An interview with author Caitlin Kelly:
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS SUBJECT?
I discovered in conversation with two girlfriends that both of them owned handguns. Both are white, middle-class and live in
very safe neighborhoods, so this surprised me. I couldn't see why they needed to own a gun for protection. One had been abused
as a child and the other had lived in a dangerous neighborhood in Miami when she had small children and her husband was
traveling often. In other words, they had both decided to acquire a gun for self-defense earlier in their lives, although
both continued to own them after they no longer felt as endangered. I think that once you're willing and able to shoot,
it's difficult to relinquish that power.
In 1996, I took a three-day defensive weapons class, during which 12 strangers stood beside me in a shooting range, learning a
variety of skills designed to prepare us to shoot under high stress. I was fascinated — by the perception that these skills
were necessary; the diversity of age, income and perceived needs of my fellow participants; the complexity of learning to
shoot well and safely; the moral and ethical issues involved in deciding to shoot another human being.
It's a very American solution, wanting to be self-reliant and not have to turn to a man to save your life.
I was also intrigued by the larger cultural and political context of that decision; many women today feel they face a double
bind — feminism requires us to take care of ourselves but violence against women remains unabated. Women can't look to men for
protection, yet they're often demonized for taking a definitive step towards protecting themselves by acquiring a firearm.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO TAKE A THREE-DAY DEFENSIVE WEAPONS CLASS?
I went on assignment for The Wall Street Journal but had never fired a gun. When it came time to shoot for the first time,
in front of a roomful of experienced gun-owners, I was very apprehensive. I ended up getting extra attention from the instructors
and spent many hours every day firing a borrowed Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol. I found it very difficult to get to sleep because
my system was flooded with adrenaline.
As a group, we discussed not simply the legal ramifications of shooting in self-defense, but the moral and ethical choices you
make in so doing. You can't come away from a class like this without a very different understanding of the issues. Shooting a
handgun, and shooting well, was an eye-opener. I came away with a visceral appreciation for what firearms can do, and the serious
moral and legal responsibility you assume by choosing to own one.
DO YOU OWN A GUN?
I don't. I have shot a number of handguns and a few long guns, and enjoyed it. But owning a gun means assuming responsibility
for storing it safely, cleaning and maintaining it, practicing with it often so you are completely confident with it. Right now,
it's more than I'm ready for.
WHAT DID YOU ENJOY MOST IN PRODUCING THIS BOOK?
I loved interviewing such a diverse group of women, and men, from teens to senior citizens, from the wealthiest and most
protected of women to convicted felons. My research itself was a real adventure: it included getting up at 5:00 a.m. to watch
wild turkeys in West Texas; meeting the former mayor and District Attorney of New Orleans; speaking with women who had shot
and killed or been shot themselves, attending the world's largest shooting event, with 3,200 shooters, near Dayton, Ohio.
The stories, no matter how dark, were totally compelling. It was a thrill to meet and interview Patty Varone, who for nine
years was the principal bodyguard for former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. Her description of trying to protect him on
9/11 was chilling — and one she had never told another journalist.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO RESEARCH THE BOOK?
It proved much more challenging than I expected because I encountered such suspicion and hostility toward journalists from
gun-owners. It took much longer to complete the research than I'd planned as I had to persuade almost every gun-owner that I
was not automatically going to demonize them or attack their choice. Because there is so little gun-related data that is not
heavily manipulated for political reasons I focused on gathering individual stories, rather than statistics and surveys — and
it takes time to find the right mix of material.
It was also challenging, as a white woman, to find minority women willing to candidly discuss their gun ownership with me.
HOW DID YOU FIND YOUR SOURCES?
I put the word out to everyone I know, from fellow parishioners at my church to colleagues across the country. I also followed
up with contacts from my 1996 shooting class at the Smith & Wesson Academy who introduced me to several law enforcement
subjects who would normally have been wary, if not inaccessible. In some instances, I was also lucky — letting many people
know what I needed, while also making clear my impartial approach to the issue, brought many subjects to me.
WHAT WAS THE TOUGHEST PART OF DOING THE BOOK?
Selling it! Twenty-five publishers rejected the proposal, 19 of them in 2000, the year after five school shootings, which made
gun-related material repugnant to editors. I sold the book shortly after 9/11, when anxiety about personal safety had, suddenly
and nationally, risen significantly.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO FINISH THE BOOK?
I began in March 2002 and turned in my manuscript on May 1, 2003. Because I had written on the subject three times previously —
for the Globe and Mail, Wall Street Journal and Penthouse
— I had a good idea who I might want to interview and what events could help shape my story. The hard work of four terrific
researchers allowed me to focus more time on writing.
WHAT SURPRISED YOU THE MOST?
Many people are deeply uncomfortable with a woman who is competent with firearms, let alone who enjoys them. It speaks volumes,
to me at least, about a larger cultural discomfort with women who are powerful and who can truly and effectively fight back
against violence, most of which, statistically, is perpetrated against them by men.
I was also deeply disturbed, once I started speaking to lawyers, prosecutors, police — and victims of domestic abuse — how
widespread is violence against women, and how difficult it remains to prevent or stop.
There is also a major national trend — teen shooting — that remains unexplored by traditional media. More than 110,000 teens
are enrolled in courses offered by the 4-H Clubs. Shooting, for many Americans, is a fun, safe and pleasant family activity.
But you won't read about it in most magazines because the subject is so controversial and might alienate readers or advertisers.
HAVE YOUR VIEWS ON GUN OWNERSHIP CHANGED AS A RESULT OF YOUR RESEARCH?
I still feel strongly that it's a deeply personal choice. But it's also a choice whose tragic consequences — suicide, homicide,
accident, criminal use — some gun-owners, and certainly the most vocal proponents of gun ownership, seem to overlook or ignore.
I wish we could initiate a much wider and more nuanced conversation about the effects of private gun use. But after several
years of research and more than 100 interviews, I came away frustrated by the cynicism and mistrust on both sides of the issue.
I think we need to talk more about guns and their role in our lives — for pleasure, especially, in the shooting sports and in
hunting — in a non-combative way. I'm not particularly hopeful that we can.
DO MEN AND WOMEN THINK DIFFERENTLY ABOUT GUNS?
I think men and women have different levels of comfort with power. In our culture, strength and the ability to protect yourself,
and others, remains, for many people, a skill we consider masculine or manly. Women who like guns, and who handle them with
competence and confidence, often make an unsettling figure, for men and women alike. The idea of a woman buying a handgun for
self-defense, especially, really offends many people.
I understand concerns about potential gun violence and misuse — but I'm equally offended by the unrelenting violence against
women that often goes unpunished, let alone is culturally rewarded. Buying a gun does not address these complex, larger issues.
But it deeply comforts some of the women who have made that choice — and who don't see any better option.