PAINESVILLE, Ohio Mary Ann Froebe stood, feet apart and knees slightly bent, and aimed the .22 caliber Ruger semi-automatic.
“You’ve got some adrenaline running through you right now,” said Esther Beris, coordinator of the northeastern Ohio chapter of A Girl and a Gun Women’s Shooting League. “It’s OK, just relax.”
Froebe, 42, a small-business owner who described herself as a “virgin gun shooter,” concentrated and pulled the trigger.
“It was awesome,” she said, her face flushed, after emptying the 10-round magazine. “The sense of control, of being in charge of me.”
In the national debate over firearms regulation, the voices of gun owners have largely been those of men. But at firing ranges across the country, a growing number of women are learning to use firearms or honing their existing skills.
Women’s participation in shooting sports has surged over the last decade, increasing 51.5 percent for target shooting from 2001 to 2011 – to just more than 5 million women from 3.3 million women – and by 41.8 percent for hunting, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
Gun sales to women have risen in concert. In a 2012 survey by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, 73 percent of gun dealers said the number of their female customers had gone up in 2011, as did a majority of retailers surveyed in the two previous years.
And manufacturers have increasingly geared advertising toward women, marketing special firearms models with smaller frames, custom colors – pink is a favorite – and accessories like the “salmon kiss” leather “concealed carry” handbag offered by Cobra Firearms, or the leopard shooting gloves and Bullet Rosette jewelry sold by Sweet Shot (“Look cute while you shoot!” is the company’s motto).
Women’s shooting clubs have also proliferated – not just in small towns, but in Houston, Atlanta and New York City.
Though they may share a fierce belief in the Second Amendment with their male counterparts, female gun owners often learn to shoot for different reasons, their interest in and proficiency with firearms not just a hobby or a means for self-defense, but a statement of independence and personal power.
Tina Wilson-Cohen, a former Secret Service agent who founded She Can Shoot, another women’s league with 10 chapters and 3,000 members across the country, said that 90 percent of the women who join do so because “they’ve been a victim at one point of their life, of stalking or date rape or domestic violence, or they have just felt so vulnerable, and they want to feel competent and like they can protect themselves.”
Yet women who shoot recreationally often find themselves confronting the misconceptions of the non-gun-owning public, said Mary Stange, a professor of women’s studies and religion at Skidmore College in New York and a co-author of “Gun Women: Firearms and Feminism in Contemporary America.”
She noted that when Nancy Lanza was identified as the owner of the guns her son Adam used to kill 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December, some people seemed to blame her. Lanza, who owned at least five firearms, including a Bushmaster AR-15 style rifle that was used in the shooting, was labeled by one headline writer as a “gun-crazed mother.”
“There’s this idea that women are more affiliative, more peace loving, more pacifist, which should then make women as a group gun averse,” Stange said.
It is difficult to pinpoint how many gun owners in the U.S. are women – the federal government does not break down background checks by demographic, and most manufacturers do not release information on sales. But Peggy Tartaro, editor of Women and Guns magazine, a nonprofit publication of the Second Amendment Foundation, said that she has found estimates varying from 12-17 million.
Smith & Wesson, which in 1989 introduced a LadySmith line of smaller-frame revolvers, was the first manufacturer to recognize the potential of the women’s market, Tartaro said, but other gunmakers soon followed suit. And the attitudes of men at shooting competitions and National Rifle Association meetings gradually changed, she said.
“Maybe 25 years ago, if you put on your power suit with your floppy bow and marched yourself into a gun club and said, ‘Where do I sign up, boys?’ you might have gotten a couple of funny looks,” Tartaro said. “But now they might say, ‘Hey, sit down, what are you interested in? I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.’ ”
Even some of the most ardent female gun enthusiasts said the industry had made a misstep in concluding that all women shooters like pink.
Stange called gunmakers’ obsession with the color “infantilizing.”
Tartaro said, “I don’t personally care for it.”
But she added that she knew a woman who had a different take, saying, “It’s not my favorite color, but I bought it because now my husband never touches it.”
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