Picture the “gun owners of America,” and it’s all too easy to imagine bearded white guys toting long-barrel shotguns into pheasant country. But these days, a curiously large proportion of U.S. gun owners are women, and more gun owners than ever are arming themselves for self-defense. Who is the new American female gun owner, and what’s she taking up arms against?
On any given day, there are an infinite number of objects you might find in a woman’s bra, besides her breasts. Maybe a credit card, some folded-up cash, or a tampon; a tube of lipstick if she’s feeling fancy. Because of the never-ending, one-sided battle between women’s clothing and functional pockets, the bra has over the years become a repository for the small, important items women want with them at all times.
Which is why the bra of 42-year-old pharmacist Lola often contains a gun. To be specific, a Smith & Wesson M&P Shield 9mm. Less than one inch thick, the $449 Shield is a matte black semi-automatic double-action pistol with an eight-round magazine (plus the ability to have a ninth bullet in the chamber).
Lola carries in every place it’s legal to do so, whether that’s in her bra or in a waist holster—which, in her home state of Florida, is just about everywhere except courthouses, schools, government buildings, airports, career centers, and post offices. And it’s her preference for the Flashbang Bra Holster that first caught my attention: Under her Internet nom de plume, “Lola Strange,” Lola stars in an instructional (and delightful) YouTube video about her holster of choice. In the video, Lola says that one reason she—along with her husband, Hank—loves the Flashbang holster is that it offers a little “lift” in the cleavage department. “I can always use a lift.”
For most of her life, Lola believed “guns were just something you saw on TV, and it was always the bad guys who had them.” But three years ago, Hank took an interest in learning how to use a gun for self-defense, and he encouraged his wife (and two teenage sons) to do the same. Today Lola never leaves the house without her Smith & Wesson. “Having a gun alone isn’t going to save your life,” she says. “But at least that gun gives you the opportunity to have some kind of equal ground with whoever.”
I’ll say what Lola won’t. A gun isn’t just a weapon—it’s also an unambiguous way to signal to someone that they should fuck off and leave you alone. And if you’re a woman in need of an unambiguous way to signal that someone should fuck off and leave you alone, history, data, and the plain old common sense that comes from living in the world suggest that someone is probably a man.
A Woman in Arms
Jamie Haswell | Fort Worth, TX | Owns a Taurus 9mm pistol and a Sig 238-.380 pistol
“I keep one in my nightstand in a locked box with code access, and one on my person at most times. Different states have different carrying laws, but when legally permitted, I carry one in my purse. I may carry it in my car as well. If I am going to a large event, I would prefer to have it on me, and if I’m going somewhere that is not considered ‘the safest area,’ I like to have it on me there as well.”
I didn’t grow up around guns; as an adult, I’ve never liked them. I get nervous around them. But I have a distinct feeling that any fascination I ever had with guns—any faint arousal I’d felt as a teenager watching the hyper-violent action sequences of The Matrix or Angelina Jolie, all pouty lips and short shorts, double-fisting pistols in Tomb Raider—disappeared one night in my early twenties. That’s when a particularly volatile boyfriend showed me a short, grainy video of him, taken the summer before, brandishing a chunky silver handgun a little too zealously. Waving it around, cocking it gleefully like a John Woo protagonist.
I remember squeezing my eyes shut, jerking away; something about the image of my boyfriend with a gun in his hand tripped an alarm. We’d been arguing lately, even as we’d started making plans for where we’d live when college was over—and a few times, instead of bickering back at me, he’d just grown silent and loomed. An uneasy thought unfurled: Did I trust this guy I loved, this guy who knew the key code to my apartment and knew where to find me at any given hour, with a gun? Did I want to build my future around someone who looked so turned on by the weapon in his hand?
We didn’t stay together much longer after that; I wrote him a long letter and collected my things from his place, and I wish I could say that was the end of it. A month later, I stood shivering in the doorway of my building at 3 A.M. in a bathrobe, telling a police officer why I’d called 911 from under my bedcovers to report a man standing on my back porch.
Our school would later initiate a no-contact order to help keep my ex-boyfriend out of my life until after we’d both graduated. But there was damage already done: For two decades, I’d believed home was a place I could expect to feel safe, and that when someone said they loved me, it meant I wouldn’t have to wonder if they’d harm me. Now I wasn’t sure anymore. In other words, I’d been initiated.
Just about every woman’s felt it at one point or another—that flicker of fear for her safety around angry men, and especially angry men with guns. And with good reason: Simply being female increases a person’s risk of being stalked or sexually assaulted by someone of the opposite sex. Between 1980 and 2008, 90 percent of homicides, and 92.1 percent of gun homicides, were committed by men. In mass shootings since 1982, that figure rises to 96.5 percent, according to research done at Mother Jones. For all the strides we’ve made toward equality, there’s still a more violent sex.
