Few issues in this country provoke as adamant a response as gun control. In 1992 Nancy Floyd began a photographic series entitled Stopping Power that would begin to explore the changing attitudes of women toward guns. Her goal, and her greatest obstacle, would be striking a balance in presenting the subject of gun ownership from both sides of the issue.
Nancy Floyd’s relationship with guns began at a very early point in her life. The artist looks back to her older brother who was killed in the Vietnam War when she was a child. Memories of her brother, who had hoped to become a gunsmith after the war, were partially constructed through his letters and photographs containing images and references to firearms. When Floyd was older she purchased her first gun, in part to share in an experience which was an integral part of her brother’s life. Floyd began to meet other women gun owners and became involved in the sport of competition shooting.
Over the past ten years the sale of firearms has decreased in this country, whereas the number of women gun owners has shown a steady increase. New magazines such as Women and Guns reflected this new demographic of gun owners, firearms manufacturers began marketing to women, and the National Rifle Association expanded its efforts to recruit more women into the organization. In describing her project Floyd writes, “I’m interested in the evolution of women gun owners in America. I’m also interested in how these women represent themselves and how they are represented by others. By looking at women from recent history, as well as interviewing contemporary gun owners, Stopping Power becomes a relevant, critical look at the women who choose to enter the gun debate.”
In one component of the series Floyd photographed and interviewed several subjects spanning a range of ages and backgrounds and found self-defense is still the leading motive for a woman to purchase a gun. The image of Linda Parker, who stares at her gun hidden underneath her bed, expresses a fear and frustration that many women feel in needing rather than desiring to possess a gun. The opposing image of Claire Sherwood, who sits on her bed self-assured in front of her gun-rack, reveals a story of her grandmother’s death as a result of gun violence. She asserts her ability to seek revenge on the man accused of the crime but remarks on the futility of such an act. In this series of portraits Floyd gives her subjects an equal voice to express their own point of view on this divisive issue, whether their reasons for owning a gun are for self-defense or for sport.
The series Stopping Power is the first of its kind to emphasize the relationship of women to gun control and ownership. The most controversial aspect of this series is the artist’s intention to balance both positions of the issue. However, as a gun owner herself, Floyd questions her own conflicted emotions illustrated in a series of self-portraits entitled Conversations with a Gun. In these photographs the artist sits opposite her pistol pantomiming a gamut of responses from fear, to confidence, to regret, as if the gun itself were an active participant in this debate. But it is not; it is only an extension of its operator.
With each incident of gun related violence or fatality due to carelessness, we have to ask ourselves if the issue of gun control has gotten out of control. Even as this essay was being written in the wake of the shooting deaths at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, it was virtually impossible to remain neutral on the issue. However, it is wishful thinking to believe that lawmakers can simply legislate a solution to the problem without investigating the cause for these acts of violence or acknowledging the lack of instruction for individuals in possession of firearms. As women become more prominent in the gun debate we can only hope that they may become greater advocates for education and a better example for the need to bear the responsibility that goes in tandem with the right to bear arms.
Nancy Floyd lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence program from June 15 to July 15, 1998. The series Stopping Power was also supported by a School of Art and Design Faculty Research Grant and a Research Initiation Grant from Georgia State University, and a Summer Stipend Award from California State University, Long Beach.