In the wake of February’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the debate over gun control reached a fever pitch in the news and on the ground. As CNN reported, in the seven days after the shooting, there were more than a thousand mentions of “gun control” by ABC, CBS, and other major broadcasters. Survivors, student activists, and gun control advocates kept the story front and center by mobilizing across the nation, organizing school walkouts and March For Our Lives events to demand smarter gun control laws and safer classrooms and communities.
Planned Parenthood was among the many voices calling for an end to gun violence. Just two days after the shooting, Planned Parenthood Action posted a call for reform on their blog, noting that 96 lives are lost to gun violence daily. The post made its position clear: “As a health care provider, Planned Parenthood is committed to the fundamental right of all people to live safe and healthy lives without the fear of violence.”
Numerous Planned Parenthood affiliates were doing the same. On the local front, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona was signal-boosting relevant articles on its Facebook page, including a profile of Emma González, who quickly became one of the most outspoken and recognized survivor activists in Parkland.
For pro-gun conservatives, on the other hand, the Parkland shooting was a call to go on the defensive and double down on their messaging. For a long while, a common tactic has been to deflect criticism by blaming access to abortion for “a culture of death,” as Rep. Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa) put it, or by peddling the notion that Planned Parenthood takes more lives than gun violence. In March, Matt Walsh dredged up that argument on the conservative website The Daily Wire. He dripped with sarcasm, stating he was “impressed [Planned Parenthood] could find time” to join the debate on gun control, “considering they’re also wrapped up in their war against babies and life itself.” To Walsh, Planned Parenthood is not in the business of promoting safe and healthy lives, because he looks past the lives of women.
In reality, Planned Parenthood offers a wide array of lifesaving services, from HIV testing to cancer screening, and these make up the vast majority of the care they provide the community. Many of Planned Parenthood’s services, like promoting sex education and access to birth control, actually prevent abortion by reducing unintended pregnancies in the first place. At the same time, however, Planned Parenthood takes pains not to let those facts, or any of its messaging, add fuel to the stigmatization of abortion. That leaves the organization open to the kind of hyperbole and vitriol that Walsh churns out — and Walsh is definitely not alone. Other conservative media personalities, such as Guy Benson and Josh Kimbrell, frequently make the same argument.
Last October, author and comedian Patrick Tomlinson shared a series of tweets that went viral — tweets that were aimed at shutting down the argument that abortion is murder. “Whenever abortion comes up,” he began, “I have a question I’ve been asking for ten years now of the ‘Life begins at Conception’ crowd.” In the question, Tomlinson puts the reader in a hypothetical scenario, in which a disaster at a fertility clinic forces them to choose between saving a 5-year-old child or “a frozen container labeled ‘1000 Viable Human Embryos.’” Enough abortion opponents have responded with sidestepping and mental gymnastics that Tomlinson is now convinced that “No one believes life begins at conception.” He adds, “Those who claim to are trying to manipulate you so they can control women.”
To be sure, complex moral questions deserve more than a quick thought experiment to answer, and it may be fairer to say Tomlinson shut down the idea of fetal (or embryonic) personhood. Regardless, Tomlinson’s “gotcha” question, along with the anti-woman agenda he concluded from its answers, was enough to get under the skin of many anti-abortion extremists — enough so that some responded with death threats and cyber-attacks on his website. There is a reason he struck a nerve.
As Amanda Marcotte recently wrote in Salon, “Opposition to legal abortion has always been rooted in hostility to women’s equality and sexual liberation.” Evidence suggests that behind the disingenuous comparison of guilt, there is another dynamic at play when pro-gun extremists put Planned Parenthood forth as a greater culprit. Both the love of guns and the hatred of reproductive freedom are often driven by male insecurity.
Among gun-owning men who feel their masculinity and economic clout are slipping away from them, guns may have taken on an inflated significance as symbols of strength. A Baylor University study that examined the visceral undercurrents of gun ownership found that men made up 65 percent of respondents who were emotionally attached to their guns. Many of them “have experienced economic setbacks or worry about their economic futures.”
Of course, not all gun owners and pro-gun advocates are men, and the reasons people participate in gun culture are many and complex. There are people like the members of the Trigger Warning Queer & Trans Gun Club in New York, who took an interest in armed self-defense during the rising tide of hate crimes that followed the election of Donald Trump. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the many militia groups that are closely associated with white nationalism and anti-government ideology. Overall, however, gun culture is male-dominated. About 4 in 10 men own guns, compared to just 22 percent of women, and white men make up 61 percent of gun owners. Additionally, among the small percentage of so-called “super-owners,” who stockpile anywhere from eight to 140 guns each, men outnumber women. Much of that imbalance is likely due to the feelings of power that otherwise insecure men derive from guns.