Which may be why the makeup of the gun-owning population of the United States is changing—and could look and act a lot more like Lola.
In September, The Guardian and gun-research publication The Trace published the results of an extensive new survey from Harvard and Northeastern universities—which its researchers describe as the “most authoritative since 1994″—on gun ownership in the United States. “Fear of Other People Is Now the Primary Motivation for American Gun Ownership, a Landmark Survey Finds,” The Trace‘s headline boomed. Today two-thirds of gun owners list self-defense as their main motivation for owning a firearm, and The Guardian story notes that “the proportion of female gun owners is increasing as fewer men own guns.” While the rate of personal gun ownership among American men has been steadily decreasing for decades, gun ownership among American women has stayed curiously consistent, hovering between 9 and 14 percent of women from 1980 to 2014. Today, the Harvard-Northeastern study found, nearly half of gun owners whose gun collection consists of a single handgun are women—and according to the NRA, the number of women who registered for classes on how to use a pistol nearly doubled between 2011 and 2014.
So is it the ownership of a gun that makes women feel better equipped to deal with the everyday dangers of living while female? Or is it simply the knowledge of how to use a gun—how to harness the threat of violence and turn it to point away from you, not towards—that women find comforting? If it was the latter, I reasoned, it couldn’t hurt to find out.
A Woman in Arms
Christine Chen, 33 | San Gabriel Valley, CA | Owns a Beretta 92FS semi-automatic pistol
“My boyfriend introduced me to target shooting three years ago, and he taught me the importance of self-protection. I bought my gun a year later when I wanted a home-defense handgun. I don’t have a concealed-carry permit, so the only time it’s ever out of the house is to go target shooting twice a month at the local outdoor range.”
before 34-year-old Megan Uhan of Minnesota goes out jogging, she tucks her Smith & Wesson .38 special revolver into a holster in the waistband of her yoga pants. It’s not a perfect setup for carrying a gun; sometimes it throws off her stride. But Uhan runs the same path every time—which she’s aware makes her especially vulnerable. “I know a gal who was attacked while running around a lake in the Minneapolis area. Fortunately she escaped,” Uhan told me. “But sometimes, when I’m running in the dark, I think about her story.”
It’s a sad commentary on the state of affairs that simply running along the same path every day is a known safety risk for women. All the same, I feel a pang of jealousy that Uhan is a woman who’s found a way to confidently go jogging alone at night.
Most people, Uhan said, are surprised to learn she owns a gun. (“Especially men,” she noted.) She grew up shooting her dad’s guns, but when her first child was born five years ago, maternal instinct kicked in. “I don’t think you expect a mom toting a 5-year-old and a toddler to carry a gun in her purse,” she said. “But I wanted a safe and reliable way to know I could protect my family in the case of a threat.”
What kind of threat, exactly, does Uhan picture when she tucks her pistol into a handbag before leaving the house? Uhan recalled something she once told a friend who worried that carrying a concealed weapon was dangerous in itself: “When you and I are standing in line together at Target with our carts full of kids, and some crazy walks in and points a gun at us, I will protect my family and I will protect your family.” (Though it’s worth noting: The “good guy”—or gal—”with a gun” scenario has been disproven time and time again.)
Women like Uhan are quietly taking up arms all over the U.S. Out in the suburbs of Seattle, 25-year-old dental hygienist Danica McCombs keeps a Smith & Wesson SW40 in her nightstand. She gets nervous about home break-ins, and the pistol next to her bed makes her feel “more comfortable” when her husband’s out of the house at night.
A longtime deer hunter, McCombs also keeps a .243 Winchester rifle at home in a case—but it’s the handgun she gets questions about. “The worst is when people don’t understand why I feel I need one. People understand why I have a rifle,” McCombs said. “They feel different about handguns in the home.”
And in Austin, Texas, 31-year-old Katie Garza, an assistant camp director for a girls’ camp, bought herself a Walther PPK/S .22 a couple years back after getting her concealed-handgun license at a co-worker’s suggestion. Garza, who travels on the job as a recruiter, had experienced what she describes only as “a scary moment traveling alone with a flat tire” one night in a small town in West Texas—so she began carrying the Walther in the console of her car. (A stranded female traveler’s scary encounter alone at night, bear in mind, involves a somewhat different set of fears from a stranded male traveler’s.)
There are some perks to being a woman with a gun license, though, too, Garza told me. “Guys tend to think it’s pretty cool.”
