By Megan Bello
It was heavier than I expected — a dead weight in my small and shaking hands. Holding a gun for the first time, a mixture of excitement and terror washed over me.
As I entered the range that day, donning my goggles and ear protection, everything felt surreal. Other people shot (and owned) guns, but not me, not my family. Thanks in most part to the nightly news, in my mind, guns were primarily responsible for killing people.
Yet in what seems an unlikely attraction, women are now blazing trails within the gun world. Female shooters are becoming one of the fastest-growing minorities. Author of Armed & Female: Taking Control, the petite, blond, formerly antigun and now self-defense expert Paxton Quigley says that out of an estimated 200 million guns in the U.S., about 17 million belong to women. She noted a 2009 study that found 70 percent of gun shop owners reported a rise in female gun buyers last year. A recent article from The Washington Times also reported on this phenomenon quoting the same study, which was conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation and Southwick Associates. The study went on to find that 80 percent of the women purchasing firearms said they bought guns for self-defense, followed by 35 percent for target practice and 24 percent for hunting.
Shooting is considered a functional skill used for sportsmanship, protection and provision. More and more, women are magnetically drawn to these endeavors as they hit the firing ranges, join shooting clubs, take tactical courses in self-defense, organize female hunts and even host bachelorette parties at the range — followed by the requisite mani/pedi, of course. Whatever the reason, women are stepping onto the gun scene.
To understand why, I contacted Natalie Foster, creator ofGirlsGuideToGuns.com, a website chock full of wit and thought-provoking content for both the wary, and not-so-wary, gun-toting female. Natalie considers herself a citified-country girl. She’s been living in LA for the past nine years, but her dad (now a renowned surgeon) had served as an Artillery Officer in the Army in the ‘70s, so she grew up around guns. Oddly enough, she’d never shot one until two years ago. Her impetus to learn came from the desire to bond with her dad and brothers. (Turns out we’re both daddy’s girls — though my dad-daughter bonding time entails having a catch in the backyard or watching Philly sports … and, of course, sharing big Italian meals.)
GirlsGuideToGuns.com manifested as a vehicle to fill the “gaping hole” in websites geared towards women and guns. “We’re underrepresented when it comes to anything that has to do with firearms,” she says. “There was nothing out there for someone like me. It’s not just for the home-on-the-range girl. I wanted to create a site tailored to the city girl.”
A city girl, in fact, just like me. Natalie suggested I get a taste for shooting. As an antigun, Irish-Italian Catholic, barely 4’11,” former cheerleading captain, straight-A student, shopaholic from Philly, I’m not exactly the gunslinging type.
Or so I thought.
Next thing I knew, she was teaching me about semiautomatics and the difference between a pistol and a revolver at the LAX firing range in Los Angeles, a place I had never even known existed.
Safety was our first order of business: Natalie diligently instructed me on every safety precaution, the nuances of each weapon, sight alignment, sight picture, proper grip, trigger control and how you never — never — place your finger on the trigger until you’re ready to fire. She coached me through every step and reminded me to take deep breaths to ease anxiety.
At first I was scared. I was holding a device designed to kill people, and which often does. What if that guy down at row number two decides he’s having a bad day and opens fire in my direction?
Instead of letting fear creep in, I trusted in the statistics: The likelihood of someone opening fire at a shooting range is even less than that of a shark attack or plane crash. (Having just overcome my fear of sharks five years ago while learning to surf, I felt pretty secure with this stat.) The range is as safe as the people who use it. Most people at the range are trained and registered gun owners who take shooting, as a sport and as a skill, quite seriously. Shooting ranges keep sign-in records, it costs money to participate, and everyone has been schooled on safety. Although accidents in ranges have been reported nationwide, these are rare instances, and it proved a safer environment than I’d expected. If anything, I was the new kid on the block, so the vets were probably worried about me and my green gun-fingers.
The moment I stepped into that little room, I couldn’t deny the morbid curiosity pulsing through my veins. Inside the range there were several small ledges with open windows where each shooter sets up, aims and shoots at his or her respective target. I’d only ever seen this on cop shows. Nothing could have prepared me for the exhilarating feeling I had once I pulled that trigger. I shot four guns that day: a Sig Sauer 9mm, a Colt .38 revolver, a Ruger .45 and a Glock .45 (and whoa, were those .45s big!). There we were, just two city girls, practicing our marksmanship at the firing range. Not my typical Tuesday afternoon.
It was eerily intoxicating holding a gun, properly placing my fingers around it, aligning my body stance, strategically setting my sight alignment and (drum roll) pulling the trigger. I got a little freaked out by the .45s — I even caught myself closing my eyes as I began to pull back the trigger. But I promptly snapped out of it, opened my eyes, reassessed my control and stance and shot responsibly — eyes wide open. I thoroughly enjoyed the control I felt over the 9mm and .38 revolver. My first shot, with the 9mm, felt like slow motion as I methodically pulled back the trigger, the blast of the bullet exploding from my gun, the flash of gunfire, the jolt from the recoil and the shell flipping up and circling over my head. I hit the bulls-eye. My initial fear quickly and unexpectedly transformed into a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence. I never knew I could do that.
Turns out this surge of confidence is just one of the positive effects of shooting. A core strengthening happens when you become dominant over a machine. A psychosomatic reaction occurred in me that day: I sincerely feel that I command more of a presence now.
Shooting also relieves stress. The range is not a place to take out your aggressions; rather, a place to focus, become intensely present and blow that tension away. Natalie likens it to a more aggressive form of yoga, and as an avid yoga practitioner myself, I must concur. There’s no room for distracting thoughts or concerns of the day to wreak havoc on your mind. You must stay focused on the task at hand.
It even has mental healing qualities. Natalie shared stories about how cancer patients who shoot at targets with the word “CANCER” on them have found it aids in lifting their spirits and getting them on the road to remission. Addicts shoot their “addictions.” Through this visualization, purportedly patients have found success in overcoming diseases. Struggling with something you want to overcome? A trip to the shooting range may be just what the doctor ordered.
While I don’t altogether condone owning a firearm, nor am I discounting the life-changing pain many have endured from losing loved ones who have been caught in the line of fire, my day at the range taught me not only why women are turning to shooting, but I also learned something about myself.
Though women and guns may seem like they fall at opposing ends of the feminine spectrum, they’re much closer than you might think. While I had anticipated a competitive environment at the range — you know, a bunch of guys whipping it out and measuring, if you will — that wasn’t the case at all. It’s a space where safety and respect, for the weapons and the people around you, are paramount. It’s a far cry from the aggressive blood sport of Mortal Kombat. Another interesting fact I learned that day: Women are statistically naturally better shots than men. No wonder I was good!
While there was a palpable element of fear in me about guns, the feeling is now mixed with courage and a growing excitement. My marked target proudly hangs on my bulletin board back at the office. Self-esteem booster? I’ll take that.
If you had asked me prior to my day at the range if my opinions on guns would change, I’d have said no way. Now I’m grateful I know how to use one. I’ve joined the ranks of a club I once thought was exclusive to Bond girls and ladies of the Wild West, one made up of formidable, all-American women, unafraid to hold a powerful machine in our hands.
Find your local firing range through The National Shooting Sports Foundation.