Both sides of gun control issue turn to women as mouthpieces and symbols

Susan Walsh/AP – Gayle Trotter, senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum, left, sits next to National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, in Washington, on Jan. 30, as she testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence. 

Students of the decades-long gun debate said there is a clear public relations advantage for the NRA in talking about guns as a women’s issue.

“Unlike men, who may be viewed as having this self-interest of maintaining their guns for sport or as a form of aggression, women are seen as purely concerned about self-protection and safety,” said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University.

Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) urged Congress to act on gun violence during a Senate hearing on Wednesday. Giffords was shot and injured two years ago while meeting with constituents in Tucson, Ariz.

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But NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam rejected the suggestion that the NRA is showcasing women for political gain.

“I don’t think there’s a strategy behind it,” Arulanandam said. “A lot of it is women coming forward because they realize that their rights are in danger. . . . While in years past you had a lot of women advocating gun control, now we see an increase in the number of women advocating for gun rights.”

More women than men support gun control measures, according to a January Washington Post-ABC News poll. The survey found that 72 percent of women support a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines and 66 percent back an assault weapons ban. Among men, those rates are 57 percent and 50 percent.

Yet some women are among the more outspoken defenders of the AR-15, a series of semi-automatic rifles that are among the most popular firearms and would be prohibited under the assault weapons ban authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

“An AR-15 can be a woman’s best friend,” said Aubrey Blankenship, a spokeswoman for American Majority Action, a conservative group. “My goal with defending myself is to hit my target, and the AR-15 gives me the ability to do this. . . . Some people call it ‘the Barbie doll of rifles’ because it has such customization capacity.”

NRA President David Keene repeatedly has invoked his daughter, an Army reservist, in defense of the AR-15 rifle. He said it is the closest weapon available for civilian purchase to the one many are trained on in the military. “She can tear it apart with her eyes closed, and she can clean it, and she likes to go to the range and shoot it,” Keene told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last week.

In her testimony last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Trotter made waves. She argued that banning the AR-15 would put women at a “great disadvantage.” If “violent attackers” break into a woman’s home and threaten her children, she argued, “a scary-looking gun gives her more courage when she’s fighting hardened violent criminals.”

When Trotter said she speaks “on behalf of millions of American women across the country,” there were boos in the hearing room. One person yelled, “No, you don’t.”

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a shooting victim three decades ago who now champions gun control legislation, called Trotter’s argument “preposterous.”

“The thought that you need an AR-15 to protect your baby, it’s actually quite offensive to me,” Speier said. “It makes my hair curl. It sickens me. This vision of a mother with a baby on her hip and an AR-15 is repulsive to me.”

The gun industry sees an economic advantage in its focus on women. Concealed Carry Magazine recently put a woman on its cover, while other publications such as Garden and Gun showcase the feminine firearms lifestyle. At online stores like Bang Bang Boutique and Pistols and Pumps, women can purchase pink camouflage hunting gear and ammunition cases, bra-mounted holsters and concealed-carry purses.

It is difficult to know how many firearms are owned by women because the government has no official statistics. According to Gallup, 15 percent of women in the United States say they personally own a gun, a figure that has changed little over the past five years. That rate is nearly three times higher among men, at 44 percent.

But the gun industry says there is anecdotal evidence of a spike in women’s gun use. The number of women who shoot targets rose from 3.3 million to 5 million over the past decade, while those who hunt jumped from 1.8 million to 2.6 million, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the leading firearms trade association, which is based in Newtown.

It is not lost on the strategists on both sides that all six of the adult victims in December’s Newtown shooting were female. Former representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was wounded in an Arizona mass shooting, and other female survivors or victims’ relatives have emerged as leading gun control advocates.

“I think from the NRA’s point of view, they need to make sure that this doesn’t turn into a dynamic here women are demanding change, and it’s a bunch of men standing in the way,” said Matt Bennett, a senior vice president at Third Way, a centrist think tank that supports gun-control measures.

Sari Horwitz, Ed O’Keefe, Scott Clement and Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.