At this year’s National Rifle Association annual meeting, President Donald Trump invited some special guests on stage. The first was a young mother from Virginia, April Evans.
“One night in 2015 she was alone with her two-year-old daughter when an intruder broke into her home violently,” said Trump.
“April took care of it.”
The crowd swooned.
Evans told them she shot the man twice and held him at gunpoint until police responded. Stories like hers reinforce an idea both the NRA and the gun industry have emphasized for decades: Guns keep women safe in an unsafe world.
Decades ago, researchers found evidence that the presence of a gun in a home increased the risk of violence in that home. Since then, studies have consistently confirmed that guns are linked to heightened danger for women in particular. Nevertheless, self-defense is still the main reason women own firearms. For many women gun owners, it may not matter that crime stats don’t line up with how their guns make them feel.
There’s a commonly held idea in pro-gun circles that guns level the playing field between the strong and the weak.
“There’s all these kinds of mantras and phrases,” said University of Arizona sociologist Jennifer Carlson. “And then there is one that’s some version of: ‘God created man and woman, but [gunmaker] Samuel Colt made them equal.’”
Samuel Colt was an American inventor, industrialist, businessman, and hunter. Today would have been his 204th birthday! “God Created Men and Sam Colt Made Them Equal!” (Courtesy/Colt Firearms) pic.twitter.com/8gAG18dOig
— NRA Blog (@NRAblog) July 19, 2018
Carlson is the author of “Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age Of Decline,” and as part of her research, she became an NRA-certified instructor. She said plenty of that training is about the basics of shooting skills and safety.
“But kind of underlying all of this is a presumption about crime that whatever happens to you it’s probably going to be strangers who perpetrate it,” said Carlson. “It’s going to be sudden, it’s going to be fast and it’s going to be violent. And really the only thing you have to do is figure out how to basically train your muscle memory to respond as fast as possible.”
What gets left out of that narrative, according to Carlson, is that most sexual assaults don’t look like that. Neither does domestic violence.
“You’re experiencing crime and victimization, not as a one-off, acute moment of violence, but it’s generally in the form of mental abuse, psychological abuse, financial abuse,” said Carlson.
According to the FBI, attacks from strangers make up less than a third of violent crimes against women. The vast majority of violence women face comes from people they know.
In Janet Paulsen’s case, the attack came from her husband. She had asked him for a divorce — he was an alcoholic.
One day in 2015, she came home to her Georgia suburb to drop off some groceries when she saw him out of the corner of her eye.
“He was leaning against that wall, cocking the gun,” she said.
He shot her six times, paralyzing her in one leg, before he killed himself.
Paulsen does not think having a gun would have helped her. She was ambushed.
“My brain went right to: Get out of this situation,” said Paulsen. “I wouldn’t have been able to get into a shootout with him.”
She’s had plenty of time to think about it. After the attack, she learned to shoot as part of her recovery.
“The images I used to have of seeing him cocking that gun and pointing it at me, they kind of faded after I went through that training,” said Paulsen. “And instead, the view was from behind the gun, with me holding the gun, said Paulsen.
For a while, carrying her gun around made her feel safer.
And then one day it didn’t.
“I think I had a flight to go somewhere and I took it out and I just didn’t feel comfortable carrying it anymore,” said Paulsen.
It was a lot of responsibility. She keeps it at home now, in her walker.
Janet Paulsen keeps her Smith & Wesson revolver in her walker. She bought it after her estranged husband shot and paralyzed her in 2015. Paulsen does not want anyone taking that gun away. But she has also become an advocate for restricting firearms access for abusers. More than half of intimate partner homicides are committed using guns. Her advocacy has pitted her against Georgia’s staunch pro-gun community.
“You say anything about gun control, people assume you are anti-gun. And obviously I’m not,” said Paulsen, exasperated.
Learning to use gun helped Paulsen heal after her husband tried to kill her. She just does not believe that women’s safety should rest on their shoulders alone.
“Forget laws, forget police, forget the judicial system. Your safety depends on whether you’re a good shot,” she said.“Know what? F*** that.”
Stand Whose Ground?
The right to bear arms is something many Americans believe applies to every law abiding citizen.
“But in practice, in the way that our criminal justice system works, in the way that our law enforcement works, Second Amendment rights are actually really only protected for the select few,” said Caroline Light, a cultural historian at Harvard University and author of “Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense.”
The NRA and gun manufacturers began their modern pitch to women in the 1980s, according to Light.
“In order to sell commodities in the United States, it’s long been a tradition to appeal to people’s fear. That’s how deodorant and mouthwash got going,” she said.
The same goes for guns, said Light. Statistics about women as targets of violence are a ready-made script for firearms marketers, said Light, as long as that narrative leaves out who is most likely to target them: men they know.
For Light, the gun industry’s messaging about crime has a troubled history.
“The implicit narrative of stranger danger is based on an ages old historical narrative in the United States — not just in the South — that framed black, brown and indigenous men as lethal threats to white women’s chastity and safety,” she said.
You see it in myths about the justifications for lynching in the 19th and 20th centuries, said Light.
