When A First Gun Comes Home

by
posted on July 24, 2023
woman holding new handgun
Photo: Peter Fountain

In the twilight of last summer, just as I boarded a flight, I glanced down at my phone to see four missed calls from Frankie, a good friend in Los Angeles. I hurriedly called back.

“He’s dead,” she shrieked. “He’s dead, and I need to learn to protect myself.”

Once Frankie finally calmed down enough to articulate what was going on, I learned that one of her closest friends in the city’s downtown area was walking to the gym one sunny morning when an assailant struck him down in an apparent act of random violence. Frankie, who lived alone and just a few blocks from where this increasingly common L.A. incident happened, immediately knew she no longer wanted to be a sitting duck.

“Anybody could come to my door anytime,” she lamented breathlessly.

A few private-range classes later and Frankie—a foreign national who had come to America a decade ago with European-entrenched anti-gun views—was the dignified owner of a SIG P229.

“I get it now,” she tells me. “I get why anyone, women especially, should have this as a means to protect themselves.”

The National Firearms Survey found that about 42.2% of gun owners are women, a significant leap from decades past in which women comprised only 10-20% of all U.S. gun owners.

When the global pandemic struck the U.S. in early 2021, this troubled time was quickly amplified by an eruption of anti-police riots nationwide. Businesses were burned. A lot of people were hurt, and murder rates went up. Gun sales then soared, especially among first-time owners. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), at least 5.4 million Americans bought their first firearm in 2021 alone. Gun sales since have stayed elevated.

Regan Wolfe, a 22-year-old professional from Tennessee, is one such new gun owner. She just bought her first gun, a Smith & Wesson .380, in the spring of 2023. She says it has given her more than just relief. “It is empowering. I go out of town often with my friends on road trips to different places. It is usually just me and a girlfriend,” she said. “We are all in our twenties, and I wanted to feel safer knowing that, if I got a flat tire or ended up in a bad part of town, we had something to protect ourselves with.”

Regan is hardly alone in her quest to take responsibility for her own safety; for example, her sister, Rachel, younger by two years, also purchased her first firearm at the same time. As a university student, Rachel points to the increasing threats on campus. She emphatically says she no longer wants to feel like a sitting duck waiting for a criminal to burst into a room and open fire. The sisters and their cousin have enrolled in training classes and will do whatever it takes to keep themselves safe.

“Next, we are getting our concealed carry,” says Rachel.

Between 2020 and 2022, as per a recent report from the gun-control-promoting National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, one in five American households bought their first-ever firearm, which expanded the percentage of American adults living in a residence with a gun to an estimated 46%.

“Over this period, one in 20 adults in America (5%) purchased a gun for the first time,” the report stated. According to the FBI, an average of 13 million guns were legally sold in the U.S. each year between 2010 and 2019, increasing to about 20 million annual gun sales in both 2020 and 2021.”

woman at gun storeFurther, NORC reports that both new and pre-pandemic gun owners showed similar levels of support for their Second Amendment rights and were proponents of concealed carry and tended to back enabling educators and school officials to carry concealed on campuses. The findings also pointed out that new gun owners are much more likely to be younger and to be people of color when compared to pre-pandemic gun owners in America.

Moreover, data from the Statista Research Department indicates that Americans between 35 and 54 were more likely to own a gun than those in both the 18-34 and the 55-and-over brackets. And, within the burgeoning demographic of new owners, women stand out from the pack.

The National Firearms Survey found that about 42.2% of gun owners are women, a significant leap from decades past in which women comprised only 10-20% of all U.S. gun owners. Minority groups are also flocking to gun stores; for example, the NSSF’s 2020 surveys found a 58% increase in black people buying guns compared to a year earlier. The following year, retailers witnessed a 44% spike. And, of the pandemic-induced growth, women made up almost one-third of all first-time gun buyers.

One such new owner is Felecia Rogers, who is 69 years old and from a small city in Georgia. She purchased her first gun, again a Smith & Wesson .380, in September 2022 after overcoming the fear and stigma that sometimes inhibits those who want to try to exercise their Second Amendment rights.

“I used to go to the range with my husband, but I couldn’t rack the gun myself,” said Felecia. “I was scared to death I wouldn’t be able to do it right.”

Yet she was fiercely determined to no longer be as vulnerable to crime, and to push past her fear, so Felecia signed up for a few training classes centered on understanding the basics. Subsequently, Felecia is now armed with a sense of confidence.

“I got comfortable and realized I wanted to own my own gun,” she said, emphasizing that her views on the Second Amendment have considerably evolved. “I just got my concealed-carry permit, and the next step is getting a holster; after that, I will do what I can to protect myself.”

And while gun ownership is not spoken about too much in her local community, she says she was surprised to discover how many other friends and acquaintances had also recently taken up arms.

“I was shocked when I went to church and mentioned I had taken classes, and then learned about all the others I knew who now owned guns,” said Felecia. “It just isn’t something people talk about.”

