National Rifle Association:

Money, Firepower and Fear

By Josh Sugarman
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Copyright (c)1997 Violence Policy Center
Originally published in 1992. All rights reserved.

Women are the new target for hangun sales. Although the NRA had tried to involve women before (most notably in its WINRA, Women in NRA, program), the handgun sales slump of the early 1980s--which stemmed from saturation of the primary market of white males--resulted in the most broad-based effort ever conducted to bring women into the gun culture. Niche marketing had worked for cigarettes and alcohol, why not guns? Writing in the September 1984 American Firearms Industry magazine, the National Association of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers head Andy Molchan cheered efforts of Neal Knox to place a shooting program on cable television. Said Molchan, "The left-wing socialists who control ABC, CBS and NBC have frozen firearms people out, but cable is our key to the door. Cable is also the key to the women's market.

In addition, women gave the NRA a human side. "Our opponents would like to depict us as chauvinistic, redneck clods who dream only of machine guns in every pickup truck," complained NRA Personal Protection Program Director Tracey Martin in a 1988 NRAction article. And the NRA's female members are not just beer-guzzling rednecks in drag. "Millions of intelligent, self-reliant women have chosen to defend themselves," says Martin. (According to one woman profiled:"I have two college degrees, 15 years of professional work experience and an IQ that has been measured high by anyone's standards.")

The NRA's women's gallery is a showcase of feel-good psycho-babble. "Wife, mother, businesswoman, national woman pistol champion" Ruby Fox reveals in the article that "competitive shooting has taught me to believe in myself." Norma McCullough, "wife, mother and high power shooting champion," finds shooting "very relaxing and personally satisfying." And the blond-tressed Jo Anne Hall, former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and ladies' national pistol champion, explains that "women should know there's wholesome recreation connected with guns. It's something you can fun with, besides having a means of self-protection." With handguns offered as another male bastion falling to women's equality, arguments against their ownership are often portrayed by the NRA as patriarchial attempts to deny women their freedom.

The NRA's primary marketing tactic to women, however, is not personal growth through gun ownership. It's fear. The pitch to women is simple. You're a woman. Someone's going to rape you. You'd better buy a handgun. People buy handguns out of fear, and rape is perceived as what women fear most.

In NRA pamphlets and advertisements the point is drilled home. The cover of the pamphlet A Question of Self-Defense offers a chilling quote against a black, blood-spattered background. "'Tell them what rape is. Be graphic. Be disgusting. Be obscene. Make them sick. If they throw up, then they have the tiniest idea of what rape is!'--Boston Rape Victim." It Can Happen to You opens up to a drawing of an unsuspecting, elderly woman. Written from a female perspective, the pamphlet warns:

In nature, the predator preys on the weak, the sick, the aged. It stalks. It waits patiently for the precide moment when the victim appears defenseless. Then , it strikes...[T]here is no way of telling a criminal predator by the way he looks. He might be a potential suitor.

In its clumsy attempts to paint handgun ownership as a "choice issue," the NRA has appropriated the language of abortion rights advocates. In the first "I'm the NRA" ad to feature a woman touting a handgun for self-defense, Detective Jeanne Bray states, "A gun is a choice women need to know more about and be free to make. And the NRA is working to ensure the freedom of that choice always exists."

One ad in its 1987 self-defense series featured a stocking-masked man -of-all races under the headline, "Should You Shoot a Rapist Before He Cuts Your Throat?" The text read:

American women are realizing they must take responsiblity for their own self-defense. One choice is a firearm, a deeply personal decision that requires deliberation, knowledge and maturity. It's a choice guaranteed by our constitution, a right that can be as precious as life itself. Don't own a firearm if you choose not to. But never let anyone deny or delay your constitutional freedom to make that choice.

And in a 1990 television commercial, Susan Howard of Dallas offers the image of the NRA as the good boyfriend, soothingly stating, "Owning a firearm is a deeply personal decision, but you don't have to do it alone."

