Robin Natanel picks up a compact black pistol, barrel pointed down range. Gripping the gun with both hands, left foot forward, she raises the semi-automatic and methodically squeezes off five shots. The first one creases the left edge of a red bull’s-eye on a target 25 feet away. The four others paint a three-inch pattern around the first. If the target were a person’s head or heart, he’d probably be dead.
Natanel is a Buddhist, a self-avowed “spiritual person,” a 53-year-old divorcee who lives alone in a liberal-leaning suburb near Boston. She is 5-foot-1 (155 centimeters) and has blonde hair, dark eyes, a ready smile and a soothing voice, with a hint of Boston brogue. She’s a Tai Chi instructor who in classes invokes the benefits of meditation. And at least twice a month, she takes her German-made Walther PK380 to a shooting range and blazes away.
Two years ago, an ex-boyfriend broke into her house when she wasn’t home. The police advised a restraining order. Instead, she bought pepper spray and programmed the local police number on her cell phone’s speed dial. “I was constantly terrified for my safety,” she says.
Ultimately, she got the Walther, joining a confederacy of people who might once have been counted on in the main to be anti-handgun -- women, liberals, gays, college kids. They are part of a national story: Domestic handgun production and imports more than doubled over four years to about 4.6 million in 2009, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun-industry trade group.
The surge has been propelled by shifting politics and demographics that have made it easier and more acceptable than at any time in 75 years for Americans to buy and carry pistols. Post-9/11 fears also seem to be a factor, as has been the relentless pro-gun politicking of the National Rifle Association and marketing, particularly to women, by handgun manufacturers. Events like yesterday’s fatal shootings on the Virginia Tech University campus reinforce a feeling that the world is an unsafe place, even as violent U.S. crime rates fall.
Natanel found it was no trouble to purchase the Walther, a brand favored by movie superspy James Bond, or to locate experts to train her. Her circumstances won her a conceal-carry permit in a state with tough gun-control laws. Her friends have been broadminded about her conversion.
“I’d never considered a gun,” Natanel says. “I thought they were scary. I wanted nothing to do with them. I didn’t think anyone should have them.”
Twenty years ago, 76 percent of women felt that way about handguns, and 68 percent of all people in the country were wary enough of firearms of any kind to tell Gallup pollsters that they backed laws more strictly limiting their sale. Then what Gallup calls “a clear societal change” began.
In October, a Gallup poll found record-low support for a handgun ban -- at 26 percent among all, and 31 percent among women. The poll, which has tracked gun attitudes since 1959, documented a record-low 43 percent who favor making it more difficult to acquire guns and record-high numbers of women and Democrats saying there is a firearm at home. Forty-seven percent said someone in the household owns at least one gun, the highest reading in 18 years.
The growing acceptance of guns echoes a transformation in the politics of weapons. In 1987, Florida joined a handful of states that by law or tradition allowed people to carry hidden guns; now Illinois is the sole conceal-carry holdout, and the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 16 sent to the Senate a bill advocated by the NRA that would require those that issue concealed gun permits to recognize licenses from other states.
Congress let the ban on assault weapons expire in 2004. The last federal gun-control initiative to pass -- a 2008 measure that beefed up screening to prevent the mentally ill from buying firearms -- was an incremental change in the wake of a 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, perpetrated by a psychotic student. Yesterday, the school said one of its police officers was shot and killed on campus and that another person was found dead from a gunshot wound.
In decades past, mass shootings, such as the Jan. 8 rampage that killed six and wounded Democratic U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, provided a potent rallying cry for the anti-gun movement. These days, pro-gun forces are as likely to parade them out as evidence that citizens need to arm themselves against attacks that the authorities are often helpless to prevent. Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, which claims 45,000 adherents on Facebook, sprang up in response to the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.
“Post-9/11, the thinking of more and more people is that, when push comes to shove, I need to be more responsible for my safety,” says Peggy Tartaro, executive editor of Women & Guns, a magazine published by the Second Amendment Foundation, a Bellevue, Washington-based group named for the constitutional amendment regarding the right to keep and bear arms.
At the same time, the conceal-carry movement has gained momentum, in part because the dire predictions of anti-gun groups in the early years of the fight -- that carriers of hidden guns would deploy them to settle disputes over road rage and the like -- haven’t materialized.
“We don’t look around and see blood spreading across the country,” says Deborah Homsher, an Ithaca, New York, writer whose 2001 book, “Women & Guns,” explored gun politics in the 1990s. “I think that fact deflates the anti-argument.”
