I’m nervous. In fewer than three hours, I will be firing a handgun. This is my first time putting my hands on actual bullets, my first time loading a magazine, and my first time holding a real gun. I am sitting in a classroom with three women near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, ready to take the Ladies Handgun Fundamentals course at the Wisconsin Firearms Training Center.
At one table are Tamara and Monika, who have taken a concealed carry course together in the past and came here today wanting to get more comfortable with handguns. Monika brought her own Glock, currently contained neatly in its plastic case at the edge of the table. Tamara doesn’t own a gun, but she carries a taser, a self-defense measure she calls “easy” after joking about how she’s offered to zap her teenage son’s friends with it in exchange for twenty bucks. No one has bit yet, she reveals, but maybe someday. Also in the room is Nikki, who came alone, clad in a grey hoodie, and is sitting at her own table. She tells me she’s been thinking about buying a gun, but hasn’t made any moves to get one. A gun-owning family friend recommended that she take a class, and so here she is. Step one.
Then there’s me. I’m the only attendee younger than 30, the only childless woman, the only Brooklynite. The only person who intends neither to purchase a gun nor carry a gun for protection after this class. I didn’t grow up with firearms in North Carolina, even though I knew they were all around me in the homes of my neighbors and friends. Sometime in the middle of the Obama administration, while I was away at college, my de facto libertarian dad started caring about gun rights and telling me he worried about my safety. First he bought a shotgun, which sits on a chair in a spare bedroom in my parents’ home, next to a few haphazard boxes of shells, atop a cutesy pillow that reads “butter my buns and call me a biscuit.” Next he bought a handgun and urged my mom to buy one, too. She keeps it unloaded under her mattress. You’d be so much safer if you owned a gun, my dad says to me each time I visit. Today is the closest I’ve come to considering that suggestion.
Our instructor, Jenny Schwiner, is wearing a red polo shirt and beige khakis. She explains that she is the wife of an avid hunter who has become an avid hunter herself, trekking out on weekends with her Springer Spaniels. She introduces her teaching assistant Dylan Sessler, the only man in the room, and starts up a slide presentation. “My goal for you when you leave today is to be educated,” she tells the four of us.
Schwiner starts by talking about the “big four” firearm safety rules and the difference between revolvers and semi-automatic pistols; for the next few hours, she covers the ins and outs of gun mechanics, safety, and ownership. Before I know it I’m in the other room with a gun in my hand, training my eye on a target. Holding a loaded weapon is surreal, but it does not feel as dangerous as I expected it would. After some pointers and encouragement from Sessler, with my elbows locked and my knees slightly bent, I fired a .22mm revolver at a target. I hit the bullseye.
But as the days ticks by, my nervousness morphs into something more unsettling. I realize there is this real geek factor with firearms: I can suddenly imagine how once you start learning about caliber, handling techniques, accessories, and all the intricate minutiae, a person could get really into it. I can relate that type of obsessing to my interest in cameras, music, or fashion. It becomes a hobby, yes, but something else, too – a part of your identity. What I realize in that room is that it’s all too easy for a gun to become part of who you are.
The stereotypical American gun owner of lore is pretty much who you're imagining: a white man who lives in a rural area. Statistically speaking, his politics are conservative, and his education ended with a high school diploma. Of the American whites who have attained a high school diploma or less, 40% are gun owners. Survey data, as reported by the Pew Research Center in 2017, support the broad strokes of that narrative: about half of white men report owning at least one gun, compared to nearly 25% of white women and nonwhite men, and just 16% of nonwhite women. Also unsurprising: People who register as Republican are twice as likely to own guns than those registered Democrat.
But the camo-clad, conservative stereotypes of gun ownership are changing. More and more, women are becoming first-time gun owners, boosting sales of guns and gun accessories and expanding the market for femme-friendly products like concealed carry purses and bra holsters.
I got to see what a female gun culture looks like up close at the National Rifle Association’s first annual Carry Guard Expo in Milwaukee. About 67% of gun owners say they own a firearm for self-defense, and the Carry Guard Expo capitalizes on that, and markets to the estimated 15 million Americans who carry firearms. The conference hosts events, seminars, and vendor booths, teaching how to bandage a gunshot wound, buy accessories to conceal a handgun, and how — as is the NRA’s hope — to become a Carry Guard member. Carry Guard is the NRA’s insurance and training program, tailored to gun owners who plan to use a firearm for protection. For as little as $13.95 per month, customers can prepare mentally and financially to shoot someone. “In the seconds that follow a real-world self-defense shooting,” Carry Guard’s website asks. “Will you know what to do?”
