Aprototypical white suburban mom walking toward her minivan in a dimly lit parking garage glances fearfully over her shoulder at some real or perceived threat lurking off camera. She is tightly clutching her young daughter's hand. Although it is a still photograph, one can almost hear the click of the woman's sensible pumps quickening with anxiety.
Turn the page. Susan Howard, an actress who appeared on the TV series Dallas, is photographed in a heroic pose: Arms crossed, shoulders back and square. Her hair seems to be blown back by the wind: Although she is wearing gold jewelry and a suit jacket in a studio, her stance is that of a climber who has conquered a mountain, a superhero perched on a skyscraper after a successful rescue. She gazes steadily at the reader: no-nonsense, confident, defiant, strong. "I refuse to be a victim," the headline declares. She is, as the caption notes, one of the "Women of the NRA."
Well goodness, who would you rather be - cowering potential victim or conqueror of fear?
These images are from a four-page ad running in women's magazines for the National Rifle Association's "Refuse to Be a Victim" program. It offers a free booklet of 42 ways to avoid and defend against criminal attack and promotes a three-hour course, for women only, on how to develop a "personal safety strategy." The $1 million dollar ad campaign was test-marketed in Washington, D.C., Miami, and Houston - cities with well-publicized crime problems.
The manipulation of fears, real and perceived, is much of what marketing is about, of course. And the use of threats, subtle and overt, to subjugate and use women is not new either. But the NRA's "Refuse to Be a Victim" campaign is an especially crass example of fear and threat cloaked as empowerment.
"You can regain the dignity of personal confidence every woman deserves," the text purrs on one page. On the next it helpfully reminds us that "America's criminal justice system isn't working to protect you" and "police can't always protect you."
To be fair, the concrete information that the program offers - understanding and avoiding violent crime against women, spotting scams, learning to recognize dangerous situations and to trust one's instincts, and knowing your security and self-defense options -should be known by any woman or man in our often violent culture. While a person might wish that it was otherwise, these are all basic life skills that unfortunately often aren't taken seriously enough.
And, as the ad assures us in several places, the NRA is offering women the chance to learn these skills (taught "for women, by women") at no obligation. A person doesn't need to join the NRA or - heavens no! - buy a gun to take the "Refuse to Be a Victim" course. As the fine print notes, "The NRA does not advocate firearm ownership." (Which is of course pretty noble of them, since most of their funding comes from gun manufacturers.)
WITH THE NOVEMBER 1993 passage of the Brady Bill and increasing support for gun-control measures nationwide, the NRA is striving for new ways to regain its once-invincible lobbying power. For the past several months, the NRA has been projecting a crime-fighting-not-gun-pushing image: Supporting state ballot initiatives that would lengthen prison sentences; creating "CrimeStrike" (a "grassroots movement to restore tough justice in our criminal justice system" through pressuring lawmakers); and attempting to forge a "tough on crime" coalition with Asian-American merchants in Washington, D.C., after several merchants were killed in robberies.
The NRA's sudden concern for the safety of women is just another component of its efforts to reposition itself. And it is an especially shrewd one, since the NRA is probably reaching the limit of its male market and a majority of women favor gun control. The selling of guns as one of several "personal safety options" for law-abiding citizens diverts attention away from the NRA's past lobbying against laws that would ban machine guns, plastic pistols, and "cop-killer" bullets designed to pierce bullet-proof vests. Playing off the fear of crime is credited with helping increase the NRA's membership 30 percent since 1988, up to 3.3 million.
Despite its appropriation of feminist language, the NRA offers no structural challenges to violence against women. The "Victim" ad plays off of the still-prevalent assumption that women somehow "deserve" (through carelessness or "promiscuity") the violence against them. Becoming a victim is depicted as entirely a matter of choice - "if you don't have a plan, you won't have a chance."
While there are real threats of violence from strangers, it is often the people you know who present the most danger. A study published in October 1993 in The New England Journal of Medicine shows that having a handgun in your home almost triples the chance that a person will die there. Of the victims in the study, more than three quarters were killed by a spouse, family member, or someone they knew. In 1991-92, California's waiting period and background check gun control law prevented the purchase of handguns by 141 people who were under restraining orders for domestic violence.
In a culture that conflates virility with firepower, women with sexual possession, and normal human conflict with inevitable violence, refusing to become a victim means more than taking steps to defend your personal safety. It also means cooperating with others to challenge cultural images that link sexuality and violence; watching out for one another; getting at the roots of criminal behavior, not just the results; eliminating cheap and easy-to-get guns; and educating about nonviolent conflict resolution. None of these acts eliminates the need for self-empowerment and choices about how to protect oneself from dangerous situations. But they do chip away at the factors that foster such danger.
The business of weapons, gender issues, the insidious manipulation of fear, and ever-increasing acts of violence are connected. It is a connection that the NRA understands too well.