women must end patriarchy (thereby achieving true equality) through nonviolent means. If they use violence to counter violence, they model no new paradigm for a more peaceable society; they are only perpetuating patriarchal paradigms. The poet Audre Lorde is often invoked to make this point: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”17

Thus, women who are willing to employ force by taking up guns in a variety of contexts (e.g., in the military, the police, or on their own behalf) are viewed in anthropological terms as “liminal”: they are “betwixt and between,” not one thing or the other. Liminal figures are viewed as a source of ambivalence and discomfort even by themselves. One of the ways that women work to resist and challenge these discomforting categorizations is to find broader cultural paradigms and values that normalize not only their life situations but their responses to those situations. Being tough is a culturally appropriate and meaningful way to do this because toughness situates female behavior in a historical context of frontierism, pioneerism, and certain expressions of womanhood throughout American history. Being considered tough can legitimize a woman’s independence, strong-mindedness and strength of will, vigilance, and willingness to stand up to bullies. Standing up to bullies, fighting fire with fire, so to speak, is the quintessential mark of being a female shooter; it is what makes a woman tough. It can even make her a “good woman.”

Tough Women with Guns

How many American women own guns? Although the popular media in the late 1980s and early 1990s played up the idea that women were increasingly becoming armed, social scientists remained more skeptical.18 A study by gun manufacturer Smith and Wesson purported to find that between 1983 and (p.115) 1986, gun ownership by women went up by 53 percent. However, some social scientists argue that contrary to the media and firearms industry, the best available data suggest that of the entire population of American women, between 11 and 12 percent own a gun and between 4.5 and 8 percent own a handgun, figures that have remained constant for decades.19 Stange and Oyster argue that the number of women armed with guns is between 11 and 17 million, which ostensibly covers all of these figures by providing a fairly broad range.20

Regardless of exact numbers, the fact remains that there are American women who own guns, and some of them consider themselves gun enthusiasts. Several feminist researchers have argued relatively straightforwardly that many American women find guns empowering because guns are tools of power, literally and figuratively.21 My own discussions with female gun enthusiasts supports that argument, though I argue that pro-gun ideology is empowering because it links gun ownership to a variety of cultural themes and values that affirms these women as independent, capable, strong-willed, and responsible. In short, tough.

Toughness for Neutralizing Aggression

Many female shooters illustrate not simply how and why guns are meaningful to them, but how gun use is a vital part of behavior that went beyond the question of gun enthusiasm per se. Several of the eleven female shooters interviewed talked about gun ownership as a part of a larger paradigm of being resolute, arguing that being protective of themselves and their family was a way of life for them. They embraced the belief that they were obligated to protect themselves and their family; this was part of being a responsible person as well as a responsible woman. They were ostensibly arguing that their toughness, particularly their gun ownership, is a formidable way to challenge chauvinistic male behavior.

The irony of their argument lies in the fact that critics of gun ownership have often argued that gun ownership in and of itself actually signifies “traditional hegemonic masculinity,” a set of masculine behaviors that includes being controlling, being violent, and using violent force to maintain social and political norms. Because critics of guns see gun ownership as inherently violent, owning a gun means being a part of “the problem,” not a part of the solution. However, female shooters don’t understand their own gun ownership in these terms. They tend to view themselves as challenging patriarchal order and norms in a wide variety of ways. They very explicitly assert that they perceive those abusive and dangerous aspects of the patriarchy to (p.116) be the reason they own guns. Because gun ownership helps make shooters tough, and tough women defy the patriarchal belief that women are weak and subservient, female shooters argue that being tough by owning guns is exactly what challenges the patriarchal tendencies of violent men. Basically, female shooters see their gun ownership as a way to communicate to the people around them that violence is not acceptable, and the only way that women are going to stop abusive men is by literally stopping them.

All that said, toughness is not simply an obvious and literal manifestation of traditionally masculine (and presumably aggressive) behaviors and characteristics. Toughness can also be understood as an attempt to balance or neutralize aggression. Being tough can mean simply standing one’s ground and refusing to be either passive or aggressive. While the threat of violence may underscore this posture, its manifestation is a “brick wall,” designed to challenge the “traditional masculine imperative” of perpetuating violence against those who are weaker and more vulnerable. Female shooters see themselves as eminently capable of being tough in this fashion; in short, they like to stand up to bullies. Female toughness can be a means of empowerment through which traditional frameworks themselves can be dismantled.

A defensive stance does not necessarily hinge on gun ownership for some shooters, though it may be the most literal and obvious form of expressing defensive attitudes. Paula, a former police officer, is trained in martial arts. She believes that training enables her to stand her ground in dangerous situations. She knows that men who intend to hurt or victimize women often expect to be able to do so quickly and easily. A diminutive woman, Paula believes that her stature and her sex mislead others into thinking she will be easy to manipulate or intimidate, and she takes a grim pleasure in contradicting them, if only by her unwillingness to show fear to would-be aggressors. She told the following narrative about a time when she worked for an eye wear company:

