This project was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University
More women than ever before own guns.
Nearly 79 percent of firearms retailers reported an increase in female customers between 2011 and 2012, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. From this surge in popularity comes classes, specialized apparel, custom firearms, shooting-group memberships and conferences for women.
Women have also become the sellers, the lobbyists and the business owners.
Entrepreneur Carrie Lightfoot founded The Well Armed Woman in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2012 to be a resource for women shooters, by selling female-friendly merchandise, establishing educational chapters and hosting certified firearms instructor training sessions. In just two years, Lightfoot said it’s become one of the largest female gun groups in the U.S., boasting 350 chapter leaders in 43 states.
“We focus on educating, equipping and empowering women shooters,” Lightfoot said of her company’s goal to introduce women to guns in a safe, supportive environment.
When Lightfoot started The Well Armed Women, she wanted to represent the “everyday woman” she felt was missing from the industry.
“There were these two common extremes. One was a like military-type, real rugged woman with a gun … and the other was the more sexual, sexy woman with a gun. A woman in a bikini holding an AR-15 (semi-automatic rifle),” she said.
Lightfoot said women have always carried guns, but it wasn’t until recently that they began forming their own community within the firearms industry.
“Women now realize there are millions of them, they’re coming out of the shadows. They were already there, but just not openly. Not in the light,” she said.
Women have already hit societal and economic milestones: More women than ever before are living alone, marrying later and earning more than their husbands. Firearms are arguably another part of the equation. As Lightfoot put it, owning a gun as a self-protection tool mirrors this shift of women from “being the protected to being the protector.”
“Women are taking on that role – they have to,” she said, “And they’re taking it on pretty fiercely.”
The NRA, Women & Social Media
One of the strongest allies of the gun industry, the National Rifle Association, capitalized on the women and guns trend. In the last few years, the NRA has included women in its target demographics.
Karen Callaghan, an associate professor of political science at Texas Southern University, who is writing a book on the organization, described it as a “softening of the NRA.”
“They’re tapping into groups that are really primed and ready to receive the message that gun ownership is a good thing,” Callaghan said.
The NRA’s original womens programs were first formed by board members’ wives as a way to get involved. Today, as NRA board member Todd Rathner said, “It’s a whole world unto itself.”
“The Women’s Network folks are young gals with ARs (referring to AR-15 semi-automatic rifles) and Glocks just beginning their hunting careers,” said Rathner, as opposed to the traditionally older Women in Leadership Forum. “It’s a demographic we have never touched before.”
Several of the NRA’s 84 official social media accounts are dedicated solely to women, according to NRAnews.com. The NRA Women’s Network has more than 40,000 followers across all major social networking sites — from Facebook to Pinterest.
Another way the NRA is reaching these groups is through its online news network. NRA News features several commentators who touch on various points of the gun debate in different news episodes. Of the seven commentators, three are younger women.
Former Olympic pistol shooter Gabby Franco is one of the newest commentators. In one of her latest episodes, Franco talks about why the Second Amendment is important to her after immigrating to the U.S. in 2002 from Venezuela, a country, she says, is riddled with violence.
“As an immigrant and a U.S. citizen that has seen pretty much both sides of the coin, I have been able to put that on screen. It’s a great opportunity,” Franco said of her role as a commentator.
Petite with unwavering energy and a thick Venezuelan accent, Franco says she’s reached her goal to be one of the best female instructors in the U.S.
She is also a reality television personality. In 2012, Franco was one of the first women to compete on the History Channel’s “Top Shots.” She was invited back as the only woman on "Season 5: All-Stars. "
“I think the best part of being in the spotlight is just showing or giving my point of view about what I do and what I love,” Franco said of her fame — she has more than 90,000 likes on her Facebook fan page. “The shooting sports have given so much to me and I’m using this opportunity to share that with people. Not only as a sport but also as a life experience.”