The scents of gunpowder and perfume mingled at a Spokane shooting range over the weekend.
About 160 women learned the basics of gun handling, safety and selection during four free seminars offered by Smith & Wesson. That gun maker, like others, is expanding its customer base by targeting women.
The participants included single mothers, gray-haired professionals and 20-somethings with ponytails. Perhaps a third of the women at Saturday morning’s seminar never had fired a handgun before.
Some came to the Indoor Shooting Range because they fear crime.
“My sister had a drunk try to get into her car one night when she was parked at a red light,” said one woman.
Another said she bought a gun in 1992 after a Spokane woman had been wounded and her baby taken during a carjacking. The carjacker was arrested and the baby was returned to its mother unharmed.
Others came to see if shooting is really as much fun as their male friends and relatives say it is.
“I can see how people get hooked on it. I love it,” said a 41-year-old housewife after punching five holes through a paper target with a 9mm semiautomatic.
Most participants would not give their names. Some said they feared burglars would come looking for their guns if they were identified in the paper.
Before firing a shot, the women spent two hours in a class taught by Judy Woolley, a competitive shooter and Smith & Wesson representative from Plains, Mont.
Woolley stressed safety, telling women what hunters have told their children for generations: Assume all guns are loaded; never point a gun at something you wouldn’t want to shoot; check your backstop.
Woolley, who travels the nation offering the classes, joked that a woman’s choice of holster limits her wardrobe.
“This, for me, would be very hard to conceal unless I had something really bulky or a floral pattern or something,” she said, slipping a holster into her waistband.
Holsters designed for inside the thigh “are quite comfortable with a small-frame revolver,” she said. “But you have to be able to pull up your skirt to get at it.”
“That could be kind of tricky on a windy day,” said one of her students.
Smith & Wesson took aim at women customers in 1988, when it introduced its LadySmith, a sleeker, smaller version of its standard .357-Magnum revolver.
Many women’s magazines rejected the company’s ads, which talked about crime, not guns, and invited women to call a toll-free number, where operators waited to give a sales pitch.
The company launched a new campaign in 1992, targeting single women, aged 24 to 39, with the message, “What Would Mom Think Now?” The ads, which ran in gun magazines, showed an attractive woman at the gun range.
Other gun makers also market for women buyers.
One ad features a woman, her two daughters and their Beretta semiautomatic. “Tip the odds in your favor,” it suggests.
Colt’s Lady Elite .380-caliber handgun comes with a 2-3/4-inch barrel, a six-round clip and an attractive carrying case with an embroidered red rose.
There are signs the campaign is catching on.
Women & Guns magazine, which started as a newsletter in 1989, now is a monthly magazine with 18,000 subscribers, said Joe Tartaro, president of the Second Amendment Foundation, which publishes the magazine.
“As women become more independent, they become more their own protectors,” said Tartaro.
Exactly how many U.S. women own guns is widely disputed.
The National Rifle Association, which in 1993 launched an advertising campaign seeking women members, puts the number at 12 million to 20 million.
The ranks of women gun owners grew 53 percent between 1983 and 1986, and continue to grow, according to an NRA press release.
Twenty-two percent of the women who responded to a Gallup poll in May said they own a gun.
But pollsters at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center - widely respected for its annual survey on a variety of topics - put the figure at 12 percent, or about 12 million women.
Center Director Tom Smith said his surveys show the percentage of women who own guns has remained flat since 1980. Men still are about four times more likely than women to own guns, he said.
And while gun industry ads target young, urban women, “the profile (of a gun owner) is a married woman who lives in rural areas,” said Smith.
“There is no relationship between fear of crime and the likelihood that a woman may own a gun.”
In fact, Smith said, about half the firearms owned by women are shotguns and rifles - guns that typically are used for hunting and target shooting. The other half are handguns - the most popular form of firearm for self-defense.
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