"I'm gonna kill you!" the pert blonde ponytailed lady screams, in a petite room in the bowels of the convention center. "I said I'm gonna kill you!" "No!" huffs her target, a mom-jean'd-woman in her mid-fifties. "Back off!" Then, responding to ponytail's faux-intimidation, the older woman slaps an open palm into the face of a shooting-range silhouette pinned on the back wall, un-holsters a pistol, and pops six rounds into a theoretical assailant's chest — blam-blam-blam-blam-blam-blam, quick sharp cracks, with a corresponding swirl of odorous gun smoke. The ammo's not live: the gun is firing "simunition" bullets, created specifically for this kind of training exercise. But as the casings zing hard off the gray walls and careen, a few feet in front of me, onto the plastic tarp, I cover my eyes in the crook of my elbow just in case.
It's early spring and I'm in Waco, Texas, for the 2nd annual national conference of A Girl And A Gun, a shooting league birthed out of — and, now, attempting to shepherd forward — the nascent women and firearms movement.
Over the last decade, the percentage of armed women in America has risen quietly: according to Gallup, the numbers went from 13% in 2005 to 23% in 2011. By last year, that rise wasn't so quiet anymore. Women's interest sites declared "The Rise Of The Female Gun Nut." A Girl and a Gun-type shooting clubs, like Babes with Bullets and The Well Armed Woman, bloomed. And a staunchly, proudly masculine industry at least attempted to keep pace. Walk around a gun show these days, and you're more likely than not to find at least one table piled wide with .223-caliber AR-15 assault rifles rendered in hot pink.
The movement, as of now, is very much fledgling. AG&AG, its de facto hub, nearly tripled attendance since last year's inaugural event, with local chapters from Marietta to Lehigh Valley to Cheyenne represented; still, that means just under 300 people, attendees and instructors all told. But one thing is for sure: here, across the basement-level conference rooms of the serene, sleepy Waco convention center, with these gun-happy ladies, the spirit is strong.
In the Simunition room, the ponytailed instructor has transitioned from fear-conditioning her wards ("Stress goes up, technique goes down!") to explaining her pet theory as to why women are more accurate shooters than men: "We've been applying eyeliner since we were kids, right? It's a very precise motion" — and one often done with one eye shut, just like pulling the trigger while focusing on that front sight.
Down the hall, in "Secrets of Concealed Carry," the prominent gun blogger Kathy Jackson is displaying a wide array of gun-pouch-equipped handbags. With purse after purse, she smoothly yanks out a dummy pistol, then points it at the back of the classroom. There's a nice big white one with green zigzags, and a compact light brown one with fun straps, and, ooh, here's a great one with a "reinforced strap" that "no knife" could cut through. "Make sure you drop the purse, then aim," she explains, as the newly enlightened room ahhs in appreciation. "You don't want it swinging into your shooting arm."
A debate, well worn around these folks, bubbles up: if you can't get your gun out quickly enough, should you fire at the bad guy through the bag? One woman says yes: "Kyra Sedgwick did it on The Closer!" Jackson harrumphs: "So many people tell you: just shoot through the purse!" But she actually took a group of expert shooters to a range, and they fired through a pile of old handbags from Goodwill. The results were abominable. "Half of them," Jackson reports ominously, "completely missed cardboard with their purse shots." Quickly, this room has been converted into a staunchly anti-purse-shot crowd.
I bump into A Girl And A Gun's Robyn Sandoval, and she shows me around a bit. Calm and mannered, Sandoval, 39, is the organization's executive director, perhaps an overly decorative term for the woman in charge of everything from checking in attendees to investigating why the specially-ordered Paleo diet lunches have gone missing.
The clean and carpeted convention center is cavernous, big enough to dwarf the presence of the AG&AGers milling around in their blue shirts. The hallways are pin-drop quiet. Some classes have only a handful of attendees, but no matter the size of the crowd, the same chatty, engaged communal spirit pervades. No one is afraid of making her opinions heard. No one is afraid of speaking out of turn.
In one corner, Sandoval points to a door. "You know at the mall? The Build-a-Bear Workshop?" Sure, I nod. "Well," she continues, pleasantly grinning, "this is Build an AR." Later, walking the hall, I overhear out of a class, "the menstrual cycle can affect eye dominance!"
