(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
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
peopleincluding the liberal-minded politicians and celebrities on
whom organizers count to attract publicitythe two marches, one
pro-abortion rights and the other anti-gun, will be on a seamless
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
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 placesa 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 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.
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.
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
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).
Creative Thought Matters.