I had another [situation]—you talk about beating up women. I had a lady come in to pick up her glasses…. I said, “Okay, I’ll get them, have a seat.” In storms either the boyfriend or the husband, whoever he is, in his late twenties.…And they were—she was quietly arguing with him because he had come in and he was kind of loud. And I’m watching the whole thing, and he hauls off and he slaps her. Whack. I mean, just hauled off and smacked her good. She immediately sat down in the chair and just sat there. And I’m like, “Uh uh [shakes her head], this is not gonna happen.” He pissed me off. So I walked out there, and I told him to leave. And now it’s like, “Yeah, who are you?” He (p.117) turned on me. We had a [store] counter between us. But I told him to leave. And he basically said I can’t tell him what to do. And I informed him that, yes I could, and it’s really funny, when you’re trained, you position yourself in a certain position, when you’re doing it, and your brain’s clicking, if he comes over the counter I can do this, if he comes around here I can do that, and all you’re doing is looking at target zones. And I’m standing there, and he said, “Why don’t you call security?” I said, “I don’t need security.” I said, “You got a choice. Either leave on your own or I will make you leave, one of the two. You can make it easy or hard.” And you could see he just wanted a piece of me, so bad. Just so bad, and I just stood there. I was hoping he would come over at me, hoping, ‘cause he’d made me mad. Just like, “Go ahead, please.”

[He] turned around and walked out…. Just turned around and walked out. Didn’t bother him hitting a woman at all. Didn’t bother him in the least…. But I didn’t just sit down. I stood up to him, and he knew something wasn’t right. And most of them, they’re used to—they’re bullies, they’re used to getting what they want by fear and force, but it’s almost rare they ever get stood up to.

Paula’s narrative also underscores a point that is sometimes difficult to remember amid the constant rhetoric of armed defense. For most shooters, the defensive posture does not necessitate killing. It is coy to suggest that using guns for self-defense does not sometimes come down to shooting someone, yet adopting a defensive posture may be the only necessary action required. For Paula, bullies get what they want because they expect people to react with fear and passivity. When someone stands up to them, bullies often back down. If a person stands her ground, that potential victim is insisting upon respect. In the mind of shooters, that person earns respect, even if it is not immediately forthcoming. The underlying point is that it is strength of will and personality that command respect, not just physical prowess. Paula takes pride in the fact that she did not need to hurt her would-be aggressor in order to demonstrate that she wouldn’t back down, or that his violence against others was unacceptable.

Paula also places a premium on her own self-control. She could have hurt the aggressor—she even felt a desire to do just that. But she believed that any more action on her part was unwarranted, and thus her defensive posture served its purpose. These kinds of narratives also exemplify shooters’ belief that their defensive and tough posture is a necessity because, in Paula’s words, “there’s always somebody out there that can get you.” Shooters must always be ready to take action and be ready for anything. For several, particularly (p.118) some of the female shooters for whom toughness is a way of life, the idea of vigilance has been borne out in their personal and professional experiences, particularly after being on the receiving end of either aggression or a potentially violent attack.

Stick to Your Guns

Toughness is not simply about demonstrating physical strength or assuming a defensive posture. Toughness is also about strength of will and an ability to stand up to threats and bullying. Gun ownership for some female shooters also indicates that they are not afraid to “buck the system” or work for their own sense of righteousness, even if doing so incurs the wrath of others. The idea of strength in the face of opposition crystallizes in the defensive stance, which appears repeatedly to literally and metaphorically signify core aspects of values that illustrate American national character. Thea stated that she understands gun ownership to be synonymous with forging one’s own destiny and taking an active stance against bullying and violence:

I never think of people who own guns as pussies. I think of them being kind of in charge of their destinies and kind of, not gonna take a whole lot of shit from people and being willing to stand up for themselves. And I think maybe that’s another reason why this is something that’s good for me now, is that I am traditionally not a person—I’m a person who loves to stand up to bullies. I mean, that’s kind of my nature. Because of my old man, he was such a bully. But not ever ever ever standing up for myself, and so this is a very new skill that I’m learning to cultivate. It’s very hard for me. And this makes me feel strong…. I don’t think gun owners by and large are passive people, and that’s what I mean by pussies, obviously. I think they’re more active…. I think maybe—I don’t think they live—I don’t think gun owners by and large live in their heads. I think they live more in a physical reality.

Interestingly, Thea juxtaposed toughness with being a “pussy,” derogatory slang denoting weak and cowardly femininity. She implied that being feminine can signify weakness or subservience. Thea symbolically associated gun ownership and shooting, on the other hand, with standing up for herself, something she perceives as a struggle for her. She spoke at length about how important it was to her that her partner, Jonathan, who introduced her to guns, be capable of protecting and defending her because she feels that she cannot always rely on herself. Thea also mentioned being violently victimized as a child by a colleague of her father, and this victimization further accentuates her desire for protection here and now:

(p.119) I mean, like my friend Rex, former OPD cop and my chief investigator at the bar, called me Crusader Rabbit, that’s kind of who I am. I made a career, personally and professionally, of empowering people…. But as good as I’ve always been about standing up for other people, and I said this earlier…I’m not the least bit good about standing up for myself. And so it’s very important to me to have somebody—I mean, I didn’t have a clue how important that was until I was with Jonathan, to have a man protect me. And I feel like he is completely protective of me.

