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Men convicted of domestic abuse are forbidden to purchase firearms, but many state and federal databases storing this information are not regularly updated.


The gun industry is exclusively male. From CEOs to hunting guides, women work as manufacturers, shooting instructors, gun-shop owners and salespeople.

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Do women really want to arm themselves for self-defense? Probably not. In an ideal world, women would never have to fear attack. But that's not the world we live in, whether home lies at the end of a silent country road or the 35th floor of a city high-rise.

None of us wants to become a victim. Yet when women decide to fight back, and when that choice involves acquiring a firearm, they often face considerable social disapproval, both privately and publicly. Even if her friends and family support her choice, politicians, journalists, feminists and gun-control advocates — who may have never even touched or fired a gun — are eager to dissuade her. Those who most consistently favor women arming themselves for self-defense are police officers and private investigators (usually former police), who understand criminal behavior and have seen firsthand its devastating physical and psychological effects, short and long-term.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, fighting terrorism has dominated the imagination, and manpower, of local, state, regional and federal law enforcement, arguably placing women at greater risk as police forces are spread more thinly, their attention focused on issues of national security — not domestic violence, rape or burglary. No matter how distasteful or frightening to consider, creating and practicing an effective form of self-defense may now be more crucial than ever for women.

Depending where you live and what social circles you move in, mentioning your interest in guns, or in acquiring one, is a guaranteed conversation-stopper. It can quickly separate a woman from her family, friends, neighbors and colleagues, marking her as…

As what exactly? Paranoid? Vengeful? Out of control? Powerful? Independent? Men and women alike are often deeply ambivalent about a woman who owns a gun and knows how to use it. In a culture where women inject their brows with deadly bacteria to paralyze their facial muscles, relaxing wrinkles that show emotion, an armed, angry female is a deeply unsettling vision.

Especially for women, there are few decisions more personal, and perhaps more privately political, than buying a firearm.

It's not the kind of purchase you're likely to discuss casually with your tennis partner or your cubicle-mate. In the 17 states that don't allow citizens to carry concealed weapons, many women have likely only seen guns safely holstered on policeman's belt or waved about on a television show. Ignorant of firearms, she may well find the subject frightening, even repellent. Few women considering buying a gun, especially one for self-protection, would be foolish enough to jeopardize her friendships or professional reputation by talking it over with anyone she doesn't know well; if she lives in one of the nation's concealed-carry states, she can more likely turn to someone whose home contains a firearm and who has some working familiarity with how to buy, own and store one.

It's a decision, then, women most often make, and live with, in secret. Yet, ironically, this crucial decision is still most often made with no female insights, only with male advice. No matter how uninformed a particular man's opinions may be, they nonetheless often carry great weight. Gun expertise becomes a closed loop, as many women — assuming other women don't know the subject — turn to men, some of whom may be gun-shy or clueless, for advice and guidance.

Once they cross the line into gun ownership, however, some women end up devoted to guns in a way they would once have considered unimaginable. Their homes may contain a veritable arsenal. One 45-year-old woman I met at a Springfield, MA gun show said she had burst into tears of fear and anxiety the first time a boyfriend showed her his gun. Now, a decade later, when asked how many guns she owns, she lolled her head back onto her current boyfriend's shoulder.

"Honey, how many guns do we have?"

"About 100."


It's 8:30 a.m. on a sunny Saturday, mid-July. Manhattan streets are silent, parking places plentiful. Twenty-seven women, ranging in age from their early 20s to late 60s, file into the basement of a handsome cast-iron building on the south side of West 20th. street. This is Chelsea, a predominantly gay neighborhood of chic bars and shops. The women sign in at the door, each filling out a legally-required form testifying, among other prerequisites, that they aren't "habitual drunkards" or the subject of a restraining order. Shyly, curiously, they steal glances at the reason they've come. A shooting range.

Behind the thick wall of glass separating the narrow, cramped lobby from the range, the only such private facility in Manhattan, they can hear a steady, unfamiliar sound, the "slam!slam!slam!" of something large-caliber. The women are the mix you'd see on any subway platform: slim and pretty, 200 pounds and tattooed-and-pierced. They include college students, attorneys, a travel agent, City Hall employees, a mutual-funds marketer, an Ivy MBA, black, white, Hispanic and Asian. For most, today will mark a communal rite of passage — their first time handling a gun.

They're also making Manhattan history, the first foray by the National Rifle Association's "Women on Target" campaign, a national 100-event-a-year effort to win new women shooters, into the heart of gun-control territory. Manhattan is the nation's toughest city in which to obtain a pistol permit.

The day starts with an hour-long classroom lecture on safety, the walls covered in plastic banners for Glock, Winchester, National Rifle Association, Colt. Mike Bodner, a white, 41-year-old electrical engineer and volunteer safety instructor, shows photographs and diagrams of a .22 rifle, the only gun one can legally shoot in New York City without a permit. In his baggy chinos, black lace-up dress shoes and wire-rimmed glasses, Bodner is a good choice, unthreatening, funny and friendly. "It's going to be very safe, it's going to be very fun. You'll really enjoy it," he promises.

After demonstrating how to stand, breathe and fire the rifle, explaining the arcana of caliber and squibloads, it's time to shoot. The women put on "eyes and ears" (heavy plastic protection for both), and file into the range. They're nervous, excited, not quite sure what to expect.

The 14 narrow wooden booths are lined with white acoustic tile shredded by years of flying brass ejected from thousands of guns. They load the cartridges, no bigger than their baby fingernail. A paper target is clipped to a metal hook, then wheeled out, clothesline-style, to a distance of 25 feet.

Cecelia Fitzgerald, 38, a soft-spoken New Zealander and a court-appointed attorney in Brooklyn, steps up, cradles the rifle, leans her elbows onto a wooden ledge for extra support, then fires.

She steps out of the booth, her face a kaleidoscope of emotion, her hazel eyes focused on something invisible, unable to speak. After 20 minutes of shooting, she inspects her targets, the small black circle at their exact center frayed with bulletholes. Hers. She's smiling now, relaxed, a little overwhelmed. Her reaction is typical. When women discover they shoot well, and enjoy it, its unnerving, unexpected. Disarming.