The first time I lived alone, my third year of college, I rented a tiny apartment from the type of university-town pseudo-slumlord you’re familiar with if you went to a big state school in a smallish city. His name was Rob, and I wasn’t scared of him — or of living on my own — until I sat down in his office to go over the lease and saw a sign hanging above his desk. It said, “10 reasons why a handgun is better than a woman.”
(8) If you admire a friend’s handgun, and tell him so, he will probably let you try it out a few times. (6) Your handgun will stay with you even if you are out of ammo. (4) Handguns function normally every day of the month.
I have been lucky enough not to know too many violent men in my life. And even though I grew up in a part of the country where hunting and gun shows are common, and gun laws are relatively lax, I didn’t know many gun enthusiasts, either. The landlord’s list rattled me. I thought of that scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, where the drill sergeant barks, “You will give your rifle a girl’s name, because this is the only pussy you people are going to get.”
When I read that list over my landlord’s shoulder, it was years before George Sodini mass-murdered women in a fitness center in 2009. Before Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree to teach women a lesson. Before social media helped us catalogue dozens of disparate murders every month in which women were killed by men they knew and, at one point in time, loved. The headlines have come to reflect the message of the list in a way that is chillingly consistent: These men control guns. These men wish they controlled women. These men use guns to control women. What was once perceived as the stuff of women’s-studies classes has become routine news analysis.
Rather than back away from the theme, the gun lobby is leaning into it. A recent episode of “Noir,” a National Rifle Association–sponsored web series by a popular YouTube vlogger and gun enthusiast named Colion Noir, features a sexy shot of a woman in Jimmy Choos, alone on a dark street. “Unaffected elegance. Too cool elegance. Not for you elegance, you say. There’s got to be something wrong with her; that attitude, high maintenance, hiding something.” The voice-over continues, “She’s not easy, and she’s not flawless. But she’s never wasted her time thinking about it.” It’s the sort of feminine ideal put forth in a million lad-mag profiles.
“She is the HK MR556.”
Oh, wait. She’s a gun. “The HK MR556 is that gun that if — it’s like that girl who’s unbelievably attractive, she has this presence about her that seems untouchable, and she’s not apologetic about her beauty,” Noir goes on to say. A good gun is like a good woman. Seemingly unattainable, but actually available for purchase. Difficult, but something you can master and control. The woman in the Jimmy Choos might decide to leave you, sue you for alimony, take up with another man. But the gun, which has all of the woman’s best attributes, will always be there and never ask you for anything. The NRA video aired less than a month after the Isla Vista killings, which were committed by a guy who failed to own the best women, so he bought the best guns instead.
Conflating women and guns is nothing new. Anyone who’s been to a gun show will tell you they’re rife with bumper stickers commenting on the relative utility of women versus firearms (like: “My wife YES, My dog MAYBE, My gun NEVER!”) and jokes about bloodsucking ex-wives. In her book Gun Show Nation, Joan Burbick tells a story about being barred from a firearms show because she was carrying a camera. When she asked why no photography was allowed, the organizer gave her a one-word answer: alimony. The gun enthusiasts didn’t want their photos showing up anywhere their ex-wives might see them.
“Wives were threats. Girlfriends were threats. Women who talked too much were threats,” Burdick continues. “And women who held public office and wouldn’t shut up were the scourge of the land. I have also picked up bumper stickers at gun shows that said: I JUST GOT A GUN FOR MY WIFE. IT’S THE BEST TRADE I EVER MADE.” You can own a gun. Physically and legally take possession of it. There’s no fear of rejection. It can’t divorce you. It can’t ask for alimony payments. You pull the trigger, it responds.
Paradoxically, the NRA also actively courts female members. “Come explore, connect, celebrate and unite with the women of NRA,” beckons the NRA Women’s channel, alongside clips with names like “Armed and Fabulous” and “Love at First Shot.” (They’re “stories of empowered women like you,” per the site.) Companies offering products like pink rifles and bra holsters promise to help women “look feminine, look good, and still feel safe.”
In light of all the messages comparing women to guns, it’s strangely easy to see the you-go-girl appeal of these pseudo-feminist campaigns: If you’re in control of a firearm, it’s harder for men to conflate you with it. But they can still use it against you. When women are on the receiving end of so much intimate gun violence, it’s difficult to argue that widespread, easy access can only empower them. For years the NRA defended laws that kept guns in the hands of known domestic abusers. Which makes it all the more chilling to recall the No. 1 reason on my college landlord’s list of reasons why guns are better than women: “You can buy a silencer for a handgun.” The sickening truth is you can buy a silencer for a woman. It’s a called a handgun.