This willingness to “do the right thing” and take an active stance against opposition is interesting in light of debates about the legitimacy of gun ownership. The kind of protectiveness that Thea described not only helps to highlight the conceptual differences between antigun and pro-gun advocates, but also underscores a basic theoretical similarity between these two camps, so virulently opposed to each other. As I discussed in earlier chapters, antigun rhetoric often emphasizes a need for individual, community, and societal safety. Antigun advocates understand guns as threats to safety regardless of how they are used. But one area in which antigun advocates are usually silent, except in terms of advocating what not to do, is the question of how potential victims should deal with violent conflict, or how they should actively make their immediate world safer.

Some antigun advocates suggest that would-be victims should simply run away from their attackers.22 Others, particularly from the religious community, advocate that victims simply yield to attackers, even in the case of rape, to avoid responding with violence themselves.23 More recent incarnations of the gun control movement don’t address the issue directly at all.24 The tactic in most current gun control rhetoric is to treat the issue as largely theoretical, which allows for endorsing collective political action as the most appropriate way to deal with the issue of confronting violent behavior. Taking guns off the streets through gun control would presumably make the issue of how to respond when an attacker is armed largely irrelevant; in the future, attackers presumably will not be armed at all.

By side-stepping the issue of the most “appropriate” response to being attacked, gun control advocates can therefore stick to the bottom line: responsible citizens shun guns. Eventually, these macrolevel policies will also be reflected on the micro level, and everyone’s physical environment will be that much safer. However, most shooters simply don’t buy this argument. Their distrust for this position (which they consider naïve at best, dangerously foolhardy at worst) is reflected in ubiquitous pro-gun bumper stickers (p.120) and slogans like “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have them.” Female shooters take the broader view that guns are one aspect of being vigilant and constantly defensive. They argue that women cannot afford to take an abstract, theoretical approach to the question of what to do when someone attacks; attacks can happen at any time, anywhere. Their argument is echoed by the few feminist firearms researchers who have considered the issue: better to recognize that the dangers to women are real and that owning a gun can be an effective tool in preventing someone from trying to harm you.25 Feminist firearms researchers have put the issues into more political terms: advocating a politically active but interpersonally passive stance is fairly precarious when you’re worried about your physical safety on a day-to-day basis.26

Women’s Self-Defense

The issue of women losing their fear after learning self-defense is echoed in the thoughts of some shooting instructors I met, both male and female. Greg in particular felt good about teaching women to shoot, as he explicitly acknowledged that women often articulate a fear of being victimized to him but come away from his classes feeling tougher. He stated:

I have taught so many women who were so afraid before, and who see me at the range and they come up and they go—and this makes me feel so good, they come up and they say, “You know something? I don’t have to take any shit from anybody who wants to hurt me. I used to sit at home scared, and I’m not scared anymore. I live my life. I go out and I do things…. I go home, I feel comfortable, I have a good lock on the door. If somebody tries to hurt me, man, I’ve got my firearm, I know what to do, I’ll call the cops, took a class, know exactly what’s going on, I feel so much better because all of it was this vague fear.”

Critics of women’s gun use often argue that when women take up guns, they add to the carnage or endanger themselves through this inherently dangerous and untrustworthy device.27 Ironically, such critics unwittingly invoke the exact stereotypes that feminist pro-gun arguments are designed to dismantle: that women are helpless and incompetent in the face of violent, “masculine” tools. Martha McCaughey argues that fear and concern about violence have been incorporated into women’s experience of their own bodies (as weak and helpless), which can explain in part some women’s unwillingness to act forcefully or violently, even when doing so would save their own lives. She argues that women have been taught to fear not only (p.121) male violence but their own capacity for violence, which is one of the reasons that some feminists are so concerned with women turning to guns for self-protection. This hesitancy is a by-product of a patriarchal system that is invested in women’s submission and fear of self-empowerment. She argues that “women are afraid to fight for the same reasons they are afraid of guns—in either case, women’s size or strength is far less relevant than the social investment in a female body that does not exert coercive force.”28 When women learn self-defense, they often change their notions of their own body, as well as their sense of the appropriateness of fighting back against an attack.

Several overt critics of gun ownership for women have argued that armed women will only drive up the homicide rate.29 Such critics are in effect reiterating unfounded assumptions that do not address any research on female gun ownership. Or they rely on the public health literature on guns, which has been rigorously critiqued by criminologists for employing flawed methodologies and ignoring the complexities of the context in which gun crime occurs. Feminist scholars who support women’s defensive gun use assert that critics of women’s gun use have glossed over data and analysis on women and homicide. Public health researchers in particular have ignored the fact that female gun owners do not contribute substantially to high homicide rates in the United States, and that when women have used guns to kill, it is usually in the context of self-defense.30

In considering female gun ownership, it is tempting to argue that women like Thea exemplify a form of “false consciousness,” unable or unwilling to understand how their position on gun ownership and protection locks them into a cycle of domination and submission at the hands of men, if only at the hands of men who say they offer protection. Such women are supposedly therefore complicit in the patriarchal system that either protects or dominates them. This argument raises the question of how women’s self-defense should be considered, in both the personal and the political realms.

