In the increasingly confrontational debate over the nation’s gun laws, two female archetypes have emerged.
There’s the grieving mother whose child was killed in a shooting and whose pleas for stricter regulation seem unassailable. And there’s the flinty mother who wants maximum firepower to take matters into her own hands to protect her brood.
As Congress weighs President Obama’s agenda to toughen gun legislation, powerful lobbies on both sides of the issue are turning to women as leading spokespeople and symbols. In television advertisements and op-ed articles, speeches at rallies and testimonials before legislators, both types are stoking emotion and fear in an attempt to sway public opinion.
In Newtown, Conn., one mother after another testified last week about losing her child in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre or about the guilt that haunts her because her child survived. The military-style AR-15 rifle the shooter used, one mother told a legislative panel, was “a death machine.”
On the same day in Washington, another woman, Gayle Trotter of the Independent Women’s Forum, testified just the opposite. She said an assault rifle in the hands of a mother defending her children and her home against violent intruders offers “peace of mind.” The AR-15, Trotter told a Senate panel, is “a defense weapon.”
Advocates for stricter firearm restrictions are employing mothers of shooting victims in their public relations push, calculating that when they speak out against gun violence they are hard to dismiss. Hundreds of thousands of moms who began organizing on Facebook after December’s Newtown shootings are staging rallies nationwide and lobbying lawmakers to pass President Obama’s gun-control proposals.
“To the extent that, as the president has said, the only way we’re going to create change is if the American people demand it, the voices of women and mothers in the safety of our nation have to be among the most important voices,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
The gun lobby, meanwhile, is using women to create a gentler image of the male-dominated industry and to frame its status-quo agenda as more about family safety and self-protection than about hunting and aggression. When CNN aired a town hall forum on gun violence last week, both of the pro-gun panelists were women.
The National Rifle Association’s leaders frequently tout an increase in the number of women at gun shows and shooting ranges and weave anecdotes involving women into their speeches. Manufacturers sell product lines of feminine firearms and accessories, retrofitting weapons to better accommodate women’s bodies and marketing them in pink and other bright colors. One Web site, Girl’s Guide to Guns, describes itself as “dedicated to women who dig fashion and fire power.”
“America’s women, they are leading the way,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said in a speech at the gun group’s convention last year. “Nearly 30 million American women now own guns. And they know what all of us have known for a long time: The more women who buy and own and shoot guns, the safer and the better off we’ll all be.”
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.
But NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam rejected the suggestion that the organization is showcasing women for political gain.
“I don’t think there’s a strategy behind it,” he 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 semiautomatic rifles that are among the most popular firearms and would be prohibited under the assault-weapons ban sponsored 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.), who was shot three decades ago and 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 to 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 such as 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 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 in 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 shootings were women. Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was wounded in a mass shooting in Tucson in 2011, 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 where 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 backs gun-control measures.
Sari Horwitz, Ed O’Keefe, Scott Clement and Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.