When Men Murder Women (1997 Data): The Myth: The Stranger Lurking in the Alley

Homicides against women are surrounded by an aura of mythology and sensationalism. These supposedly typical scenarios are familiar to all of us: a woman is depicted alone and vulnerable, perhaps walking on a dark street or at home asleep. Her attacker, according to this archetype, is a depraved stranger who will rape, rob, and eventually kill her.

The gun industry is particularly enthusiastic in promulgating these images and stoking their attendant fears. After all, the firearms business has a unique stake in reinforcing women’s feelings of insecurity: fear sells guns. The gun lobby focuses on the threat of attack by a stranger to promote handguns as self-defense weapons for women. As a result, images of a woman armed with a handgun fending off an attacker abound in gun lobby publications. (For examples, please see below.)

These images aim to persuade women that buying a gun will protect them from murderous strangers. Yet firearms – whether in the hands of men or women – are rarely used to kill criminals.1 While stranger attack occurs all too often, it is in fact the most unlikely homicide scenario a woman can expect to face.

Efforts by the gun lobby to equate female homicide with stranger attack not only obscure the reality of violence against women, but also promote the notion that safety is a purely personal obligation. In this view, rejecting this perceived obligation is tantamount to inviting victimization. As a result of such thinking, women who are attacked are often blamed for the violence committed against them.

Images of lone women using handguns to defend themselves are common in the gun press, as illustrated by these photos from the National Rifle Association’s American Guardian magazine.

1) According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Supplementary Homicide Report, in 1997 there were only 234 justifiable homicides (the justified killing of a felon during the commission of a felony) committed by private citizens using firearms. Of these, only 193 involved handguns. While firearms are at times used by private citizens to kill criminals or to stop crimes, the most common scenarios of gun use in America are suicide (17,566 in 1997), homicide (13,522 in 1997), or fatal unintentional injury (981 in 1997). The April 1994 Justice Department study  Guns and Crime revealed that from 1987 to 1992, the annual average of all victims of violence who claimed to have used a firearm of any type (handgun, shotgun, or rifle) to defend themselves was only about one percent (62,200 instances). Another 20,300 claimed to have used a firearm to defend their property during a theft, household burglary, or motor vehicle theft. Also, it is not known whether the gun was successfully used to stop the particular crime. In comparison,  Guns and Crime reported that offenders armed with handguns alone committed a record 930,700 violent crimes in 1992.


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