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(Originally published in USA Today, May 6, 2004)


Guns, Like Abortion, Are a Matter of Choice

By Mary Zeiss Stange

Two Sundays ago, hundreds of thousands of women converged on Washington, D.C., in what was billed as a March for Women's Lives. As a demonstration for reproductive rights, the event was about much more than abortion. The marchers' placards evoked a broad range of issues relating to women's health and security. Yet one issue curiously absent from the day's agenda was the pervasive violence against women and girls.

That theme will figure prominently in the next big demonstration, scheduled for Sunday [May 9, 2004], when the Million Mom March organization will gather on the west lawn of the Capitol for the "Mother's Day March to Halt the Assault."

The marchers plan to pressure Congress to extend the federal ban on assault weapons, which is set to expire in September. For many people—including the liberal-minded politicians and celebrities on whom organizers count to attract publicity—the two marches, one pro-abortion rights and the other anti-gun, will be on a seamless ideological continuum.

But they shouldn't be.

The option of arming oneself for protection is a matter of personal choice in many of the same ways, and for the same reasons, as the option of ending a pregnancy.

Million Mom founder Donna Dees-Thomases has issued the dire warning that if the ban expires, "terrorists, drug lords and the mentally unstable will be able to stock up on assault weapons that can wipe out a schoolyard full of kids in a matter of minutes."

True, perhaps, in theory. But practically speaking, most criminals use guns against one another. Assault weapons rarely figure in domestic violence or other forms of violence against women or children. Guns of any kind (primarily handguns) are used in only 4% of rapes/sexual assaults. Abusers are more likely to stab, strangle or bludgeon their female victims to death than to shoot them. Gun accidents happen, and every one of them is a tragedy, but data consistently show that far greater threats to children exist: automobiles, improperly stored household chemicals, even unattended swimming pools.

This is not to say that guns and their use and control are not women's issues.

In fact, women should take guns seriously when it comes to saving their own or their children's lives.

We live in a world where more and more women are unaccompanied at odd hours, or they are vulnerable in dangerous places—a world where restraining orders are often ineffective and the police cannot be counted upon to arrive in time, if at all.

In such a world, women must be able to protect themselves. In terms of both deterrence and lethal force, guns are among the most effective tools available for self-defense.

In legal literature, arguments for reproductive rights and gun rights are often virtually identical. Constitutional law scholar Nicholas Johnson of Fordham University Law School has shown how abortion and gun activists generally appeal to the same principles:
• The right to self-defense against bodily harm or invasion.

• The right to protect one's own physical integrity.

• The right to personal autonomy and self-determination.

• The right to make private choices regarding life decisions.
The similarities between abortion and armed self-defense don't end there. In either case, a woman is likely to confront a waiting period. She may have to apply for a permit, gain someone else's permission or offer proof of mental competence. Depending on where she lives, she may find her access to abortion and/or to a handgun sharply limited.

Activists who remember the pre-Roe vs. Wade days of back-alley abortions argue that increasing the restrictions on abortion, through such means as the partial-birth abortion ban signed into law by President Bush late last year, will, over time, place more women and their doctors in the position of breaking the law.

Those who oppose strict gun regulation similarly argue that it places law-abiding citizens in the position of becoming de facto outlaws. In a survey of gun-owning women by Women & Guns magazine, 87% of the respondents said they would carry a concealed firearm illegally if they felt it necessary for their safety.

It is odd that when it comes to gun control, feminists welcome the same sorts of government intrusion on individual rights that they rightly abhor when it comes to reproductive freedom.

Yet taking the fight for women's lives seriously means defending their right to take control over every aspect of their individual health and safety. Reproductive choice and the ability to defend oneself, whatever that may take, are not simply women's rights. They are essential human rights.

Many proponents of reproductive rights wish abortion were never necessary. Most gun-rights advocates would prefer to live in a world in which no woman should need a gun to ensure her safety. But as long as contraception fails, as long as rape occurs, as long as men abduct women, stalk ex-wives and girlfriends and threaten harm to their children, the options to choose an abortion and a gun must equally remain fundamental women's rights.

Both are rights worth fighting for.



Mary Zeiss Stange is an associate professor of women's studies and religion at Skidmore College. She is the author of Woman the Hunter (Beacon Press, 1997) and co-author, with Carol K. Oyster, of Gun Women: Firearms and Feminism in Contemporary America (New York University Press, 2000).




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