The NRA has been joined by other pro-gun organizations in its women's pitch. A 1985 Second Amendment Foundation ad featured a beaten women, eye blackened and lip swelling, wrapped in a bathrobe. "Last night I was raped...Where were the police?" she asks. The text reads:

The days when you thought you'd never be the victim of a rape--that it "can't happen to me"-- are over. We all know of friends or family who have been raped, beaten, robbed or burglarized by thugs who don't think twice about hurting someone. You might be the next victim.

By 1989 SAF had purchased the nascent Women & Guns magazine, the self-described "leader in the women gunowners movement." The magazine presented a new-found firearms feminism, noting:

Wome have been conditioned to think they are not smart enough or strong enough to handle a firearm effectively. Let me tell you women out there: If you are smart enough to use a sewing machine or a word processor, you are smart enough to handle a firearm. And if you are strong enough to carry a man's groceries and a man's baby, you are strong enough to carry a man's gun.

Soon after the magazine's purchase, its founder, Sonny Jones, became the SAF's director of women's affairs. Upon assumption of the post, she stated in Gun Week (which had been purchased previously by SAF):

More and more women are not only buying guns--for self-protection, recreational shooting and hunting--but they are also playing a bigger role in the firearms industry itself.

Jones urged that "the whole firearms community take up the challenge" of a resolution passed at the 1988 Gun Rights Policy Conference (the annual hobnob of pro-gun groups) urging participants to "endeavor to actively recruit more women in America to join as active partners in the defense of our right to keep and bear arms."

With the political organizations supplying the fear, the manufacturers offered the solution. In 1989 handgun manufacturer Smith & Wesson announced its LadySmith Program--"just possibly, an ideal answer to a very contemporary need." The catalog cover featured a 38 caliber handgun--one of "four revolvers that manage to be elegant without sacrificing any of their practicality"--lying on a table. Behind it rested a fur coat and a single yellow rose. The text for the catalog read, "Independence. In the few decades, American women, regardless of their marital, economic or employment status, have been striving for it--and achieving it. And gaining independence means assuming the responsibilities that go with it."

New Detonics offers the Ladies Escort Series of chopped 45 caliber handguns. Customers can choose between the Royal Escort, purple with a gold-plated trigger and hammer, or the all-black Midnight Escort. Lorcin Engineering Co., Inc. warns, "Ladies, don't become an easy target." Their answer is the Lady Lorcin, "a gun designed with you in mind" available in "designer Pearl Pink & Chrome finish."

Yet for all its claims of equality, the firearms business remains male-dominated. As a result, in addition to the relatively subtle sexism of exploiting women's fears of rape, there's often an even more awkward, explicit component. In gun trade publications, the fleshy Elizabethan Saunders, vice president of American Derringer Corporation, dresses in black lingerie and stockings, a high-heel shoe kicked rakishly aside, to announce that "Lady Derringer is Back." The handgun, "designed to appeal to your feminine customers," comes packaged in a jewelry box or walnut case.

In a Gun World review of the Royal Escort, author Tom Ferguson cheerfully notes that "since this is a ladies' gun I thought it fair to get a lady's opinion of it and handed it over to my wife, Tina, for evaluation. Purple is her favorite color and she liked the little .45 immediately." A photograph accompanying the article notes that "Tina Ferguson is fond of purple and insisted upon selecting an outfit to complement the colors of the pistol." And in much the same way that cigarette manufacturer R.J. Reynolds hoped to appeal to "virile women" through its Dakota cigarette, FIE Corporation developed the Titan Tigress, a gold-plated 25 caliber handgun with gold lame carrying purse, its fake ivory handle inscribed with a red rose.

The NRA and industry pitch to women has not fallen on deaf ears. An April 1988 Gallup poll indicated that between 1983 and 1986 gun ownership among women had jumped 53 percent, to more than twelve million. The number of women considering buying a firearm quadrupled during the same period to nearly two million.

Not only would an expanded women's market result in years of growth, but as Franklin Zimring noted in his 1987 book The Citizen's Guide to Gun Control:

The American woman of the late 1980s and 1990s...[is the] leading indicator of the social status of self-defense handguns in the more distant future, If female ownership of self-defense handguns increases dramatically, the climate of opinion for drastic restriction of handguns will not come about.

home / maps / quiz / pro/con / more / interviews / ring of fire / discussion / tapes & transcripts / press / wgbh / pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation