One of my most-vivid memories as a rambunctious and curious little girl was the day I snuck into the dark closet in the back of my grandfather’s home.
Poised at the top of a mountain above sprawling sugar cane fields in the tropical oasis of north Queensland, Australia, the house was so far removed from any other human beings that being there felt like standing—teetering—on the edge of the earth. The wild soundtrack of the place, a sound we fell asleep to each night, was the evocative call of curlews and dingoes whining at the moon.
My six-year-old self tiptoed into the forbidden closet, and started curiously rummaging through the clothes and boxes. Then I saw three giant shotguns wedged in the back. It was the first time I had ever seen a firearm in the flesh, and I immediately felt paralyzed with fear. I slowly retreated back out and never said a word about what I’d found.
That same fear surfaced some five years later when a horrific massacre claimed the lives of 35 people in the popular Tasmanian tourist destination of Port Arthur in 1996. The idea that guns are evil was all over the media. Immediately, many united in agreement that the only thing to do was to ban guns.
I never thought much about guns again, other than they were nefarious objects designed to murder and maim. Certainly, I would never have imagined that 15 years later, while in my mid-20s and living alone in my own little isolated beachside studio in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Pacific Palisades, I would have two firearms of my own stashed away in my dark closet.
Amid a rash of break-ins, neighbors across the canal had reported a stranger coming back several nights in a row peeping through the cracks in my window blinds, even when the light was illuminated and it was evident I was inside. Then one warm September night, I was awoken around 2 a.m. to the thrashing noise of someone shaking my door and frantically trying to bust it open.
Concerned friends urged me to move, but I was determined not to abandon my beloved little space that had been converted from a 1970s surf-hippie hotel into little apartments. That was my sanctuary, and I was going to do what I could to protect myself.
Enough was enough.
Thus, my first trip to a gun range came that week. After several weekends of training, I bought my first AR-15 and, a couple of months later, my first handgun, a SIG Sauer P229. But it was no longer just about a quest for self-defense. I had stepped into a whole new world that my curious nature didn’t want to quell.
There were mental benefits, too.
Female gun ownership has been on a firm ascent and women are considered the fastest-growing segment in the gun-ownership demographics.
In my former life, I was studying to be a ballet dancer and, after that short-lived career ended in injury, I found my footing as a journalist focused on war-zone reporting and investigating human-rights abuses. The nature of the job meant that I was always on call to hop on a plane to cover a breaking news tragedy, hurrying to meet deadlines, navigating Los Angeles traffic to make it across town for an important court hearing or interview and rampantly reading to stay on top of the ever-evolving escalations of chaos around the planet.
While deeply in love with my profession, I was well aware that there was a kind of emptiness that calcified in the pit of my stomach since parting ways with the pointe shoes. As my twenties took hold, I was always subconsciously searching for a special something that would give me the same sense of focus, of discipline, of being forced to avoid all the external distractions of modern life—from texting to listening to music on my headphones to scrolling through Facebook—as ballet had provided me for almost two decades of life.
With a firearm in my hands and a target looming yards away, I found that focus I had been seeking. Range expeditions became a refuge from my overthinking and often-overfired mind, an outlet for being totally in the moment that mandated all my attention.
In my first few months of dipping into the gun culture, I did feel a little alone as a young woman. The guys working at the local Santa Monica sporting goods store would point out that they rarely saw females coming to stock up on boxes of .223 and, more often than not, I was the only woman lined up on a bench at the outdoor rifle range on a Saturday morning.
Before long, more female shooters started coming out to the range. Steadily, more and more ladies would also be lining up at a bench, sometimes with a male companion, but increasingly on their own with their own firearm.
Indeed, female gun ownership has been on a firm ascent and women are considered the fastest-growing segment in the gun-ownership demographics.
According to statistics from the NRA, around 23% of women in the U.S. own guns, when just 13% did in 2005. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) has documented a 77% rise in female gun ownership since 2005.
Moreover, the National Sporting Goods Association documented a 43.5% increase in female hunters from 2003 to 2013, and it is estimated that more than 5.4 million women in the U.S. target shoot for different reasons—from hunting and sport shooting to sharpening their self-defense skills.
“We have seen a consistent influx of women into training classes over the past eight years. Some women are interested in learning the safe use and storage of firearms for home defense; however, we have seen an increase in women who are shooting competitively and recreationally, too,” said Robyn Sandoval, executive director of A Girl & A Gun Women’s Shooting League, a national shooting club established in 2011 by women for women.