Moreover, Asian Americans, concerned about threats, have also sought to take ownership of their security. The NSSF reported that more than 27% of retailers saw a rise in Asian-American gun acquisitions in 2021. In addition, a joint study from the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University found that over half of the purchases within this community came from first-time gun owners. Across the board, minority purchases are up. The NSSF also noted a 49% leap in Hispanic Americans investing in their first gun between 2020 and 2022. Retailers additionally observed an 18% jump among Native-American customers and a 14% increase among Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders.

But the biggest class of 2023 is women from all walks of life.

“I like to ask why the students in our beginner class have decided to take a professional class focusing on the use of firearms for self-defense,” said Shelley Hill, owner/instructor of The Complete Combatant in Georgia. “The answers range from ‘I want to gain a level of self-resilience, the freedom to go about my life without living in fear,’ to ‘I am willing to take personal responsibility to become my own defender for my family and me’ and even for post-traumatic crossover into the mindset from ‘victim’ to ‘survivor.’ They understand that being competent with a firearm may save a life one day. From the time that a bad guy chooses you, you will have a very limited amount of time to make a decision. They choose how and when. Your actions need to be confident, quick and decisive.”

Minority groups are also flocking to gun stores; for example, the NSSF’s 2020 surveys found a 58% increase in black people buying guns compared to a year earlier.

And, in another example, for Texan Kat Joel-Reich, much of her work is dedicated to bringing women to the forefront. Kat knows firsthand what it is to be rendered helpless to criminal intent. In 2014, she and her husband—both then in their sixties—endured a home invasion and assault just after 3 a.m.

“Our door was broken down and my husband was brutally assaulted while I hid in the house making the 911 call,” she said. “At that time, I did not believe you needed a firearm unless you were military or police. So, we didn’t have any guns at the house. Lucky for us, the response time to our 911 call was six minutes in total. The police arrived and saved the day. But it is not always as quick as six minutes, and those six minutes seemed like forever. It was brutal.”

It was a lightning bolt of a wake-up call.

“A week after that, I went to my first meeting to learn to protect myself, and I have never looked back,” Kat said with defiance in her voice.

Moreover, the intruder—who was arrested by police in their kitchen—was sentenced to just three years behind bars for a string of violent felonies. He served less than a year. This made Kat even more aware of the need for effective personal protection and the notion that he, or others like him, could return to seek revenge at any time.

Almost 10 years on, Kat is a respected firearms teacher. Her work hinges on helping women bear arms. “The empowerment is that when you leave my class, you feel comfortable enough to go to the range and practice on your own,” said Kat triumphantly.

Kat agreed that first-time owners have been the primary attendees in her women-only classes in recent months. “It is mostly ladies who want to feel empowered and become their own first responders,” she said. “They want to be their own first responders and don’t want to have to depend on a mate, or they are a widow and are suddenly alone and want to take care of themselves.”

man at gun storeFor Kat, her role as a community leader in firearms instruction is an almost 180-degree turn from her world pre-invasion. “When I started my business, I had a lot of pushback because I was known in the community as a democratic Buddhist,” she said. “But when you look at what happened, you realize you cannot talk your way out of a situation like that.”

While purchases of firearms are motivated by various factors, roughly two-thirds of new owners are inspired, first and foremost, by self-defense and the defense of their families. Nevertheless, there is a contingency of new owners driven by a passion for the outdoors.

“My first purchase started as a means of self-protection, and I am still learning the self-protective aspects, but now I intend to start doing some steel-shooting competitions,” said Dana Cerbone, a native of Long Island, N.Y. “Shooting sports offer me something entirely new, and I just started shooting clays. I’m enjoying it as a sport.”

Dana highlights that while she was never anti-gun—as she recalls shooting BB guns as a kid—it was just something she never felt the need to learn herself. Fast-forward to high school, and Dana became heavily involved in martial arts. “I was really into the whole idea of self-defense, so I never felt super vulnerable. But now I am 54 years old and have psoriatic arthritis, which has been very bad for the last couple of years. And my mobility at times is, you know, that of an old lady,” said Dana. “Sometimes I walk hunched over. I have a limp. I have difficulty walking. So, I have felt vulnerable in a way I never have.”

These woes, coupled with the persistent threat of today’s wayward and unpredictable world, prompted Dana to follow up on a posting she came across last year for a women’s training class near her home. Under New York’s stringent gun-control regime, Dana has only been allowed to buy a shotgun, thus far, but she hopes to soon acquire a concealed-carry permit.

Newcomers utilizing their Second Amendment rights may prove to be the most-prominent advocates for it going forward. All the people quoted here—and many others interviewed—said they now see guns, and this constitutional right, differently. They have become proponents of our right to keep and bear arms. Many explained that they now know they can defend themselves until help arrives and that they don’t want to go back to helplessness.

In fact, many said they have been surprised by how friendly and welcoming gun owners and trainers are. “Every person I have met in what folks call the ‘gun community’ has been wonderful, and these are people I would never have crossed paths with otherwise. I love that it is a very safe environment regarding gun safety. It is a community that has made me feel secure,” said Dana. “And in terms of being a woman and arming oneself, it can certainly be a scary endeavor. But there is a community to help you learn the right way.”

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