In fact, critics of gun ownership have underestimated the ways in which the proposed solutions to ending gun violence also contain hidden class and political interests. Gun control doesn’t spell any kind of reduction of patriarchy either, as an increasing number of vocal pro-gun blacks, feminists, and gays are now pointing out. Groups like the Pink Pistols (a pro-gun gay group), the Second Amendment Sisters (a pro-gun women’s organization), and the Tenth Cavalry (a pro-gun group formed by and for blacks) demonstrate that pro-gun ideology is not embraced only by white middle-class men and that gun ownership is adopted by a broader spectrum of Americans (p.122) than antigun social critics would like to believe.31 These disputes also illustrate one of the central flaws in liberal support for gun control as a main method for reducing violent crime. Gun control presumes a “trickle down” theory to violence reduction: gun control laws are passed, the laws slowly work to get the guns off the street, eventually fewer people have access to guns. In the long run, violence is reduced.

But what pro-gun gay advocates assert, along with pro-gun feminists, is that gun control leaves them vulnerable now. Because stringent gun control hinders law-abiding citizens from getting access to guns when they need them, liberal theories of gun control ostensibly suggest that certain individuals might have to be killed on the way to making communities safer. Pro-gun groups argue that even if one concedes that gun control will eventually protect vulnerable groups like blacks and gays from gun violence, gun control will take time before it is effective, and because of that, more people who could have protected themselves will have to die. For the Pink Pistols, the bottom line is that they’d rather take their chances getting tough and becoming armed than wait for the rest of society to put into practice the liberal paradigm that a safe society is a disarmed society. This is the central premise of most forms of gun control. Janis Cortese, a pro-gun lesbian and third-wave feminist activist, puts it this way:

So I want to change society. I want to help somehow. I want to support shelters that will allow women to get out of abusive situations, rape counseling centers that will help us recover from sexual assault. I want to see schools improve so that kids in disadvantaged areas can look forward to more in life than an early death while seeing their friends die around them. And if I’m killed in the meantime, I cant do that, can I? I want all of that, but I also want to stay alive. I want the twenty-year solution of improving the world. But I need the twelve-second solution that will keep me around to do it should I wake up one early morning at 2 am and see someone crawling in through my bedroom window.32

The fact that pro-gun ideology can effectively combine a liberal understanding of contemporary society with a belief in armed self-defense demonstrates that it is broader and more flexible than critics who equate it with patriarchy have recognized or conceded. For pro-gun advocates, the very ubiquity of American violence, which both liberals and pro-gun advocates agree is intolerable, has become the very thing that most clearly justifies and legitimates the case for widespread citizen armament.

(p.123) McCaughey suggests that certain kinds of behaviors are always discussed and framed in relation to traditional forms of masculinity, regardless of whether both sexes partake in those behaviors. Her point is echoed in the narratives of several female shooters who talked about why they enjoy using guns. For example, Louise, a shooting instructor, described why shooting is an enjoyable activity:

Yeah. I just—I like being able to do something that most people can’t do. And I like—I have to—I don’t know why, but I do like the kind of feminine aspect, that it puts you, it’s something that traditionally is a male thing, and that males seem to have a certain domination in that field, and it’s considered a masculine, fearless sort of a sport. Not a wimpy [one]…So I like being able to be a female that can do that. Without becoming like a total macho human being, sort of…. Yeah, it’s a dual existence. It’s sort of, “I can do this…I can do this kind of thing.” I don’t know. I think it probably ties into something really deep…some Jungian thing, like some survival instinct that’s very in there for all of us. All those mysteries I don’t know about. I think some of that’s in there somewhere.

It is precisely this sense of transgression, of being a woman doing a “masculine” thing, that several female shooters found so pleasurable. One of the most important elements in this symbolic cosmology is power, and the way shooting engages directly with power. Both guns and masculinity are associated with power, and being a woman who is competent with a man’s tool can find shooting to be thrilling, empowering, and inherently satisfying.

It is important to recall, too, that while guns can be a symbol of masculine aggression for some, and have indeed historically bolstered and maintained the traditional patriarchal framework of domination and submission in the American context, within this same framework, gun ownership has also historically signified personhood and status in American society (one of the reasons that guns owners have traditionally been white and male). As I pointed out earlier, in seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century America, women and people of color were for the most part not considered full citizens, and as such were usually denied access to guns.33 The irony, then, of critiquing gun ownership as a gendered issue lies in the historic relationship of guns to the state: the American government has in fact consistently controlled the means of force, as in colonial America. This has been one way of perpetuating the patriarchal institutions that traditionally defined gun ownership as a solely masculine prerogative.

(p.124) How Tough Is Tough Enough?

Though several of the women I interviewed perceived that guns and gun ownership are about power, and managing and deploying violence, such knowledge did not always sit comfortably with them. It was the relationship between guns and power (precisely why some women are drawn to guns) that made several female shooters uneasy. I discussed this issue with Jane and Louise, both shooting instructors:


  • And the last question: What do guns symbolize for you?
  • Louise:

  • It is terrible. My first reaction to that is power. Isn’t that terrible?
  • Jane:

  • The first word that came into my head was freedom.
  • Louise:

  • Yeah, I thought of that too, power and freedom. To me those are kind of synonymous words.
  • Although she didn’t dwell on it, Louise did articulate a certain discomfort with the idea that guns symbolize power and freedom. In our conversations about what guns are for and how they should be used, she frequently discussed being uncomfortable with the fact that guns are relatively easily acquired in the United States, and that so many people have access to such powerful and dangerous items without “proving” that they can handle that power. She felt that as a shooting instructor, she is in a position to see that many people do not understand the power of guns and are careless with them, and her observations made her uneasy about the ways some gun owners handle themselves around such dangerous items.

