More women now are carrying guns
By Roy Bragg
A mix of older and younger women, 10 in all, stood shoulder to shoulder and held steady.
Chris Patten, their firearms instructor, spoke: “Weapons up. Stand by. ... Fire!”
A cacophony of small-arms fire broke out, as if metallic popcorn was being cooked on a stove.
The group was taking a concealed carry class taught by Bracken Guns on Nacogdoches Road. It's part of an increasing national trend of women buying guns and getting permits to carry them.
A debate over gun rights, which has simmered the past two decades, boiled over after shooting sprees in Aurora, Colo. and Newtown, Conn. Gun sales spiked nationally, especially after the massacre of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Gun rights advocates say more guns in the hands of citizens will make America safer. Opponents argue for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines as well as intensive background checks of prospective gun buyers.
At Bracken, several women said the threat of tightening gun laws played a major part in their decisions to take classes. Most interviewed said they had long considered taking the classes, but also acknowledged the Newton and Aurora shooting sprees contributed to their decision to buy a gun and get a permit.
“This is just to protect myself,” says Kara Irulei, 22, a veterinarian's assistant. “I don't have anyone to protect me, so I want to be safe.”
“I thought about it before,” says Janet Hembree, 63, an office manager, “and I decided this was the time to do it.”
“I did it for protection and peace of mind,” said Annie Buchhorn, 51, who is in sales and makes a lot of business trips by herself. “I wanted to be able to take care of myself.”
Space at the shooting range has been tough to get in recent weeks, said owner Elizabeth Reese. She also believes fear of newer, more restrictive laws have driven women to pick up a gun while they still can.
“We saw an uptick after the election,” she said, “but for the last 18 months, it's been crazy here.”
And women make up a big part of that increase in range attendance.
“Come in here on a weekday,” she said, “and there are women here shooting. Half of my pistol line, at any given time, is women.”
The National Rifle Association holds shooting clinics for women around the country, says the NRA's Stephanie Samford.
In 2000, the first year of the classes, 500 women attended. In 2010, the last year for which information was available, attendance had increased to 9,500.
The National Sporting Goods Association, which focuses on hunting, in 2009 saw a one-year 20 percent increase in the number of women involved in hunting or target shooting, to about 6.42 million.
A Gallup Poll last year reported that 23 percent of women have taken up firearms, up from 13 percent in 2005.
Until recently, says Bracken Guns owner Chuck Bradley, there would be three or four women among the 30 or so students in his monthly classes.
For several months, however, he's been offering classes limited to women. The group taking the nine-hour-long class that day — three groups of 10 rotating from firing, waiting their turn, and taking a class at the store — made up the January class. This month, Bradley and Patten will offer two classes for women.
Other firearms dealers have seen similar interest. A nearby gun store began offering concealed carry classes for teachers in the days following Sandy Hook.
Bradley questioned the logic of that: “It's still a felony to have a gun at school.”
While recent events probably play in part in the decisions of women to buy and carry handguns, both Bradley and Charles Arnold, a Kerrville-based instructor, say the surge of interest began before Sandy Hook. Bradley pegged it to last summer; Arnold said he's seen steady increases in women in his classes for two years.
The recent mass shootings may have played a part, said Peggy Tartaro, editor of Buffalo, N.Y.-based Women and Guns magazine, but other factors have contributed to the increased numbers of women seeking guns.
More states are allowing concealed handguns or liberalizing their laws, Tartaro said, which has opened the pool of potential handgun owners — of both genders — astronomically.
Gun manufacturers are now better at marketing to women, she said. Smaller guns and re-shaped stocks have made them easier to handle. Gun mechanics also have been reconfigured with women in mind, and some guns now have less recoil. Beyond that, there are the cosmetic tweaks: pink (and other colored) guns, designer holsters and purses with built-in holsters.
Tartaro said word-of-mouth sells more guns and draws more women to classes. Some women feel more comfortable if they bring friends when trying something new. And after that, they're likely to tell even more friends how much they liked it.
There's also been an increase, she said, in the number of single-parent households headed by women.
“After housing costs, food costs and other necessities,” she said, “the idea of home and personal defense comes up. That doesn't mean that everyone who realizes that fact will get a carry permit or a gun for their home, but (the subject) does come up more frequently.”
Another big social change: More women are in the military and in law enforcement. Those women become familiar with firearms on the job and, when off-duty or back in civilian life, some will feel a need to own a personal firearm.
“It's been a perfect storm,” Tartaro said, “for women and guns.”
It's certainly spreading across the Hill Country.
For years, women made up about 20 percent of Charles Arnold's classes in Kerrville. Now, they make up half of every class.
Arnold says the typically strong performance of female students has spawned a catch phrase on the local firing range: Learn to shoot like a girl ... if you're good enough.
It may have something to do with women being better students on the firing range.
“They're like sponges,” Patten says. “You tell them something once, they remember it and they do it.”
“Women will listen more closely,” Bradley says. “They don't come in here with the 'I'm a guy, I know all of this stuff' attitude.”