Women in Combat
The advent of the 24/7 news cycle and its steady thrum on violent crimes may also be helping to drive people to handguns. Deciding to acquire one is part of “a broader feeling of helplessness that doesn’t come out of any kind of thoughtful calculation of risk,” says Homsher. “People buy guns to get rid of their phantoms.”
Women, too, may be liberalizing gun attitudes, because of the unprecedented numbers of them who have trained on firearms in the military and law enforcement in the past 30 years. Some 250,000 women have served in combat zones -- and often in combat roles -- in Iraq and Afghanistan, returning with a familiarity of firearms their mothers never had.
The latest data from the National Firearms Survey, a telephone poll conducted by an arm of the Harvard School of Public Health, shows 40 percent of America’s 283 million privately owned firearms are handguns, up from the 34 percent the survey found in 1994. And while middle-aged white men own the most handguns of any demographic segment, according to federal data, other groups are arming up.
Besides Students for Concealed Carry, there are the Pink Pistols, Mothers Arms, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, the Second Amendment Sisters, the Women’s Firearm Network and the International Defensive Pistol Association, among others. Their influence may be outsized in gaining converts as they set up Facebook pages, churn out blogs and post recruiting videos on YouTube.
The public face of the 11-year-old Pink Pistols, which claims 1,500 members across 29 chapters, is Nicki Stallard, a 52-year-old, San Jose, California, medical technician who has a Colt .45 and a conceal-carry permit. She recruits under the group’s motto, “Armed gays don’t get bashed.”
Stallard, who had a sex-change operation in 2007, is in a documentary being made by HEYbabe Productions, a group of independent film makers, that amounts to a call to arms for gays. The title, “Arming Laramie,” derives from Laramie, Wyoming, the site of the 1988 murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay college student, that led to the passage of a 2009 federal hate crimes law named after him.
As Gwen Patton, a former spokeswoman for the Pink Pistols, says in the trailer: “We teach queers to shoot -- then we teach everybody that we’ve done it.”
Proselytizing for handguns in the gay community can be difficult, Stallard says, given that “many people in gun culture are anti-gay, so as a reflex, the gays are anti-gun. It isn’t logical, it’s emotional.”
Stallard, who grew up in what she calls “anti-gun New York City,” acquired her handgun before the sex change, and says the surgery increased her concern about being a victim. She likens the Pink Pistols to Deacons for Peace and Justice, an armed movement in the 1960s that protected civil rights demonstrators from the Ku Klux Klan.
“I accept that the gay-rights movement began in nonviolence, and I believe in nonaggression,” she says. “But if in adopting a posture of nonviolence you make yourself a target for a sociopath, that’s not right. Violence is ugly, but if my life is on the line I will protect myself.”
While the skeptics don’t dispute that the raw number of guns, including pistols, has grown, they point to the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, which indicates more guns are being concentrated in fewer hands. That poll last year found a third of households claimed to have at least one gun, far fewer than those answering the same question in Gallup’s October poll. Tartaro says these discrepancies lie in the fact that people “simply don’t always tell pollsters the truth about gun ownership.”
Those Americans who have acquired handguns for protection are living with “serious delusions,” says Caroline Brewer, a spokeswoman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. She contends that few are trained rigorously enough to deploy their weapons in the shock and heat of an attack, that they’ll shoot innocent bystanders, that more times than not their firearms will be turned against them.
Allowing Hidden Guns
“To suggest all these guns make the world safer is pure fantasy,” she says. “And the idea that Americans are comfortable with millions of guns being carried by millions of people -- I just don’t buy it. Most Americans aren’t aware how easily people can get guns, and all the places that they can take guns.”
Such fears underpin the concerns of states that allow people to carry hidden handguns but make permits difficult to obtain by leaving it up to the discretion of local police. Densely packed New York City, with a population of more than 8 million, issued just over 2,100 permits last year, according to the New York Daily News. Meanwhile, Florida, with about 19 million citizens, issued 123,759 in the fiscal year ended June 30 and has more than 1 million active permits, state data show.
“When you look at how rigorously our police and military are trained in firearms to keep their skills up to snuff, I just think it’s a huge leap to suggest people will be able to safely use guns with so little training,” says Laura Browder, a University of Richmond professor of American studies and author of a 2006 book, “Her Best Shot,” exploring the history of American women and firearms.
Pulling the Trigger
Browder lives in Virginia, where it’s possible to get a conceal-carry permit with no more than 10 hours of training in a hunter safety course. Alaska and Vermont allow residents to carry concealed handguns with no permit at all.
