Target practice

A member of Roanoke’s Well-Armed Women chapter readies her sights on a target during a day at the range.

Gun ownership will always be a hot-button topic in a country where the language of a centuries-old document is still being analyzed for meaning. What was once considered a subject saved for just the men of the world, though, is now becoming a unisex interest, opening up a whole new industry for female firearm carriers.

Data from the Pew Research Center shows that one in five women owned a gun in 2017, the year with the most recent ownership figures, and that this percentage has slowly gone up over the years.

“With women we don’t necessarily have size or strength or speed on our side as opposed to the average male,” Alysha Wilson, co-chapter lead of the Well-Armed Women in Roanoke, said. “For women, it’s more a matter of leveling the playing field.”

Women’s groups like the Well-Armed Women have, as a result, become more common in and around local shooting ranges and sports clubs. The Roanoke chapter of Well-Armed Women, which operates out of Hillside Shooting Sports, has about 30 active members, according to Wilson.

The membership numbers, Wilson noted, often spike after violent tragedies in the news or that they hear about in their communities.

“It ebbs and flows when different things happen and people become more aware of maybe threats to their security,” Wilson said. “Mass shootings, an increase in crime, a report that there’s been an increase in sexual assaults; we might see an influx of people.”

Ladies nights where women can shoot at a discounted rate have become a popular way for women to meet up and learn how to shoot and defend themselves. Many have never shot a gun before out of disinterest in the activity or lack of training from the men in their lives who do shoot and carry guns.

“A lot of women I have taught come to me and say they didn’t want to learn from their dad or brother or husband because they felt like (the men) were talking down to them,” Wilson, who is also an NRA-certified instructor, said. “They find it is easier in a more inclusive environment where they’re supported by other women.”

Something that has sprouted from the expanded market is “carrywear,” or clothing and accessories geared toward women that could make carrying a weapon easier and more fashionable. A report from the National Shooting Sports Foundation in 2015 stated that women usually spend an average of around $800 for a gun, and an additional $400 or more on accessories for their guns.

Gun shows nowadays will have your expected gun belts and ammo boxes posted up next to retail racks of bedazzled purses or sleek black leggings that have something a little extra: a hidden pocket meant to conceal a handgun.

Freedom Firearms in Fort Wayne started selling products from Hiding Hilda, a handbag and accessory maker for the most fashionable firearms owners, after more women started frequenting the range, including a women’s group that has met there regularly for the past four years.

“We have definitely seen more women taking classes, buying guns and shooting in the range,” Marc Schroeder from Freedom Firearms said. “I think most of them come in because they feel, or a significant other persuades them, they need to be able to protect themselves. A lot of them find once they get involved with shooting that it is empowering and an enjoyable hobby.”

The guns themselves have also begun to change to appeal to more female consumers. Originally, the idea was to “pink it and shrink it,” suggesting that all women are interested in a pretty accessory that fits in their hand or their purse without being too imposing.

The industry has wised up a bit more since then, and doesn’t necessarily jump to the pretty pink gun in the case for their female customers, but offer new models that are more user-friendly for new gun owners with small hands. Models like the Smith and Wesson .380 EZ, which features a rack that is easier to slide and a magazine that is easier to load as well as other accessibility features.

“That gun was specially marketed for women to help break down the barriers for owning semi-automatic guns,” Wilson said.

Wilson also emphasized that these female firearm groups are about more than just learning to hit the target and walk with a weapon on their hip, it’s about revealing the strength a woman has to be their own heroes instead of the damsel in distress.

“Sometimes people think it’s just about firearms,” Wilson said. “It’s really not the case. We strive to do anything we can to lift women up to become their own defender.”

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