Why Women Run Armed: I Asked and They Answered

This post isn’t about me, my thoughts or my feelings but that’s still where we’re going to start today. I hang out in women’s Facebook running groups for some of my time. I like to share my insights there (and posts) and it gives me ideas for posts from time to time like this one about crappy and unsupportive partners. One thing that occasionally pops up is posts about how to or discussions about women who run armed. It often comes up in posts where women are looking for help with harassment or threats while they are running. I realized that it seems crazy and foreign to me but not in a judgmental way, but totally outside my wheelhouse none the less. I get that it’s a thing but I don’t totally get it and I realized I don’t understand it at all. It’s different from facial tattoos which I maybe am a little judgmental over but this at least I wanted to understand.

As a Canadian I’m not allowed to own a handgun (unless I go through years of hoop jumping) and I’m certainly not allowed to carry it out of the house as is concealed or not. I also don’t really want to. My husband is a hunter so we do have long guns in the house but truth be told it makes me uncomfortable. I’ve been saying that I’m going to do my safety courses for years now but it still hasn’t happened. Canadians are actually gun owners in a big way, we are 7th on the list of per capita gun ownership worldwide but the ‘gun culture’ here is very different than it is in places like the USA. Why do women feel the need to carry? What experiences have they had that make them feel that way and what exactly are they preparing for? I hate carrying anything extra while I’m running and I think that’s pretty universal among runners. Why then do these women opt to carry something ‘extra’ with them when the statistics don’t necessarily bare out the need?

But these women have the right to carry if they see fit. Just because I don’t have a certain right or would exercise it if I did doesn’t mean they don’t. I have heard multiple stories (even in Canada) of female runners being hurt by and even severely injuring their attackers so it does happen. What I’ve never heard of is a case of violence perpetrated by a female runner, carrying a gun or not. I realized this is an issue I’m ignorant to and totally uneducated on. It’s easy to sit and say that it’s silly to carry if I can’t and I wouldn’t. So I decided to ask them why they do. This isn’t about the reasons why women shouldn’t carry a gun or anti-gun arguments. This post is about understanding something I currently don’t. I created a post on a global women’s running Facebook community and asked to be enlightened. And boy was I! So today I’m here to tell their stories and I can totally see why certain experiences and world views lead women to run armed.

Running and harassment

Is it a dirty little secret or something we just accept at this point that female runners have to deal with a bunch of $hit we shouldn’t have to. That can be sexual comments, being followed, threatened or attacked. All of that is illegal but its also pretty much accepted at this point that its just something that you’ll deal with. But it SHOULD happen exactly 0% of the time! I get some of that from time to time but on the whole I’m pretty lucky. Some women deal with this on pretty much every single run. I think some women are targets more often than others honestly. I don’t care if you are super cute, with big boobs and you are running down a busy street topless in a thong (which is legal here by the way) that doesn’t mean you should have to deal with any sort of harassment. But… that’s just not the way the world works. No matter where you stand on this issue you’ve got to acknowledge that women around the world are dealing with threats we just shouldn’t have to everyday. This danger influences the behavior of female runners all over the world and some of them choose to run armed because of it.

This ever present danger does influence my running too. I run on the road instead of the trail because it’s more populated. I always take my phone with me even though I have a cellular watch because taking it out ‘at someone’ is one of the only defenses I have. I look straight ahead when I pass certain people and I wear certain styles of clothes because they cover me up more. I avoid certain routes at certain times and prefer to run when it’s light out. I share my location with honey ‘just in case’ and I make a point to be aware of my surroundings always. And I think I still have it easy!

Running armed in Canada isn’t a (legal) option

I was mostly interested in why women run with guns to tell you the truth, that seemed the most foreign to me. Pepper spray seems to make a lot of sense to me and knives to a lesser extent. I think pepper spray could give you some time to get away and get help but I’m not sure if I was close enough to stab someone who was trying to hurt me it would be successful. But I still wanted to know. Full disclosure if I did have an experience like some of these ladies have had I would probably break the law and run with pepper spray. Both are illegal here as evidenced by this quote from our city’s police chief:

“You have the right to defend yourself but you can’t be carrying pepper spray or knives or guns for that purpose. If your intent to carry these weapons is to either defend yourself or to harm someone, you could be charged with carrying a concealed weapon.”

