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Feminism and Firearms

We’re often asked, “What’s the connection? How is feminism related to the struggle to reduce the proliferation of firearms in Israel?”

Men are the vast majority of gun users and gun abusers. They are also the vast majority of the victims injured and killed with small arms. So, the effort to roll back over-armament doesn’t look like a necessarily feminist one. Why, then, is our struggle a feminist one, for all practical purposes?

  • Because statistics show that worldwide, men are the majority of gun holders and gun violence victims except in the home and the family sphere, where women are over-represented among the victims of gun violence.
  • Because studies on Australia, Canada, South Africa and other countries show significant rises in the rates of women’s murders in homes or families where there are firearms.
  • Because a US study found that the risk of a woman’s murder is three to five times higher in a home with a gun, while another study found that the risk of women’s murder is five times higher when men with histories of violence towards intimate partners are also gun holders.
  • Because here in Israel, at least 21 women and 19 men were killed with the firearms of private security companies taken home to the family sphere after duty.
  • Because feminism is about identifying and revealing phenomena that are specific to different genders and to diverse groups, including the phenomenon of men’s predominance among gun violence victims (usually inflicted by other men and self-inflicted in suicides).


Gender and firearms

Gun use is closely connected to perceptions of masculinity; Small arms in general and particularly handguns are often linked to masculinity. In numerous movies and performances, handguns symbolize male sex organs; The link between guns and masculine identity is not unique to western cultures, it figures in literature from the Middle East, Turkey, South Africa and others.

The invention of the Colt pistol in the USA in the mid-nineteenth century effected a shift to the mass production of firearms which accelerated and greatly strengthened the cultural linkage between masculinity and guns. The industrial gun was seen as a liberating, equalizing breakthrough, offering a source of lethal force to all, or more precisely, to all men. The American western had a huge impact in propagating this perception, while encouraging an image of masculinized, authority-resistant autonomy. It associated heroism and romance with territorial conquest and lawlessness, predicated on the exploitation of cheap labor, including that of women. The professed imperative of bearing arms to defend “the woman” remains in place today as well, along with the concept of a feminized “home.” This is the case in Israel as well as elsewhere. “Woman” is marked as the vulnerable, inferior “other” and relegated to confinement at “home,” excluding her from a range of spheres of action.

An understanding of gendered contexts is vital to a full reading of reality and to the formulation of appropriate policies. A firearm licensing policy or a gun control policy which are not guided (among other considerations) by a thorough gender analysis, are unseeing policies. Feminist researchers, thinkers and authors have recognized violence against women as a product of policy and culture rather than a collection of “deviant” or “sick” incidents leading to singular, unrelated, personal tragedies. An effort to change policy in order to prevent preventable murders (whether most or at least a meaningful part of these) – mostly of women although definitely of men as well – is based on this important insight, which it attempts to turn into practice. As such it is a feminist effort.


Gun users and gun violence victims – gendered aspects

Men, and young men in particular, are the majority of gun users and gun abusers and the overwhelming majority of the victims injured and killed with guns. An analysis of World Health Organization (WHO) statistics from seventy countries in which levels of violence vary widely, found that young men of 15 to 29 were murdered with guns at least four times more than members of other segments of the population (22 victims per 100,000 vs. five victims per 100,000). Between 70 and 100-thousand men from this age group are killed with small arms every year the world over (not including deaths in combat zones). Women of all age groups represent about ten percent of gun violence victims worldwide.

In Israel, as elsewhere, women are a small minority of gun holders. In 2012 they were about five percent of the licensed private gun owners and about seven percent, at most, of the licensed holders of security company firearms.

The impacts of proliferating firearms on women’s lives differ distinctly from the ways in which they impact the lives of men: The world over, the predominant threats that women face are from partners and family members in the family sphere, while the predominant threats faced by men are from acquaintances in the public sphere. Women are a huge majority of the victims of violence within families and numerous studies show a clear rise in the risk of a woman’s murder in a space where small arms are easily accessible. A comprehensive study of 25 developed countries found a significant correlation between the accessibility of firearms and the rate of women’s murders. Widely proliferating and easily accessible guns are often also a factor enabling gender-based crimes against women and girls. They tend to support such crimes and increase their levels of severity, both in times of combat and of relative calm.

