When Gayle Trotter, senior fellow at the conservative Independent Women's Forumspoke before Congress in late January, she presented female gun ownership as a key tool in winning women's equality. Touting the AR-15, the semi-automatic gun used by Adam Lanza in the Newtown massacre, as the weapon of choice - "they have good handling, they're light, they're easy for women to hold" - she told the Senate that banning assault weapons disadvantages women. "They do not have the same type of physical strength and opportunity to defend themselves in hand-to-hand struggle," she testified. "For women, the ability to arm ourselves for our protection is even more consequential than for men because guns are the equalizer in a violent confrontation."
While many feminists and antigun females were shocked by Trotter's assertion, others supported her, arguing that guns give women an unparalleled source of power. It's an argument that is gaining traction. In fact, NBC News reports that 23 percent of US females presently own at least one firearm, up from 13 percent in 2005. The reason? According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a 51-year-old pro-gun organization headquartered just three miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, while 24 percent of women use guns for hunting or sport, 80 percent say they purchased them to protect themselves, their homes and families from burglary, mugging, rape and other forms of assault.
Not surprisingly, a whole slew of organizations have sprung up to meet this burgeoning trend: Armed Females of America is the most extreme and advocates, in no uncertain terms, the use of AK-47s. "We refuse to be victimized by left-thinking in that the AK, or any firearm, is evil," their web site asserts. "A gun is a gun is a gun. We view the AK-47 as a symbol of freedom." That symbol can be seen on all AFA products, from T-shirts to bumper stickers, hoodies, mouse pads, mugs, tote bags and aprons. The National Rifle Association has also jumped into the fray with a Women on Target program that offers single-gender classes in gun safety, hunting, marksmanship and competitive shooting - and puts forward the idea that the only safe woman is an armed woman.
Then there's the marketplace. In an effort to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, Glamguns.com sells weapons with a Hello Kitty icon on the handle; Bushmaster.com offers lightweight carbon pistols "that are perfect for women;" and stylized and colorful handguns include a Bond Girl pink Bereta for $450, a pink Cobra for $250 and a Sig in blue, pink or rainbow for $699. In addition, Gun Totin' Mamas sells "affordable leather concealed weapons handbags," many for less than $100.
Business is booming - in shops, online and at approximately 5,000 guns shows a year held throughout the country. And caricatures aside, women of every age, race and class background are learning to shoot, and not just at paper targets.
Debby, a 60-year-old retired elementary school teacher from Hamburg, New Jersey, is patiently waiting in a long line to get inside a mid-February gun show in Middletown, New York. "I own a 20-gauge pump shotgun for skeet shooting, a .22 lever action for target practice and The Judge for self-defense," she begins. "I'm new to this. I just got into shooting a few years ago, but my husband has always hunted. About two years ago, he was teaching our then-10-year-old grandson to shoot at targets. I was watching them and thought, 'If a 10-year-old can do this, so can I.' I love the challenge of it, love that in late middle-age, I can still learn something new. I also like knowing that I can keep myself safe."
The guns, Debby continues, are stored in a lockbox, but, she says, she would not hesitate to take one out if she heard an intruder. "Our house was robbed a while ago when we were not at home. We were wiped out. I can't describe the feeling, that our home, our sanctuary, our safe place had been violated. If something like that ever happens again, and I have a chance to fight back, I will."
That idea - that the best way to protect oneself is with a gun - was repeated by every woman interviewed.
Ileana, 32, is walking from table to table, inspecting rifles and handguns with her husband, a New York City law enforcement officer. "I own a Remington 519," she says. "We live in a great area of Westchester County, but there are crazy people everywhere, great area or not. I feel that as long as gun sellers do background checks so that the wrong people don't have access to guns, everyone should be able to defend themselves. As women, we don't have the strength of a man. I'm a professional in the fashion industry, and I take the train into the city every weekday. I get home late some nights. Anything can happen, and mace can only get you so far." She learned this, she adds, while growing up in a dangerous area of the Bronx where all of the women she grew up with carry small guns for their own protection. "They taught me not to be a victim."
Similarly, Vanessa, 42, a pharmacist from Greenwood Lakes, New York, says that she owns several guns, including an AK-47 that she purchased in 2012. "I live in a very beautiful private house at the top of a dirt road. At night, there's nothing and nobody around. If my husband is out, I feel vulnerable because there are so many places around the perimeter where someone can hide. I feel empowered by knowing how to shoot. It's like, wow, I can take care of myself."
