The national News21 Initiative brings together a select group of student journalists to produce a major national investigation into a topic of wide interest. This year, News21 has documented the struggle over gun rights and regulations in America. Under the direction of some of the nations best professional investigative journalists, 29 students from 16 universities have traveled the country to produce text, videos and interactive graphics to tell the story “Gun Wars: The Struggle Over Rights and Regulation in America.” Over the next two weeks we will be featuring much of their reporting. You can view the entire project at the News21 website.
More women than ever 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 also have 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 are living alone, marrying later and earning more than their husbands. 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 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.
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 News21 of domestic gun homicides that occurred between 2002 and 2012.
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 women 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.”
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.
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.”
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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