Sarah Palin’s appearance at the NRA convention in Houston almost two weeks ago highlighted a curious trend in the gun control debate: that the pro-gun lobby has so effectively (by which we mean, not outright embarrassingly) utilized female figures to encourage the belief that somehow gun ownership is a staple of women’s safety and empowerment.
No doubt learning lessons from Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments that sunk the GOP brand with women just before the 2012 election, the NRA tapped Gayle Trotter of the Independent Women’s Forum to (erroneously) testify before Congress in January that guns are a godsend to women in domestic violence disputes.
So, what’s the American left — the continued flag bearers of women’s rights and the feminist movement — to do in this war of branding on their supposed home turf? To answer this question and more about the strange role women are playing in the gun debate, BTR turned to feminist author and blogger Amanda Marcotte, whose writing on the subject of guns has appeared in Slate and Salon.
BreakThru Radio: Beginning with current events, Sarah Palin made a noteworthy appearance at the NRA’s annual convention this year. What was particularly interesting was how her rhetoric and posturing took aim at the media and the bureaucracy, saying that the same media is now the reliable, poodle-skirted cheerleader for the president, that wrote the book on exploiting tragedy, achieving a standing ovation all the while sipping a Big Gulp and focusing on anti-gun advocates like Michael Bloomberg. Off the bat, does this magnify how successful the right has been about messaging, using women to communicate that message, and equating AR-15s with Big Gulps?
Amanda Marcotte: I think it works really, really well on their people. I think it’s good to rally the troops. It’s really good at creating these self-serving justifications for people who buy into that. I don’t know that it actually is winning any converts, though. I think most people look at that and increasingly, most ordinary people, not just liberals, but people who aren’t even that political, admit it just turns them completely off.
BTR: At the same time, the popularity battle is won by the left in that 90 percent of Americans feel as though background checks are necessary. So the real fight then becomes the bureaucracy, or at least, the process.
[Editor’s note: In a poll released earlier this week after this interview was conduct, a Democratic affiliated poll showed support for background checks fell to 73 percent – down 17 points from a 90 percent approval rate taken earlier this year.]
AM: Yeah and also there’s a huge disconnect here because what the NRA will do, is they’ll go on the hill and they will tell congressmen that they oppose any kind of new gun regulations, any kind of new gun laws, and that they will doctor them in their little voting grades for it. Then they turn around and they sell their little voting guides to their audience by saying that this grade they’re giving the politician says how much that politician is willing to take away their guns. They’re telling the politicians one thing and they’re telling their audience another. So somebody sees a ‘C’ next to an NRA rating and they think that means that person would back up things like gun registries or buy-back programs or basically banning handguns or some other things that the NRA tells them are on the agenda. But in fact they got downgraded to a ‘C’ because they backed background checks.
BTR: What’s also particularly interesting about this appearance from Sarah Palin is it marks a crescendo of female faces we’ve seen representing their messaging. It’s been pretty overt at least since the last election. You’ve written about Grace Trotter, but even after Sarah Palin’s appearance there’s also this most recent $25,000 TV ad buy in defense of Senator Kelly Ayotte. Is putting a female face on guns, even disingenuously as it might be in the case of the NRA, is it working for them even in spite of the numbers on the popularity side?
AM: Yes and it’s not about actually trying to make their message more palatable. It’s as it is often true with conservative rhetoric, it’s about shielding themselves from criticism, throwing up so many smoke screens and confusing the issue that people just sort of give up arguing with them about it. I think that that’s what the woman thing is really about. The reality of it is that not only are most gun owners men, but the vast majority of gun owners are men. Even when women own guns, they don’t own as many guns, they tend not to be as gun-nutty. The gun culture is a masculinity-worshiping culture; it is an old-fashioned, sexist, kind of movie star—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone—male power fantasy. Except, unfortunately, it’s one that ends up getting lots of people killed and murdered every year. They put women up there as spokespeople so that making that obvious observation becomes harder to do. That’s literally all they’re doing. They’re trying to distract people from looking at them and saying: they’re a bunch of little boys playing to be big men and their toys are deadly and they are not willing to give them up even though the price is really just too high.
BTR: Is it then a matter of waiting for the NRA or at least one of their members, someone who could be associated with them—is it a matter of waiting for someone on that side to make a mistake. There’s the recent case of the prosthetic female shaped rifle target that bleeds when you shoot it. I don’t know if you heard of this story, it was making some rounds in social media. This target was marketed to gun owners as an “ex-girlfriend zombie” archetype. I’m almost wondering how something as egregious as that doesn’t strike a chord the same way Todd Akin’s “Legitimate rape” comments did.
AM: I think part of it is because the media has unfortunately bought into the NRA’s framing of this as a gun rights issue instead of a culture issue and so the “Legitimate rape” thing made a lot of sense to people because they knew not only what he was implying, but how wrong that was. I think it’s a little bit harder for people because there’s so much chaos and destruction thrown up by the gun lobbying because the mainstream media tries to make this a rights issue instead of a safety issue and a culture issue. I think it’s a little bit harder to make those kinds of connections that when you boil it right down to it, the culture at the shooting range that is paranoid and hyper-conservative is also very sexist and masculinity-driven. I don’t think people completely see that as well as they should.
For more conversation with Amanda Marcotte, check out tomorrow’s episode of Third Eye Weekly, BTR’s premier current events podcast.