The costs of firing your gun, by the way, can add up. If you accidentally shoot someone, crime scene clean-up alone — a bill the shooter may find themselves responsible for — is expensive enough that it requires a customized pricing estimate, with fees that can climb quickly into the thousands. Legal fees, even in the case of self-defense, can total more than $50,000 depending on situational specifics. Carry Guard markets itself as a way to ensure that carrying a gun won’t bankrupt anyone down the line — which makes the decision to own a firearm a little easier, too. The company is one of a range of insurance providers, including Milwaukee-based Delta Defense, that offer similar plans.
With its lowest level “bronze” membership, Carry Guard offers $250,000 of civil protection with $50,000 in criminal defense. At $49.95 per month, the “gold plus” membership offers $1,500,000 worth of civil protection with $250,000 in criminal defense. In each of their plans, up to 20 percent of criminal defense costs are available immediately, but full criminal defense protection only becomes available if the member is acquitted or if their case is dismissed. But Carry Guard intends to help its members put all those concerns aside so they can pull the trigger. It’s all in the name of self-defense, and a prime audience for that message is – you guessed it – women.
Self-defense is the single most reported reason that women buy and carry firearms. So it’s no wonder that the firearms trade association the National Shooting Sports Foundation have gone to great lengths to frame a rise in women’s gun ownership as an exponential groundswell, publishing a report on female gun owners in 2014. It’s a compelling marketing narrative for gun advocates and retailers, but the data tell a slightly different story: The truth is that fewer men are buying guns, and as a result the proportion of women looks larger.
Regardless of spin, the narrative has taken hold, and the now decades-old effort to bolster a market for women-specific gun accessories is a wave that specialty designers — including concealed carry handbag company Cameleon Bags — continue to ride. On the Carry Guard exhibit floor, brand representative Chirag Sethi stands amidst racks of handbags, backpacks, and clutches in neutral and pop colors. He looks very official, in his polo and khakis; but on his lanyard hangs a printed name tag on which the NRA has misspelled his first name. From far away the collection comprises something like a department store display, but each of the Cameleon bags has a zippered pocket with a sturdy, Velcro holster designed to hold a handgun. Sethi picks up a black clutch.
“This is one of our most popular designs,” he says as he unzips the pockets of the purse, which retails for $84.99 on the company’s website, and can hold a phone, wallet, and keys in addition to a firearm. “It fits pretty much any size gun, up to a 1911” —a single-action semiautomatic pistol that was first issued as the standard sidearm for those serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. “So it’s fairly big," he says, summarily.
Sethi’s family owns Punita Group, a leather goods manufacturer based in Virginia which owns Cameleon; his mother also designs accessories for the line. In addition to being sold at the expo, Cameleon bags will also appear later that day in a concealed carry fashion show, where Sethi’s girlfriend Leena will model the most popular wares.
The runway event is one of the expo’s most anticipated features, a culminating catwalk moment that doesn’t just make conceal and carry look easy, but also (at least theoretically) chic. The woman behind the runway event is Amanda Suffecool, an Ohio native who says one of her earliest memories is learning how to reload shotgun shells for her trap shooting grandfather. By day she works as an engineer at an aerospace supply company, but in her spare time she teaches concealed carry courses and runs a gun education non-profit called REALIZE Firearms Awareness Coalition. Along with a weekly question-and-answer radio show about guns, she’s the organizer behind an annual doomsday preppers’ ball that builds community around a shared fear of impending apocalypse. One of Suffecool’s many initiatives is the fashion show.
About 16 million Americans have licenses to carry concealed weapons, and Suffecool coordinates the fashion show to help them explore the range of accessories available to gracefully and inconspicuously conceal a firearm on their body.
“When new people start to carry a gun, they believe that they’ve got this neon sign pointing to that spot, “ Suffecool says. “The fashion show shows them that’s not really the case.”
By early evening, a large banquet room has been tricked out with mood lighting and a stretch of catwalk. The models — many of whom are reluctant volunteers, employees of companies whose products they are showcasing — are awkward, in a way that is both cringe inducing and endearing. Women coo and giggle as a shirtless man in cargo shorts strides down the runway and unfurls a leather holster from his waistband; men whisper critiques of each product under their breath. To rank their favorite looks, everyone has a scorecard that gets turned in when the lights come back up at the end of the night.
The audience favorite is Lethal Lace: a stretchy, universal body holster designed by Tessa Renaud, a registered nurse from Louisiana. “As a nurse working late shifts at night, walking in the parking garage at 3 a.m., I didn’t feel safe,” she said, while explaining her product's origin story. Renaud decided that carrying a concealed weapon would help her feel safer, so she took a course, got a concealed weapons permit, and bought a gun. The only issue: She couldn’t figure out how to holster a handgun to her scrubs without her bottoms sagging. “That’s what sparked it,” Renaud said. “I was going to figure out a way to fix my problem.”