Upstairs, in the main hall, vendor booths are set up, and the offerings are manifold: biometric gun safes, spiked kubotans, novelty T-shirts ("I may be a girl but I shoot standing up") and piles and piles of colorful holsters, in leopard-print or snakeskin or cow fur. We got a police force tactical baton flashlight ($59.95), we got a five-million volt touchdown stun gun ($34.95), we got a heart-shaped pepper spray ($8.95). And we got a taser left out for display, meaning that, every few minutes, a terrifying electric crackle rings through the air.
Other than instructors, men are not allowed in the sessions (the pre-event guide helpfully provided suggestions for "dude only" activities; I see one fellow in a camo baseball cap and an AG&AG-branded T-shirt, helpfully marked "HUSBAND" across the back.) But the main hall is fair game for both genders.
Tony, a 40-ish fellow with thick black tufting hair, sells molding and hand grips, so that you can customize your gun as you see fit. He's one of many purveyors, independent and major, belatedly realizing there's a whole untapped female market for guns and gun miscellany: "They're growing, and we're growing," he says proudly. But "all that pink stuff, it's run its course. Now we're looking at some other colors: maybe purple? maybe aqua?" He offers me a "man's perspective" on the flood of women in the sphere: "You got macho guys, such big egos. 'You can't come in here!' That's a lot of BS. Women are fantastic shooters."
At the Grace Adele designer purse booth, I notice a pregnant saleswoman toting a pink bag that looks like an oversized iPad case. That's for guns, I ask? "Some people put their weapon in there," she shrugs. "Some people put their diapers in there."
One vendor, Law Enforcement (LE)Targets Inc., offers an interesting spread: there's a target adorned with an image of a Taken-style tough, his head shaved close, his organs and brains exposed in the anatomically correct style of a medical text; there's also a Twilight-themed target, in which Edward and a werewolf seem strangely hell-bent on eating Bella. The "Osama pointing a machine gun at you" target is fairly popular, the LE saleslady tells me, although sometimes, she admits, "you get the 'funny' people. They say, 'you got the Osama target, where's the Obama?'"
Donna at Femme Fatale Holsters offers "lingerie for your holster": the booth presents a topless mannequin, a lace corset around her waist, a gun tucked in just underneath her breasts. Donna's mom, a sparkly septuagenarian, is helping out today. She tells me she grew up in a country family, where guns were part of the household; she herself ran off a home intruder with a loaded pistol at the age of 13. Donna, though, only started carrying a gun three years back. What made you pick one up? "It's felt like the world's changed," she says. "It's just a little bit more evil."
In 2011, Julianna Crowder — a tall, sincere, semi-nervy 38-year-old redhead — launched A Girl And A Gun out of frustration. Along with her husband, a former Marine, Crowder had been teaching gun classes for years. But when she attempted to start her own shooting club, again and again, she was stifled. "I was walking into the boys room," she says. "And wouldn't you know, I let that be. And so I focused on what needed attention, which was the women. And now everybody wants a piece of it. I changed the dynamics."
The industry's shift away from token scantily clad females — the dreaded "booth babes" — toward actual engagement with actual women occurred, somewhat suddenly, in the last few years. Lisa Looper is the creator of the Flash Bang, a holster that attaches to your bra. When she first started, she was being openly laughed at by buyers. Now her products are carried by major distributors like Zanders, Accusport and Ellett Brothers.
Archangel Tactical's Nikki Turpeaux, a bubbly, unblinking Atlantan who competed in beauty pageants as a teen, entered the self-defense-instruction business four years ago in front of what she calls a "tidal wave" of women: "I was fortuitous: I got to be a forerunner. When I started, there were no Nikkie Turpeaux's I could go to."
On this one level, then, it's a simple enough tale: yet another industry long overdue for a stronger, more-integrated female presence. Gabby Franco, an instructor who competed in pistol shooting at the 2000 Sydney Olympics for her native Venezuela, says it's "like everything that ever happened in [women's rights] history: there's a point where it's a slap in the face. Wait a second? You're telling me I'm not smart enough to handle a firearm? You're telling me I cannot shoot?"
Of course not. Why shouldn't women get in on the power and security long enjoyed by men who carry sidearms? And it's indisputable: shooting guns is fun as hell. Why shouldn't women get in on that joy?
But where it gets stickier is the latent current of fear. In 2010, the number of violent crimes in the United States dropped to its lowest rate in nearly 40 years. "The odds of being murdered or robbed are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s," the New York Times reported. "Small towns, especially, are seeing far fewer murders: In cities with populations under 10,000, the number plunged by more than 25 percent last year."
