I’m aware that I’m sticking my neck out here. Differences in behavior linked to gender aren’t PC to talk about these days. This is one area where I am definitely not an expert. But over the years I’ve talked with hundreds of women who range from novices with the gun to consummate professionals, and to plenty of men, about how they made the decision to carry a gun for self protection.

Cautiously, very cautiously, I’d like to suggest that there are strong differences between men and women in this regard.

Before we talk about guns, let’s talk about force and violence. One conclusion I’ve come to here is that women operate like light switches and men operate like dimmer switches. In other words, many (of course, not all) men are comfortable operating across a wide range of levels of force. As boys, they tussle with other boys a lot, and get used to mock-fighting-as-play. One father, watching his young sons scuffling together for the thousandth time, observed, “Sometimes I feel like I’m raising a pair of bear cubs.” Another father recently commented to me on his grown sons’ behavior whenever they got together after not seeing one another for months; they would go outside and fight. In both families, the sons got along with one another just fine. Their fighting was, at a minimum, a way to practice using a relatively high level of force against an opponent who would take care not to really hurt them.

Men who are interested enough in self- and family-defense to take lessons in it often approach the tactical exercises as something that is a lot of fun, as well as instructive. Men who are highly competitive with other men can usually find a variety of ways in which to subtly use force at various levels, whether through a strong handshake (“Oh, he seems stronger than I thought; I’ll turn this handshake up to bone-crushing, and see if he can match that!”) or body language designed to convey the image of someone who should not be messed with. I know men who have even honed their ability to control situations by deliberately walking through very dangerous areas of major cities, trying to attract the attention of gang members without actually getting into a fight.

I don’t know any women who, on their own initiative, would do any of those things.

Women tend to be more like light switches when it comes to violence. Most of the time, we are “off” and we consider ourselves non-violent people, not particularly interested in using physical force against other people, or in showing off our potential for it. But when a woman is seriously threatened, or her children are, suddenly the switch is thrown to the “on” position, and she becomes a tremendously force, both willing and capable of inflicting the most grievous injury on whoever is threatening her life or her children’s.

Women are often mistaken, by men and even by other women, as being incapable of defending themselves, because, except in sports, women are seldom seen to use force in the ways that are easily interpreted as meaning that this person is capable of violent self-defense. Both men and women are perfectly capable of using extreme force in extreme situations, but we often see men using lower levels of force in non-defense situations (the dimmer switch again), which most women would avoid or find a different way to behave.

Women who have never been put into a life-threatening situation, and who have never seen another woman fight for her life, may not realize that they are capable of this light switch behavior. They think “I could never fight back” or “If someone really wants to kill or rape me, he will” or “I don’t want to learn how to kill people.”

Men who have never seen the women in their lives undergo that light switch behavior may think, “She’ll never be able to protect herself,” or ” Why should I teach her about guns?”

These attitudes, by both sexes, are wrong, and, combined with another strong difference in the way men and women regard concealed carry of firearms, can be absolutely dangerous.

So, here goes my stuck out neck again. Men tend to (1) decide they want to be able to protect themselves and their families with a gun, then (2) buy a gun, then (3) take some lessons. Women tend to go through those three steps in the OPPOSITE order. Women tend to (1) take a gun class, then (2) buy a gun, and later, possibly much later (3) come to realize they would be willing to use their gun for defense.

This results in some situations that are very bad for women. Men who say things like “Are you sure, really sure, that you could kill someone?” to a woman who is just starting to think about self-defense is likely to scare her away from the whole concept. I recently read a new book on personal safety by some extremely experienced and capable men. The book is, on the whole, excellent, but I’d never recommend it to most of the women I deal with. Why? Because right up front, they talk about mental preparation as a prerequisite for what follows, and this involves not only accepting the idea that violence can happen to us, avoiding the kind of defeatist attitude that is exemplified by the phrase, “If they want me, they’re going to get me” (the authors say, if you believe that, we can’t help you), and asking yourself if you are ready for the responsibilities of having a firearm. That kind of upfront self-evaluation may be just the right thing for many men, but an awful lot of women are going to say to themselves, “I failed all three parts of that test, so I guess self-defense isn’t for me.”

Wrong. Self-defense IS for EVERY woman. If concealed carry doesn’t interest you (yet), think about at least having a gun at home for protection. If you aren’t ready to take that step yet, what about having a gun for sport shooting, so you can stay familiar with safe gun handling and shooting? If you aren’t even sure that you want to own a gun, yet, at least take some firearms lessons.

If you are a safe and reasonably accomplished shooter, it will be easy to upgrade your equipment and skills rapidly if you ever decide that you want a defense gun. So, why not start building the skills that could save your life someday?

This article was reprinted from Women&Guns Mar-Apr, 2001, Copyright © 2001, Lyn Bates