The debate over what to do to reduce gun violence in America hit an absurd low point on Wednesday when a Senate witness tried to portray a proposed new ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines as some sort of sexist plot that would disproportionately hurt vulnerable women and their children.
The witness was Gayle Trotter, a fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, a right-wing public policy group that provides pseudofeminist support for extreme positions that are in fact dangerous to women. She told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the limits on firepower proposed by Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, would harm women because an assault weapon “in the hands of a young woman defending her babies in her home becomes a defense weapon.” She spoke of the “peace of mind” and “courage” a woman derives from “knowing she has a scary-looking gun” when she’s fighting violent criminals.
It is not at all clear where Ms. Trotter gained her insight into confrontations between women and heavily armed intruders, since it is not at all clear that sort of thing happens often. It is tempting to dismiss her notion that an AR-15 is a woman’s best friend as the kooky reflex response of someone ideologically opposed to gun control laws and who, in her case, has also been a vociferous opponent of the Violence Against Women Act, the 1994 law that assists women facing domestic violence.
But it is important to note that Ms. Trotter was chosen to testify by the committee’s Republican members, who will have a big say on what, if anything, Congress does on guns; and that her appearance before the committee was to give voice to the premise, however insupportable and dangerous it may be, that guns make women and children safer — and the more powerful the guns the better.
Ms. Trotter related the story of Sarah McKinley, an 18-year-old Oklahoma woman who shot and killed an intruder on New Year’s Eve 2011, when she was home alone with her baby. The story was telling, but not in the way she intended, as Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, pointed out. The woman was able to repel the intruder using an ordinary Remington 870 Express 12-gauge shotgun, which would not be banned under the proposed statute. She did not need a military-style weapon with a 30-round magazine.
But there is a more fundamental problem with the idea that guns actually protect the hearth and home. Guns rarely get used that way. In the 1990s, a team headed by Arthur Kellermann of Emory University looked at all injuries involving guns kept in the home in Memphis, Seattle and Galveston, Tex. They found that these weapons were fired far more often in accidents, criminal assaults, homicides or suicide attempts than in self-defense. For every instance in which a gun in the home was shot in self-defense, there were seven criminal assaults or homicides, four accidental shootings, and 11 attempted or successful suicides.
The cost-benefit balance of having a gun in the home is especially negative for women, according to a 2011 review by David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Far from making women safer, a gun in the home is “a particularly strong risk factor” for female homicides and the intimidation of women.
In domestic violence situations, the risk of homicide for women increased eightfold when the abuser had access to firearms, according to a study published in The American Journal of Public Health in 2003. Further, there was “no clear evidence” that victims’ access to a gun reduced their risk of being killed. Another 2003 study, by Douglas Wiebe of the University of Pennsylvania, found that females living with a gun in the home were 2.7 times more likely to be murdered than females with no gun at home.
Regulating guns, on the other hand, can reduce that risk. An analysis by Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that in states that required a background check for every handgun sale, women were killed by intimate partners at a much lower rate. Senator Patrick Leahy, the Judiciary Committee chairman, has used this fact to press the case for universal background checks, to make sure that domestic abusers legally prohibited from having guns cannot get them.
As for the children whose safety Ms. Trotter professes to be so concerned about, guns in the home greatly increase the risk of youth suicides. That is why the American Academy of Pediatrics has long urged parents to remove guns from their homes.
The idea that guns are essential to home defense and women’s safety is a myth. It should not be allowed to block the new gun controls that the country so obviously needs.