Why are so many young American women posing with guns on social media?

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Lizzie Pook
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As America marks its 101st mass shooting, why has a photo of a young woman with a gun had 130,000 likes? Stylist investigates.

You probably do the same check every time you leave the house: phone, wallet, keys, repeat. But 22-year-old Brenna Spencer can add another item to that list: her Smith & Wesson 380 pistol.

She keeps the small firearm concealed in a belly-band around her middle, taking it everywhere she is licensed to do so in her hometown of Nashville: in her car, in bars and restaurants, in church.

“The majority of my female friends do the same,” she says, referring to women who tuck handguns into waistbands, strap them into ankle holsters and store them in bra holsters on a daily basis. We know this because Spencer is very vocal about it. Earlier this year, she created a storm on Twitter when she posted her graduation photo wearing a ‘Women for Trump’ T-shirt pulled up to reveal a handgun tucked into her waistband. The caption read,“I don’t take normal college graduation photos.” Likes: 116,000. One week later she added the photo on Instagram. Likes: 13,969.

She is not the exception. There are scores of women on social media proudly promoting their right to bear arms. Some of these gun-loving women are becoming influencers too – one online article tells men to follow “the gorgeous gun girls of Instagram” celebrated for their “blend of delicate little lady and deadly machinery”. Each of the women listed in the article has nearly 200k followers.

What makes this gun-toting social posting all the more flippant and bewildering is, of course, the events going on around them. Less than three weeks ago, 10 people were slaughtered at a high-school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, bringing the number of mass shootings in America this year to 101 (that’s almost one for every two days of 2018 so far). And while people are fighting back – an estimated two million people attended the March For Our Lives, spearheaded by the student survivors of the Parkland school shooting – still, it is happening. Again and again. 

Non-partisan research suggests a complete ban on assault weapons could prevent 170 deaths a year in the United States. Yet women, young women, in the country are still carrying guns. And plenty are shouting about it.

We may think of millennials as being mostly liberal, but actually, a 2015 Gallup poll found that, while 57% of 30- to 49-year-olds and 56% of 50- to 64-year-olds support stricter gun laws in America, only 50% of 18- to 29-year-olds did.

Another study in 2014 found that while just over a quarter of people aged 18-26 own guns, women make up a larger proportion of that number than you might think (data from 2017 reveals that 22% of American gun owners are women). Suggesting our stereotypes of gun owners being vast-bellied, white American men needs a drastic rethink.

Perhaps more unsettling about these statistics is that traditionally we don’t equate women with violence. We assume in crisis situations that women will adopt the roles we’ve typically been assigned. As care-givers (like Florence Nightingale), as peacemakers (in the 1994 Rwandan massacre, women played a pivotal role in reconstructing the country). And who can forget 18-year-old Emma González, who has ignited her generation’s political activism? 

Parkland shooting survivor Emma González has become an outspoken anti-gun voice 

So while you might think it’s the male-dominated NRA behind gun prevalence, 40% of their members are women. Search on Twitter or Instagram for #girlswhocarry and you’ll find young women flamboyantly posing with guns. These posts are a surefire way to get attention, create controversy and gain new fans (Brenna Spencer was invited on national TV and now has a strong Conservative follower base). But why do these women actually carry guns?

“It’s important for self-defence. I lived a couple of hours away from my family when I was in college and I did a lot of things by myself, so
I always wanted to be able to protect myself,” continues Spencer.

Gun activists cite research that shows carrying a gun actually increases the likelihood of being shot in an assault. Vicka Chaplin, a director at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, says women deserve to know the facts. “The research is clear: guns don’t make us safer. In states where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths,” she says.

But in a world where gender-based violence makes headlines every day are we justified in being surprised by women for wanting to arm themselves and be ‘empowered’? On the flipside, how can these people justify carrying weapons when shootings – like those seen in Santa Fe, at Parkland, in Sandy Hook – are happening so regularly? 

Packing heat

On the day of her graduation last month, Kent State University student Kaitlin Bennett arrived in a white dress with an AR-10 battle rifle slung across her back. A tweet from her account read: “Now that I graduated from @KentState, I can finally arm myself on campus. I should have been able to do so as a student – especially since 4 unarmed students were shot and killed by the government on this campus #CampusCarryNow.”

For Bennett, the photo marked the culmination of years advocating for students to be able to carry concealed weapons on the same campus where, almost 50 years ago, the Ohio National Guard opened fire into a crowd of unarmed students protesting the Vietnam War (four were killed). Unsurprisingly, her stunt drew criticism, but it also accumulated more than 31,000 likes.