    Louise expressed ambivalence about these issues to me on several occasions. At one point after one of our lessons, Louise and I stood in the gun shop that was attached to the range where she taught, and we studied the bumper stickers that the range had on display. One of them said simply, “What if Nicole Simpson had a gun?” Looking at the sticker, Louise shook her head in annoyance and said, “Well, then she’d probably have been dead sooner because O. J. would have shot her with it.” Louise viewed that kind of sentiment as gun-related machismo on the part of male gun owners, and it frustrated her. She attributed the sentiment embodied in the bumper sticker to a certain naïve belief that guns solve everything, or confer a simple, straightforward protection for their owners, regardless of the context or situation in which they are used.

    In this way, despite her committed belief in the protective value of gun ownership, Louise echoed the skepticism of critics who argue that most gun owners do not understand the “inherent dangerousness” of guns. Louise and (p.125) her business partner, Jane, do not always agree on these issues, particularly because Jane feels that most gun owners do understand these issues, female shooters in particular. Jane voiced the feelings that all of my instructors, including Louise, raised with me: women make better students than men. Instructors feel this way because they believe women tend to listen more attentively to instructors and do not have any macho “I already know what I’m doing” investment in their initial handling of guns. However, Jane and Louise disagree about whether guns should be available to people without training and skill testing. Although Jane supports training and testing, she does not feel that outside authorities have the right to force people to behave in certain ways with their firearms.

    Having taken several classes with Louise, I also noticed her discomfort with the possibility that her symbolic association between guns and power could reveal something unacceptable about herself, something that she feels is unfeminine, wrong, or offensive. Her discomfort presumably centers on the idea that she would appear hungry for or interested in power in a way that makes her unhealthy or “abnormal,” even eager to hurt or kill someone. Louise expressed the idea that engaging in a sport that is “traditionally a male thing” is pleasurable to her, but I suspect that she isn’t always so confident that engaging in behavior defined as traditionally masculine is acceptable for a woman. Her ambivalence demonstrates that some female shooters, despite their commitment to a pro-gun ideology, wear the mantle of their toughness with uneasiness and are sensitive to what it might say about them as women and as human beings.

    Whereas the larger paradigm of toughness is a powerful tool for understanding and integrating a series of American core values, toughness as an embodied concept also brings with it several of its own ideological problems and binds. The most prominent of these binds is this: If shooters aren’t vigilant, prepared, defensive, and yet they are still victimized, how are they to make sense of their victimization?

    This point was forcefully brought home when I attended a women’s self-defense class, entitled “Refuse to Be a Victim,” sponsored by the NRA and run by Joanne, a forcefully friendly woman who is well-versed in the wide array of options available to women who want to feel safer in their everyday environment. The course was taught at a local shooting range and ran for about three hours. Though the class was not about guns or gun use for self-defense, Joanne did mention that she was an NRA member and would be happy to discuss membership with anyone attending the workshop. At one point during the seminar, in the middle of a discussion about car safety and (p.126) car-jacking prevention, an attendee said that she’d heard about a woman in the area who had been dragged out of her car in the early evening, while it was still light, and murdered. The story was particularly gruesome, and the class visibly reacted with horror and upset, murmuring and shaking their heads.

    Joanne was clearly upset by the story: she shook her head and repeated “No, no” several times. Over and over, she said, “She must have done something wrong, she obviously wasn’t careful enough.” For Joanne, “doing it right” or being self-protective by exhibiting the kinds of defensive habits that she advocates should serve as a guarantee of her own and other women’s safety. Because a woman should take responsibility to make herself safer, if she’s victimized, then clearly she did not do enough to prevent her own victimization. Joanne believed that by working to control her own behavior as well as her environment, she was directly reducing the possibility of harm from the criminal other. She did not question the fundamental assumption that women are always going to be vulnerable to being attacked by criminals. For Joanne, the pertinent questions are, What can a woman do about it? and How can she responsibly make herself safe? Sometimes it’s difficult to know how tough is “tough enough.” Perhaps sometimes safety measures just aren’t enough; crimes can still occur, and when it comes down to a single woman being confronted by an attacker, sometimes there is very little a woman can do about her own vulnerability.

    This example illustrates another way that the ideology of constant toughness presents inherent challenges to shooters, both male and female. Sometimes events and circumstances that endanger people are larger than any particular individual’s ability to make reality conform to his or her expectations. When toughness fails to achieve the desired results and keep everyone safe, shooters find themselves in the awkward position of blaming themselves for their own victimization. This was a long-standing tension not simply for female shooters vis-a-vis toughness, but in shooters’ rhetoric regarding gun ownership as crime control more generally. If being tough and vigilant can and should protect you from being victimized, what do you do when it happens anyway?

    You’ve Only Got Yourself to Blame

    For the most part, male shooters are only too willing to accept responsibility for themselves and their family, but the weight of this responsibility apparently takes its toll on their peace of mind. The question of what it means (p.127) to be victimized lurks behind some of the rhetoric offered by some male shooters, just as it does for women. The answer is ambivalent: although shooters have found a way to understand how to attend to their immediate concerns about crime, their vigilance and toughness do not guarantee safety, and can actually incur a good deal of mental and physical stress.

