What is gun culture really like in America? Well, you might not immediately picture women between the ages of 32 and 76 running through advanced self-defense scenarios. But perhaps you should.
If the Sunshine Shooting Club in Missouri were a TV show, it might be a cross between “Golden Girls” and “Designing Women.” Or if it were a movie, perhaps it would be a heady blend of “Steel Magnolias” with a tiny touch of “The Hunger Games.” The women in this club hold a wide variety of jobs. Occupations include youngest female Missouri state representative, real estate broker, retired teacher active in the VFW Auxiliary at the state level, Wright County circuit clerk, retired ER nurse who raised a Navy SEAL, insurance broker, Mary Kay sales associate, homesteader who yearns to become a private detective, farmer who also runs a trucking business, and yours truly—a gun writer with a side business developing websites and social media.
It seems that whenever this eclectic group of women meet to shoot, the skies clear and the sun pops out, regardless of any nasty weather forecasts—hence the club’s name.
The group formed in the fall of 2017, when Hannah Kelly (our state representative) and I, chatting in a local diner, decided we wanted to form a shooting organization for women, affiliated with a nationally based group. For a full year, we met monthly at the range, focusing mostly on handgun skills and drills, but occasionally our NRA instructors, Mike Ross and Jason Baird, threw in shotgun and rifle experiences. For long-gun training, we scrounged extra rifles or shotguns so that everyone could train. (Imagine seeing a grandmother lying prone, hiding behind a tire, shooting at the bad guys in a parking-lot scenario.)
Unfortunately, during the second year, the range we had been using closed, so we looked for other options. We shot for about six months at a shotgun range over in Mansfield, Mo., honing our trap and skeet skills, but sorely missing our handgun training. We could plink at that range, but we couldn’t move and shoot.
During our hiatus from handguns, a few members dropped out (at our peak, we had 15), and we went through all the life changes you could expect in a club like this: Someone got married, someone got divorced, someone’s teenage daughter joined the Navy, our youngest member adopted a teenage daughter that she had fostered and one grandma adopted her three young grandchildren. When one of our members got elected as circuit clerk, she became even more aware of the importance of personal protection. We would chat about all these things in a private online group, during our training sessions, and at our lunches afterward at the local pizza parlor called Red’s in Norwood, Mo.
Then, Mike opened his own range, and we haven’t looked back. We decided it was time to form our own more-perfect union. We separated from the large, organized national women’s shooting league for a few reasons: 1) Our trainer needed to be paid for his services; 2) We had to pay range fees that were greater than the old days; and 3) We wanted to train as a small, tightknit group.
Regarding that latter point, we had found that with the nationally based organization, we couldn’t turn down people (rightly so), and that’s throwing beginners in with advanced shooters on the range. Someone always has to wait for someone. With the average age of the group being somewhere in the mid-50s, we don’t have time for that right now. We are there to train and train hard! So, in our independent iteration, we have a policy that we will accept a new person into the club if she shows Mike, our trainer, that she is at our level.
Nonetheless, in our club, there’s never a stupid question. One member, retired nurse Linda Cannon, explains it this way: “We are a group of women who enjoy the chance to get professional training in a relaxed atmosphere, not with an emphasis on competition, just friendly fun with nice people. Our instructor is easygoing and a fun person to learn from, and he never gets rattled!”
These days, we train monthly—mostly with handguns—and we’ve added outside-the-waistband holsters, gun belts and magazine holders to the mix. Mike’s experience as a law-enforcement officer and in the U.S. Marines comes into play, and he routinely thinks of new challenges for us with safe, yet interesting drills. He once told us that he believes we shoot better than some local law-enforcement officers!
Why do we do all this? As one member, Linda, said, “I enjoy my training, and I will train as long as I can. It’s kind of like my yoga I’ve done for years—if you take a break, you find you miss it and that your skill degrades.”
Lori Jones (the circuit clerk) added, “I wanted to gain knowledge of firearms and get more comfortable with them on my own and gain confidence.”
Another retiree in the club, a former teacher and the oldest member, Nancy Smith, confidently carries concealed as she travels the state attending VFW Auxiliary meetings, and now is part of her church security team. She recalled, “At the church council meeting, one of the women asked, ‘Do you know how to use that gun?’ I told her, ‘Of course I do! I train at least once a month with qualified instructors.’ So glad to have this group to help us build our skill and confidence!” (Nancy’s goal for 2021 is to build her own AR, which is something she never would have dreamed of doing three years ago. We’ll probably accommodate her wish soon and host an AR-building clinic on my dining room table or in my workshop.)
Farmer Nora Betts said, “I wanted to be in an all-women’s group because, in the beginning, I felt intimidated by being around men. Since being in this group, my confidence has skyrocketed—not only in my shooting, but also in everyday life.”
Our state representative, Hannah, said, “The club isn’t just valuable to me for the gun education piece ... it’s a lot more than that. It’s relationship-building practices; it’s a self-confidence building outlet; and it’s a place with no preset expectations other than that you be willing to learn and have a desire to adequately protect yourself and those you love.”
We have formed a bond, and there’s a level of pride when we talk about what we’ve accomplished and what we aim to do in the future together—charity work, tours and visiting our government representatives included. I often hear people comment that they’re a bit jealous of my club (even the editor for this piece said it), and I always encourage people to build something like it for themselves. You don’t have to be affiliated with a national women’s shooting organization to enjoy the camaraderie of a women’s-only shooting group. Find a good NRA instructor willing to dedicate his or her time, work with a range to host your shooting activities, then find a few women who believe in the mission of training. Craft your goals as you go along. Be open to listening to what the club members want to do. And, perhaps most importantly, figure out how many pizzas to order afterward, so you don’t wind up like we did the first time with seven large pizzas for eight people. (But hey, that’s OK, too. Remember all those adopted kids?) Pretty soon, you should have your own source of healthy gun culture—your own slice of sunshine.