Women and girls (as well as men and boys) are murdered both with licensed (“legal”) firearms and with unlicensed (“illegal”) firearms. In terms of gun crime, particularly from women’s standpoint, the distinction of “licensed vs. unlicensed” firearms is largely artificial and irrelevant. Of 38 women murdered with small arms in Israel between October 2000 and April 2005, 20 were shot with unlicensed guns and 18 were with licensed guns (14 of these were killed with the firearms of security forces – army, reserves, police and the private security industry).

In the US, between 1990 and 2000, 71% of women’s murders by intimate partners were carried out with firearms; A 1992 study found that the use of firearms vs. other weapons, in attacks by intimates, were twelve times as likely to end in the victim’s death. Accordingly, in a climate of domestic violence, firearms pose a particularly powerful, very real and paralyzing threat.

For every woman who is murdered, numerous others live in the shadow of a firearm facing them with a direct death threat. In 2016, US feminist researchers concluded that about 4.5 million women throughout the country had experienced threats involving the guns borne by their partners and almost one million women had survived a shooting or escaped an attempted shooting by their partner. As the researchers observed, since a firearm can turn lethal in a split-second with relatively little effort, exhibiting it or using it to make a threat are highly effective in maintaining a climate known in professional literature as “coercive control,” enabling chronic and escalating abuse. Preventive small arms policies, they said, show an implicit focus on murders only rather than covering and preventing non-lethal firearm abuse by intimates as well.

In Israel, according to official reports, some 200 thousand women are subject to violence practices by partners and family members. And yet, in 2004, the State Comptroller found that at least 4,870 restraining orders issued by courts towards protecting victims of domestic violence (amounting to 46% of the restraining orders issued during the period under review) were not reported to the gun licensing authorities responsible for ensuring that licenses are revoked and firearms removed in such cases. Presumably, hundreds or possibly thousands of men continued bearing arms as they had before, though they were banned from their homes or subject to restraining orders.


Bearing arms, victims of violence and legislation

The data demonstrating increased rates of murder in conditions of increased small arms proliferation also indicate clear means of prevention: Countries and regional governments  that enacted stricter firearms laws and adopted tighter controls showed significant drops in murder rates. In Canada, for instance, the incidence of women’s murders with firearms, which was 0.14 per 100 thousand in 1995, had dropped by 32% by 2005, to 0.09 per 100 thousand. In contrast, the incidence of women’s murders with other means only dropped by 12% over the same period, meaning that the drop could not be ascribed to a general drop in women’s murders.

A longitudinal study conducted in the USA and published in 2014 found distinct rises in the number of assaults, robberies, murders and rapes accompanying relatively lax firearm legislation. Previous research had found lower rates of deaths caused by shootings (including manslaughter, murder, accidents and suicides) in US states that enacted stricter gun laws. In 2011 legislation reducing the overall proliferation of small arms was found to lower the number of men’s suicides, while laws focused on denying licenses to applicants considered to be potentially dangerous, had no effect on suicides.

In Israel, following the enforcement of Clause 10c(b) of the Firearms Law, barring private security guards from bearing company firearms after duty and beyond worksites, three whole years passed without a single victim killed by such arms (between August 2013 and 2016). This was the longest period free of killings with guards’ off-duty guns since documentation of the phenomenon began in 2002. It even extended beyond November 2014 when the ban was partially eased.


Feminism as a tool for mining hidden knowledge

A gender-sensitive analysis of reality asks gender-specific questions and seeks out differential data relevant to each gender. A policy that fails to integrate the knowledge amassed from diverse standpoints is a necessarily slanted one; This is true in general and emphatically true of policies concerning lethal weapons.

Feminist methodologies of knowledge building are attuned to unearthing realities that elude standard (and often slanted) analytical tools. As such, they locate and clarify phenomena that are unique to specific groups, beyond the groupings of women and men. Accordingly, in many cases, a gender-sensitive lens is also class-sensitive, sensitive to ethnicity, to age group, and so forth: Feminist tools identify, construct, compare, contrast and interconnect bodies of knowledge owned and known by marginalized groups such as immigrants, disenfranchised classes and various minorities.

In the USA, for example, a feminist researcher identified a range of factors contributing to the overrepresentation of women of color and immigrant women among the victims of murder by intimates. The sources of this phenomenon, she wrote, involve such women’s inability to obtain protective services and vital information due to limited language proficiency, cultural gaps distancing them from service providers and the slanted perceptions and approaches of police and judges.

