I need to start this article with a disclaimer: I have never, personally, killed anyone. I do not personally know what it is like and I hope to God I never do. I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, trauma therapist, or any other brand of professional listener. My only qualifications to talk about this stuff are that I am a dedicated firearms student and an autodidact with a wickedly obsessive reading habit.
The information below was gathered from a wide variety of sources, many of which are referenced at the bottom of this page.
Generally speaking, women do better than men dealing with the emotional and social aftermath of a defense shooting. In part this is because society gives us a lot more leeway — few people expect a woman to defend herself with her bare hands, or take a beating “like a man” before a reasonable person would allow us to use lethal force.
It’s also because as women, we’re given societal permission to have feelings and express them, and any therapist can tell you that suppressed, unexpressed, or outright denied feelings are the source of many of the worst aftereffects of using lethal force. Similarly, religious folks tend to do better than non-religious folks. After all, even if you can’t talk to your buddies, at least you can pour out your feelings to God in prayer, or to the universe via meditation.
I also suspect women often do okay after defense shootings in part because there is a social stigma against women being prepared to defend themselves with lethal force in the first place. At the outset, we have to question and then reject a lot of feminine stereotypes about lethal force and self defense, simply in order to carry a gun. That’s a difficult thing to do, and pretty well requires careful thought and introspection. In this culture, self-defense with lethal force is very rarely (if ever) a default setting for women the way it can be for guys.
As a result, those of us women who do carry guns have usually had to think through the ethical, social, and emotional issues a lot more thoroughly than many concealed-carry guys have ever bothered to do. Carrying a gun is not part of the culture of being female. When they find out a woman carries a gun, very often one of the first questions friends ask is, “Could you really shoot someone?” The answer our friends expect to hear is, “No, not really, I’d just scare him …” The way the question is asked often implies that we should be literally unable to face the idea of killing. Women get asked that question often enough that it makes it really hard to sidestep the reality of what the gun is, or why you carry it. You’re pushed to think about it, think about it hard and in detail, simply because you are asked that question or one like it so often, and need to think about your answer every time you give it.
Contrast that with the typical gun-carrying guy. Although many men have thought these issues through in great detail, there really is no social pressure forcing them to do so. In large parts of this country, carrying a weapon is simply what men do. As a result, it’s a rare guy who feels pressured to count the cost before he picks up a gun. There’s also a sizeable contingent of unrealistic chest-beating and emotional denial that takes place. A guy’s buddies are unlikely to ask him if he’s emotionally able to handle the taking of a human life, and if they do, the guy is expected to make some flip comment like, “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out!!” And after a shooting, his buddies might expect him to feel happy and even proud of himself, his enemies probably expect him to feel smug and self-satisfied, his wife could expect him to be the rock she can lean on — and if he has feelings to the contrary, he’s probably going to stuff them down inside rather than admitting them out loud. This is not a recipe for mental health.
This doesn’t mean that women get a free ride. After any kind of violent encounter, there are predictable aftereffects. I’m told it’s kind of like the grieving process, and that some emotional and physiological reactions are only to be expected. But you needn’t fear that living through a lethal force encounter will be more difficult for you, “just because you’re a woman.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
If you are interested in learning more about the aftermath of violent encounters, here are some resources for further exploration.
- In The Gravest Extreme, a book by Massad Ayoob
- MAG-40, a class from the Massad Ayoob Group
- Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force, a book by David Klinger
- On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, a book by David Grossman
- The Bullet-Proof Mind, audio and video tape series by David Grossman