Some of these women run with pepper spray, knives, tasers and yes guns. But the voices I’ve chosen to amplify in this article are the gun toters for the most part and let me tell you my eyes have been opened. I also think it’s my responsibility to tell you that these women had without fail thought about and had a rational for why they decided to run armed. It was never ever a flippant decision.

Because of things they have already experienced

Female runners out there are attacked everyday some of them spoke up to me and some have decided to carry a gun because of it. That makes more sense to me than stopping running to tell you the truth. One women told me the story of her running friend who was attacked on a trail, beaten almost to death and raped. After that happened to her friend where she lived she decided to carry a gun. Others were affected by gruesome murders of female runners where they lived. In some cases the murderer was never caught. One women was habitually stalked by a non-runner ex boyfriend while running by herself. He would just show up time and time again on her morning runs. The police simply told her being on a running trail isn’t a chargeable offense. All women out there know that that in itself is a serious act of intimidation. He’s telling her just by showing up that he could hurt her any time he wants to. Another women was chased by two men in a van and one grabbed her from behind. She jumped over a fence to get away. After that many of them decided to run with a gun. Even though I think these things would be incredibly terrifying I don’t think you really know how that feels until you go through it.

The story that stuck with me the most was actually from a Canadian runner who has since moved to the US and does carry. She was a runner in Ontario when and where Paul Bernardo was actively abducting, raping and killing women. For those that don’t know Paul Bernardo is pretty much the most widely known and notorious sexual predator in recent Canadian history. While he was active she was attacked and grabbed by someone while she was running and the experience stayed with her for the rest of her life. That story really hit home with me and I think that would stick with me too. Once these experiences become personal for you or a loved one they stay with you and effect you forever. Asking these women for their insights made me realize I don’t know what people have already been through that make their choice reasonable for them.

Protection from wildlife and rural concerns

The biggest group of runners used wildlife as at least part of their justification for running armed. Bears, coyotes, snakes and even vicious dogs came up as one of the reasons women carry. Trail running women sometimes see it as their responsibility to be able to defend themselves if they were going to be in the woods. While we do have black bears here (and I’ve encountered 2 over the years) no one in my province has ever been attacked. One person ever has been attacked (and killed) by coyotes. I do however get chased by loose dogs on the regular, even a pit-bull once and they terrify me. If you live and run where there are critters that can kill you carrying a gun is arguably a smart idea.

I realized just how rural certain places can be too. I’m a rural runner but not as rural as some. One lady who carried for wildlife and people described running on roads with 5 km stretches without any homes. One would presume that there weren’t many cars passing either. Even though she ran with her phone too emergency services were almost 2 hours away and cell service was spotty at best. Obviously my Facebook post wasn’t a conclusive comprehensive study but I did get the overall impression that many (most) of the women who carried were rural rather than urban runners.

To feel safer

The second biggest contingent of lady runners packing heat reported that they did it to feel safer. No matter the experiences they already had or where they ran many women reported that having a gun made them at least feel safer. While one could argue that just having a gun doesn’t really make you any safer it could also be argued that the things that they are afraid of shouldn’t be a factor either. But it is. Women shouldn’t have to run with a man or a dog to ‘feel safe.’

I would be remiss not to mention that the women who chose to carry a gun because it made them feel safer didn’t only take that step. These were the same women who usually ran with someone, shared their routes with loved ones, wouldn’t run with a ponytail and run without headphones. In other words this wasn’t the only thing they were doing to stay safe. These women also didn’t always carry a gun but only carried under certain conditions. If they were with their partners or staying very close to home they often left their guns at home.