A Woman in Arms
Dillon McLean, 27 | Orlando, FL | Owns an H&R Pardner .410 shotgun
“My dad bought me the gun for Christmas in 2014, I think so that we could shoot together and spend time together. But working in criminal defense made me more aware of how vulnerable every person is, and that made me feel like it didn’t hurt to have a gun at home. However, I certainly don’t kid myself into believing that if someone came into my house, I’d be totally fine just by virtue of having a gun…. I hate it when people say, ‘See, you’re a Republican after all!’ because I have a gun. I’m staunchly liberal, and it’s offensive and annoying to me that someone would think that. It bothers me when conservatives think liberals want to take everyone’s guns away. For the most part, I think liberals just want stricter gun laws, which I strongly support.”
the aptly named, Google-friendly The Gun Range in central Philadelphia, state law makes it possible for someone who’s never once fired a gun to simply show up with a driver’s license and nod their way through a 20-minute tutorial, then rent a handgun and a shooting lane and blast bullets at pieces of paper for an afternoon. (Unlike in New York City, where I live, and where you have to spend $427 just to apply for a gun license that requires passport photos and your Social Security card and actual paper checks, which have to be hand-delivered in person to an office in Kew Gardens, Queens, which is roughly as easy as hand-delivering it all to Narnia.) I went alone, carrying a purse and some bad memories I hoped to exorcise.
Yuri, the gun-range owner, told me to give the hot-pink, man-shaped silhouette on my target a new nose; I gave him a new nose, a new mouth, and a stray puncture wound near his shoulder. Then Yuri had me shoot at the “8” on the target—the “8” he pointed at being right where my hot-pink assailant’s junk would have been, had I not put twenty rounds through it. A memory I’ll think back on fondly and a little wistfully from time to time, I’m sure.
I shot for two hours, until a new blister on my hand began to bleed. Somehow the never-not-alarming sound of gunfire, the manual difficulty of shoving bullets into a magazine, the stinging pain of scraping my palms over and over again across the ridges of a slide, and the burnt stench of hot brass shells added up to a pleasurable routine. I shot a pistol for the first time in the same week I tried SoulCycle for the first time, and it was way better than SoulCycle.
It wasn’t until a week later, when I dragged a suitcase through the door of the apartment I rent alone, that I thought about my ex-boyfriend. It was right after Thanksgiving, and I’d only just gotten home and unpacked when someone knocked on my door unexpectedly. It was late. I froze, and for a half-second, I wondered: Would I feel less creeped out about opening my door if I had a Glock 17 tucked in the dresser drawer ten feet from the entryway?
Chances were I wouldn’t even be able to get to the gun in time if it were some soft-knocking serial killer. But if just having the gun would make me feel safer, sleep better, worry less about what might happen if a post-date “come over for a drink at my place” rendezvous suddenly took a turn for the worse, did it matter?
Anyway, it turned out to be Seamless. I’d scheduled a late-night dinner delivery from the airport tarmac before take-off and then promptly forgotten about it.
A Woman in Arms
Jess Holt, 27* | Bozeman, Montana
“I own a variety of shotguns and rifles, as well as two handguns; I honestly don’t know the exact number. I truthfully have never purchased a firearm. All the guns I own have been given to me in some way or another. My father was a prolific gun collector, as were his ancestors, so several of those guns have simply wound up in my hands on special occasions, like Christmas and birthdays…. At times, I think of guns as simple tools—they help dispatch rodents and pests that cause damage to our machinery and livestock on the ranch…. Other times, I think of guns as exquisite pieces of art. There are beautiful, hand-tooled shotguns in my father’s collection that have never even fired a shot, and if I ever even touch them, I wipe my fingerprints off with a sheepskin chamois.”
*Name has been changed.
lola, who often carries her gun strapped to her chest, actually worries less about the open world than the house she sleeps in. When I asked her for an example of a time she felt safer having a gun, her first response was, “when my husband travels and I’m home alone.”
Of course, Lola also wears a gun on her person in case she encounters more visible, public danger, too. When Lola set out to buy her first handgun and holster in 2013, her priorities were aimed at this kind of prevention, and they were of a distinctly female sort: She worries about being assaulted while walking to her car late at night after work, so she wanted a gun she wouldn’t have to carry in her purse, a favorite souvenir of thieves and attackers who target women.
“Guns are like…guns are like birth-control pills,” she explained to me with a laugh. “They’re a dime a dozen, and there are so many variables among women. If you pick up one and it doesn’t work for you, you try another one.”
I quit running outside at night a few years ago; these days I exercise in the safe, stuffy, fluorescent-lit confines of a city gym. That’s just one example of a fear I cope with by staying indoors or staying home. But women like Lola, and women like Megan Uhan, deal with many of those same fears by going out into the world armed to deal with its dangers. Out in Minnesota, Uhan’s Christmas list this year includes a women’s holster shirt like the one made by 5.11 Tactical—a sleeveless jogging top built to carry a handgun discreetly under the arm.