    For some shooters, their disquiet manifests itself as a concern with being caught unaware, of not being sufficiently prepared for some future untold disaster. For Manuel, this anxiety takes the form of nightmares in which he cannot effectively protect his family. For other shooters, it emerges more subtly in a form of self-blame about the failure entailed in relaxing one’s guard. John briefly mentioned to me that he “had it coming” when he was robbed. In response to my question about whether he uses a gun for self-defense, he said, “I do. I also use a dog, locks, and stuff like that. I’ve never been burglarized, other than some idiot coming in my garage and taking a tool box, which I kind of asked for ‘cause I left the garage open all night.”

    Although aware that this was a small violation, John took personal responsibility for the robbery, believing that if he is to prevent himself from being robbed, he needs to ensure that he is vigilant about preventing such crimes from happening. Because he failed to do so, he had only himself to blame. Like Joanne, John did not think to blame the robber. By definition, that person wasn’t going to change; he was doing what robbers do—rob people. John feels he has a duty to protect his own, and because he failed to do so, he got what he deserved. Both Manuel and John recognize on some level that there are limits to vigilance, and they feel the consequences for failing to maintain it to the standards they have set for themselves. Both men recognize that their position on defense still can leave them vulnerable, not only to crime but to the self-recrimination that comes with failing to “see it through.”

    Victimization (even in its most minor form) does not sit well with shooters, who are hard on themselves when it comes down to the question of responsibility in terms of safety, their own and their family’s. Their anxiety illustrates that the concept of American tough rests on the principle that a defensive stance, both its literal and symbolic manifestations, should be substantial enough to prevent disaster from striking. But likewise, any relaxation of the victim’s guard means that the responsibility for victimization should sit squarely on the shoulders of the victim himself. An ideology of toughness and defensiveness highlights a concern about appearing (and feeling) weak and vulnerable, or of being victimized in any respect. This tension in the defensive paradigm may help to illuminate one of the reasons that discussions (p.128) and disagreements over gun control become so heated and vituperative in popular forums.

    Guns represent the most concrete manifestations of safety, physical integrity, and control, be it control of self (shooters argue consistently that handling guns demands skill and self-control) or control of one’s environment. Feeling safe and controlling one’s environment is becoming more and more difficult. Thus, buying a gun can seem like the only antidote to chronic concerns about being the safest citizen soldier one can possibly be. Policies that stress community safety by making guns harder to get, or making certain guns illegal altogether, spell disaster for shooters because they view gun ownership as one of the most concrete ways they can assert control over their immediate environment.

    The ideology of toughness, though at times attending to a sense of community and social collective, is predominantly about individual self-protection. Maintaining physical integrity (controlling their bodies and keeping them “whole”) is a primary moral concern for many Americans, a point that has been illustrated in American concerns with illness and disease that disrupt the normalcy of a healthy, intact body.34 That Americans should choose to keep their bodies safe with a gun, an item of rich cultural meaning and value, shouldn’t be that surprising.

    Gun ownership is also said to confer protection from the dangerous state. However, I would argue this is largely an issue of symbolic importance. Although criminologists debate the question of whether an armed citizenry confers actual protection from the state, or on behalf of it, I am not convinced that the shooters interviewed here view this is as a primary concern.35 Few shooters stated they saw their gun ownership as important because it protected them from the state. For most shooters I talked to, concern with protecting the social body is largely about criminal violence: gun ownership for personal protection within a dangerous state.

    The surge of interest in guns after 9/11 demonstrated this point particularly well: citizens were arming themselves not because they thought that American society would be taken over by terrorists, but because terrorists had already clearly infiltrated American society.36 Some pro-gun advocates are indeed concerned about government oppression, but the shooters I interviewed were mainly concerned with more local and immediate concerns. Their pro-gun ideology fits into a larger ideological paradigm of toughness: being strong, vigilant, and ready for any possible disaster, which ostensibly means “stay armed.”

    On the other hand, toughness is also about moral character and a willingness (p.129) to act on your own convictions. For shooters, that means taking responsibility for yourself and your family even when you’ve been victimized. As such, toughness puts shooters in a double bind by forcing them to attempt to wrestle with issues that are exceedingly difficult to control, such as having one’s house broken into or being mugged. Maintaining complete control over one’s surroundings every minute of the day and becoming invulnerable to crime are unrealistic expectations. This point underscores how double binds inherent in an system like American tough can trap its adherents. It addresses the local concerns at the expense of those long-term projects that might in fact make neighborhoods safer, and thus might give whole communities, even communities of shooters, a little more peace of mind. My point is not that focus should turn to long-term concerns at the expense of the short-term ones, only that consistent attention to the short term has seriously undercut any attention (as well as time and energy resources) to reducing crime in the long run.

