Girls With Guns: How Arming More Women Could Change America

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Female patrons are visiting shooting ranges in greater numbers, some carrying leopard-print concealment purses. Will their training really make society safer?

girl-gun.jpgIakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

It's Ladies Night at the gun range. No longer the sacred pastime of cowboys and Indians, shooting has become a favorite pastime for more and more young women across the country. "Want a real girls' night out?" asks an ad for the Silver Bullet Shooting Range in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, underneath an image of a shapely leg in stiletto heels. To draw in female customers, many ranges and clinics designate special days when women are encouraged to practice target shooting or participate in events or seminars for a reduced fee.

Violence and vigilante justice have a special place in the American narrative, but these are images not commonly associated with the "gentler sex." Research shows, however, that an increasing number of women are taking an interest in arming themselves.

According to the National Sporting Goods Association, female participation in target shooting grew by 46.5 percent between 2001 and 2010, to 4.89 million shooters. The National Rifle Association reports an increase in female participants in classes and events by as much as 20 percent, and the appeal appears to be recreational as well as for self-defense purposes.

Mark Skinner at the Maryland Small Arms Range in Marlboro, Maryland, says that women come in for a variety of reasons, but the majority seem to be recreational. "A lot of women come in saying they just want to learn how to shoot a gun, that they never have before. Some say they've just gotten divorced, and they want a gun in the house for protection because they think [he's] crazy. And most women want something cute, something small," explains Skinner.

For the past eight years, the Maryland Small Arms Range has hosted Ladies Night on Mondays, which attracts a large portion of their female customers, followed closely by Couples Night on Wednesdays. Skinner said that of all the women that come into the facility, around 45 to 50 percent end up registering for and buying a gun.

Sporting goods stores have wasted little time jumping on the bandwagon, and have adopted specific marketing strategies geared towards women. The online store Gun Goddess, for instance, sells "fun and feminine shooting accessories" ranging from concealment purses and holsters to "gun bling" and "ballistic jewelry." (Some of their offerings bring to mind the parody site Glamguns.com*, which pretends to offer mini-gun enthusiasts a Hello Kitty rifle, known affectionately as the HK AK-47, and the My Little Carbine, "for the little girl in everyone.")

So what exactly is behind this recent wave of girl-friendly gun enthusiasm? And what does it mean for the future face of violent crime in America?

Gun-related crimes have historically been carried out overwhelmingly by men, with women representing only a fraction of the perpetrators. However, recent alarming figures challenge the pervasive stereotype that men -- and men alone -- have a biological proclivity toward aggression. Statistically, women are the fastest growing demographic in prison. According to the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice, the female incarceration rate has grown 757 percent from 1977 to 2005. In 2010, 113,000 women were incarcerated, 33 percent of whom had been convicted of violent crimes. These numbers force us to take a more discerning look at the causes of female-instigated violence, particularly gun-related crime.

An estimated 15 to 20 million women in the United States now own or carry a concealed firearm. And according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 8.7 percent of gun-related homicides are perpetrated by a female offender -- a small but not insignificant number. Research suggests that women are still more likely to commit homicide in their own intimate family circles, with poison being the leading 'weapon' of choice.

But instances of gun-related massacres perpetrated by women- though rare- do occur. On February 12, 2010, Harvard University-trained neuroscientist Amy Bishop was taken into custody after opening fire on a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama. Bishop shot and killed three faculty members in the Biological Sciences Department and critically injured three more, reportedly after learning that she would not receive tenure.

While men are still 9 to 10 times more likely to commit violent crimes, scientists say that depression is an important factor in predicting whether an individual might set off on a violent rampage. Women are more often diagnosed with depression than men. Now that more of them are owning guns, does that mean women will be more likely to engage in violent crime than previously thought?

None of these questions should suggest that shooting ranges ought to stop offering Ladies' Nights. But as a large new segment of the population becomes armed, there's all the more reason for increased awareness about not only who is purchasing and carrying firearms, but why those people are carrying them to begin with.

For women, that reason is often self-defense. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, or RAINN, a woman is sexually assaulted in the U.S. every two minutes. This adds up to 207, 754 victims (age 12 or older) of sexual assault each year. Many self-defense experts believe in arming women in the event of an attack. One of the best known, Paxton Quigley, says she became an advocate after the rape of a close friend. "I asked my friend, 'If you'd had a gun, do you think you could have stopped the attacker?'" Quigley recalled in an interview with The Daily Beast. "She said yes."

Critics insist that these narratives present a skewed picture. "In 8 out of 10 cases, the woman knows the perpetrator," says Tracy Cox of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "It's not this 'stranger danger.'"

Adds Josh Horwitz, the Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, "Women are rational actors. They know that having a gun in the house increases the chance of suicide, it increases the chance of domestic violence."

But gun advocates are quick to point out that women are attacked in their own homes or on the streets, whether by strangers or intimate partners. In those scenarios, they insist, the attackers are often armed, usually stronger, and almost always have the clear advantage -- unless the woman has a gun and knows how to use it.

In the end, the debate over women and guns boils down to a familiar question: Does arming more people make a society safer -- or deadlier -- as a whole? America has yet to reach a consensus on this, despite passionate arguments on both sides. Meanwhile, one can only hope that none of the patrons of Gun Goddess will walk into a crowd, pull out a leopard-print concealment purse, and open fire with a bedazzled weapon.


*Note: An earlier version of this article failed to identify GlamGuns.com as a parody site.

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Alessandra Ram is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic Video Channel. Her work has also appeared in Foreign Policy.

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