Women May Be Buying More Guns

Firearm retailers say gun sales rose, especially among women, after Sept. 11, but gun-control groups and some women's rights activists say those statistics are exaggerated.

Mary Leigh Blek, national dir., Million Mom March

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)-Firearms retailers reported a steep increase in gun sales in the months since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And the National Rifle Association reports a huge leap in the numbers enrolled in its programs for women.

Those on one side of the national debate about gun ownership believe that more women are now buying weapons to protect themselves, while others say the statistics might be skewed in order to promote gun sales to women.

The FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System indicates that applications to purchase firearms were up by almost 500,000 in the five months after Sept. 11, compared to the same period in the previous year; that is, more than 4.6 million checks were completed. News outlets recently reported that Americans were flocking to gun stores to purchase protection for themselves and their families. Gun control advocates are concerned that the news reports may encourage more women-a huge market for the gun industry-to buy guns more effectively than previous advertising campaigns targeted at them.

Much of the increase in gun sales occurred in the months immediately after Sept. 11 and applications for background checks have since leveled off, says Doug Painter, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which encompasses the National Association of Firearms Retailers. Painter adds that much of the increase in background-check applications came in areas immediately around New York and Washington, both cities that were targeted by the Sept. 11 terrorists.

Records of the background checks don't indicate gender, so there's no way of knowing how many of those purchasing guns are women. But according to Nance Pretto, a spokeswoman for women's programs at the National Rifle Association, interest in firearms-training classes among women has been up since Sept. 11.

Pretto said that the number of women taking the NRA's instructional shooting classes through its Women on Target program has increased from 500 women two years ago to more than 2,000 in 2001. Women on Target encourages the participation of women in shooting sports and teaches gun-safety classes.

Lt. Margot Hill, a police officer in Boston, says she wasn't surprised to hear that more people, including women, seemed to be interested in having a gun for protection after Sept. 11.

"It was a wake-up call to everyone. People felt that the government couldn't protect them," said Hill, the commander of the city's domestic-violence unit and a member of the national board of advisors of the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative Washington-based organization that advocates for American women's rights to own firearms, as well as on many other issues.

Others Question Statistics, Motives Behind Them

Gun-control advocates dispute the phenomenon, saying that firearm purchases always rise during hunting season and that gun retailers are exaggerating sales.

However, advocates involved in the debate over women and guns agree that the playing field has changed since the country's sense of confidence and safety was shaken in the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Mary Leigh Blek is the national director of the Million Mom March, a national grassroots, chapter-based organization dedicated to preventing gun death and injury. She says the legacy of Sept. 11 has been mixed for her organization.

On the one hand, "fear sells guns," she says. But on the other, she thinks that the attacks have made women more pro-active. "There's been more discussion. When people find out you can get guns so easily in the United States, they want to do something."

The notion that women in the United States are more interested in acquiring weapons for self protection since Sept. 11 is disputed by Blek and others, who note that women still own a small percentage of the guns in the United States. In 1999, only 12 percent of the female population in the United States owned a gun, as compared to 44 percent of the male population, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington.

In fact, gun ownership has dropped nationwide as more Americans move from rural areas and as a series of violent school shootings and accidental deaths over the past few years alerted Americans to the dangers of firearms, says Brady Center spokeswoman Nancy Hwa.

Some Believe News Reports Are Designed to Encourage Sales to Women

By all accounts, the gun industry has seen women as a potential new market for its products for some time now.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the gun industry used ads that played on women's fears in order to sell their product, according to Hwa. One Colt's Manufacturing Company ad showed a woman tucking a child into bed and had a headline reading, "Self protection is more than your right. It's your responsibility." The ad went on to suggest that women buy Colt handguns in order to protect their families.

Other gun companies appealed to female consumers by developing products designed specifically for women, such as purses specially made to hold weapons, bras equipped with holsters and guns with pink or mother-of-pearl grips. Smith & Wesson ran ads playing off the fear of an attacker hiding in the back seat of a woman's car to plug its Ladysmith line of weapons, designed with smaller hand grips for women.

The Brady Center and other organizations believed then that the gun industry, concerned about flat sales to male consumers, was targeting women. Along with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, and other public-health organizations, the Brady Center filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, claiming that the Colt ad and others like it were misleading because they implied that owning a gun made a private home safer. In fact, the organizations claimed, the presence of a gun in a home makes it more likely that someone in that home will die of a homicide, accidental death or suicide involving a gun.

The ads eventually stopped independent of the complaint, but Hwa says that misleading messages have not stopped and the reports of increased gun sales to women after Sept. 11 may be one of them.

Hwa wants to spread the message that guns aren't the best way to protect women. Other methods of self-defense such as martial arts, dogs and taking precautions are better and safer, she says.

"There are a lot of other steps women can take to be safer," she says. "The NRA likes to promote the idea that women need a gun to walk down a dark alley. We say, ‘Don't walk down the dark alley.'"

Sarah Stewart Taylor is a freelance writer based in Washington.