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Why are so many Republican women holding guns in their campaign ads?

Virginia state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield) wears a sidearm at the Capitol in Richmond in 2019. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP)

Look at that, it’s already vote-hunting season in America.

And in Virginia, it seems the proper way for Republican women to hunt votes is with a long gun and a tea-length dress — extra points for flowy chiffon.

“We have the right to protect ourselves and our property,” said Octavia Johnson, standing firm with an AR-15-style rifle with a scope and collapsible stock in her hands as a gentle breeze flicked the gossamer sleeves of her navy blue sheath in a campaign ad for her bid for Virginia governor.

She’s not the only one who is posing locked, loaded, dressed and high-heeled.

“The symbolism of guns is both ideological and gendered, often used to convey conservative bona fides as well as toughness via a tool of brute force,” wrote Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

The image of a woman holding a gun is supposed to be a kind of shorthand that underscores her stamina in a male-dominated field, as more GOP women run and “both navigate gender and define womanhood on the campaign trail,” Dittmar wrote.

While male candidates have been kissing babies to show their humanity for ages, holding guns to look tough — especially for female candidates — is becoming a new political meme.

At Virginia’s Republican convention, which was held over the weekend, at least three female candidates promoted their grit and fortitude with weaponry.

“Marines know how to use guns and I won’t ever support a red flag law!” Winsome Sears, a candidate for lieutenant governor, wrote next to the campaign photo that she posted of herself holding a gun.

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You just have to look at Sears’s résumé to see how tough she is. A Jamaican immigrant who became a U.S. Marine and one of seven women in her class to graduate meritoriously from boot camp, she also became an electrician, ran a business, ran a homeless shelter and ran a successful campaign for the state legislature. She made history in 2001 as the first African American Republican woman to be elected as a Virginia House delegate.

Yet her campaign photo shows her wearing a smart dress with a polka-dot skirt and, incongruously, holding a huge gun. She looks uncomfortable and out of context.

While Sears and Johnson, a former Roanoke sheriff, at least have the background to merit handling such weaponry, things get even cringier when it comes to the string of GOP women who’ve posed with guns but don’t have the chops to back it up.

The most visible of Virginia’s skirt-and-gun crowd is state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield), whose march last summer to the Capitol in Richmond wearing an elephant-covered golf skirt, flanked by armed guards, is the closest she’s come to real gun action. Yet she’s always carrying and posing with weapons as props, including on the Senate floor.

Joining her among the glamour-gun gals are women like former U.S. senator Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), who pretended to go hunting during campaign season but never had a hunting license.

And South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R), who grew up on her family’s ranch and went viral last year with a video of herself shooting her own state bird — the ring-necked pheasant — to promote the way South Dakotans “do social distancing.”

Don’t forget gun country’s Betty and Veronica on Capitol Hill, both vying for former president Donald Trump’s attention: Reps. Lauren Boebert (Colo.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.).

Boebert made it to D.C. because of all the gun imagery she surrounds herself with — her purse gun and her gun-themed restaurant, Shooters Grill, in the town of Rifle. She says a fatal brawl outside her eatery initially inspired her to take up arms. (Our fact-checkers hunted that story down and found lots of holes in it — and not the kind made by bullets.)

And Greene’s only connection to weapons before she crowned herself gun queen was a bloodless incident in her high school in 1990 when a student took 53 of his classmates hostage with a shotgun, handgun and knife for several hours. The students were slowly released, and then officers overpowered the gunman — with their hands.

Um, that’s a bizarre way to land on the pro-gun side of the debate.

Such over-the-top stagecraft has always been a key feature in politics. It’s been around for ages, from Bill Clinton going duck hunting in Maryland to Rep. Matthew M. Rosendale (R-Mont.) shooting a drone out of the sky in a campaign ad. Whether it’s men or women doing it, it’s a stunt. But it cheapens the experiences of those who’ve had real interactions in real situations where weapons are necessary, like police and military work.

And it sends the wrong message to young women and girls about what it takes to be strong. The quiet dignity of Capt. Kristen Griest, one of the first two women to graduate from Army Ranger School, is a billion times more inspiring than the bravado of Boebert clacking around Capitol Hill with a gun.

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Women, you don’t need to hold guns to prove our gender’s mettle. Every human on this planet was birthed by one of us. We’ve run nations and won wars. We’ve explored space and sailed the oceans. We don’t need to hold a gun to prove we are capable of holding office.

The gun show y’all are putting on is Mike Dukakis in a tank and Hillary Clinton baking cookies all over again.

There are plenty of political women — Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), former senator Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), and former representatives Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) — who are military veterans, yet didn’t feel the need to parade around with guns to prove they’re tough enough for Congress.

It’s ridiculous and unnecessary.

Think of all the men who kissed all those babies and did squat for American families.

In politics, a gun is just a prop. Those résumés, those minds, that dedication to America — that’s strength.

Twitter: @petulad

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