Weapons of mass possession
As gun ownership among women grows, a faceoff heats up between those on opposite sides of the firearms issue
 
By Lorna Collier
Published May 5, 2004 (Chicago Tribune, Womanews section)


Kelly Champlin grew up so opposed to guns that when her new husband, a Marine, wanted to bring a shotgun into their home, she told him, "Over my dead body."

But after her husband brought her to a shooting range, Champlin changed her mind. She found she loved shooting. "I was hooked," she says.

Today, Champlin, 34, is a competitive shooter, a certified instructor and president of the overwhelmingly male Pine Tree Pistol Club in Rockford, where she teaches gun safety and skills, including "Ladies Only" classes, begun three years ago in response to demand by local women. She and her husband plan to give their 5-year-old son his own child-size rifle this summer.

Champlin is one of an estimated 11 million to 17 million women in America who own guns--a number that could be on the rise, as more women than ever are taking up target shooting and hunting.

The National Rifle Association's target-shooting classes for women "have been skyrocketing" in popularity, according to Stephanie Henson, manager of the NRA's women's programs department. The number of women attending clinics from 2000 to 2003 soared 788 percent, to 4,403 from 496, while the number of clinics offered jumped 1,008 percent to 144 in 2003 from 13 in 2000.

In January 2003, the NRA began publishing a magazine for women, Women's Outlook, which has been growing in circulation 15 to 22 percent each month, says spokeswoman Kelly Hobbs. The magazine has 50,000 current subscribers. The NRA doesn't track the gender of its 4 million members, Hobbs says.

This is happening as organizers get ready to hold the second Million Mom March on Mother's Day in Washington D.C. The rally's purpose is to promote gun-control legisltion, especially the assault-weapons ban, which is set to expire in September.

A counterdemonstration in Washington on the same day is being organized by the Second Amendment Sisters, a 5-year-old group with about 10,000 members that opposes gun control.

Bill Jenkins, 46, of Northfield, is an author and frequent speaker on gun issues. His 16-year-old son was fatally shot during a fast-food robbery in 1997. Jenkins will be speaking at the Million Mom March along with his wife, Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, whose pregnant sister and brother-in-law were fatally shot Winnetka in 1990. The couple met at a conference for families of murder victims.

Jenkins says that the rising interest in guns among women is the result of manipulation by the gun industry, which has seen sales lag among men.

"The gun industry has tried to increase market share among women, because they are desperately underrepresented in that population," he says. "It has tried to increase fear among women, and has been making products that appeal to women, making firearms lighter and more manageable, making designer guns that are literally cute."

"It's propaganda," agrees Rose Woods, 47, executive director of Victims of Violence, a Chicago-based support service for families and friends of homicide victims. Woods' 16-year-old son, Nick Jaramillo, was killed in a restaurant robbery in Chicago in 1996.

"They're using the old-boy mentality that women can't think on their own, but ... we understand too much," says Woods, an organizer of the first Million Mom March who will be attending this year's rally. "A gun is not a security blanket. I wouldn't want it in my home, even locked up. Kids can find it, kids can play with it. We're not living in Lone Ranger times."

 Pro-gun groups

But even the National Sporting Goods Association says more women are participating in target shooting and hunting. Gun manufacturers since the mid-1980s have been designing lighter firearms for women, while gun-toting purses and fanny packs are also on the market. With the advent of the Internet, women's pro-gun groups--with names like the Second Amendment Sisters, Armed Females of America, Liberty Belles and Women Against Gun Control--have gained steam.

Many see women arming themselves as a sign of strength, self-determination, even of feminism.

In her new book "Blown Away: American Women and Guns" (Pocket Books), journalist Caitlin Kelly--herself a crime victim--points out that violence against women remains a pervasive problem, affecting about 1 in 3 American women in their lifetimes.

"Women living alone may say [having a gun] is my best choice; that's the decision they've made to protect their families," says Kelly, 46, who does not own a gun. "Power, to me, is not just, `I can be a lawyer or a doctor or get into MBA school.' In the most profound sense, I want to feel safe in the morning. To me, that's really a feminist issue."

Carol Oyster, psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin in LaCrosse, co-wrote a book in 2000 called "Gun Women: Feminism and Firearms in Contemporary America" (New York University Press). Oyster is a hunter, NRA member and feminist.

"Feminism is about choice. To me, there's no difference in making an informed decision about firearms or reproductive rights," says Oyster, who, along with her 17-year-old daughter, Katherine, teaches hunting safety. "My daughter talks to her peers about it as a feminist thing to do. In our hunter-education classes, we are seeing more and more girls all the time, 12 years old even, girls and moms together."

"I don't think a woman should have to depend on a man to protect her. He can't be there 24/7," says Linda Ward, 57, a gun-owning retiree in Evergreen Park. "There are a lot of single women now. If the bad guy comes at you, you can't just tell him, `Play nice.'"

Peggy Tartaro, executive editor of Women & Guns magazine, says the last 20 to 25 years have seen "a sea change" in women's attitudes about guns, brought about by such societal shifts as the rise in single-parent households and the women's movement.

Disputing both sides

But are women truly safer if they arm themselves, or are they trading a hypothetical danger for a certain one?

Studies exist to bolster both sides, some claiming guns can stave off attacks and reduce crime, others alleging guns can be more harmful in the home than not having them, with disputes over which studies are reliable.

What is not in dispute is the number of annual gun-related deaths in the United States, which in 2001 was 29,573, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A little more than half the deaths were suicides (16,869); a small fraction were accidents (802); and homicides (11,348) accounted for the bulk of the rest, according to the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. (There were also 323 shootings by law enforcement and 231 that were unclassified.)

Even gun-owning women don't believe merely possessing a firearm provides fail-safe protection against criminals.

Jillian Galas, 25, a Waukegan computer consultant, owns about 15 guns and is the Illinois state coordinator for the Second Amendment Sisters, representing about 50 to 60 women in Illinois. She has been shooting since age 5 but learned from a self-defense program in Texas that her guns might not necessarily save her in the event of attack, especially against a determined assailant.

Champlin warns against relying on a gun without proper training.

To author Kelly, some gun dangers are "specific and individual"--if there are people in the home with substance abuse or emotional problems, such as poor impulse control or depression, there should not be firearms in the home.

But in a nation where women are frequently victims of violent crimes at the hands of men in their lives, Kelly says, "I feel strongly that a woman who is prepared to shoot to kill, who is well-trained in the use of her weapon under stress--it's her choice to make."

Rallies, for and against

On Sunday, the second Million Mom March to protest gun violence will be held in Washington, D.C., at the front of the U.S. Capitol. The first march took place in 2000, with an estimated 750,000 women attending.

This year's rally is called the Mother's Day March to Halt the Assault, and kicks off a campaign to renew and strengthen the assault-weapons ban, which expires in September, says Jonathan Lackland, Great Lakes regional director for the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence United With the Million Mom March.

Meanwhile, the Second Amendment Sisters, an Internet-based group with approximately 10,000 members, will be holding a counterdemonstration at Washington's Freedom Plaza. During the first Million Mom March, the Second Amendment Sisters drew about 4,500 people to its counterrally.

More information about the two rallies can be found at: and www.2asisters.org/SAFER/index.html

Copyright © 2004, Lorna Collier

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