Women become increasingly involved in gun groups

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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.”

Self-Defense

Self-defense is the common theme among women’s shooting groups. In Austin, Texas, Sure Shots women’s pistol league and monthly magazine focus almost exclusively on self-defense.

Standing out amid the dimly lit walls of rifles and camouflage of Red’s Indoor Range, where she runs Sure Shots, Niki Jones said she started the league in 2010. She encourages members to always take note of their surroundings.

“That doesn’t mean in a paranoid sort of way, just a very aware type of way,” she said.

Jones’ father, who worked as a police firearms instructor on Long Island, had her load ammunition into his gun when she was just 3 years old. Despite that early exposure to guns, she did not get directly involved in the industry until moving to Texas several years ago, she said.

“I got a gun, started training with it, and it set off the whole chain of events that started Sure Shots,” she said.

But Jones often found herself alone at the range without anyone to “push or encourage” her. And there were no female leagues to train with.

“So I said, I’m just going to start one, and I’m just going to make it everything I want it to be,” she said.

Sure Shots now has about 300 members between two Austin chapters and one in San Antonio.

“They feel a lot more safe and confident and kind of have a whole new defensive mindset that they never even considered before,” Jones said of her members.

Jennifer Carlson, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, said the self-defense argument mischaracterizes most crime against women as random violence.

“Men are more likely to be victims of assault” perpetrated by strangers, said Carlson, who is writing a book on gun culture in the U.S. “Women should actually be most afraid of crimes in their own homes.”

Women are more likely to be attacked by someone they know, usually an intimate partner, than someone they don’t, according to a 2014 Center for American Progress report and an analysis by New21 of domestic violence gun homicides that occurred between 2002 and 2012.

Domestic violence often falls into what Carlson calls a “gray zone.”

“Men tend to see criminals in much more black and white terms … and transpose this onto domestic violence.” 

Politicization

Women also are getting involved in the political gun debate.

Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America started in 2012 in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. According to its website, the group is a “grassroots network of moms” focused on preventing gun violence through “common-sense reforms” such as expanded background checks. In 2013, Moms Demand Action partnered with Mayors Against Illegal Guns to form Everytown for Gun Safety to advocate for gun-control legislation on a national level.

Jennifer Hoppe, a program director for Moms Demand Action, says have always brought social change.

“I don’t want to stereotype, but moms and women show up,” she said. “They show up at the polls, they show up at the offices of elected officials, they pay attention.”

On the other side, the 1 Million Moms Against Gun Control network formed as a direct response to Moms Demand Action, pushing for no new gun restrictions.

Beth Banister, the 1 Million Moms Arizona state coordinator, said her job is to “keep up to date on what is going on in the gun debate” and stay active on social media to engage the group’s almost 57,000 Facebook followers in discussion on issues.

Banister, a mother of four, said 1 Million Moms also coordinates national social-media campaigns such as #WorthProtecting, meaning worth protecting with guns if necessary.

“I put my kids on the couch and I had them hold a sign saying ‘I’m worth protecting’...whatever means something to you, show us your picture (and tag it)," she said.

Kristin Goss, associate professor of public policy at Duke University, said women have historically been activists in specialized issues. The debate is no different.

“Women historically have been the volunteer activists, the grassroots base of most social reform movements in history,” Goss said

When it comes to guns, Goss said both sides of the debate have “lots of reasons to watch women.”

“They make consumer decisions and are increasingly educated and have the kinds of skills that  groups on both sides of the debate would covet,” she said.

The only lobbyist for gun rights in the Texas Legislature is a woman named Alice Tripp. The membership of Texas State Rifle Association, the official state association of the NRA, is about 90 percent male, she said.

She works for 40,000 men with no support staff. But her lobbying style of “nips at the heels” of state lawmakers means that she is one of the most influential voices on gun policy in the state of Texas.

“My commitment is the fewest restrictions possible for law-abiding gun owners,” she said.

At her ranch in Paige, Texas, the walls are filled with the taxidermied bodies of fowl she’s hunted over the years, Tripp said when she started lobbying in 1998, she was the only female lobbyist in the State Capitol.

“I used to call … the legislators silverback gorillas because they were all older,” she said of the men she worked with in the Capitol. But over the years, Tripp said she’s seen more women enter the political arena.

There are “women district attorneys, women in the Legislature and younger women and younger men for that matter,” she said.

Today, Tripp shares the Texas gun lobby with one other person, also a woman, Tara Mica-Reilly, the NRA state liaison for Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana and Mississippi.

“I believe that women bring patience and logic and ability to research and memory and all the things that we’re raised to do that adapts to the legislative process,” Tripp said.

“We’ve been growing up, as a gender. We’ve been maturing. We’ve been self-determined. We’ve demanded wages. We’ve demanded recreational opportunities,” she said.

The Business of Pink Pistols

Today, 40 percent of Americans live in a household with a gun, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. Thirty-six percent of women reported living in one of these households, and 14 percent of women said the gun is theirs.

Entrepreneurs are capitalizing on the movement of more and more women buying guns of their own.

Julianna Crowder said she got the idea for A Girl and A Gun women's shooting league after she took an all-day concealed carry class nearly 10 years ago so her husband could keep his pistol in the family car.

