Read the headlines: Toddler shoots and kills mother. Police officer’s toddler son kills himself with his father’s service weapon. Toddler kills older sibling despite being trained in gun use. In addition to killing others, small children suffer accidental self-inflicted gunshots, inadvertently are killed by siblings or playmates, and some are accidentally (or purposely) shot by adults. With facts like these, how could any “good” mom keep a gun in her home? Still others think a “good” mom should have a gun to protect herself and her children and failure to have one is parental irresponsibility.
To understand these seeming contradictions, I interviewed good moms with guns and toddlers. The good moms with guns that I interviewed expressed what I term a “relational right” to their guns. By “relational,” I mean that the guns have come to represent important, primarily male relationships in their lives. There are three archetypical “good moms with guns:” committed; compromising; and convinced. I provide an example of each.
Committed moms with guns
Committed moms had a history of gun ownership prior to marriage and family. Their belief in guns – for protection, entertainment, or hunting – predates their partner (if they have one) and the birth of their children. Tina represents this position speaking about her favorite gun.
I bought an off-the-shelf Ruger 10/22 and stripped it down. The only part of that that I actually used was the action. I put a custom barrel, custom stock, custom sites on it. . . I didn’t actually build the pieces, I bought them all from distributors and vendors.
LB: Would you ever sell it?
Tina: No, I would never sell it . . . I shot several competitions with it. I never actually won any awards with that particular one, but it has a lot more meaning to me than any of the rest of them. The rest of them are all pretty much stock, off the shelf firearms that I’ve not altered.
Tina’s shooting competitions represent a time in childhood when she felt particularly close to her father who cheered her on.
Compromising moms with guns
Compromising moms with guns had no history with guns but married a man who had guns or wanted guns. For reasons that they explain, they decided to compromise with their husbands about gun ownership. Harriet told us about her compromise to have guns:
My parents are both heart and lung specialists in hospitals. And my mom works mainly in the emergency room. . . [so] she’s really only seen guns used for violence. My parents had NO interest in ever owning guns. I was always raised with, “guns are bad.”
Despite her strong reluctance to own a gun, she fell in love with a gun owner. Harriet told us that when they were combining households she told her then-fiancée:
“So you know, when we get married, your guns aren’t going to be allowed to be in our house.” And he was like, “no, no. You are marrying the guns too and they aren’t going to not be in our house.” And I said, “uhh . . . I don’t know how I feel about that.”
Harriet married the man and the guns. They keep an unsecured, loaded weapon in their home.
Converted moms with guns: Bears and Creepy Dudes
Converted moms had no history of guns prior to marriage or children, but now wouldn’t have it any other way. Again the desire to own a gun is told in terms of a relationship with a man. For Rachel, the man is the imagined “creepy dude.”
I have two guns. The first gun I got was a Ruger Redhawk Alaskan 44 caliber. . . . because I was planning on going on a hiking trip by myself . . . So I got it for two reasons. The first reason was for bears, and the second reason was for creepy dudes. . . Then after I had that for probably six months, I decided I wanted a smaller gun to have for personal protection, after I read more about concealed carry. . . just to have on my person, especially since I’m divorced and alone. So I got a nine millimeter Smith and Wesson Shield.
Although she herself has never been the victim of a violent crime, Rachel’s vigilance about creepy dudes has her carrying a weapon most of the time.
This is exploratory research to understand how people who own guns understand their relationship with the objects themselves and those around them. Meaningful conversation about legal restrictions on guns requires understanding and taking seriously these relationships.
[Ed. Note: This post is part of a mini-symposium from the contributors to the new book Guns in Law.]