'Chicks With Guns': A Picture Of Gun-Toting Women

Nov 26, 2011
Originally published on November 26, 2011 7:05 pm

If you turn to page 109 of Lindsay McCrum's photo book, you'll see a photo of a woman wearing jeans and a green baseball cap standing in a grassy field. She's looking straight at the camera, clutching a semi-automatic rifle as if it were a water bottle. Standing between her legs is her son, his blond hair peeking out from behind her thigh as he poses with his toy gun, a miniature of his mother's.

More than 15 million women in the U.S. are gun owners, and 78 of them are in McCrum's new book, Chicks With Guns. McCrum tells Rachel Martin, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered, that the idea came to her while reading an article in The Economist.

"I was really struck by the extraordinary size and scope of the gun business," she says. McCrum began reaching out to women who owed guns across the country and visiting them at their homes to do photo shoots.

Part Of Family Life

Chicks With Guns features women of all ages and backgrounds posing in a variety of settings. On one page, a bride holds a pistol; on another, stuffed animals surround an elderly woman wearing a big grin and holding a revolver.

McCrum's original intent was to include only photographs, but halfway through the project she realized she needed to include more of the story.

"When anyone looks at a portrait, whether it's a painting or a photograph, they project onto that picture," McCrum says. "Now you add a gun into the picture, and a woman, and there's even more projection."

So she added narratives taken from her conversations with the women. "It provided a context, the history and the achievement of these women," she says.

While many of the women McCrum profiled became interested in guns because of the men in their lives, they developed their own relationship with firearms. Guns are a welcome part of their families' lives.

"What I learned ... is how important the activity of shooting and hunting is as a family activity," McCrum says. "I also realized that if you or I had grown up in a different region of the country, odds are we would have had our hunting tags by the time we were 12."

Guns, Politics And Self-Defense

McCrum's book shows that hunting isn't the only reason women own guns in the U.S. As the project evolved, she began to photograph women in law enforcement. Then came women who owned guns for protection. One woman bought a gun after working as a 9-1-1 dispatcher.

"When you get people who have witnessed people who have been victims of crimes, they have a very different relationship [with guns]," McCrum says.

Her images of women who own guns for self-defense tend to elicit a common response, she says: "What a sad commentary that is on our culture that a woman would feel the need to have a gun in order to feel safe and protect herself and her family."

Despite the controversy guns inevitably bring up, McCrum insists politics has nothing to do with her images — in fact, that was something that helped her build trust with her subjects.

"I would always make it very clear there was no political or ideological agenda attached to this body of work," she says.

McCrum, who has never owned a gun herself, says completing the book left her with a larger understanding of the role guns play in women's lives.

"There's a remarkable diversity of women," she says, "and there's an extraordinary range of reasons they own guns."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When fine art photographer Lindsay McCrum was putting the finishing touches on a book about fashion and young girls, she decided her next project would feature women and a very different kind of accessory - pistols, rifles, revolvers - all kinds of guns. In her new book, "Chicks with Guns," Lindsay McCrum captures intimate portraits of some of the millions of women in the U.S. who own and use guns for work or protection or as a hobby. Lindsay joins me now from member station KQED in San Francisco. Lindsay, thanks so much for talking with us.

LINDSAY MCCRUM: Thank you.

MARTIN: I want to start out by talking about the cover of the book. There is a very small, petite young woman on the cover in a gray dress. She is reclined on an oriental rug, and next to her is a full staff(ph) that's been mounted, and a 19th century pistol, and four antique guns are hanging on the wall. What's the story here?

MCCRUM: Her name is Greta. Her dad is an antique gun dealer. And what was fascinating is that you look at her and you think, oh, this was just a beautifully posed picture and that she has no relationship to guns. She's been shooting ever since she was a child. And there was a PBS special on Annie Oakley where the producer had seen her shooting clay pigeons, and they hired her to play the young Annie Oakley in the PBS special.

MARTIN: Why women and guns? How did this idea kind of congeal for you, of all the things you could focus on?

MCCRUM: Well, I think if you had picked one word, Rachel, about this entire project, it would be unexpected. In the spring of 2006, I read an article in The Economist talking about how hunting and guns was such enormous business. And I was really struck by the extraordinary size and scope of the gun business, and I thought it could be potentially an interesting subject. But I never intended it to be a book.

MARTIN: The photos themselves are remarkable and very memorable. I mean, there are women of all ages posing in a variety of places, some in their homes, some outdoors. And often, what's striking is that the photos are really incongruous. You know, everything from a bride holding a pistol or an elderly woman with this huge smile on her face, and she's surrounded by stuffed animals, and there she is holding a revolver. And you didn't just photograph these women. You did, as you mentioned, you had to talk with them.