Lyn Bates, an instructor with Arming Women Against Rape and Endangerment, or AWARE, who taught Robin Natanel to shoot, shares Browder’s concern even as she defends handgun ownership. A Boston-area grassroots group, AWARE’s philosophy is built around the tenet that the gun should be the last resort and that owners need to be rigorously prepared, physically and psychologically, to pull the trigger.
One AWARE exercise presents students with a list of 45 questions that get to the nub of the legal and moral argument over shooting an assailant. A few of them: When is shooting justified? How can you tell? Can you shoot if your assailant has a knife? A club? If your assailant is unarmed? Can you shoot to stop a rape? Can you ever shoot someone in the back?
Bates, 64, says she believes guns can be potent equalizers that well-trained civilians can handle. “A gun is like a fire extinguisher,” she says. “It isn’t there because you want to have a fire or expect to have a fire. It’s there because you may find yourself in that situation where it can save your life and give the professionals time to get there.”
This is why more Jews should join the conceal-carry bandwagon, says Dovid Bendory, an Orthodox rabbi in Livingston, New Jersey, who heads the 4,500-member Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. Post-9/11, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ranks the domestic terror threat against synagogues equal to that of railroads and utilities.
“I ask Jews all the time, ‘Are you prepared for an active shooter in a synagogue?’” Bendory says. “‘What would you do?’ The common answer is ‘I’d dial 911.’ So I ask, ‘And what would you do until the police got there? Hide?’ They don’t have a good answer for that. I believe we are woefully unprepared for such an attack.”
Raised on the Jersey Shore in a house of liberal Democrats where guns were anathema, Bendory, 43, says his conversion was slow. He saw his first armed Jew in 1987 when he went to Israel and encountered a soldier on his way home, a rifle slung over his shoulder. It got him thinking about his reflexively anti-gun stand in America.
While Israel does have gun control laws, it is a gun-savvy society whose egalitarian obligations to military service translate to large numbers of armed civilians trained in gun use. Civilians with guns have stopped terrorist attacks there. In March 2008, for example, a school principal drew his concealed pistol and killed a Palestinian man who had attempted to stab him and another Israeli at a bus stop, according to Arutz Sheva, operator of the website IsraelNationalNews.com.
Bendory says the 9/11 attacks were a sign for him. “I worked across the street from Ground Zero,” he says, “and I thought, ‘The same terrorism Israel has fought for years has come to America.’ I wondered what we needed to do to defend ourselves here.” His conclusion was to arm himself.
Women Living Alone
Natanel is emblematic of a demographic bulge that may help explain why women are drawn to handguns: More and more of them are living alone. The number of one-person households in America increased to 27 percent of the population in 2010 from 13 percent in 1960, according to U.S. Census data. Including single mothers, about half of all women now live without spouses, up from about 35 percent in 1950, based on census estimates.
The NRA and gunmakers in the 1980s began marketing to women with self-defense classes and handguns tailored to their size and needs, often amid intense criticism in anti-gun quarters that what they were peddling was fear.
The NRA’s “Choose to Refuse to be a Victim” campaign, started in 1993, rolled out magazine ads with a toll-free number that encouraged women to call for a self-defense brochure and sign up for $20 self-defense seminars taught by women.
U.S. Representative Nita Lowry, a New York Democrat, demanded that the association halt the program, accusing it of “a thinly veiled attempt by the NRA to add new members and promote gun ownership by preying on women’s legitimate fear of violence.” The NRA, noting that the promotion didn’t push firearms or require callers to join the NRA, refused. These days, it dedicates several pages of its website to women’s offerings, including an updated version of “Refuse to be a Victim” and female hunting and shooting clinics.
Meanwhile, Smith & Wesson Holding Corp. began advertising its LadySmith revolvers, including a lightweight, snub-nose .38 caliber model with optional pink rubber handles that the company said it had developed with suggestions from more than 6,000 women. An ad described the guns as “elegant without losing any of their practicality. Smith & Wesson Holding Corp was raised to “buy” at CL King & Associates by equity analyst James Barrett.
‘Not V8 Moment’
“I think the gun industry has been very successful at marketing fear of crime to women,” Browder says. “If you look at gun ads directed at women, it’s the lone woman walking through a deserted parking lot. The police can’t protect you. You need to protect yourself with a weapon.”
That the country may be statistically safer, with incidents of sexual assault against women declining 70 percent between 1993 and 2008, doesn’t necessarily matter.
“A lot of women don’t feel safer,” says Paxton Quigley, a New York-based writer, certified NRA instructor and gun-rights advocate who bought her first handgun after a friend was raped.
Tartaro adds a caveat: “This doesn’t mean that all these women are going to go out tomorrow and buy a gun for defense. Buying a gun is not a V8 Moment. It’s an incremental process. It requires instruction and training.”
