Guns and Feminism

Several years ago, I was waiting in line at Kinko's late one evening when a ruckus broke out among the copying machines. A young man, possibly an NYU student, came running up to the counter saying that some of his materials were being stolen. Everyone turned to look where he was pointing. An African American man of about the same age and height as the other fellow – who was white – was striding out the door. He hurled some abusive words at the complainant as he left.

"Look, he's leaving with my stuff!" said the complainant, wringing his hands in frustration.

Behind the counter were three or four young men in their early twenties, all white, all sporting some combination of bizarre haircuts, earrings, pierced noses, and other countercultural appurtenances. All stared blankly at the customer who was complaining. No one made a move to help.

The only person who acted was the manager, a chubby, bespectacled young woman no taller than five feet. At first, she looked around at the male employees, as if expecting them to do something. Then, with a sigh of frustration, she came out from behind the counter and rushed out the door herself – alone – to confront the alleged thief.

Something Wrong

Admittedly, it was a confusing situation. The manager returned only moments later, empty-handed, and took the irate customer aside to speak with him. I have no idea what they discussed. For all I know, the whole incident may have turned out to have been some sort of interpersonal dispute, with complexities unknown to bystanders such as myself.

Still, something about the glazed passivity of those male employees bothered me. At the very least, they should have approached the alleged thief and politely asked him to help clarify the situation. Instead, they stood like mannequins and allowed a five-foot-tall woman to take all the risk.

Times are Changing

Perhaps I'm getting old. I can remember when young men would have been ashamed to behave that way.

At age nineteen, I worked as a short-order cook at an eatery just off the Syracuse University campus. In those days, in the late 1970s, this establishment boasted an eclectic clientele of students, hippies, bikers and other "townies." Late at night, as the beer and wine flowed, it transformed from campus hangout into urban honky-tonk.

One night, around closing time, a gang of townies – Italian Americans from the North Side – started a brawl. They pushed the manager to the floor and began stomping him mercilessly. We employees jumped in at once.

It was a frightening experience. Chairs and heavy glass beer pitchers flew through the air. One of our regulars – a hard-boiled Vietnam vet with a beard like Jeremiah Johnson – entered the fray on our side and ended up in the emergency room with a deep gash on his forehead. Not being an experienced streetfighter, I'm afraid I took more punishment than I delivered that night. But I gave it my all.

Afterward, when I had returned to the dishroom, my broken glasses hanging crookedly down my nose, Bill, the manager, came up to me and shook my hand.

"Thank you," he said. "Thanks for jumping in."

It turned out that not all the employees had jumped in. Some had just stood back and watched. A deep feeling of pride surged through me as I realized that I was among the chosen few who had proved their bravery. When Bill shook my hand, it was as if he had bestowed a Bronze Star on me. For days afterward, those of us who had participated in the fight told and retold our stories endlessly over pitchers of beer. It was a minor brawl in an insignificant bar in a city that most people have never heard of. But from the way we talked, you'd think we had all landed together on Omaha Beach.

Feminist Men

In a violent situation, there are innumerable good reasons for hanging back and not getting involved, ranging from fear of injury or death to wariness of lawsuits or even arrest, should things go awry.

Yet one force can overcome these inhibitions and goad any man into action.

That force is shame. It is the fear of being called a coward.

As I stood in Kinko’s that night, it occurred to me that those glassy-eyed young men behind the counter with their earrings and pierced noses did not know this fear. They had probably been taught to fear accusations of "racism," "sexism" and "homophobia." But the word coward was not in their vocabulary.

They were feminist men.

I was in my late thirties that night at Kinko’s, separated from those clerks by a generational gap of only fifteen years or so. But what a long fifteen years it had been, and how deeply America had changed in the interim.

The Indian Way

One of the more intriguing blogs on the Internet is – the home page of Comanche Indian writer and historian David Yeagley. I take a special pride in Yeagley's work, because I recruited him and gave him his first regular column when I was editor of David Horowitz's Web site

Yeagley's first column for FrontPage was titled, "Warriors and Weapons." In it, Yeagley puzzled over America's sudden obsession with disarming its own people. He wrote: "Long ago, the government took away the Indian's weapons and put him on reservations. That is history. Indians know all about broken promises. But why would the White Man betray himself? Why would the U.S. government take the weapons away from its own good citizens?"

What follows is worth quoting at length. Dr. Yeagley wrote:

I've found myself wondering why Indians have not played a bigger role in the gun rights debate.

Weapons are an integral part of our culture. In Indian country, it's taken for granted that everyone shoots and hunts. Perhaps the use of arms is so fundamental to us that we don't even think of it as a right that can be lost.

Recently, I visited Indian friends of the Salish-Kootenay Reservation in Montana. It was a few days before a funeral. Extra food was needed for the mourners. "I've got to go get a deer," my friend Terry said, as simply as most Americans would say, "I've got to go to the store."

Among Indians, the weapon is a symbol of honor. If you weren't waging war, you were preparing for war. It was the duty of every member of the tribe to be ready, just in case.

