Although I was not a fan of NRATV generally, there were some programs I thought did a good job of trying to “build bridges, not walls.” Among these were shows aimed at incorporating more women in gun culture. So I was excited when I came across an academic article — “Called to Arms: The NRA, The Gun Culture & Women” in Critical Policy Studies — that analyzed some of these programs like Love at First Shot.
I was going to write a summary of the article, but then it occurred to me that the author himself might do a better job of sharing his ideas on the topic. I am pleased that Noah S. Schwartz (see about the author at the end) agreed, and his thoughts are below.
(If you cannot access the original article behind the paywall, send me an email and I can send you a copy for educational purposes.)
By Noah S. Schwartz
My car kicked up a small storm of dust as I turned on to the long dirt driveway of my local gun range. I glanced over at my companion in the passenger’s seat and could see that she was visibly nervous. I smiled reassuringly, thinking back to my first time shooting a gun, only a few years before, and how anxious I had been. As a woman, about to enter the hypermasculine world of the gun culture, I could only imagine it must be much more difficult for her.
My colleague, I’ll call her Tara, had acquired her Canadian gun license so that she could qualify for a promotion in her summer job as a tree planter in western Canada – grizzly country. She wanted some experience pulling triggers before facing the prospect of defending herself and her team from a 500 pound bear, so she had reached out to the only person with shooting experience she knew in Ottawa. I was happy to oblige.
We walked up to the counter of the pro-shop to pay our admission. “Is this your first time shooting?”, the attendant asked Tara. “Ladies shoot for free their first two times”. The gun range had realized what firearms manufacturers and advocacy groups had started to grasp in the late 1980s: that if the shooting sports and gun industry were to survive, they needed to attract more women.
One such organization was the National Rifle Association of America (NRA), who have invested significantly in several programs to bring women into the gun culture. They recognize that women are an important demographic that the organization has missed out on in the past. As a result, they have increasingly sought to find female spokespeople. This includes conservative commentators like Dana Loesch or professional shooters like Kim Rhode and Julie Golob. They have created new course curricula, like the NRA Refuse to be a Victim Program, which I took as part of my ethnographic fieldwork on the organization in Virginia. Finally, they have created a ton of new digital content geared at attracting women to the gun culture.
This is the topic of my recently published article, “Called to arms: the NRA, the gun culture & women”, which was published in the journal of Critical Policy Studies. The article examines three online television series that the NRA has produced under the label of NRA Women: Armed & Fabulous, Love at First Shot, and New Energy. These shows attempt to help women overcome the internalized social barriers to their entry in the gun culture by presenting them with female role models, helpful advice, and stories of women that have found success and empowerment in the gun world.
The NRA faces an uphill battle in this regard. Though the feminist movement has made great progress, masculinist ideology still exerts a profound influence on North American society, creating a strong social taboo against female gun ownership. The majority of gun owners in Canada and the United States are men, and women tend to be much more supportive of gun control.
Further, guns are often framed by politicians and social movements as a threat to women. For example, one of the most powerful gun control lobbies in America deploys this frame in their name: “Mom’s Demand Action”. North of the border, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has attempted to position his recent “assault-weapons” ban as a way of protecting women and girls, even though most victims of gun violence in Canada are young men.
The NRA programming is part of their attempt to counter this frame. Their messaging emphasizes the empowering aspects of gun ownership for women, not just in terms of protection from crime, but also the empowerment that comes from participating in the shooting sports or hunting. Further, their programs make excellent use of narrative. Scholars are of policy are increasingly realize the important role that storytelling plays for political groups in winning friends and influencing people. The NRA Women programming provides an excellent case study of this principle in action.
Back at the gun range, Tara was taking her first shots with a .22LR lever-action rifle. Despite being new to shooting, she resoundingly trounced me and had a fun time doing it. Looking up and down the range though, I noticed that she was one of the only women there. Though the firearms industry and advocates have made significant efforts in both Canada and the US to bring women into the gun culture, it is evident that social barriers to women’s participation remain strong.
About the Author
NOAH S. SCHWARTZ is a PhD candidate in Political Science with specializations in Public Policy and International Relations. His research looks at the politics of memory and the use of narrative in the American gun debate. His doctoral research project, supervised by Mira Sucharov, employs ethnographic methods to study community building and the mobilization of narratives about America’s past by the gun-rights movement. Noah received his BA at Carleton in Global Politics, before moving overseas to complete his MSc in Defence, Development and Diplomacy at Durham University. After working with the Privy Council Office and Global Affairs Canada, he returned to study at Carleton in the fall of 2016 to begin his PhD.