The number of armed women in the U.S. is a matter of debate, as is the issue of whether that number is growing. The General Social Survey has found it holding steady at around 11 percent since the survey began in 1980. That would translate to about 17.5 million.
‘Guns for Meditation’
Other evidence suggests female gun ownership is increasing, though not necessarily of handguns. The National Shooting Sports Foundation cites data from the National Sporting Goods Association that female participation in target shooting rose 46 percent from 2001 to 2010 while in hunting it increased 37 percent. In the NSSF’s annual survey of firearms retailers, 61 percent said they saw an increase in female customers in their stores in 2010 over 2009.
None of this is news to Cathryne Czubek, a New York film maker who spent six years researching and making a documentary, “A Girl and A Gun.”
“What surprised me is how a lot of women use guns for meditation,” Czubek says. “They parallel it with their yoga practice. It’s a certain mindset that you get into when you’re in a range. You are so focused -- you slow down your breathing and metabolism.”
In Shawnee, Oklahoma, about 40 miles from Oklahoma City, Tammy Pinkston, 47, has her own story to tell about women and handguns. Born in Toledo, Ohio, she moved as an 11-year-old to Oklahoma with her divorced mother, who bought 30 acres (12 hectares) on a mountaintop near the hamlet of Heavener. There weren’t any people living nearby, and Pinkston and her mom kept firearms in the farmhouse, as did the distant neighbors. “It’s the kind of place where if you’re a bad guy and break into a house you’re probably going to get shot,” she says.
After college, Pinkston eventually settled into a career in Shawnee as a music teacher, mostly for area churches. About five years ago, she began to apply her teaching skills to guns and gun safety, getting an NRA instructor certification in 2008 and team-teaching with an experienced male friend. A typical class would be 36 people, a handful of them women. Pinkston noticed their reluctance to ask questions because “they didn’t want to appear stupid” in front of men.
Out of this observation came her company, Oklahoma Personal Defense Academy for Women. She fills up her all-women classes on a regular basis. That Shawnee isn’t exactly a hotbed of crime isn’t the point for her students, Pinkston says. Perception is key, she says, and hardly a week goes by without newspapers or TV reporting some awful crime against a victim caught unaware.
She tells of a case at a mall “surrounded by million-dollar houses” in which a woman was stalked by a man before he tried to kidnap her by dragging her into her car. She escaped by wrenching free and “face-planting on the mall parking lot,” Pinkston says. “Like I tell my students, I don’t go to scary places, but sometimes the places I go turn scary.”
Most of Pinkston’s students aren’t crime victims; they’re women living alone, widows or divorcees in their 50s and 60s. “All of a sudden they are by themselves,” she says. “They feel unsafe. The majority have come to me because they realize they need to defend themselves and they need a tool to do so. In a hand-to-hand fight, they’re not going to overpower a man.”
The Justice Department’s 2009 Female Victims of Violence report showed that 552,000 females 12 and older in 2008 experienced “nonfatal violent victimizations” including rape, sexual assault, robbery or physical assault by an intimate partner. Ninety-nine percent of the assailants were men.
The not-so-subtle subtext in women arming themselves is the real battle of the sexes. Men on average are bigger, and have superior upper body strength and muscle mass. In hand-to-hand combat with men, women almost always lose.
“Not all men are predators,” says Pinkston, “but all women are prey. We’re the little white bunny in the field. Good men don’t hunt women, but bad men do. If such a man kicked down your door and there was no cop on the couch to protect you, what would you do? For women, there are worse things than death.”
Over lunch at a Friendly’s restaurant in Springfield, Massachusetts, Robin Natanel marvels at her changed attitudes. A half-hour earlier, she was browsing the Smith & Wesson retail store and, she says, “drooling over guns -- it’s like shoe-shopping to me now.”
She was considering a smaller pistol because she’d become enamored of a new conceal-carry holster called the Flashbang that attaches to the underwire of a bra. The wearer simply pulls up her blouse or T-shirt and with a single swipe downward can free the gun and fire, hence the archly descriptive name. The Walther, she says, “is just too big to fit the Flashbang.”
The topic turns serious. Natanel recalls the Oct. 12 shooting rampage at a Southern California hair salon in which eight people died. “If people couldn’t get guns at all, yes, maybe that would have prevented the shooting. But that’s not the world we live in,” Natanel says. “And what if I had been there with my gun? What if I could have intervened? Slowed him down. Would people judge me then?”
She adds: “I wake up every day saying, ‘Please, I never want to shoot.’ But make no mistake about it -- you try to hurt me and you’re done.”