In modern America, women seem to have turned against their own men over the gun issue, judging by the polls and the Million Mom March.

Indian women have a different mindset. It was the women who taught Comanche boys how to use their weapons. Long before anyone ever heard of Xena the Warrior Princess, a woman called the "adiva," or governess ran the Comanche training camps.

Americans nowadays seem to be forgetting what it means to be a warrior. They don't value preparedness. They think the government will always be there to defend them from enemies and criminals.

But that's not the Indian way. That's not the way of a man.

An Anti-Male Agenda

Dr. Yeagley made a crucial point when he wrote, "In modern America, women seem to have turned against their own men over the gun issue." Women have, in fact, formed the backbone of the modern gun-ban movement. And ideological feminists have provided much of the leadership. To give but one example, when John Ashcroft was undergoing nomination hearings for the post of Attorney General, one of the loudest voices speaking against him was Patricia Ireland, then president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), and one of her chief objections to Ashcroft was that he supported gun rights.

The feminist position on guns was expressed with unusual candor by Alana Bassin in a 1997 article in the Hastings Women's Law Review, entitled, "Why Packing a Pistol Perpetuates Patriarchy." Bassin bluntly confessed that the anti-gun agenda was really an anti-male agenda.

"Firearms are a source of male domination – a symbol of male power and aggression," she wrote. "First, the gun is phallic. Just as sex is the ultimate weapon of patriarchy used to penetrate and possess women, the gun's sole purpose is to intrude and wound its victim. Historically, men have used guns to conquer and dominate other people." Bassin concluded that women needed to oppose gun rights, in order to "curb the perpetuation of patriarchy."

Sex and Guns

The link between anti-gun and anti-male attitudes was further documented by H. Taylor Bruckner, in a 1994 paper entitled, "Sex and Guns: Is Gun Control Male Control?" From surveys of Canadian college students, Bruckner concluded:

Men and women have different patterns of motivation for being pro gun control. The men who favor gun control are those who reject traditional male roles and behavior. They are opposed to hunting, are pro homosexual, do not have any experience with or knowledge of guns and tend to have "politically correct" attitudes. The women who support gun control do so in the context of controlling male violence and sexuality. Gun control is thus symbolic of a realignment of the relation between the sexes.

Bruckner's findings imply that there is more to the anti-gun movement than meets the eye. Publicly, it presents itself as a reasoned response to problems of crime and safety. But the movement's true vitality may spring from its ability to tap into the deep, unconscious ambivalence that some women feel toward men and sex.

The Wish to Castrate

On June 23, 1993, a Venezuelan immigrant named Lorena Bobbitt hacked off her husband's penis with a knife while he lay drunk in bed, then fled, throwing his severed member out the car window. Bobbitt later explained that she had acted in self-defense, fearful of her husband's physical abuse. She failed to explain how amputating his penis was supposed to make him less violent toward her. But the jury bought Bobbitt's argument and, in January 1994, found her not guilty on grounds of "temporary insanity."

At the news of her acquittal, the Washington Post reported, "Women cheered and whooped brazenly as they crowded around office televisions; men crossed their legs and made nervous jokes about sleeping on their stomachs." ABC's Cokie Roberts seemed greatly amused by the whole affair. On This Week with David Brinkley, she taunted men for their discomfort, implying that they were only getting what they deserved. "You've been lording it over us for 5,000 years," she laughed.

The desire to castrate men may not be quite as widespread as the mass media would have us think. But for those women who share the fantasy – such as Cokie Roberts, apparently – gun control may provide a convenient and socially acceptable metaphor for an otherwise taboo act. According to psychiatrist Sarah Thompson, women's anxieties toward men and sex can often manifest themselves in an unconscious identification of guns with the male sex organ. In the case of Alana Bassin, cited previously, the identification is quite explicit. For such women, Dr. Thompson observes, "opposing gun rights is likely a displacement of the desire to castrate."

Guns and Men

Castration is a peculiarly appropriate metaphor for gun control. The urge to fight, defend and protect lies at the core of male identity. Strip him of his warrior status, and a man is broken.

On an everyday level, guns are actually more useful to women than to men. Only with a gun can a woman defeat a bigger, stronger male adversary. A woman who offers no resistance to an attacker is 2.5 times more likely to suffer serious harm than one who resists with a gun.

But men cherish their firearms in a way that goes beyond the practical. Deep in their hearts, men see themselves as warriors. In the mastery of weapons, they find completion and peace. "In Comanche tradition, the young man grew up with the bow," writes Dr. Yeagley. "Its mastery was a test of manhood. The relationship of man and weapon was intimate and lifelong."

When the Indian man was stripped of his arms and corralled in reservations, the Indian woman wept, for she knew that her power faded with his. She knew that when the warriors lost heart, the whole people suffered.

Many women today seem to have forgotten this basic rule of life. They have come to view men as rivals in a struggle for jobs, money and status. Some even view men as foes to be disarmed and defeated. How did this happen? What force could have been strong enough to sunder the bonds of love, trust and need that have drawn men and women together since the dawn of time?

Tomorrow: Guns and Communism

November 6, 2003