OPINION: Why are more women buying guns?

Sydni Lee, from Dahlonega, fires her Glock 19 at the Bulls Eye Marksman Gun Club range in Cumming in this AJC file photo. Women are reportedly the fastest growing segment of Americans becoming gun owners. "Sisters in Arms" is a local women's shooting group that regularly holds events at the Bulls Eye Gun Club. BOB ANDRES BANDRES@AJC.COM



Sydni Lee, from Dahlonega, fires her Glock 19 at the Bulls Eye Marksman Gun Club range in Cumming in this AJC file photo. Women are reportedly the fastest growing segment of Americans becoming gun owners. "Sisters in Arms" is a local women's shooting group that regularly holds events at the Bulls Eye Gun Club. BOB ANDRES BANDRES@AJC.COM

Before the summer of 2020, going to the gun range was a pastime for Valee Penn, something she did for fun with her husband. But after the wave of civil unrest prompted by violence and police brutality against Black Americans brought protests to her neighborhood, Penn decided it was time to get serious. She bought a Glock 19 and a Smith & Wesson revolver.

“I think Atlanta is getting more dangerous. I have lived in Atlanta all my life and I have seen it change dramatically since last summer. That is what prompted me to buy my gun last June,” said Penn, 65 of Buckhead. “I thought rather than be afraid, I am going to have knowledge.”

Each week, Penn goes to Stoddard’s Range and Guns in Midtown for training where she said she sheds her Buckhead veneer and focuses on improving her speed and accuracy with a gun. “I want it to be like breathing,” she said. “I would like to have the confidence and familiarity where it would almost be like putting on your makeup.”

Gun ownership is deeply embedded in the foundation of our country and is at the heart of political debates, but historically certain groups, particularly women and people of color, have been excluded from the conversation.

In 2020, almost 5 million Americans purchased a gun for the first time, 58% of them were Black Americans and 40% were women, according to data from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearm industry.

Interest in gun ownership has continued to grow this year based on data released through the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System which tracks the number of background checks but does not exactly correlate to gun sales or provide demographic data. In Georgia, the FBI initiated 340,465 background checks from January to April 2021 compared to 243,707 during the same time period last year for an increase of almost 40%.

This year, the increase in interest coincided with the Capitol riot in January and a series of mass shootings that prompted President Joe Biden to announce new measures surrounding gun violence prevention. He has called on Congress to ban sales of assault-style rifles to civilians, an effort which opponents have said would violate the Second Amendment.

It isn’t lost on new gun owners that the current boom is the result of a convergence of people from very different backgrounds who have turned to gun ownership for very different reasons but the women among them often find they have some common ground.

“All women live with that level of consciousness that they are vulnerable. How we choose to live out our lives with that understanding varies,” said Carrie Lightfoot, founder of the Well Armed Woman. Lightfoot also created a nonprofit with more than 10,000 woman shooters organized in local shooting chapters nationwide including 10 to 15 chapters in Georgia.

Lightfoot said she found her path a decade ago after escaping a violent relationship. She launched her company in 2012 to provide women with resources and information and now trains female instructors to train other women.

Women want to be treated respectfully without the use of industry lingo, she said. Women can have a range of responses when they fire a gun and trainers need to be prepared for any of them. Women are also relational, even for an experience like gun ownership, which is a very individual decision.

“We process decisions with other people,” said Lightfoot. “We want to talk it though.”

That made me think of what first prompted me to write this column.

A few months ago, a woman who had a fear of guns turned to a popular neighborhood app to ask for suggestions on buying a gun and training to use it. Some neighbors offered specific guns she should buy, even though they had no insight into her hand size or her needs. Other neighbors questioned her views on gun violence, even though they had no real insight into her motivations.

When I considered that thread along with the ongoing conversations about rising crime in metro Atlanta and the baffling number of metro area residents who can’t tell the difference between fireworks and gunshots, it seemed worthwhile to get an update on the status of women and guns in Georgia.

Lightfoot said she is excited to see women becoming more engaged in the conversation about gun ownership and Second Amendment rights. “Seeing women take part in that conversation … whether publicly or just talking to friends … I think is really profound and powerful,” she said.

Opinions on guns and gun violence are largely influenced by demographics such as race and geography, as well as political affiliation, but there are some areas of gun policy that a cross section of voters support according to a spring 2021 survey from the Pew Research Center.

Preventing those with mental illness from purchasing guns, subjecting private gun sales and gun show sales to background checks, and requiring a permit to carry a concealed firearm, for example, have much broader political support than measures such as federal tracking of gun sales, banning assault-style weapons, arming teachers and school officials or allowing concealed guns in more places.

Lightfoot said her goal from the start has always been to normalize gun ownership for women. “It has attracted women from every possible walk of life – political affiliation, sexual orientation, race – it is the most diverse niche of women,” she said. “We are all grounded in the same very deep and emotional and significant place of protecting ourselves and our children.”

In Atlanta, Keveny Gray, a firearms safety instructor at Stoddard’s has carved his own space in that niche as some 80% of his clients are women. “I don’t mansplain guns,” he said. He helps clients determine which gun will best suit her needs and spends a portion of training time practicing real-life scenarios that will prepare women for what might happen when they leave the range.

Gray said he noticed the uptick in interest in gun training among women over the summer but makes it clear to his clients that gun ownership is not for everyone. “The misconception is you have to have a gun to protect yourself. No, you have to have common sense,” he said.

Catherine Lee of Atlanta, who also trains with Gray, said that means being realistic about the state of the world. “I hope I never have to use it, but I also am a realist and I understand the current climate, political included, of where we are in the world today,” she said.

But Lee, a survivor of domestic violence, said she believes she is part of a growing population of women who are putting the desire for safety in domestic situations ahead of any socio-political pressures when considering gun ownership — a decision that women should feel comfortable discussing with others as they consider all the factors involved, she said.

“I had to ask myself, is this (gun) something I want in my house and something I want to walk around with? My response to both was yes,” Lee said. “It is important for people to have their own experience and incorporate whatever is relevant feedback for them.”

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