“Where some 4,000 or more African American people were extralegally murdered in the service of protecting white women,” said Light, “at the same time that black and brown women were being threatened, attacked and raped by white men.”
“There’s this long history of hiding the actual sexual violence happening to black and brown women by appealing to white women’s intrinsic vulnerability,” said Light, “and this urgent need to protect white women from predatory strangers, implicitly thought of as being non-white.”
So what happens when women do use guns in self-defense?
There’s no national data about how many women are criminalized for defending themselves against abusers. Light, along with public health researchers at Harvard, is working on collecting it now.
But from her work so far, “the evidence shows me time and time again that women who try to protect themselves from their largest statistical threat, their own estranged or current intimate partners, end up going to prison,” said Light.
“So I had no idea I’d even be arrested,” said Marissa Alexander.
In 2012, Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison aggravated assault. Nine days after giving birth, she had fired a warning shot at her jealous, violent husband.
Alexander’s sentencing made national headlines. Three months earlier, George Zimmerman had shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, black 17-year-old. Many saw her case as an example of how the criminal justice system can deliver different results depending on race and gender.
Stories like Alexander’s are one of the big reason professionals who work with women victims of violence struggle with advising women to arm themselves.
Alexander was raised around guns, trained by her Army veteran father. When she started carrying one as an adult, she was taking evening classes for her master’s degree.
“I wanted to make sure that as I was leaving school at night, for my protection that I would have a firearm present if needed. So I went ahead and got a weapons permit,” said Alexander.
It was a 9 mm Glock that she mostly left in her car. She’d never had to pull her gun on anyone, until the night her husband attacked her.
Alexander had never heard of “stand your ground” until it failed to apply in her case.
Modern self-defense laws are an expansion of a much older common law principle called the “castle doctrine,” which basically says you should be able to protect yourself from an intruder in your home. They’re not designed to address violence coming from within the home.
Though using her gun led her to prison, separated her from her newborn and nearly cost her decades of freedom, Alexander believes it saved her life.
“I believe that that was the only thing that could ward off that attack that day,” said Alexander.
But that didn’t stop her from being arrested and prosecuted. She won an appeal in 2013 and was released. While in jail, she started hearing stories like hers from women around her and across the country — a lot of them with long sentences.
“What I noticed is that there had been records and proof that these women’s abusers had been violent,” she said, “and yet that was ignored.”
So, in her experience, do guns keep women safe? Her answer is complicated.
“They’ve been around. They’re going to continue to be around,” said Alexander. “And yet women aren’t any safer than they were many years ago.”
Still, she doesn’t rule it out for other women. In fact, if she had a clean record and could own a gun again, she would. She wants it for the same reasons she carried before her arrest: the threat of an attack by a stranger.
On June 1, 2019, a group called The Well Armed Woman encouraged women to wear purple and go to shooting ranges for what it called #NotMe Day. Participants were encouraged to make a donation to the group’s nonprofit arm.
“We’re all going to fire three symbolic rounds,” said the group’s founder, Carrie Lightfoot, in a Youtube video released in April. “The first round says ‘I am empowered.’ The second round says ‘I am prepared.’ And the third round says ‘I refuse to be a victim.’”
Lightfoot, a firearms instructor, founded The Well Armed Woman in 2012, which is now a nationwide empire offering advice, training, merchandising and a space for gun rights activism.
Lightfoot is grateful that the firearm industry markets to women.
“How are they going to meet our needs if they don’t market to us?” she said. “Women are coming to gun ownership seeking a solution to a problem that they have, which is being the prey.”
Lightfoot is also a domestic violence survivor, though she said she has never had to fire a gun in self-defense. She opposes the expansion of laws that restrict domestic abusers’ access to firearms.
“You know I have experience on both sides,” said Lightfoot. “But I’m not willing to sacrifice due process, which is a foundation of this country. It’s a foundation of our Constitution.”
Earlier in life, Lightfoot didn’t even let her children play with toy guns. For her, and for many women she trains, she says the shift in her beliefs about firearms happened in phases.
“I went through the emotional checklist of, ‘Could I really use it?’ ‘Could I actually pull the trigger on another human being?’” she said.
Once the answer became “yes” and she got more comfortable firing guns, Lightfoot said they became part of her identity.
“So now you kind of settle into, ‘I’m a gun owner. What does that mean?’” said Lightfoot. “And you kind of start to get engaged, because now you start to connect the dots that what’s happening legislatively or politically now can impact something that I treasure.”
A few days after our interview, Lightfoot emailed a link to an article on a website dedicated to promoting concealed carrying.
In the report, women were out were out late on a Friday night when, according to police, a man tried to sexually assault one of them on a bridge. After a struggle, one of the women drew a gun and shot and killed the man. The woman who shot him was initially arrested for being intoxicated with a firearm. Police later decided the shooting was justified.
Lightfoot’s world is full of spotlighted anecdotes like these. She’s also surrounded by women who tell her guns make them feel safe.
Through that lens, any statistics about women being harmed by men with guns are just more reasons to arm herself.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.