Sit in on these classes, though, and hear women talk, in great minutiae, about honing one's technique for gunfights that 99.999% of them will never — thank God — ever undergo. Certainly, armed men discuss theoretical shootouts in much the same way. But A Girl And A Gun has a superseding, dominant emphasis on defending oneself against physical, armed attack. And that's where the line between empowerment and paranoia can become blurred.
Are chimerical threats — masked gunmen in dark alleys; "bad guys," to use a catch-all term from the self-defense lexicon — capturing the imagination? Should we be concerned, at all, that more women than ever are carrying because more women than ever are feeling unduly threatened?
I float this by Crowder, and she waves it off. "I don't live in fear," she tells me, firmly. "I live in a perpetual state of observation. I'm not afraid of the bogey man because I can see him coming."
In the meanwhile, she's building a home. And this is just the beginning: "We want a place where all women are welcome. No matter your demographic, your color, your income, your age — we want ya'll." To the women who might still scoff, she pays no mind: "In the moment of life or death, with your children, you will turn into mama bear. You will pick up a gun and shoot somebody to protect your children."
Seven p.m. Time for the Welcome Bang-Quet. As tuxedoed caterers bring out comically large salad bowls, the women — many of whom have changed out of baggy T-shirts and white sneakers and into blouses and sensible heels — file back in. There's also at least one tall thirtysomething in a tube top, best to display her "Bald Eagle gazing intently at the Statue of Liberty" shoulder tattoo.
At my table, decorated with little baggies of heart-shaped chocolates and brochures inviting you to become a "Flash Bang Fashionista," I chat with some ladies from the Laredo, Texas, AG&AG chapter. Sandy's a proud band booster mom who only picked up shooting when her son headed to college. Maria started off after her father passed; she asked for his gun as a memento, then "figured it was my job to learn how to use it properly." These days, though, she prefers shooting her Ruger LC9. "You might also wanna know about Monday night margaritas," Teresa chimes in. "That's only after we're done shooting."
An excitable woman named Shirley buttonholes me. "If one innocent nice mom doesn't get killed because of this club, then we've done our work," she declares. "And that's the news that should be promoted. Instead of, oh, a gangmember bought a gun from a drug-dealer, and he shot his wiener off!"
Behind me, I spot the cowboy shooters: Justice Lee Kate, Hackshaw Fred, and Hot Tamale, all three in immaculate Wild West formal wear. They travel to competitions all around the country, where they shoot old-timey single action pistols (there's also some disreputable "saloon girls," along for encouragement). "Oh, it's so much fun," Lee Kate, a theatrical white-haired woman in a tight-fitting corset, tells me. She points to one of her students, who apparently had a really great time at the range today. "You should have seen her! I think she had several orgasms. Ohh!"
Once everyone has shuffled through the buffet line, Vicki Kawelmacher, a self-defense advocate from Reno, takes the stage. She paces and speaks with the mic in her hand — Jordan Belfort, with a Nancy Grace haircut. "I want you to imagine going home," she instructs us, "and something, from the corner of your eye, catches your attention. And it's a ten inch kitchen knife." On cue, she brandishes the blade. "And there is a man, and he holds it at your throat, and he tells you to open the door. Have you thought about what you would do in that moment? Cause that's what happened to my friend." She pauses. "I'm gonna put this away now, because I'm afraid I might cut myself." Huge, huge laughs. "But you get my point."
Later, Julianna Crowder takes the podium for the big finale: "We decided we're gonna give ya'll some guns!" As a "youth ambassador" tween in braces plucks out raffle winners, Crowder rattles off the freebies — a Mossberg 930! A 9mmM&PC.O.R.E.!A Remington 870 pump-action shotgun! — to cheers and squeals and whoos. One winner, on her way to the podium, screams "oh my God I love you," and flings off her high heels to run.
If you know Waco, most likely, it's because of David Koresh. Right around this time, just over 21 years ago, the FBI raided a compound here housing the Branch Davidians, a religious splinter group suspected of possessing illegal firearms and led by Koresh, who claimed he was "the Lamb," the chosen one capable of opening the seven seals of the end times. The result was tragedy: four government agents and over 80 Branch Davidians, including many small children, were killed in a shootout and an ensuing fire.
