Armed and… Ambivalent?

18 Oct

Let’s begin with a confession: I was born and raised in the great state of Texas and prior to two weeks ago, I had never fired a gun.  That will certainly be surprising to some folks as Texas often invokes images of shotguns, six shooters and gun-toting cowboys.  For me, however, Texas is about home, family, the State Fair and where my own brand of quirky country makes perfect sense.  While, like the rest of the country, I grew up in a pervasive gun culture, there was not one in my immediate family.  I didn’t grow up around hunting trips, shotguns, rifles and pistols.  My experience with guns was not linked to family or individual recreation, as it is for some, but to fear, intimidation and violence.  I remember having to run, duck and hide more than my fair share because somebody at a football game or an after party decided to flex and start shooting in a crowd.  I know the sting of losing friends and classmates to shootings and self-inflicted gun shot wounds.  I remember how I felt being pushed inside a vault as three men armed with guns robbed my partner and me.  So, while I had never shot a gun before, I knew all too well its power and effects.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself at a gun range on the outskirts of Atlanta.  It was supposed to be an outing with friends (somebody found a groupon, so you know how that goes). I thought it might be a chance to address some of my fear of guns so I agreed.  Slowly but surely, everybody got a little too busy to go and I was the last woman standing.  Far be it from me to waist money or a good coupon, so I went.  I didn’t fully realize how frightened I would be until I walked in the door of the range.  For a while I was the only woman and one of two people of color in the building.  It was strange to be standing in a room full of firearms and white men in camouflage hunting caps and biker boots.  That could have been a very different scene at a different time of day, in a different location. I was fully aware that I was out of place and that being out place as a woman and as a person of color is always potentially dangerous.  I remained out of place in the range that day as I jumped every time I heard a gun fire, including my own.   I shot fifty rounds and even though it turns out that I’m pretty good shot, I never felt fully comfortable loading the bullets, holding the gun or pulling the trigger. Yet, a mix of exhilaration, pride and fear left me shaking for at least thirty minutes after I left the range.   Though I wasn’t fully sure how to process it, and I’m still not, I was sure I would be back.

And back I was, this time at an outdoor range in Texas and anything but alone as I went with my mother, her partner and a good family friend who owns the guns we used, and who happens to be white. This trip felt decidedly different from my first experience.  I am sure it was the combination of sunlight, fresh air and not being by myself.  It wasn’t lost on me, however, that though I was not alone this time I was still very much out of place. Two Black women, a Black man and a White man are still an “odd” grouping to many.  It was certainly “odd” to most of the folks at the gun range that day as we got plenty of stares and double takes, some lasting longer than others.  It wasn’t long before I noticed two white men who had taken a particular interest in us.  Staring each time I stepped up to operate the manual launcher as we shot at clay targets and loudly commenting on my shooting and on our family friend’s efforts to assist me, they made their disgust and discomfort at our presence known.  It was a stark reminder of the history/reality of guns, race and place in the South or anywhere for that matter.

For me, both of these experiences at gun ranges in two different major Southern cities brought up issues of race, place and belonging.  There was certainly something powerful in my ability to walk into these ranges, spaces dominated by white masculinity, and be defiantly “out of place.”  Yet, I also felt “out of place” in my own skin as I tried to reconcile my enjoyment of recreational shooting with my own history and politics.  How can I understand my experiences with gun violence on a number of different levels with wielding a gun in the controlled environment of a gun range?  Can I be interested in guns, even recreationally, and still be vehemently anti-violence?  Where do guns figure in my Black feminist politic?  Is there room to think about women, safety and guns in a kind of feminist politics of self-defense?  While going to the gun range was not about self-defense for me, as I write this a local news story is airing about a young Black woman who shot one of two men attempting to break into her home at 11am in broad daylight.  Her father says he is proud of her for defending herself.  He said that he taught her to use the gun for just that purpose and now he will teach her to forgive herself for doing what she had to do.  I’m relieved that she was able to defend herself but I am afraid because she will still have to wait for the final word from a grand jury to decide whether there will be charges. And Black women don’t always have an easy time making claims of self-defense especially not when guns are involved, just ask Marissa Alexander

Clearly, I’m left with more questions than answers.  On some level, I wish I could say that going to these two ranges has given me a clear position either completely for or against guns but it hasn’t.  What I am sure of is that these two experiences refuse to let me take any position for granted.  They are, however, undoubtedly forcing me to think deeply about my politics, my fears and my history in order to move more fully into an understanding that refuses neat or logical conclusion but bravely tangles with the messiness and nuance that lies at the heart of the personal and the political.