Since the Newtown shooting, Vanessa says, she has become increasingly concerned about attempts to restrict access to guns and ammunition and points to a bright orange NRA flyer that urges gun buyers to "voice opposition to any new regulations" by calling the US Capitol switchboard.
"Little by little, they're stripping our rights away in the name of safety," Vanessa continues. "It's not OK. All over the world, people are rising up against tyrannical government. Why can't it happen here? The Second Amendment is clear: The right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed." This is why, she adds, she is opposed to the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (NY SAFE) Act, passed by the state legislature in early 2013 and billed as the strictest gun law in the country.
Under the law's provisions, beginning in April, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and therapists will be required to file a report with local mental health officials whenever they suspect that a patient might engage in self-injurious conduct or pose a danger to others. Names will be entered into a database to be checked before firearms purchases are approved. If a mentally ill person already owns a weapon, their permit will be revoked, and law enforcers will remove all firearms from their possession. The ban further bars the sale of specific assault weapons, and current owners will have one year to register them with authorities. High-capacity magazines will be reduced from 10 rounds to seven. In addition, all ammunition sellers will be required to enlist with the state police, and all ammunition buyers will be required to go through a background check. Internet ammunition sales will become illegal, and the penalty for bringing a firearm onto school grounds - or onto a school bus - will be raised from a misdemeanor to a Class E felony. Lastly, purchasing a gun for someone who is ineligible to buy one will become a Class D felony, punishable by up to seven years in jail.
Almost everyone waiting to get into this particular gun show is angry about some aspect of the legislation, and there is widespread grumbling about the imposition of background checks for ammunition purchasers. "I'm here to get as much ammo as I can," a rowdy female in her late 20s announces as she waits to enter the exhibition hall. "I think the whole Newtown thing was planned in advance to change the gun laws. Look around. All these people are here to buy as much ammo as they can afford before the law changes. We're saying Fuck [New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo and Fuck Obama."
Do you worry about accidents, each woman was asked. What of the findings, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, that people who have guns in their homes are 43 times more likely to kill a family member, friend or acquaintance than households without firearms? What about statistics indicating that suicide is more common in homes with guns than in homes without them?
"You have to be responsible," says Kristina, an eldercare worker and parent of four children, ages nine to 18. "Our weapons are all locked away, but I keep one gun readily accessible but not loaded. It can be loaded quickly, in about 10 seconds, and you'd better bet that if there is a home invasion threatening my family - there have been two in our tiny town over the past year - I will use it."
"It's all about education, teaching people about the safe handling and storage of their guns," says Debby, the retired New Jersey teacher. "If you are careful, it is no more dangerous to keep guns in the house than it is to keep knives in the kitchen."
What's more, to a one, these women oppose limitations on which guns they can purchase. "The Second Amendment gives me the right to own a gun," Kristina argues. "I do support background checks, but there are always ways to get guns illegally. If someone wants to do so, they'll find a way to buy them."
While Kristina, Vanessa and countless other women have lobbied and demonstrated in support of gun rights, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an organization that formed immediately after the Newtown shootings, now has 70 chapters throughout the country as well as spinoffs for grandmothers, teachers and fathers. Their agenda is broad: Instituting a ban on assault weapons and ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds; requiring background checks for all gun and ammunition purchases; requiring the reporting of large ammunition purchases to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; banning online ammunition sales; and working at the state level to strengthen local gun laws.
Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, believes that "a dog and a burglar alarm are much more effective and much less dangerous that keeping a gun in your home." In an email, she took Gayle Trotter to task for her comment about guns as a gender equalizer. "The best way to equalize power between men and women would be to decrease the amount of guns - particularly assault weapons - not to increase the amount of people who are armed," she wrote. In addition, the Moms support the action of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and that state's legislature, but understand that change has to happen at the federal level. "Eight children are killed by guns every day in the United States," their web site states. "The 80 million moms in our country will not stand for continued inaction by Congress on sensible gun laws."
Kristina and her pro-gun allies disagree. "If a surgeon causes injury or death due to his or her actions, they are held responsible, not the scalpel. The loss of a child is every parent's worst fear, and while my heart breaks for the families in Newtown and their pain, they do not have the right to take away my right to defend my family as I see fit."