In Israel too, women from cultural, linguistic minority groups are disproportionately at risk relative to women from the majority group. Statistics collected by the GFKT partner organization, “No to violence against women,” show that 33.3% of the women murdered by intimates between 2002 and 2010 were Palestinian citizens of Israel. At 1.6 times their proportion of the general population (20.6% in 2011), this represents a significant overrepresentation of Palestinian women from Israel among victims of women’s murder by intimates. These statistics further reveal that women emigres from the former USSR represented 25.3% of victims of murder by intimates, which is 2.5 times their proportion of the population (about 10%). Women from the community of emigres from Ethiopia represented 11.3% of victims of murder by intimates, which is 7.3 times their percentage of the population (1.5%). While authorities have explicitly noted the importance of removing cultural obstacles to obtaining support services, the vast majority of centers treating domestic violence, of hotlines, of women’s shelters, of police stations and of course the courts are still conducted in the majority language, mostly without translation, and guided by majority cultural norms. This blocks the accessibility of such institutions for women from minority groups, at least in part, exposing them to increased risks.


Sources and additional reading

Altinay, A. G. (2004). The myth of the military-nation: Militarism, gender, and education in Turkey. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 82.

Andrés, A. R., & Hempstead, K. (2011). Gun control and suicide: The impact of state firearm regulations in the United States, 1995–2004. Health Policy, 101(1), 95-103.

Anglemyer, A., Horvath, T., & Rutherford, G. (2014). The Accessibility of Firearms and Risk for Suicide and Homicide Victimization Among Household Members. Annals of Internal Medicine Ann Intern Med, 160(2), 101-110.

Bevan, J., & Florquin, N. (2006). Small Arms Survey: Few Options but the Gun: Angry Young Men. Chapter 12.

Cukier, W., & Cairns, J. (2009). Gender, attitudes and the regulation of small arms: Implications for action. In V. Farr, H. Myrttinen, & A. Schnabel (Eds.), Sexed pistols: The gendered impacts of small arms and light weapons. Tokyo: United Nations University Press. p. 21-22, 29

Discussion of Private Member’s Bill C-391: Brief to the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security (2010, May). The Coalition for Gun Control,

Donohue, J. J., Aneja, A., & Zhang, A. (2014). The Impact of Right to Carry Laws and the NRC Report: The Latest Lessons for the Empirical Evaluation of Law and Policy. Stanford Law School, Law and Economics Research Paper Series, No. 461.

Fish, J. N., & Mncayi, P. (2009). Securing private spaces: Gendered labour, violence and democratization in South Africa. In V. Farr, H. Myrttinen, & A. Schnabel (Eds.), Sexed pistols: The gendered impacts of small arms and light weapons. Tokyo: United Nations University Press. p. 300.

Fleegler, E. W., Lee, L. K., Monuteaux, M. C., Hemenway, D., & Mannix, R. (2013). Firearm Legislation and Firearm-Related Fatalities in the United States. JAMA Internal Medicine, 173(9), 732-740.

Gerami, S. (2005). Islamist Masculinity and Muslim Masculinities. In M. S. Kimmel, J. Hearn, & R. W. Connell (Eds.), Handbook of Studies on Men & Masculinities. London: SAGE Publications. p. 449.

Mazali, R. (2016). Speaking of Guns: Launching gun control discourse and disarming security guards in a militarized society. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 18(2), p. 292-304.

Mazali, R. (2009). The Gun on the Kitchen Table: The Sexist Sub-Text of Private Policing in Israel. In V. Farr, H. Myrttinen, & A. Schnabel (Eds.), Sexed pistols: The gendered impacts of small arms and light weapons. Tokyo: United Nations University Press. p. 272-273.

Mazali, R. (2007). Ethnically Constructed Guns and Feminist Anti-Militarism in Israel. Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 9(2), p. 289-308.

Ross, A. (1995). Cowboys, Cadillacs, and Cosmonauts: Families, Film Genres and

Technocultures. In K. Mehuron & G. Percesepe (Eds.), Free Spirits: Feminist Philosophers on Culture. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. pp. 52-65.

Sachs, D., Sa’ar, A., Aharoni, S. (2007). ‘How Can I Feel for Others when I Myself Am Beaten?’: The Impact of the Armed Conflict on Women in Israel. Sex Roles, 57, p. 593-606.

Shalhoub-Kevorkian, N. (2010). Palestinian Women and the Politics of Invisibility: Towards a Feminist Methodology. Peace Prints: South Asian Journal of Peacebuilding, 3(1).

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