At the same time, access to birth control, among other reproductive freedoms, has enabled women to compete with men for jobs. Birth control has been the key to women’s financial ascendancy, aiding their entry into professions that have long been male-dominated. Indeed, a 2017 poll of 500 women entrepreneurs found that 56 percent felt that access to contraceptives had enabled their career achievements. Other research attributes a third of women’s wage gains since the 1960s to their access to oral contraceptives.
By being able to choose if and when to have children, women have been able to focus on their education and professions. In many cases, it has also given them the financial independence and freedom from family obligations to escape unhealthy relationships.
Thus, to men invested in an old order of male dominance, gun culture and reproductive justice are in direct conflict with each other. The former is seen as a way to assert and preserve their power, and the latter is seen as a force that helped women compete with that power. From that perspective, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Planned Parenthood occupy opposite poles.
These same undercurrents spill over into gun violence and other violent crime. According to a study published in the journal Injury Prevention, men who feel they are falling short of traditional gender expectations and masculine ideals are more likely to act out violently, as well as harbor hostile attitudes toward women, LGBTQ people, and other nationalities. Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter, serves as an example, after investigations revealed he left a trail of homophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic messages online. Another study of 28 school shootings in American Behavioral Scientist found that nearly all of the boys who carried out massacres had themselves faced homophobic slurs — which they took as “threats to manhood” that they met with deadly outbursts later.
In her recently published book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz recounts one of the largest mass shootings in the 1990s. George Jo Hennard drove his pickup through the front window of Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas. “Armed with a Glock 17 and a Ruger P89, he then jumped out of his vehicle and into the restaurant, yelling, ‘All women of Killeen and Belton are vipers!’” In his rampage, he fatally shot 23 before taking his own life. Days before, he had reportedly lost his temper at another restaurant, where a television in the dining area was airing coverage of Anita Hill’s testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. According to the restaurant manager, he yelled, “You bastards opened the door for all the women!”
Not surprisingly, sexist comments have been common currency among members and supporters of the NRA. NRA News commentator Colion Noir has aired pieces that compare assault weapons to sexually attractive women. His colleague Cam Edwards interviewed a guest who called gun-control advocate Shannon Watts “a shrill harridan” who denies her husband “the most basic and threshold abilities of a man” by keeping guns out of their home. NRA board member Ted Nugent has a long record of misogynist remarks, including references to “fat chicks,” “fat pigs,” and the use of the C-word to describe Hillary Clinton.
Another pro-gun group, Open Carry Texas, sparked outrage in 2014 when one of its members posted a video on Facebook featuring the use of a female mannequin for target practice. He and his cohorts first posed the mannequin topless and with its arms raised, as if in surrender. After it was riddled with bullets, it was shown with its pants crumpled at its ankles.
When women face that much hostility toward their freedom and dignity, it strains the imagination to think hostility toward their reproductive decisions is rooted in something other than misogyny. But the same extremist gun culture that subjects them to that disparagement repeatedly brings up the question of abortion to deflect anger over gun violence — as if embryos, and not their own loss of hyper-masculine power, is their true concern.
Gun-owning men may be motivated by a range of feelings and beliefs, and a recent poll found a wide majority of gun owners support universal background checks, waiting periods for gun purchases, and other gun-control measures. But among gun-owning men who are more emotionally attached to their firearms and more extreme in their views, resentment of women’s social gains — along with feelings of precariousness about their own social position — seem to be a common thread. It challenges credibility, then, to take concerns over the fate of embryos at face value when they are brought up in the gun debate. What is passed off as a caring concern serves as a convenient dodge. It is too often a cover, much like the brandishing of a firearm, that attempts to give a more flattering, public facade to mortifying, private fears.
Scott Weiner, an adjunct professor of political science at George Washington University, recommends gun violence interventions that simultaneously target male insecurity and toxic gun culture “by incorporating gender as one of its elements.” He argues that masculinity needs to be reframed so that it no longer “sets impossible and ever-shifting standards of confidence and dominance, spurns any semblance of self-doubt, and fails to disentangle self-empowerment with the disempowerment of others.”
What has been termed masculine discrepancy stress, referring to the perceived need to overcompensate to meet traditional masculine gender norms, has been associated with both self-harm and harm to others. Men who experience it are more likely to commit domestic violence and other forms of assault — but also endanger themselves though risky sexual behavior, substance abuse, poor diet, and inadequate exercise.
The need to introduce both smarter gun control and healthier concepts of masculinity is an imperative felt after the Parkland shooting. It’s an imperative that will continue to be felt until classrooms and communities are safer from violence.
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