7 Responses to “Armed and… Ambivalent?”

  1. crunktastic October 18, 2012 at 9:45 AM #

    Thank you for this post! I did grow up around guns. In fact, sometimes a rifle would be the first thing you saw when you stepped in my grandmother’s house. I am used to gun toting and wielding women. But I was always afraid of guns, particularly after losing my own father to gun violence. But the thing I admired about my grandmother was her independence. It is part of the genesis of my own feminism. And the reality is she couldn’t have had that independence as a single Black woman in the rural Deep South without a way to defend herself. So like you, I’m conflicted.

  2. TerriMB October 18, 2012 at 1:13 PM #

    I held my first gun at age 14 while taking a course at a college campus. I was trained on how to shoot, clean and handle a hand gun and shot gun by a trained military soldier. This training rid me of any fear I had of guns. I can see why you may be conflicted, but for me there is no inner conflict. I have the same rights as others and believe in exercising them. I too have lost loved ones to gun violence, however, this has not changed my perspective on guns. I would rather have one and know how to use it as a Single-Black woman living in a major city in Texas. I am NOT an advocate of gun violence, but I am an advocate of protecting oneself and family. Black Women have to protect themselves and their families because no one else will or cares enough to.

  3. Alisha M.Gray (@ZenMamaPolitic) October 18, 2012 at 2:38 PM #

    @ZenMamaPolitic Excellent Post! As Single Black women and mothers; it is shocking the way that law enforcement often fails us. And, as we grow larger in numbers; so does the unfortunate racist sexism, still existent long after Jim Crow. Recognizing that we are more vulnerable as single women of color is essential by those who write and enforce the laws. We cannot forget our history of abuse as Black women, but need to assure that criminals do not begin to specifically create new pathologies of violence specifically directed towards single Black women/mothers. For instance; stalking has began a viscious cycle of association, specifically aimed at Single Black women and mothers, because of our newly perceived threat. Therefore; we must ask ourselves seriously if we really should begin using more of these dreaded ‘phallic symbols’, within an effort to ‘deter’ the same violence that it (and it’s Patriarchal insecurity) invoked in the first place. Really? Using violence to stop threats of violence? (I am reminded of the childhood neighborhood beat downs of racist folk, that encouraged this same type of violence years ago) Sometimes violence is uncomfortably necessary, and will be until the law actually does what it should, & prevents these crimes against single women of color to occur. And in reference to having to stoop so low, as to use a phallic symbols to prevent chaos…we drive them, we view them every day & sometimes we may even have to use them to destroy… more of the like. It is not the symbol; its how we choose to use it. What’s important is…to let other know that we are the ones who hold the power behind a perceived male phallic symbol. Ironically; we all know that; if a phallic symbol had never been used for violence in the first place; only for the esoteric purposes; as it had been intended…that none of this would have had to be decided at all.

  4. Sabrina L. October 18, 2012 at 6:21 PM #

    I can’t speak to being a black single woman so I recognize that I, a white, recently married woman, do not face the same racial dangers. I also do not have a childhood or history that included real gun violence – the first time I saw a gun was when I went to Israel and met a cousin who carried her army gun on her back and had it in the back of the car. (It weirded me out a little, but the fear was not terror like you describe.) So my thoughts on guns might be totally irrelevant to you, but maybe not.