Decades ago, when firearms retailers first began marketing to women, they adopted a simple strategy: “shrink it and pink it.” But the women who bought and tried these products (including cheetah print semi-automatic handguns so tiny they produced considerable recoil) realized they wanted things that were actually designed for their bodies. Renaud is one of many women who have met that demand and become business owners in the process.
Stretchy and strong, Lethal Lace can wrap anywhere on the wearer’s body, making it easy to holster a gun to legs or the chest. In a video posted to YouTube, looking like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Renaud demonstrates how Lethal Lace can effectively conceal a potential arsenal of weapons — four handguns, two knives, two canisters of mace, and a loaded magazine — under a tank top and yoga pants.
Renaud and Suffecool, both mothers, consider their gun ownership as a new form of feminine domesticity. “For the longest time it’s always been assumed that it’s the men who are the protectors,” Suffecool told me. “But when you really start to ask, ‘Who is the most responsible person in the household?’… It’s the mom! It’s my job to protect my family with whatever tools are available, and a firearm is just another one of those tools.”
But while the models are parading with holsters and corsets in the event center, outside a very different group has started their own sort of show that is markedly less festive.
It’s late afternoon in Milwaukee’s Zeidler Union Square, where people are carrying cardboard signs cut to resemble grave stones. Each is marked with a name, age, and date of death of a local resident killed by gun violence.
“There had been so much violence in Milwaukee over the summer,” says Anneliese Dickman, outreach specialist for the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort (WAVE), the non-profit that coordinated the protest. Of 113 homicides committed in and around Milwaukee in 2017, 84% involved guns. “We thought trying to make light of this notion that guns should be everywhere in society by having a fashion show was really distasteful.”
In advance of the expo, WAVE derisively tweeted photos of the products that would appear at the fashion show and lampooned them to their followers. They tweeted a picture of Renaud’s Lethal Lace with the caption "be sexy while absconding from justice!"
“You can live your life without needing a firearm,” Dickman says. “And most of us do.”
Contrary to my dad’s safety advice, the closer people are to guns, the more unsafe they are. States with more guns have more gun violence. And that proximity to a firearm is even more damning for women. The presence of a gun in a woman’s home triples her chances of being killed. And odds are, the person who will kill her isn’t a stranger; more than 500 American women are fatally shot by current or former romantic partners each year. The presence of firearms in a home makes it 5 times more likely that domestic abuse will turn deadly.
What’s more, women who were victims of crime used firearms in self-defense only 0.4% of the time. So for Dickman, the culture of carrying concealed weapons is not only a public safety hazard: It’s absurd.
When I asked female gun owners in Milwaukee why they carry concealed weapons, almost all of them had the same response: just in case. Suffecool argues that the average bad guy is stronger, younger, and faster than her – but that she’s a better shot. When it comes to the decision to carry a gun, the motivation is fear of the unknown. Having a weapon is just another way to be prepared.
“I’m hoping I never ever have to draw my gun,” Suffecool says. But carrying it gives her peace of mind. “I start every concealed carry class by saying: I’m going to teach you how to run, and if you can’t run, I’m going to teach you how to stand and fight.”
After all those conversations with white, gun owning women who I don’t really know, I decided I needed to talk to one I do: my mom, Charlotte Huntington. When I approached her about talking to me on camera, it was only the second time we had ever had a conversation about her gun. The first time was only weeks before, when I had just returned from the expo in Milwaukee and we were catching up over the phone.
Guns comprise a political rift between me and my mom, a non-confrontational woman who describes her possession of a gun and a concealed weapons permit as “a really benign thing.”
“It’s not like I’m going out and saving the world,” she explained. “It’s just for me.”
My mom is a woman who likes to learn new things. In the past she has taken flying lessons; in her early fifties, she began mountain biking with a group of women who call themselves the Dirt Divas. Because guns scared her, she thought it was a good idea to take a concealed weapons training course.
“It was like six hours long,” she says. “After the test, you went out to the firing range and fired. And I did pretty darn good. I slayed that white piece of paper, that little guy!”
“You slayed it?” I responded, taken aback by the choice of noun.
“I slayed him!” she effused.
“Was it shaped like a person?” I asked.
Unphased, she said, “It was, yeah.”
A year later, my mom bought her own handgun. Though it does often remain under her mattress, she brings it with her on weekend mountain biking trips with her friends.“It gave your dad peace of mind knowing that I had it with me – just in case – because he likes to worry about stuff like that,” she said.
“Just in case what?” I ask.
“Just in case I would need it?” she told me. “You never know.”