The gun in my hands is only slightly larger than a cell phone. It's a .45 Derringer, with a short, slick, silver barrel, and a shiny, bulbous, wood-paneled handle. My instructor asks — for the third time — if I'm sure I'm ready, and I nod yes while my hands sweat and my lower teeth grind against my upper lip. I struggle to cock the gun — there's a significant amount of resistance from the arced lever. With my instructor's hand steadying my back (a measure I think unnecessary until the gun actually goes off), I pull the trigger.
My arms fly up, I am rocked backward on my heels, and my eardrums throb. Holy shit. The recoil is forceful enough to nick the web of skin between my thumb and my index finger. I am shaking, bleeding, and laughing. It is a surprisingly powerful feeling.
Gearing up to attend a woman's instructional shooting clinic — one sponsored by the National Rifle Association (NRA), no less — I was skeptical. Scared, even. This is an organization demonized by the left, dominated by Republican males, and lauded by Charlton Heston. In short, as I approached the New Bedford Revolver and Rifle Club last Sunday, I felt as though I were walking into a lion's den, about to be surrounded by gun-toting right-wingers. I certainly didn't expect to enjoy myself. Was this all part of the group's plan?
I quickly realized that despite the event's NRA sponsorship, none of the 15 women who attended Sunday's Women on Target session (one of 180 this year) seemed politically motivated. At least one woman didn't even know what the NRA was.
Their ages ranged from 17 to 65. Several of them were wives or mothers of gun owners. Two came expressly to learn about using guns for self-defense. And then there was me. I had never touched a gun. I had never even seen one up close, save for those kept tightly swathed in police officers' holsters.
"There's a kind of forbidden aspect to shooting," says Caitlin Kelly, a journalist and the author of Blown Away: American Women and Guns. "In states like [Massachusetts and New York], where gun use is really — in many communities — demonized, if a woman even thinks about gun ownership ... she does run into some serious disapprobation — some serious disapproval."
But females are starting to shoot more and more. (National Sporting Goods Association statistics show that more than 2 million women hunt and more than 4.5 million target shoot.) In 1999, Women on Target's first year of operation, just 500 women participated nationwide; today, close to 17,000 women have taken part. And in April, the NRA elected Sandra Froman its second female president. Peggy Tartaro, editor of the bimonthly magazine Women & Guns, estimates that of the nation's 80 million gun owners, between 10 and 15 million are female. The NRA has 4 million members nationally, but doesn't give out state-by-state numbers. Here in Massachusetts, many gun owners are represented by the Gun Owners Action League (GOAL), which has membership "in the five figures," says executive director Jim Wallace. And women are "definitely the fastest-growing part of our membership," he says.
"We do have anecdotal evidence from gun clubs and firearms instructors that they are seeing more women than ever," says NRA spokesman J.R. Robbins in an e-mail.
Murray Gonzales, my Derringer instructor and president of the New Bedford Revolver and Rifle Club board of directors, backs up that claim. Approximately 20 percent of the club's 200 members are female, he says — more than ever before. (Although many of them are related to male club members, and few shoot regularly, I did meet two women — 17-year-old Randi Rogers, and 65-year-old Judy Thornhill — who are not only regulars, but well-respected shots.)
It can be intimidating for a woman to walk into a gun club or store, where men are in the majority, Tartaro says. In certain areas, where female gun owners might be few and far between, "they're just not sure where to go about connecting with other women out there who are interested."
Women breaking into an arena typically reserved for men is a progressive notion, one that seems to clash with the NRA's right-wing reputation. Indeed, the fact that many women own guns for self-defense makes the clash even louder. Some say firearms offer female empowerment (on the part of those who buy guns for personal protection), while others claim the gun industry and its lobbyists exploit women's fears.
Gun-control advocates, such as Kristen Rand at the Washington, DC–based Violence Policy Center, think the NRA and the gun industry are actually putting more women in danger. "The much bigger risk," Rand says, "is that she brings a gun into her home and it gets used against her."
Yet guns are already kept in 40 percent of American homes (only about 20 percent here in Massachusetts). For that reason alone, "the more training, the better," says John Rosenthal, the gun-owning founder of Stop Handgun Violence, a statewide organization that advocates responsible gun laws.
Rosenthal doesn't believe that women who own or carry handguns are any safer from domestic violence or sexual assault (neither does Jane Doe Inc., a Bay State organization that fights violence against women). He's cynical about the NRA, which he describes as "a shill for the extreme right wing in this country," and thinks the gun lobby and industry use fear to sell guns to women — an expanding market.
But when neon blue-and-orange earplugs are protruding from your ears, thick middle-school-shop-class goggles are covering your eyes, and a gun is firmly in your palm, none of this controversy matters. You're just trying to shoot straight.
We begin with the .22 pistol, a lightweight weapon that instructor Bill Days, a 43-year-old man who first shot a gun when he was 15 years old, describes as "good for ladies." (Stereotypes do manage to slip into Sunday's equal-opportunity event: "Women are more prone to listen better and take more advice," the club's chief safety officer, Joe Perez, says at one point. "Women are better shooters because they're patient and willing to learn.")
After learning how to slide five bullets into the magazine, I shoot at a bull's-eye-style target set 20 feet down the range on a clothesline contraption. (The club doesn't use the human-torso targets you see in the movies.)
Even with the lighter .22, the force ripples down my arms after every shot. Two of my five bullets don't even hit the paper target; the other three puncture the outside edge of the circle. (Later, I shoot a .22 rifle and manage to land all five shots near the center.)
The women around me are also shooting for the first time — or close to it. They lean in close while their instructors explain safety procedures and demonstrate the appropriate stance (perpendicular to the target). After shooting, they excitedly reel in their targets to check for success.
The atmosphere is more Sex and the City camaraderie than Special Victims Unit intensity. When Julie Marchetti, an enthusiastic 50-year-old from New Bedford, hits close to the bull's-eye with a .45-caliber pistol, we crowd around, praising her. "That's so impressive," one woman says. Another chimes in: "Don't want to mess with her!"
But when they emerge from behind the range door, many women have dazed expressions and ringing ears. "It was a little scary," says Robin Bodeau, a 47-year-old marketing clerk from Fairhaven whose son, who recently got his gun license, encouraged her to attend. With exhilaration written on her face, Bodeau described the .22 pistol as "comfortable, light — it seems more feminine." The .45 was too powerful for the slight woman. "I'm still shaking," she admits, before mischievously encouraging me to try it when I go in for my session.
THE FINAL DRAW
While some of the women at Sunday's clinic noted the stigma surrounding gun use and ownership, their curiosity and practical motives far outweighed their social insecurity.
Take Carol Koleci, a short 33-year-old physics professor from Worcester, who said she felt empowered after shooting the .22 pistol. Koleci doesn't politically identify with the left or the right, but she does sometimes fear for her own safety because she is a single woman living alone. She would consider purchasing a gun for protection. "I felt that other people have learned how to do this," she says. "Why can't we?"
At the end of the day, I'm not considering buying a gun, like Koleci, or even taking it up as a weekend sport, like the straight-shooting Marchetti. But when I glance down at the cut on my hand or show off my paper target, I feel a small sense of satisfaction.
Remembering the Derringer's force knocking me back on my heels, its recoil sending a shock wave through my body, I can see why guns are so coveted. And why they're so condemned.
Deirde Fulton can be reached at dfulton[a]phx.com
Issue Date: July 29 - August 4, 2005
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