DES MOINES, Iowa—It was just after 8 a.m. on a balmy winter Saturday, and 45 women had gathered at a gun range on the suburban outskirts of Des Moines to watch, lukewarm coffees and granola bars in hand, as a man aimed a decoy pistol directly at another man’s heart.
“The laser doesn’t lie, ladies.”
Dustin, our instructor for the morning and one of only two men in the room, had a small red dot hovering at the center of his chest. When he moved, the dot moved with him.
His goateed, angular face turned serious. That kind of precision, he explained, was an absolute necessity in a defensive shooting situation. If we were in an honest-to-god home invasion, the laser sight’s bright agility, the immediacy of that aim, could be the difference between life and death.
Several women nodded in solemn agreement and scratched notes onto the papers in front of them. Someone shut off the lights, and the room—large and sterile like a classroom that had been abandoned for the summer—was cast into darkness. The red dot smoldered.
After the crash course on laser sights ended, the members of the Des Moines chapter of The Well Armed Woman, a national educational resource on women and guns (“Where the feminine and firearms meet”), filed out to reclaim the firearms they had checked at the front desk.
Ahead of me, a woman in sturdy work boots observed that a strong case had been made for laser sights, but, then again, she added, “I already have one.”
The women that I met in Des Moines own guns. Often many guns. They have purses that conceal them, specially made holsters that fit under slim sweaters, and a deep knowledge of the weapons they carry on their bodies and keep in their homes. I spent a rainy morning talking with them about their firearms—why they own them, how they use them, the laws that regulate them, and what it means to be a Well Armed Woman in a country of well-armed men.
They knew the world is a dangerous place for women, but as Anita, a warm, soft spoken mother of three who looked like she could have been dressed for church, told me, guns felt to them like some small insurance against all that. (Most of the women I spoke to requested that I not use their last names because of concerns about their privacy.)
“I have children, and it’s often just me and the kids or my husband is out of town,” she said. “So I wanted something to keep us a little safer.”
We don’t often talk about women as gun owners. Partially because gun ownership among women, while on the rise since 2001, is still comparatively low. According to a self-reported Gallup survey released in 2011, 23% of women in the U.S. personally own guns compared with 46% of men. (The rate of women who say they have a gun in their home—a different metric because a gun in the home could be a father’s or a husband’s—is slightly higher, at 31%.)
Another reason so little attention is paid to women who own guns is because the face of gun violence is overwhelmingly male. Men are responsible for the overwhelming majority of mass shootings in the U.S., even though those account for less than 1% of gun homicides. Most of the gun deaths in this country—about 60%—are suicides, and most of those are committed by white men.
When we talk about women and guns at all, it’s usually in terms of victimization: Women in the United States are far more likely to be murdered in their homes than outside their homes. And the perpetrator in these cases is far more likely to be an intimate partner than a stranger breaking down the door. According to a multi-state study published in the Journal of Public Health, the presence of a firearm during a domestic violence incident increases the likelihood that a woman will be murdered by a jarring 500%. Women in the United States are also 11 times more likely to be murdered with guns than women in other wealthy nations.
Deborah Azrael, the associate director of the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center and a research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health, has summarized decades of research on women and guns in pretty blunt terms: “Where there are more guns, more women die. That’s just incontrovertibly true.”
But when the Well Armed Women of Des Moines talked to me about their guns, our conversations were, without exception, about empowerment and protecting themselves in the potentially hostile world beyond their doors.
“At first I didn’t carry all the time, but now I’ve got a holster that I’m comfortable with, so I pretty much don’t go anywhere without it,” said Brenda Wagner, who, when I asked if I could print her full name in the story, agreed with a warm laugh. "I have nothing to hide."
The sound of gunshots reverberated through the safety window as we watched the women in the range aim at the targets ahead of them.
Brenda and her wife, Thack, whose short dark hair was peppered with flecks of gray, took turns recounting their evolution as gun owners: Brenda grew up around guns but didn’t buy her first firearm until about five years ago, in her mid-40s. Thack, who didn’t have guns in her home growing up, became interested in guns because of Brenda. For Brenda’s last birthday, they gave themselves concealed-carry permits as a present.
Brenda, like Anita, like virtually all the women I spoke to, said her carry license gave her a sense of safety: “I feel a lot better with it, walking my dog, going to the grocery store. A couple of ladies [in the area] have been carjacked and not been able to defend themselves. I want to be able to defend myself.”
The question of self-defense is one of the more maddeningly complex things about gun ownership in general, but it seems particularly fraught when you're talking about women who own guns.
Self-defense shootings—or instances when a gun is brandished, but not fired, in self-defense—are difficult for researchers to document because they’re largely based on self-reporting. And that’s an incredibly subjective thing.