These days, the site houses a modest Branch Davidian chapel, tombstones, and a small stone memorial to the deceased, explaining they "stood proudly" as they and their church were "burned to the ground." All around it are long stretches of empty fields, dirt paths, gnarled dead trees, and creepily, almost-leeringly ponderous black cows. You know how some historical sites have a sordid past nearly unimaginable in their present incarnations? This is not one of those places.
Drive twenty minutes in the other direction, through equally ominous True Detective-y roads, and you'll end up at T.I.G.E.R. Valley -- the outdoor shooting range playing host, this weekend, to the ladies of A Girl And A Gun. This might not sound like the most promising setup for joyous bonding. But a stroll through the shooting bays -- past shipping containers, scrap wood, brambles, busted old tires, and at least one big loose sink -- suggests otherwise.
In the first few bays the women crouch carefully forward, with two hands on the gun, as they fire; the bullets wiz through the paper targets and off the slope in front of them; the casings ping off each other's shoulders. The farther along the main path, the higher the degree of difficulty. Here, women shoot one-handed while lying on their backs; here, they shoot on the run, crouching behind barrels like they were goddamn John McClane; here, they learn to transition quickly between firing a pistol and blasting a shotgun. "You might be in a position where you have to use both for home defense," Nikkie Turpeaux, the instructor, explains. "Also, it's super fun."
But it's all so much amuse bouche until we get to the last bay in the bunch — until we get to the assault rifles. The instructor is Dianna Liedorff, a Tulsa cop, a top competitive shooter, and a crowd-pleasing sasser.
When I'd walked into the back of her session at the convention center, she quickly outed me as an interloping reporter. Now, as I walk up, she shouts out, "the stalker's here!" She guesses: "From … Connecticut?" Um, Massachusetts, I admit sheepishly, as her loving charges guffaw.
The group, members of the South Fort Worth chapter, bust my balls. "You ever shot an AR before?" I admit I haven't. "Of course not! You're from Massachusetts!" Then they show me their customized AR magazines, stenciled with little cute characters: one's a penguin, one's a baby Batman, one's an anime-type dude, rocking Katniss Everdeen's Mockingjay pendant. Next, they show me their gun carriers, which they actually converted from children's strollers. Most of the women bought used ones on Craigslist. One of them, Tina, just used her kids' old one: she strapped on a few gun grips, and it was good to go.
And, finally, Liedorff asks: "Well, Mr. Rolling Stone from Massachusetts: are you ready to shoot?"
Before I can inquire as to the safety training protocols, Liedorff has grabbed an AR – what she calls the "scary guns" that are a "dream to shoot" — and shown me the basics of safety off, magazine in, locked and loaded. I position behind a barricade, about 125 feet behind a row of metal targets. "We're letting Mr. Rolling Stone shoot!," Liedorff shouts, and the crowd huddles behind me expectantly. I look through the scope, identify my target, and "squeeze," not "smash," the trigger, as Liedorff has instructed. Ping! I hit it on my first try, and the little huddle cheers for me. The AR absolutely goes. I gotta admit, it's exhilarating.
"I'm assuming you lean left because where you're from," Liedorff tells me near the end of the day. The sun has started to drop. A mobile rig has rolled up, offering up juicy pork, potato salad, sausage, and (requisite for Central Texas BBQ) slices of white bread. Meanwhile, groups of women climb a high tower, just next to the picnic tables, and take turns firing at targets hundreds of feet below. "I'm assuming you have less experience with firearms. I would have to ask you how you felt about coming into this space. Did you feel like these people were friendly? Did you feel safe? Or did you feel like these people need to be disarmed?"
At the time, the gun control debate had felt a long way away from the simple pleasure of squeezing a trigger in an open field with supportive strangers cheering you on. But it's tough to escape for long. This is about feeling empowered, feeling social, getting to swap guns and sip Margs. But it's also, I'm now reminded, about something far thornier.
When I speak with Kawelmacher about the most important thing for women's firearm growth in the next few years, she says, simply enough, "get your permits while you can. Buy a gun while you can. Buy ammo while you can." Meanwhile, Liedorff makes a point of telling me that, if the current push for magazine restrictions comes to pass, "you would be a felon for possessing what you had in your hands today."
It's a peculiar swirl, this: fear-mongering and joy, fatalism and happy-cry sisterhood. "We're just approachable normal every day women," Robyn Sandoval would say from the podium at the Bang-Quet. "Some started out afraid, some started out empowered. Either way you come to the range, you do it right. And if you're gonna go with a hot pink gun, you better make sure your target is blown out in the middle."