    Toughness as National Character

    At no time was the American emphasis on toughness more apparent than in the wake of September 11, 2001. Immediately after the terrorist attacks, and in the months that followed, President George W. Bush sought to rally the American public, not only to support the War on Terrorism but also to prepare for the possibility of future attacks. He first championed the firemen, rescue workers, public health workers, and police who labored during and after the attacks. These were the new American heroes. Then he repeatedly highlighted a vision of national character that Americans found both comforting and appealing. Bush stated, “We have much to do and much to ask of the American people. You will be asked for your patience…. You will be asked for your resolve…. You will be asked for your strength.”37 His description of the American national character in the aftermath of the attacks emphasized physical and moral strength, vigilance, preparedness, defensiveness, and a particular form of patriotic citizenship, all of which resonate profoundly as celebrated characteristics in American society.

    Though other cultures and societies have embraced toughness as definitively masculine, Americans traditionally and currently use toughness to define their national character. Emphasis on the supposed ubiquitous nature of this national character has perhaps allowed the quality of American tough to transcend gender boundaries: as I’ve mentioned, toughness is not exclusive to men. Women can also demonstrate a form of toughness that is (p.130) gender-appropriate, although their doing so has evinced a certain ambivalent quality to toughness itself.38 But ultimately, the paradigm of American tough embraces a variety of values and characteristics, including self-reliance, mental and physical strength, and readiness to take action, all of which are apparent in a variety of cultural and social formulations in American social and cultural arenas.

    While 9/11 may have awakened latent fears or vigilant defensiveness in previously complacent segments of the American public, the principles and values inherent in American tough were a familiar paradigm for shooters long before the events of September 11. In our discussions on and off the range, shooters consistently framed their gun enthusiasm, and pro-gun ideology itself, as ways to demonstrate strength of body and character, moral courage, and a vigilant, prepared defensive stance.

    These are the themes and values that emerged so strongly in post-9/11 American society, and one of the reasons that these values were trumpeted so quickly and with such sweeping resonance is because they have such profound and rich roots in American history and society. In times of crisis, Americans reach for those values and ideologies that are both comfortable and comforting, and insisting on the toughness of the American citizenry assures that citizenry that it will survive and thrive after such damaging attacks. The need to be prepared, well-defended, vigilant, and strong just seems to make sense. That Americans should look to the heroic actions of so many of the key figures that emerged in that moment is also not surprising: those firefighters, rescue workers, police, and citizens who sacrificed themselves to save lives did serve as primary examples of the best and most celebrated characteristics in the American national character. That guns should be linked to these values is also not surprising, as guns have long been associated with all of those characteristics in American history, and its contemporary mythic rendering.


    (1.) Wilkinson, American Tough.

    (2.) Dana Nelson, National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).

    (3.) Cited in Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 16.

    (4.) George Custer in 1874, quoted in In Their Own Words: Warriors and Pioneers, T. J. Stiles, ed. (New York: Perigee, 1996), 131.

    (5.) Wilkinson, American Tough.

    (6.) For the argument that in polite, politically correct, middle-class America, the idea that teaching a child to shoot (or just engaging in shooting or hunting in general) is considered dangerous or repulsive, see Mary Zeiss Stange, “Teach Proper Gun Use is Schools?” USA Today, 23 August 1999, 15A; Charles Eisendrath, “So Shoot Me, I’m a Hunter,” Chronicle of Higher Education 47 (24 November 2000), B5. For an example of a social critic who finds the notion of children being exposed to guns appalling, see Mitch Albom, “Gun Violence Ends When Guns Are Gone,” Los Angeles Business Journal, 19 March 2001, 65.

    (7.) I use the term gun ownership/enthusiasm to indicate that within this particular discourse, rarely is there a distinction made between owning a gun and being a gun enthusiast. To my knowledge, the study documented in this book is the only one that has tried to parse out the social practices and ideological positions supported by gun enthusiasts, who can be differentiated from gun owners by their level of interest in guns. Critics, however, have rarely made this distinction.

    (8.) Wilkinson, American Tough, 113.

    (9.) White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own,” 621.

    (10.) Wilkinson, American Tough.

    (11.) Abigail Adams to John Adams, Sept. 20, 177[6], Adams Family Correspondence, II, 129, quoted in Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1980), 67.

    (12.) Reddin, Wild West Shows, 142.

    (13.) Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1987). See chap. 1 in particular.

    (14.) See the work of the following feminist scholars: Martha McCaughey, Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense (New York: New York University Press, 1997); M. Z. Stange and C. Oyster, eds., Gun Women: Firearms and (p.191) Feminism in Contemporary America (New York: New York University Press, 2000). Stange and Oyster penned most of this volume but have included short pieces by other gun-owning women, feminists, and scholars.

    (15.) D. A. Clarke, “A Woman with a Sword: Some Thoughts on Women, Feminism, and Violence,” in Transforming a Rape Culture, E. Buchwald, P. Fletcher, and M. Roth, eds. (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1993), 399; emphasis added.

    (16.) Stange and Oyster, Gun Women.