For many of these women, guns are just a way of life – something they’ve grown up with.

“I can’t remember the first time I shot a gun; they were always just in the family,” Spencer tells Stylist. Spencer bought her first gun as soon as she reached the age of 21, from gun store Academy in Nashville, Tennessee (a state with more than half a million gun-holders). She describes it as a “fairly easy process”, requiring only a quick background check.

Friends leapt to Spencer’s defence when she received abuse following her gun-toting graduation tweet. One friend even tweeted, “Every day I carry my gun […] to ensure I never have to say #MeToo.” 

Antonia Okafor, 28, a survivor of sexual assault, started training with guns after an experience with an obsessive cyberstalker. “I carry a gun because I want to be able to defend myself wherever I am. I also know that a firearm is the greatest equaliser and the best, most lethal form of self-defence,” she says.

The self-defence argument is, unsurprisingly, a problematic one. Twenty-seven percent of women say defence is the primary reason they own a gun, and nearly a quarter of Americans who own only handguns are women who live in urban areas.

In fact, Tina Wilson-Cohen, founder of the women-only shooting club She Can Shoot, told The New York Times that 90% of the women who joined the organisation were motivated by the fact that “they’ve been a victim at one point in their life, of stalking or date rape or domestic violence, or they have just felt so vulnerable, and they want to feel competent and like they can protect themselves”.

But the statistics don’t back this up. Guns are used in more than half of all homicides of women in the United States, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study, published in July last year, was leapt upon by gun advocates, who argued that women should be able to arm themselves against this. But it was also used by gun-control activists to point out that guns in American homes are often used against women, not to protect them (research from the American Journal of Public Health shows that a gun’s presence in a domestic violence situation raises the likelihood of a woman being murdered by 500%). 

On top of this, a report from the Violence Policy Center found that women defending themselves from sexual assault using a gun is so rarely reported it’s basically non-existent, and that only 15 women used a firearm to kill a man in self-defence in 2014 (when the last records can be found), compared with 1,116 women killed by men.

In fact, just having a gun nearby actually increases the likelihood of a woman being killed. “Women in abusive relationships are five times more likely to be killed when an abuser has access to a gun,” says Chaplin.

As Heather Ryan, ex-special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, points out on her blog, “The reality is, if someone surprises you while you’re walking out to your car in a dark parking lot you simply will not have time to dig your gun out of your purse. Attacks like these happen in seconds and are much more rare than the media (and multiple gun sellers) would have believe […] Do you know how to retain your weapon even when confronted by someone much stronger than you, who also has the element of surprise on their side? How quickly can you draw, aim, and fire? What do you do if you get a jam? Are you sure you’ll be able to pull the trigger without hesitation? […] A gun alone will not guarantee your safety.” 

Future policy

Gun control is an incredibly divisive issue in the US – the country is split between those who believe more restrictive gun laws will prevent mass shootings and those who want easy access to guns in order to protect themselves from mass shootings.

Spencer falls in the latter camp. “Ninety-eight percent of mass shootings happen in ‘gun-free zones’, so the majority of victims and those involved are unable to protect themselves,” she says. “I strongly believe we should still be able to carry guns. Criminals don’t obey laws. The Sante Fe shooting was done by a 17-year-old; it was illegal for him to have any gun. We already have gun laws in the United States, adding anything stricter just makes it harder for law-abiding gun owners.”

Okafor also thinks that gun control is
a lost cause because violence is universal. She points out that London’s murder rate has now surpassed that of New York. “Those intent on doing harm, will do harm. Gun control keeps law-abiding people from defending themselves.”

But Chaplin says gun control will save lives – especially those of women. “We need policies that address easy access to firearms. Emerging evidence shows that extreme risk laws – which temporarily separate firearms from individuals who are at high risk of harming themselves or others – can save lives,” she says. “There is strong evidence that a variety of gun violence prevention policies are effective in saving lives, including safer storage laws, policies prohibiting domestic abusers from possessing firearms, and permit-to-purchase laws.”

Sarah Clements became a gun-control activist after her mother, a teacher, survived the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. She’s active with Generation Progress, the millennial branch of the Center for American Progress, and on its website she says, “This is a women’s issue in many senses. Domestic violence with guns is a major cause of death for women in America […] It’s absolutely going to be an uphill battle.”

The hardest part might be convincing fellow women, though. Okafor sees violence against women as the very reason she should own a gun. “The rise of female gun owners over the years is a testament to that awakening among us,” she says. “Firearms empower women who know how to properly use them.”

Additional reporting by Jessica Pan. 

Images: Courtesy of Brenna SpencerGetty Images