    I will not live in a house with a gun. I know that gun accidents can only happen if there is a gun around and accessible. Also I imagine that if a situation came up in which I needed to protect myself, having it in a secure gun safe wouldn’t exactly make it readily accessible, but making it readily accessible means that someone could use it on me.
    My husband was surprised that I would be interested some time in going to a gun range, since I had expressed my aversion to having guns around. I see it more as a sport if it’s at a gun range; like archery. (I’ve liked archery in the past. A bow and arrow could be used violently, has been a deadly weapon in years and wars past.)

    After my feminist awakening some months ago, my husband asked if my willingness to go to a gun range meant that perhaps he could buy a gun to use at a range. (Some friend had one to sell, I guess.) I would have said no before I began reading feminist literature, but my answer now has another dimension. The home can be the more dangerous, deadly place for a woman, statistically speaking. I trust my husband, he is a good man, he is not violent, I do not believe he would ever hurt me. But how many battered women marry a man she believed would endanger her life? No, I do not want a gun in the house. If he wants to purchase a gun, he will need to store it somewhere else, maybe rent a storage unit? If he ever brings one into our home, I will consider it a heads up that my life is in danger and I will leave.

  5. Marlene October 19, 2012 at 3:27 PM #

    Obviously there are others here in the comments to keep you from feeling alone. I’d like to let you know that there are many of us who would very much like you to feel welcome among gun enthusiasts.

  6. jon3g October 29, 2012 at 1:14 PM #

    Thank you so much for posting this. I’ve often found myself in a corner on this issue, both because of my identity as a het man of color doing sexual violence prevention work and how my opinions on guns relate to the strong anti-gun opinions of most other folks I know in the movement. I’ve experienced most pro-gun spaces as very white, heteronormative and hyper-masculine, which often makes me feel uncomfortable and out of place. Despite this, I personally enjoy target shooting and I’ve reconciled my anti-violence and pro-gun beliefs in a similar way to how I’ve reconciled anti-violence and sex-positivity.

    While sex can be used to cause malicious harm, it is not necessarily the sexual contact or act itself that is most harmful, but rather the emotional harm caused by the manner and motive behind perpetrators’ use of sex as a tool of nonconsensual control, violation and domination. Conversely, sex can also be mutually empowering and enjoyable. Sex itself isn’t the problem; it comes down to intent AND how that intent is manifest in action (no free passes for unintended consequences, btw). In a similar vein, firearms can be used with malicious intent or wanton irresponsible disregard to cause unjustifiable harm. Firearms can also be used responsibly, for recreational purposes or to STOP (the goal is not necessarily to kill or wound, though that is a possibility) a threat to life or limb that could not be otherwise avoided or neutralized. Again, guns themselves aren’t the problem; it comes down to intent AND how that intent is manifest in action. Now, this comparison of the intent behind sex vs. guns has its limits (under any circumstance I can think of, using sex as a weapon is never acceptable), but my point is that vilifying guns in the same way earlier feminists vilified sex is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater and that the contexts of intent and the impacts of accompanying action are important to consider.

    Further, I consider gun ownership by women as a potential avenue for self-empowerment (a Good Thing). However, the decision to own or use a firearm is an intensely personal one, yet so much of the pro-gun ideology out there [wrongly, IMHO] suggests that women can “prevent” being sexually assaulted (this is the frame I understand best, so most of my examples come from here) or otherwise attacked by simply carrying a gun. This common assertion is problematic to me for several reasons: 1.) Whether or not someone has a gun, the single common factor in all attacks is the presence of an assailant; no matter how many risky behaviors someone might engage in or how many self-defense weapons/skills someone might have, people don’t simply become victims, perpetrators make them victims by attacking them, 2.) Using a gun (or anything else) in self-defense constitutes intervention/risk reduction, NOT actual prevention before something happens, 3.) It implicitly promotes the myth that most sexual assaults and other violent attacks are perpetrated by the “stranger in the bushes,” not by someone known to the victim, and 4.) It facilitates victim-blaming (i.e.: “If only she had a gun, she wouldn’t have been raped,” or “You had a gun, why didn’t you defend yourself?”).

    This is just what I’ve come to, but like you said, there are definitely more questions than answers.


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