On the Waterline Road segment of the Inner Basin Trail. The Inner Basin Trail ascends from Lockett Meadow into the caldera of the San Francisco Peaks, an extinct volcano and home of the tallest peaks in Arizona. The first 1.7 miles of the trail winds through the extensive aspen forest flanking the upper reaches of the Peaks, joining the Waterline Trail briefly before following a jeep road into the caldera. The trail starts at an elevation of 8665 feet, gaining approximately 1200 feet over 2 miles on its way into the Inner Basin. The trail continues another 2 miles, gaining an additional 600 feet or so to join up with the Weatherford Trail. Photo by Deborah Lee Soltesz, August 2015. Credit: U.S. Forest Service, Coconino National Forest. For more information about this trail, see the Inner Basin No. 29 trail description on the Coconino National Forest website.

The news cycle and statistics

One thing that no one came out and said directly was the influence of the 24 hour news cycle and the neglect of statistics. Many times women referenced things that they probably heard about in the news. This could be things like a string of unsolved rapes or murders in the area or just well know cases that got widespread attention. My post was even next to one about another women murdered out on her run. Even though the statistics should make women more comfortable they don’t always. I don’t think we can ignore the influence knowing about so many rare events has on people. Hearing all the gruesome details of still rare events pretty much every week can lead people to fixating on the possibility of something terrible happening to them.

This might not be the perfect place for this drug use in communities also motivated women. Many places in the world deal with high drug dependency rates and women felt that made the people around them desperate and unpredictable. No community is immune and if you become aware of drug use in your community it can be a very legitimate and lingering concern. Drug use does make some people very dangerous both when they are actively using and looking to get more. Some women who run armed cited this as a concern. It might seem silly because runners probably aren’t carrying drugs or cash but if you think about it we are likely to have some pretty salable items on us. I always run with my iPhone (which happens to be new at the moment) and a cellular apple watch. That’s well over $1000 (closer to $2000) of electronics that could be sold and that’s true of most runners at this point.

Food for thought

There were some points that were made that really don’t fall into any category but are still very important to discuss. Those big meaty ideas that run through all the arguments on this issue. One lady who ran with a gun acknowledged that the likelihood of ever having to use her weapon was low (as did most). But she also realized that if she did need it one day it would be a fight for her life. She felt that a gun was the best option because if she ever did have to fight for her life she didn’t want it to be a fair fight, she wanted to win. If you stop and think about it I think in and of itself it’s a fair point. However if you think about it a bit more deeply it’s not ‘fair’ that women have to go about their days with this amplified sense of fear in the world. If it’s not ‘fair’ to be put in that situation in the first place why would you expect that women to ‘fight fair’? There also seemed to be consensus that if you could see yourself actually using a weapon then do it. But… if you were hesitant to use it even if threatened then you shouldn’t because it was likely to get you into trouble rather than save your life.

For some women, in some states and from some families carrying a weapon is simply part of their culture. In the US everyone has the right to bear arms and for some it’s important to exercise that right. Many women were raised with guns and told how important it was to be able to protect themselves. I don’t think we can discount the influence that has on a person. These women had fathers (and mothers) who taught them how to use and carry safely from a young age. Others pointed out that where they lived having your concealed carry permit was actually the norm. Where I live carrying a gun with you makes you a serious criminal so one can safely assume almost no one has one. If you lived in a place where most people were armed all of the time I think you really may feel vulnerable if you didn’t have one.

At the end of the day for many women they have the choice to carry a gun and its up to them if they decide to carry or not. You might make a different choice for lots of reasons that make sense to you. There are a multitude of choices another women can make that you might not see as viable for yourself but as long as it’s legal for them I’m not sure you can really put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I think that we all have to remember that there is literally no data to suggest that armed runners are a threat to society as a whole before you judge someone else choices too harshly. 

I hope that I’ve been able to present the ‘other side’ of this issue fairly. Running armed still isn’t an option for me and I don’t think I would exercise it if it was. But listening to these women I can see how their life experiences lead them to make the decision they have. The decision to carry was well thought out in every case and and you should know that women aren’t making this decision lightly. I also think that the practice of asking to be educated and enlightened on a certain issue is always a positive one. Usually I would ask what you think on a given issue but today I’m not going to do that. Instead I’ll ask if you read something that made you see the other side of this debate? If you run with a weapon is there something I missed in trying to understand this issue? Leave it in the comments below!

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