The Politics Of Regulating Guns And Regulating Sexuality

Buckle up, folks, I’m going to draw a number of parallels and ask you to put on your metaphorical thinking-caps while reading this post. Maybe you don’t automatically think “vaginas!” when you’re tuning into the gun debate in America, but I do, and I think you should consider doing the same. Here’s why.

For one thing, it’s incredibly ironic that a lot of the people who want less regulation of guns are those who want more regulation of vaginas and non-heterosexual identities. Sure, one could argue that restricting abortion rights is all about protecting innocents, but you could make the same argument about gun laws. Also, if a woman chooses to have an abortion, it simply does not affect other people (notice the plural) the way a person choosing to have a gun could. Something happening in a woman’s uterus is on a completely different scale than the results of a shooting spree. It’s a weird tangle of intersecting notions of harm and violence.

And, as I see the memes popping up on Facebook and elsewhere, it’s increasingly obvious that the people getting angry about their gun access being restricted are a lot more visibly and vocally upset than the people who aren’t legally allowed to marry their loved ones. Really? It’s more appropriate in our culture to loudly criticize the government for not letting you buy certain tools than it is to lament being treated as second-class citizens? Dare I utter the word privilege?

What it really comes down to for me, though, is that I don’t trust most Americans to have super-militarized guns because I don’t trust most Americans. This is a country in which nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have been raped at some point in their lives; more than half of female rape survivors reported being raped by an intimate partner; and more than one in three women have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking from an intimate partner (CDC stats available here). It takes a lot of people to perpetuate all these crimes, many of which are underreported… and we want to make guns more accessible to the general American population? Seriously?

(after I wrote the first draft of this post, I noticed blog posts listing many of the accidental shootings that occurred on “Gun Appreciation Day” and again I write… seriously?)

I understand the arguments for women arming themselves in order to protect themselves against sexual assault. And if I were in a position where I lived alone, in a dangerous area, I might consider learning to shoot and owning a gun. Maybe. I’m certainly not condemning those who choose to arm themselves in self-defense. However, women who use violence in order to escape domestic abusers frequently receive harsher sentences than women who use violence in other situations (statistics here). It’s not an even playing field in the courtroom for survivors of abuse who defend themselves with force, and for that reason, I’d hesitate to call all women to arm themselves with guns or other deadly weapons.

We live in a country where women face daily harassment out in public, and domestic violence in the home. A horrifying number of people survive (or do not survive) violent attacks: women, transpeople, gay people, and so on. A lot of men face violence, too. The perpetuators of violence are, however, largely male (I’m aware that some women do commit rape, which is an awful crime that deserves attention, but I’m discussing larger social patterns in this particular piece).

I’m not saying all men are rapists and all men are bad and thus no men should have guns. I’m saying our country has a problem with domestic violence, sexually-motivated violence, hate crimes, and gun violence, which weaves in and out of these other categories. And that makes me extremely uncomfortable when gun enthusiasts vocally declare that it’s a basic American right to have guns of all kinds, even the kinds meant solely for killing people, which no private citizen should need to do.

If I might invoke the social contract for a moment… we Americans are doing it wrong. We are mucking up left and right by trampling all over each other’s basic rights. And if we can’t buck up and act like adults and stop raping and killing each other, we don’t get to have nice things. Like toys. Or candy. Or semi-automatic weapons. Every time I see a gun enthusiast complain about how the liberals are going to take away all their guns, I want to tell them to grow the fuck up and make sure they’re working to end rape and homophobia and hate crimes in their community. I don’t, of course, because that would be impolite; instead, I point to the fact that the NRA has been actively working to limit research on gun violence. We don’t have enough information to make an informed decision about how to best handle the gun violence issue – but we do have enough information to say that yes, Americans have problems with violence and killing and raping each other. And yet we shouldn’t consider openly discussing and perhaps toning down our gun addiction?

These things bother me because I’m in favor of everyone having basic human rights: the right to bodily integrity, for instance (which means, ideally, a life free of violence, sexual or otherwise). And I’m being very vocal about these things because rape culture and gun culture could in fact cause me to come to bodily harm. These are not just abstract, free-floating ideas: they have consequences in the real world when these beliefs lead to behaviors that could impact me or others like me. In contrast, while I believe a lot of religious ideas are harmful, I am not so active in speaking out against them. Everyone has the right to freedom of religious belief in this country, and I’ll defend to the death your ability to believe whatever you want, as long as your beliefs do not affect me (even though I may disagree with them rather vehemently). But I cannot do the same thing with rape culture or gun culture, because these beliefs lead to real-world behaviors that are harmful to non-believers. Again, you could make the same argument about some religiously motivated beliefs, but they’re less likely to hurt me in tangible ways, in my opinion (with a few obvious exceptions like anti-vaccine rhetoric).

The question of consequences lingers in my mind. I understand that guns are some people’s hobbies as well as a form of self-defense, and I understand that it sucks to have the government poking its nose into something you enjoy for its own sake. But guns always have the potential to kill, making them a non-neutral hobby. We don’t see the government regulating stamp-collectors for a reason: barring the most extreme paper cut in the world, nobody is likely to get hurt as a result of being around stamps.

I’m not calling for a complete ban on guns, either; obviously that wouldn’t work. That’d be like requiring all men to walk around in chastity devices in order to stop rape from happening. And of course, the few men still walking around penis-enabled, the “good guys,” might still rape. We see plenty of sexual abuse coming from so-called authority figures, just as we see plenty of harmful violence coming from the police. But the more we talk about these issues, even if talking about them leads to the dreaded “regulation,” the more we bring them into the open and give abusers less shadow in which to hide.

To draw another parallel, it sucks for me as a woman that I’m constantly told to be careful so someone doesn’t rape me; I have to take precautions like not going out alone at night, having someone walk me to my car, and so on. It sucks that I’m effectively being punished for the crimes of a few by having to act cautiously 24/7 (and yeah, telling women to be careful so that they can avoid rape is obviously victim-blamey, which blows, but it’s common enough in our culture, which is why I mention it). Similarly, I can see where it sucks for all the responsible gun owners out there to feel as though they’re being punished for the crimes of the few killers out there. To which I can only say – sorry, I have limited sympathy for your plight. Sometimes responsible citizens accept greater restrictions on their personal freedoms in order to ensure that society is safer for everyone. We’re not asking you to take on oppressive or awful restrictions, but ones that are still decently reasonable. It’s that social contract thing again.

I hope you’ve had your critical-thinking hat on this whole time, so that you can see that I’m obviously not arguing that owning a gun is like raping someone or whatever. But we live in a very violent society, and I think some of that violence (especially in the form of hegemonic masculinity and a glorification of violence and warfare) has colored how we view guns and how we view rape: rather cavalierly in both cases. Until we can change how we interact with damaging notions of violence, I don’t think the rhetoric around gun control or the regularity of rape will change much, unfortunately.

But more dialogue always helps, which is why I’m making this post. Please share it and pitch it in with your own thoughts!

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About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.