A study released in 2000 on defensive gun use found that, when asked to describe the incident, what was reported as self-defense was sometimes overtly hostile, and sometimes illegal, gun use. This is how a 63-year-old man who responded to that survey described what he reported as self-defense: “I was watching a movie and [an acquaintance] interrupted me. I yelled at him that I was going to shoot him and he ran to his car.”
And trying to identify, at least with any precision, how many homicides or other crimes may have been prevented by women using guns in self-defense has been a major challenge for researchers.
The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit tracking organization, has counted 51,082 incidents of gun-related violence this year—deaths, injuries, or threats with a firearm. Only 1,221 were reported and verified as cases of defensive gun use—less than 3%.
But a majority of Americans believe that the presence of a gun makes their home safer. And it’s easy to understand, at least on a personal level, why women like Brenda and Anita might feel safer with guns than without. They weren’t novices—they were disciplined and knowledgeable about their weapons. But our conversations about self-defense were also largely abstract. None of the women I spoke to talked about actually firing their guns in a defensive situation. The firearms were there just there in case you needed them, but the ideal scenario, everyone seemed to agree, is that you don’t need them.
These women also regarded their path to gun ownership as a process. Often a gradual one. A 2015 study commissioned by the National Shooting Sports Foundation on gun ownership among women indicates that this is common when it comes to women who own guns. The report found that more than 70% of the women surveyed had taken a training course, and 95% had done target shooting.
The well-armed women of Des Moines weren’t born knowing how to properly handle a firearm. They had to learn to shoot, to walk confidently with a gun concealed on their bodies. That knowledge, maybe more than the gun itself, was a major source of power in a world in which women are so often made to feel vulnerable.
That sense of responsibility was also, for many of these women, a guiding principle on policy. They didn’t pick up their guns until they did their homework.
“I think it’s questionable that you can get a permit to carry online,” Penny told me as she pulled a bit at her black baseball cap, shaking her head. Iowa is one of five states that accepts certification done entirely online for concealed-carry permits. “If you’re a child and you’re going hunting, they require them to take hunting classes—in person. You’re not going to send your 9-year-old to the internet and then send them out with a gun to the woods.”
We chatted while seated against a thick pane of safety glass that separated us from the live range. After a morning of women cycling through to shoot, small piles of bullet casings were clustered around the gallery.
Penny had even stronger words when I asked her about an exception in the Brady Act that allows certain people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to own guns despite a general prohibition.
Under current law, people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence are only banned from owning guns if they are married to, have children with, or live with their victims. (And, because only 60% of gun sales fall under current background check requirements, that’s if they’re subjected to a background check in the first place.)
Ten states have acted to close the loophole, but in most of the country convicted abusers in dating relationships are free to purchase and keep as many guns as they’d like.
“It’s asinine,” Penny said.
Talking to women about guns that morning also meant talking a lot about men.
“My husband had bought a gun for his birthday, so I get home one day and there’s a gun on the table. I freaked out: ‘There’s a handgun!’” Becky told me, mimicking herself jumping back at the sight of it. “It was big, huge, and I was terrified of it. It took me a day just to adjust to the idea that there was a gun in the house. So we went out to a shooting range and I practiced shooting it.”
Becky was one of several women who said that they had learned to shoot because a man in their lives—often a husband but sometimes a father or brother—kept guns in the house. She said that she used to feel that she couldn’t defend herself or others, but, after about a year and half learning to shoot, getting her concealed-carry permit changed that. “Before, it was like I would be afraid. I’m kind of small and not that strong,” she said. “But now I feel a little better that if I see someone who is hurt or is in danger, I could step into the situation knowing that if I needed to I could defend myself.”
Becky, like most of the women I spoke to, never specified whom they might be defending themselves from, it was all generalized stranger danger. And the neutral language of gun safety doesn’t make things much clearer. There are “threats” and “attackers” in these classes. The danger is in the abstract.
But look around at a gun range and those blanks get filled in pretty fast. While I talked to Anita, another woman practiced her aim on a skills simulator. The instructions appeared on the screen: “Thugs and looters have taken over Fairview and only you are left to restore order.”
The woman raised the pistol—a toy that looked deadly—and took aim.
“I don’t feel like it’s a danger to myself,” Anita, the mom of three, said when I asked if she ever worried if the presence of a gun might make a dangerous situation more dangerous. “I’d rather carry because if I do have a situation it gives me distance between me and my attacker.”
On the screen, men popped out from behind dumpsters, out of the windows of abandoned buildings. They approached from the sides, from unexpected angles.
As the woman fired, an orange burst indicated when she’d hit her target. The men didn’t fall on impact, they simply disappeared. With each shot you could see them dissolve, one by one, from the screen before us.
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