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America's Gun-Loving Women, Where Feminism Meets Firearms

Ideal for women ... and kids
Ideal for women ... and kids
Xavier Filliez

SCOTTSDALE — In this suburb of Phoenix, Carrie Lightfoot chooses her weapon of the day from a compartment stash under her bed. She's spoiled for choice: six semi-automatic pistols and a revolver, not to mention the AK-47s and shotguns.

The scene looks like something from old westerns, but Lightfoot embodies a contemporary America, where more and more women buy and carry firearms when the law allows it, as is the case here in the state of Arizona.

Today, gunsmiths in the United States credit 20% of their sales to women, according to a recent survey conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The number of women who practice shooting sports went from 1.8 million to 3.3 million over the last 15 years. Although some groups question those figures, the trend seems to hold true on the ground.

Pretty in pink

Four years ago, Lightfoot founded The Well Armed Woman, a website with information and resources specifically for women. It has since grown into a national organization offering firearm training to its 7,500 active members.

"There was no place, no community, no voice for women in this world, which is entirely dominated by men," Lightfoot says of her decision to start the site. "Our anatomy is different," she adds. "Our needs are different. Our lives are different."

The Well Armed Woman also has an online shop that sells accessories. The company's warehouses are stocked with things like jewelry made of cartridges, and holsters that comfortably fit women's hips or can be clipped to a bra (for $44.95). The bestseller is a pink holster, with 10,000 copies of the item sold.

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Pink bra holster — Photo: Gerald Rich

"In the past, women were placed under the protection of men," Lightfoot explains. "This is changing. We want to stop perpetuating the idea that a woman is a victim, that she is weak and emotional. A trained woman can perfectly take care of herself."

The Well Armed Woman, which has seven employees, collaborates with designers to develop products. The company made $2 million of sales in 2015.

"My gun never"

A pro-gun woman spends an average of $870 per year on guns or rifles, plus $450 on accessories, according to the National Shooting Sport Foundation. Many women say that what started as a need for protection slowly became a compulsive passion. That trend is confirmed by figures: 42% of the women questioned own at least three firearms, and 6.5% of them own at least 10 firearms.

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," says Cheryl Todd at the Crossroads of the West Gun Show in Phoenix. The weapons retailer — who carries a Caltech 42 pistol in her purse — says guns are like seat belts. "When there weren't any, there was nothing we could do," she says. "But now that we know they're here, we can only blame ourselves if an accident happens and we didn't wear our seat belt. It's the same with a gun."

Todd, co-owner of the online gun supplier Azfirearms.com and the host of a radio show dedicated to firearms called GunFreedomRadio, wants to break the cliché that a woman with a gun looks manly. "Most of us came to guns because of our husbands. One day, it will be the opposite way," she tells the audience at the show.

The Crossroads of the West Gun Show, one of the most important of its kind, features fervent supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, some self-claimed "old bastard bikers" and sellers of "Impeach Obama" T-shirts. A sign hanging on one gun seller's stand reads: "My wife yes, my dog maybe, my gun never."

Start "em early

Gun-related accidents caused the death of an average of 62 children aged 14 and younger each year in the U.S. between 2007 and 2011— 14 times more than in other developed countries, according to the Center for Disease Control.

But that's not a concern here.

"We're like mama bears. We're even more determined when it comes to protect our children. Even guys are afraid of that," says one participant at the show.

Marti Stonecipher, who has two children, said it's important to train children and educate them early. Her son, Chance, 10, and daughter, Dakota, 7, have been trained to shoot since they were 4 years old. Dakota even has her own gun. It's pink and small.

"I urge you to enroll your children in safety classes organized by the NRANational Rifle Association. That way, they will know what to do if they stumble across a firearm," says Stonecipher.

At the show, speakers recommend using a shotgun or a Taurus revolver, nicknamed "The Judge," with cartridges that disassemble after impact. "There are fewer risks than with a classic semi-automatic rifle to get a stray bullet in your children's bedroom or your neighbor's house."

"So much fun"

A few kilometers away, at the Ben Avery Shooting Range, one of the biggest shooting ranges in the U.S., 34-year-old Melodie Coffman, her hair tucked into a Smith&Wesson cap, instructs students.

"My students usually enter the program because they want to take charge of their own safety. Sometimes they feel threatened by their ex-boyfriend or by someone close to them," says Coffman. The instructor says she receives about 40 women of all ages every month.

Coffman runs an program called "Personal Defense, Fitness & Wellness." She developed the course while studying law to become an advocate specialized in gun rights. Today her students are practicing with pistols. Coffman admits she personally prefers assault rifles like AK-47s. "It's so much more fun," she says.

"Thirty years ago, I was a at supermarket when someone pointed a gun at my temple. I think the trauma came back. Now that we live in a remote area, I want to be ready in case someone breaks into my house," says Robyn Hazlewood, who came with her partner, Tori Simpsons. "The state of the world forces us to protect ourselves. Everyone has his own fears. For example, my partner Tori is scared of riding a bicycle."

Sense of security

Vicky Pratl, a student of Coffman, says she carries a firearm on a daily basis. To explain that choice, she refers to the shooting in San Bernardino, California, last December, when 14 people were killed and 22 wounded.

"To stay there and wait like easy targets when a crazy person opens fire on us? No way," says Pratl. She says she doesn't want "to give the impression that she's using stereotypes," but the other day, in Chandler, in the suburbs of Phoenix, when she saw "this young black man with a hooded sweatshirt who was coming nearby," she said she felt "much safer" with her gun.

The women at the firing range disagree with calls by President Barack Obama for tougher gun control legislation, saying it would only harm well-meaning people but would not prevent criminals from breaking the law.

The number of women who defend the right to carry a weapon rose from 30% in 2008 to 39% in 2012, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

To those who see in this phenomenon a sign of social decline, Lightfoot responds that, on the contrary, women are increasingly emancipated. "An armed woman lives her life in a different way," she says. "She is confident. She allows herself to look directly into men's eyes again."

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