Robyn’s own foray into firearms was sparked by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“It changed my life. Prior to learning to shoot, I was strongly opposed to firearms ownership. But, watching the aftermath on TV, I saw a mother, desperate and scared. I turned to my husband in tears and asked ‘What do I have to do to ensure that is never me?’”
In addition to stocking up on nonperishables and first-aid supplies, self-protection suddenly seemed just as critical a component to her.
A Pew Research Center survey of 1,269 gun owners in 2017 also recorded that about a quarter of the women who own guns say protection is the only reason they own a firearm, and about 70% noted that they deem the right to own guns to be an essential component of their personal sense of freedom.
Some call it “firearm feminism,” and this has certainly come with its share of backlash and criticism from many in the anti-gun crowd; however, it is essentially about equality and personal security with or without a man. This offbeat brand of feminism emerged around the same time as the 1980s power-suit strutted into the social fabric, as women were taking up prominent positions in male-centric industries such as finance, military, business and law enforcement.
Smith & Wesson was the first to break the mold in 1989 with a Ladysmith collection of revolvers. Its competitors took note, and gradually other gun manufacturers took up the trend.
Nowadays, there are scores of female-centric training classes and academies across the country, association chapters dedicated to supporting female gun owners and many female-only competitions and meet-ups scattered across the country.
For one, Niki Jones founded Austin Sure Shots in 2010, a free women’s gun club. After moving from New York to Austin, where she was initially shocked to discover that she couldn’t find a female-only group to practice her concealed-carry skills, she set out to create her own.
“Since then, I have definitely seen an overall increase year to year. I believe this rise has been due mostly to social media,” she said. “People now receive news in virtually real-time and are more aware of crimes happening, and women have taken this information and decided to mitigate the risks.”
Niki, who became a personal protection officer in 2012—enabling her to protect clients while armed and donning plain clothes—said there is “no longer a stigma associated with women carrying firearms.” She says it’s now welcomed among her peers, men and women alike.
Niki has gone on in recent years to create Sure Shots Mag, a glossy female-focused magazine that at first glance could be Elle if it wasn’t for the fact that the covers feature firearms along with the Fendi. She is also the co-founder of the somewhat edgier Gun Cult magazine, “a lifestyle and culture magazine for badass women.”
The growing female ownership is also reflected in marketing materials, social media and even the designs of weapons and accessories by gun companies.
And while major social-media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, banned retailers from officially selling or promoting their products through direct advertisements, the rise of the “influencer,” especially the gun-toting lady, has given something of a loophole to these restrictions.
Armed with a weapon, often a professional photographer, swag and sponsors—some subjects flashing more flesh than others—and a whole hoard of hashtags, such as #gunsandgirls, #freedom #gunshoots, #gunshots and #womenempowerment, female shooters pair their passion with self and company promotion.
“There is still this myth that we can’t be feminine and carry a gun. But now, you don’t have to dress in baggy clothing to carry concealed,” said Jessica McLellan, a firearms instructor and owner of Guns and Lace training.
McLellan pointed out that, especially over the past decade, many resources have emerged for women. Female-made holsters, such as the Flashbang Holster, come in an array of colors, patterns and sizes and can be discreetly tucked in between a woman’s bra strap or her waist pant. They are barely visible beneath regular attire.
In 2017, the NRA brought to life its debut “concealed carry fashion show” for women in Milwaukee, Wis.—think multi-hued holsters crafted to sit on a female’s curved hip that are made of lightweight materials, and bras that both bosom-boost and bury the bullets.
With a quick internet search, female gun owners can pretty much buy anything from lacy bellyband holsters that resemble a sexy corset to leopard-print Gucci-like purses to conceal leggings and leather shooting gloves.
The National Sporting Goods Association reported in 2015 that women who purchased a gun in the previous year had spent an average of $400 on accessories. And the firearms themselves now come with options of more bling with the bang to suit many in the growing female market.
“I actually own an AR-15 with a red-lace pattern. A friend of mine carries a handgun in Tiffany Blue,” McLellan said. “Most of us couldn’t care what color it is, but if a pink gun brings even one woman to the range, it is mission accomplished.”
But, depending on whom you ask, that can be a contentious issue.
“There is this myth that female gun owners want pink guns and/or accessories,” Niki said. “Or that women should have smaller ‘pocket pistols’ or smaller-caliber guns.”
So as a word of warning to anyone tending to the female buyer: no assumptions. If she wants the pink gun, she’ll seek it out without you handing it off for an automatic viewing. Listen to her. Actually talk to her to find out what she desires and then help her.
Guns are the great equalizer, after all.