MCCRUM: Well, the text actually evolved halfway through the project because when anyone looks at a portrait, they project onto that picture. Now, you add a gun into the picture and a woman and there's even more projection that happens. So the narratives were added halfway through the project, and I think that it was really important because it provided a context, the history and the achievement of these women.

MARTIN: When you talked with these women and learned their stories, which ones really stuck with you?

MCCRUM: There were certain ones that I thought were really amusing. One woman, Jenny in New York, she said, I can't imagine my life before firearms. You know, at this point, I think I own more guns than shoes.

MARTIN: Wow.

MCCRUM: And then another woman, Wendy, in Houston, Texas, said I don't wear perfume, but I love the smell of cordite.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCCRUM: And then, one of my other favorite ones was...

MARTIN: Cordite, I assume for all the gun novices out there, cordite is used in ammo or something?

MCCRUM: Yeah, it's that smell of gunpowder...

MARTIN: There you go.

MCCRUM: ...when it goes off.

MARTIN: Lindsay McCrum, each woman in the book has a different kind of relationship with the gun. You can tell. I was struck by Pamela on page 18. She's very elegantly dressed carrying - what's that gun? It looks very intimidating.

MCCRUM: Oh, a .454 Casull hunting handgun.

MARTIN: Oh, of course.

MCCRUM: That gun has so much kick. And what is interesting is people look at that photograph, and they think: oh, well, that's a model, and she's holding that gun. And in the photograph, she's surrounded by this taxidermy. And then you read her text, and I love it because she talks about, well, I'm 5'2" and weigh 110 pounds and going up the mountains with a .375 rifle got a little heavy, so I started investigating hunting handguns. Well, I now shoot with a .454 Casull hunting handgun. That gun has so much recoil most men can't shoot it.

MARTIN: So speaking of the gender roles in gun ownership, how many of the women that you spoke with got into guns because of a man in their life?

MCCRUM: Quite a few. I would say 75 percent, probably, it was their dads that taught them to how to shoot. And then you got husbands or boyfriends. In the narratives, only one woman talks about going out and shooting with her mom.

MARTIN: And, you know, that's this incongruous idea again that, you know, we don't often think of women and their kids and firearms all being part of the same dynamic. I wonder how many of the women that you talked with discussed how owning a gun affected their families.

MCCRUM: Well, what I learned, which was really interesting, from the book is how important the activity of shooting and hunting is as a family activity. And I also realized that if you or I had grown up in a different region of the country, odds are we would have had our hunting tags by the time we were 12.

MARTIN: Yeah. I turned that down, but I did happen to grow up in Idaho in a part of the country where people carried guns, and it was kind of part of growing up. We took guns out to shoot at aluminum cans. We didn't ever shoot at anything that was living. But it was part of where we lived and what people did. You know, interesting, there's one woman, though, in your book who talks about getting a gun to protect her family. Tell me about her.

MCCRUM: She has a job as a 911 dispatcher. And when you get people who have witnessed people who have been victims of crimes, they have a very different relationship. When I first started the project, most of the women I photographed were either hunters or competitive shooters. And then as the project evolved, I started photographing law enforcement, women who collected guns, and then women who had guns for self-defense.

And many people comment when they see, for example, pictures of the children, let's say, with the mother and the gun, will say, what a sad commentary that is on our culture that a woman would feel the need to have a gun in order to feel safe and protect herself and her family.

MARTIN: And exactly, you talk about how one could say that this is a sad kind of commentary. On the other hand, there is a sense of empowerment in these photographs. Were you trying to get at something political in this book?

MCCRUM: No, not at all. And how I got the talent was I would always make it very clear there was no political or ideological agenda attached to this body of work.

MARTIN: I have to ask, Lindsay, what is your relationship with guns?

MCCRUM: I only shoot cameras.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCCRUM: And I am truly a very unlikely candidate for doing this project. Four years ago, I didn't know the difference between over-under and a side-by-side. And if you had asked me what the castle doctrine was, I would have thought that had something to do with King Arthur's Court. I really had no idea about gun culture. So I didn't have any really strong feelings about guns one way or the other.

MARTIN: Has that changed?

MCCRUM: I think my views have been expanded. I think there's a remarkable diversity of women, and there's an extraordinary range of reasons they own guns and the roles that guns play in their lives.

MARTIN: That's Lindsay McCrum. She has a new book out called "Chicks with Guns." Lindsay McCrum, thanks so much.

MCCRUM: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.