Blown Away: American Women and Guns by Caitlin Kelly

It's rare to find a book about guns in the U.S. that doesn't come across as hysterical -- either the hysteria of someone seemingly determined to live up to every possible stereotype of a "gun nut" or the hysteria of someone seemingly determined to live up to every possible stereotype of an out-of-touch wussy liberal. Caitlin Kelly's Blown Away (excerpts available here) doesn't quite live up to the claims on its front cover -- "an unbiased exploration of the right to bear arms" -- but it is certainly the most even-handed and rational book about guns and American gun culture that I've encountered.

Though Blown Away doesn't seem unbiased to me -- the tilt is definitely in favor of people's right to have access to guns -- I'm not sure what "unbiased" really would look like, or what value it would serve. What I want is for a writer to play fair, to be aware of complexities, to avoid caricaturing differing viewpoints, and Kelly does that quite well. What makes her book important, though, is not just that it doesn't seem to be written by a person with an axe to grind, but that it gives a vivid and multifaceted perspective on the intersections of violence, gender, race, class, and culture, and it does so through the testimonies of people from all around the country, of all sorts of different backgrounds, and adds context to these testimonies with a wealth of statistics. Though Kelly offers some ideas in the final chapter for what to do about problems of violence against women in the U.S., her book is at its best when it is posing questions rather than answers, because it would require many more books and much longer conversations to develop real answers to the thorniest, knottiest questions.

Kelly's statistics are what stood out to me at first -- over 200 million guns in private, legal ownership in the U.S.; 11 to 17 million guns owned by women; hundreds of thousands of women the victims of rape and sexual assault each year (and rape is the most underreported crime in the country); an estimated 17.7 million women the survivors of rape or attempted rape -- 1 out of every 5 American women; 3 out of 4 American women the victims of crime at least once in their lives; 29% of rapists armed; 17,424 Americans killed by guns in 2001 (and 43,501 in motor vehicle deaths); $21 billion spent annually to treat gunshot victims; $126,620,000 raised from federal excise taxes on long guns and ammo in 1998 and another $35,528,000 raised from an excise tax on handguns...

Blown Away starts from these statistics and then expands their context with the stories of women who have chosen or not chosen to arm themselves (including in the past -- I particularly liked the second chapter, on the history of women and guns in the U.S.), women who have suffered violence of all sorts, women who have differing views of guns, gun ownership, and violence because of their race, class, sexuality, or occupation. The writing is sometimes repetitive, some sections are far more fleshed out than others, but the overall picture is what matters, because Kelly tries to give as diverse and complex a portrait of the American landscape as she could gain access to.

My own biases may have colored some of my reading of the book -- I'm sure people who are strongly pro- or anti-gun would read it differently than I. I grew up surrounded by guns of all sorts, from Civil War antiques to military machineguns, and because they were always around, they never possessed any mystique for me. The only time I really much enjoyed the things was the day after Halloween each year when my father and I would blast our pumpkins with his pistol-grip shotgun. If ever a person was raised in an environment to become a gun nut, it was me; and yet I never had the inclination. My adolescent rebellion, such as it was, was to begin to think Ronald Reagan might be something less than holy, and I did my best to become a radical leftist, then, with time, settled into my current state of boring bourgeois liberalism.

Never, though, did I take up the anti-gun cause, because having lived amidst guns and gun culture for so long, staunchly anti-gun views seemed to me as ignorant and ridiculous as the often macho and unreasonable views of the radical pro-gunners. I couldn't ever support the NRA because of their close ties to the worst right-wing elements in the U.S. (though I still have my life membership, given to me in lieu of a baptism -- I expect I'm one of the only people ever to have been simultaneously a member of the NRA and a contributor to the War Resisters League), but it wasn't until I encountered Blown Away that I found a perspective that seemed to fit with what I know of the world, and what I know is that the two sides, pro- and anti-gun, demonize each other to no good effect except to make our laws more and more incoherent and irrational, and to distract the conversation away from the deep and complex causes of violence within our culture.

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