“I saw a business opportunity, because I saw some room to improve, or maybe something I could eventually fulfill. It was like an entrepreneurial lightning bolt,” she said of the class.

Crowder said she had some difficulty finding a range to host an established club for women.

“I’m the entrepreneur. I’m the voice. I’m the one wheeling and dealing and it took about three years to find a range because every time we got close, they would figure out it was me they were going to deal with and not the man,” Crowder said.

Since then, Crowder said she has expanded her ladies’ shooting club into 69 chapters across the U.S. with 2,500 active members. In March, she organized the second-annual A Girl and A Gun conference in Waco, Texas, featuring classes, range time and vendors selling female-friendly products.

At the conference, Crowder said her goal is to represent the “everyday” woman.

“A woman doesn’t want to see an advertisement that’s geared toward men with scantily clad women or all ninja’d-out men, that doesn’t speak to us,” she said. “We want to see us. How would the everyday woman use this product?”

Lucretia Free, who runs The American Woman Shooter magazine out of her Tucson, Arizona, home, publishes stories representing a wider variety of women who shoot guns. She said she started the magazine just over a year ago after she went to the range for the first time and found that gun owners didn’t fit her notions about shooting sports.

“I perceived them as being unsafe and I perceived guns as being unsafe,” she said. “So when I went to the range and saw all this extreme focus on safety and just the welcoming nature of the people who were there … I mean it was fun.”

A publisher by trade, Free wanted to tell these stories and support local businesses that catered to women’s shooting needs.

“Definitely the woman-shooter story wasn’t being told, because it’s about so much more than just self-protection and conceal-and-carry and those kinds of issues. It’s about women who enjoy shooting sports,” she said. “I just think it’s an undertold story just in general across the board.”

Free says it’s an area of marketing where there’s still not a lot of research. “So I think the approach to how to target women is all over the board. Throwing things up on the wall and seeing what sticks.”

One company that is introducing guns to more women is Shoot Like a Girl. Chief Operations Officer Cristy Crawford said the organization reaches out to women from a 52-foot trailer driven to outdoor expos and gun shows around the country. Once inside, women are able to shoot through a simulated firing system used in military and police training.

“It introduces women to archery and shooting sports in a safe, controlled environment,” Crawford said.

Participants are sent a survey asking if they purchased a firearm after their Shoot Like a Girl experience. Since they launched this program in December, Crawford said they’ve recorded 850 direct gun sales. Of those purchases, 69 percent were by new and inexperienced shooters.

Firearms manufacturers are also benefiting from the surge in female customers, including Gordon Bond, the president of Bond Arms in Granbury, Texas, which manufacturers double-barrel derringers (small conceal-carry pistols). Bond Arms handguns are sold through individual dealers around the U.S.

Bond guessed that women make up 20 percent or so of his customers, up from about 10 percent five years ago.

On the company’s website, a link to an instructional video Bond Arms produced helps women pick out their first handgun. Bond said it’s been getting more than 40 clicks per day as of late.

To keep up with demand, Bond Arms markets differently to men and women. Bond said men tend to like the terminology “hand cannon” used to describe some of the pistols, while women are looking for something “very functional, very clean.”

“Ours is very simple to clean and load...and it’s pretty,” he said. “This gun is polished, stainless, really pretty wood grips. We got really nice ways to dress it up.”

When giving demonstrations at gun shows, Bond likes to bring out a pink pistol first and shoot a .357 magazine out of it. The loudness is jarring.

“My favorite comment (while demonstrating) is there’s nothing like bringing down a bad guy with a pink gun,” he said.

Moving Beyond the Pink

Not everyone is thrilled with the use of pink guns as a marketing device for women.

Former Secret Service Agent Tina Wilson-Cohen, who in 2010 founded She Can Shoot, a national firearms training network for women with more than a dozen chapters, says the industry does not fully understand how to bring women into the fold.

“Most of the marketing is usually the men think they can slap the pink and the purple and some bling on something and it captivates us as women, and it’s not the case,” she said.

In 2007, Wilson-Cohen said, she joined an NRA think tank on how to recruit more women.

But even after becoming an NRA training counselor, firearms instructor and teaching a lot of classes, Wilson-Cohen said she was still treated differently.

“As a woman, even given my background, it’s almost like I have to constantly prove myself to them,” she said. “And that’s unfortunate because their message is it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, but I’ll have to say it certainly doesn’t feel like that.”

Lightfoot, founder of The Well Armed Woman, one of the largest female shooting organizations in the U.S., has a different understanding of the pink guns and accessories that debuted en masse several years ago.

“Originally when the industry started seeing women … the first reaction was to turn things pink so we saw pink holsters and pink grips, things like that,” Lightfoot said. “And I think at first we we’re like, ‘OK, they see us, that’s great, thank you!’”

But Lightfoot said that was a superficial response. According to her, women are working hard to gain respect in the industry and taking the “sexy” or “girly” avenues could undermine all that hard work. As she says, “Carrying a gun isn’t sexy ... it’s a huge responsibility.”

“Women have grown, we’re more educated and we want more depth,” she said. “So now the pressure is on to go beyond the pink.”

Lauren Loftus is an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation News21 Fellow.

Brittany Elena Morris, a News21 Hearst Fellow, and Allison Griner contributed reporting to this story.

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