    (17.) Stange and Oyster, Gun Women, 34, state that Audre Lorde is invoked to make this point, and I concur. Lorde’s argument can be found in “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings of Radical Women of Color, C. Moraga and Gloria Anzaldiia, eds. (Latham, NY: Kitchen Table Press, 1983), 98–101. Stange and Oyster note that Lorde’s overall argument does not refer to firearms in any way, but her theoretical point can be found in various feminist arguments. For example, Susan Caufield argues, “As I noted in my reflexive statement, I am both a feminist and a peace activist. From this viewpoint, the greatest difficulties with the current criminal justice process center on the use of violence in an attack against violence. When one goes to war against crime or violence, and uses a military model to do so, what gets modeled is that violence is acceptable, so long as it is done by those in positions of relative power. This is at the center of why people support war. As long as they are the ‘good guys,’ war is a necessary and acceptable evil. While we may curse the enemy who kills our child, we simultaneously cheer our soldier who kills someone else’s son” (emphasis added). Caufield also cites feminist bell hooks to make the same point: violence just encourages more violence. See Caufield, “Transforming the Criminological Dialogue: A Feminist Perspective on the Impact of Militarism,” Journal of Political and Military Sociology 27, no. 2 (1999): 303.

    (18.) Sheley et al. argue that although the popular media played up the theme of increasing numbers of armed women, their own study demonstrates that there is no empirical evidence that the numbers are increasing. See Joseph F. Sheley, Charles J. Brody, and James D. Wright, “Women and Handguns: Evidence from National Surveys, 1973–1991,” Social Science Research 23 (1994): 219–235.

    (19.) Tom W. Smith and Robert J. Smith, “Changes in Firearms Ownership among Women, 1980–1994,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 86 (1995); Smith and Wesson survey cited on 133–149.

    (20.) Stange and Oyster, Gun Women.

    (21.) Ibid.

    (22.) Don B. Kates in his introduction to Armed, 26, n. 9 discusses the position of gun control advocates on the issue of how individuals should respond when attacked, using material published by former leader of Handgun Control, Inc., Nelson Shields, in Guns Don’t Die, People Do (New York: Arbor House, 1981), 124–125, and pro-control academics Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, The Citizen’s Guide to Gun Control (New York: Macmillan, 1987), 32.

    (23.) Kates discusses this issue in “‘Poisoning the Well’ for Gun Control,” in Kleck and Kates, Armed, specifically 126–127, nn. 41, 45, 46.

    (24.) A review of several of the Web sites for the most well-known gun control organizations does not yield information about these organizations’ position on what to do if a would-be victim is attacked. Most organizations do, however, state emphatically that guns are not an effective tool for self defense. See the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence at http://www.bradycampaign.org/. Another organization is Join Together Online (http://www.jointogether.org/home/), which also does not mention the question of how to respond to an attack. However, Join Together does reference the policies of another gun control organization, the Violence Policy Center (VPC), on the question of using guns for self-defense. The VPC argues that women are far more likely to be murdered by handguns than use them for self-defense, an argument the VPC bases on a 1986 study by public health researchers Arthur Kellermann and Donald Reay, “Protection or Peril? An Analysis of Firearms-Related Deaths in the Home.” This study has long been critiqued by criminologists for a series of methodological flaws, not the least of which is that it measures the effecitveness of using a handgun in self-defense only by whether or not the potential victim killed his or her attacker, not whether or not simply brandishing a gun was enough to stop the attack itself. The VPC, and consequently Join Together, effectively reiterate this position (that because so few attackers are actually killed by would-be victims, as oppsosed to simply frightened off, guns are not an effective tool for self-defense) by citing the Kellermann and Reay study and related statistics to “prove” that guns are not an effective means of self-defense. See the Web site for the Violence Policy Center, http://www.vpc.org/. All Web sites accessed May 2003.

    (25.) McCaughey, Real Knockouts; Mary Zeiss Stange, “Arms and the Woman: A Feminist Reappraisal,” in Guns: Who Should Have Them?, D. B. Kopel, ed. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1995), 15–52; and Stange and Oyster, Gun Women.

    (26.) McCaughey, Real Knockouts; Stange, “Arms and the Woman”; Stange and Oyster, Gun Women.

    (27.) See Dawn McCaffrey’s review of McCaughey’s book: “Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense,” book review, in Violence Against Women 5, no. 7 (1999): 829–833.

    (28.) McCaughey, Real Knockouts, 95.

    (29.) See, for example, Demie Kurz, “Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense, by Martha McCaughey,” book review, in Gender and Society 13, no. 1 (1999): 145–147; and McCaffrey, “Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense.”

    (30.) Stange and Oyster, Gun Women, chap. 2.

    (31.) See the following Web sites: the Pink Pistols at http://www.pinkpistols.org/index2.html; the Second Amendment Sisters at http://www.sas-aim.org/; and the Tenth Cavalry Gun Club at http://www.tenthcavalrygunclub.org/. All accessed July 2003.

    (33.) Cottrol and Diamond, “The Second Amendment”; Cottrol, “Submission Is Not the Answer.”

    (34.) Gay Becker, Disrupted Lives: How People Create Meaning in a Chaotic World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

    (35.) See, for example, Polsby and Kates, “Of Holocausts and Gun Control.”

    (36.) “Sept. 11 Convinces Many New Jerseyeans to Buy Guns,” Associated Press state and local wire, 18 November 2001; Tina Dirmann and Timothy Hughes, “More Residents Taking Up Arms,” Los Angeles Times, 14 October 2001, part 2, p. 1; Dante Chinni and Tim Vanderpool, “More in U.S. Carry Guns,” Christian Science Monitor, 6 December 2001, 1.

    (37.) President George W. Bush, radio address from Camp David, 15 September 2001, reported in The Times of London, 17 September 2001,12.

    (38.) Wilkinson, American Tough.