My first shot hit the bull’s-eye. I might have yelped when the bullet banged out of the barrel of the .22. It was my first time firing a gun.

I might have made mistakes. Putting my finger on the trigger too soon. Pointing the gun at my instructor when I turned in excitement at making a shot.

“You absolutely will make a mistake,” Kelly Stewart had said during my safety training. “Everyone does.”

I will do whatever you say, I replied, thinking, “She’ll be right there to guide me.”

And she was, but that finger strays to the trigger, as if it belongs there. You forget to keep the muzzle down and away because you are hyped.

Stewart knew these things because she has trained dozens of people in firearms safety, mostly women.

Stewart and her husband, Bob, run Foothills Firearms Safety in Sumner. For almost a year now, Stewart, a former corrections officer and now a mental health therapist, has shared her firearms expertise with women of all ages, some as old as 85.

“Lots of women want to learn in a nurturing environment,” she said. “I’m your average middle-aged woman: not threatening.”

These days, lots of women want to learn, period.

And for a variety of reasons, including self-defense and sport, Stewart said.

Results of a May 2020 survey of firearms retailers conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation showed that 40% of sales were to first-time gun owners and 40% of those were women.

Personal protection was the primary reason for buying guns, according to the survey. Semiautomatic pistols were the most common among first-time buyers, by a 2-1 margin over second-place shotguns.

Robyn Sandoval is the executive director of A Girl & A Gun Women’s Shooting League.

According to A Girl & A Gun Women’s Shooting League, a national club with two sites in Maine, 43% of its members shoot to practice self-defense skills.

The organization has seen a 150% upsurge in membership over the past 12 months, according to Executive Director Robyn Sandoval.

“Women are eager to protect themselves and their loved ones,” Sandoval said.

The pandemic and social unrest have spurred gun ownership across the country, especially among women, according to a survey of more than 6,000 of the group’s 6,600 members comprising 210 chapters nationwide.

Women are increasingly the first gun owners in a home and 23% are the only shooters in their households.

A Girl & A Gun describes itself as a “club by women shooters for women shooters.” Its mission is to educate and encourage women about firearm usage and safety, and to promote women’s shooting interest and participation in competitive shooting sports.

The Maine chapters, in Gray and Cape Elizabeth, have a total of 131 members. Tatiana Whitlock, the facilitator for both, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

A Girl & A Gun was founded in 2011 in Texas by Julianna Crowder, who found a way to market shooting specifically to women as “me time.”

Julianna Crowder founded A Girl & A Gun Women’s Shooting League in Texas in 2011.

She began with a Girls’ Night Out on the Range, which included lessons, then dinner out and conversation.

It began with a handful of women.

“Our sisterhood grew organically and within a few months, my colleagues were talking about it,” Crowder said.

Seven months later, she organized the membership, with three chapters in Texas. A year later, the organization began opening chapters around the country.

The dozens of local, regional and national events include Girls’ Getaways and leadership development courses.

LADIES ONLY

A recent women-only event hosted by the Androscoggin County Fish and Game Association drew a sold-out crowd of about 125 women, according to organizer Wendy Younk.

“The Ladies’ Day offers a low-stress way for women to learn about firearms in a safe environment around other women,” Younk said. “Sometimes it’s just easier to learn from a stranger, rather than a significant other.”

No men, other than range safety officers and club volunteers, were allowed on the range during the May 22 event.

Safety classes are a good way to overcome the fear of firearms, Younk said.

That fear comes from a lack of knowledge, she said.

“Our Ladies’ Day event helps give women some of that knowledge,” she said. “Hopefully, they feel a little more comfortable after. We always hear what a great time everyone had. I think the growth of the event is indicative of that.”

Younk, 44, has been shooting since she was 16, she said.

She sees women wanting to learn how to handle guns for both sport and self-defense.

“I started out more focused on personal protection and have met some great people through (the Fish and Game Association) who encouraged and supported me to try new things,” she said.

As a result, she joined a trap-shooting league this past winter.

Younk began shooting because she wanted to learn something a former boyfriend, and then her husband, liked to do, she said.

“My husband owned some firearms and I wanted to know how to use them, in case I needed to,” she said.

She said she knows many other women who found themselves in homes with firearms and wanted to learn to use them.

“Another reason I hear is the nature of the world we live in today,” she said. “Women want to know that they can protect themselves.”

That was one reason Kathy Everett of Paris wanted to learn. Another was wanting to overcome her fear of guns and feel empowered in the wake of traumatic experiences.

Kathy Everett of Paris wanted to overcome her fear of guns. Submitted photo

When Everett was 18, her mother ended her life with a shotgun.

“I was petrified of guns,” said Everett, now 55. “I didn’t want to see them, didn’t want to look at them, wouldn’t touch them.”

Years later, after a divorce, she was assaulted by a stranger while living in Auburn. She felt victimized all over again.

When she saw that her friend Kelly Stewart was opening a shooting range in Sumner, Everett decided it was time to overcome her fear and dread.

“It started weighing heavy on life,” Everett said. “I thought, ‘I have to do something to get control of my life.’ I had to face my fear and panic and what I held against myself. I felt responsible for my mother’s death.”

She contacted Stewart, who assured Everett that she had nothing to worry about.

“She said, ‘There will be many others just like you.’”

Even so, Everett said she “damn near chickened out. When I got to the range, I shook like a leaf. Kelly put a .38 in my hand. I fired and I was spot-on (the target). I went through all nine rounds.”

Stewart asked Everett how she felt.

“I broke down and cried,” Everett said. “I felt free for the first time in 35 years. It was the absolutely most incredible and magnificent feeling in the world.”

Being in an environment with other first-time shooters, some of whom had also had bad experiences related to guns, helped her to not feel alone, Everett said.

She said she now feels capable of protecting herself, her family and her home.

“That’s a really, really good feeling,” she said.

She said learning from a woman, and particularly from Stewart, was “fantastic. She has such a thoughtful, calm manner about her. She is fabulous with women.”

SAFETY FIRST

At Foothills Firearms Safety in Sumner, Stewart wore a .38 revolver in a holster. Handgun earrings dangled from her lobes. She placed a .22-caliber semi-automatic pistol on the table between us.

“I train everyone on a .22,” she said. It’s light in the hand it has lots of safety features.

She began my lesson by giving me the three big safety rules: Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction, keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot and always keep your gun unloaded until you’re ready to use it.

She showed me how to hold the gun in both hands, fatty part of the left hand on the grip, both thumbs forward and not crossed, trigger finger up on the frame.

“Now take the magazine and give it a good slap,” she said. “Make sure it gets in there.”

She showed me how to sight and how to stand: legs forming an isosceles triangle, arms stretched forward, bending slightly at the waist.

Then we were ready for the range.

I shot seven times, hitting the target four times, twice in the bull’s-eye. So what if the target was only 10 feet away. I could feel the power of the small tool in my hand and I understood why this kind of strength appealed to women.

Stewart understands this, too. As a mental health therapist, she has spent a lot of time listening to people and she’s adept at helping traumatized women who want to feel empowered.

“I really enjoy teaching,” she told me. “It’s the most fulfilling aspect of this.”

As for shooting, she views it as a path to mindfulness.

“I don’t like yoga or meditation,” she said, “but when I’m target-shooting, I have a hyper focus. It’s relaxing because everything else has left you.”

This graphic shows the membership profile of members of A Girl and A Gun.


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