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Guns & Women

Despite a relentless antigun drumbeat in the media and among politicians, women of all ages are taking self-defense into their own hands.

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"Take back the night!" It made a great feminist rallying cry in the 70s, serving notice that women weren't going to cower at home after dark just because we lacked male escorts. It was accompanied by much trumpeting about women's self-defense classes, about women walking tall in the moonlight, prepared to disable attackers twice their size with a single, well-aimed knee to the groin or hand to the nose. We were powerful, indomitable, ready to stand up to anything.

We were also intensely unrealistic. Much of the advice dispensed in one-evening seminars or four-week martial-arts classes proved inadequate, impractical, or just plain wrong. Putting keys between the fingers before striking a blow, for instance--all an attacker has to do is grab your hand and squeeze. And none of it really took into account the problems faced by older or handicapped women.

Mace was touted as a defensive weapon, but if the wind wasn't right it could blow back in your face. New formulas are weaker so they can't permanently injure the assailant, but even the strong versions proved useless on drunken, drugged, or deranged attackers. Blowing a whistle to summon assistance is even more useless if no one's around to hear it--or no one who cares to help. A knife can be used only if you're much too close to an assailant for comfort, and even then it's not likely to do much more than make him angry. Nail files, knitting needles, and the like are all easily taken away.

But there was one item in the self-defense repertoire that really could make a difference: a handgun, preferably a revolver of .38 caliber or larger. No matter how large or menacing the attacker, no matter how tiny, feeble, or elderly the intended victim, a woman who knows how to use a firearm has real stopping power. Frequently she won't even have to cock it: various studies have shown that merely displaying a firearm will scare off a high percentage of offenders. (A soon-to-be-published study by Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck found that handguns were used by civilians in self-defense approximately 1.6 million times a year in the five-year period ending in the spring of 1993.)

Many in the women's movement not only did not suggest that women become comfortable with firearms but joined the bandwagon against them. Since gun bans generally affect only law-abiding citizens, and since the police can't be everywhere, even in the comfortable middle-class neighborhoods most feminists frequent, this put them in the curious position of advocating the unilateral disarmament of their own constituents.

Yet despite the relentless antigun drumbeat in the media and among politicians, an increasing number of women of all ages, races, and social standings have decided to take responsibility for their own self-defense. They are buying guns, in record numbers. They're learning to use them. And sometimes they have cause to be glad they did.

Security was lousy in her not-quite-Lincoln Park building, and she worked nights. After one frightening close encounter she bought a handgun and started carrying it with her.

It was only a few weeks later that the door to her studio apartment snicked open early one morning, revealing a tall man silhouetted in the light from the hallway. She tried to scream, but only a strangled whimper came out. She did have the presence of mind to reach for her .38, and in the silence the click as she cocked the gun was clearly audible. He heard it and ran. He was down the back stairs and loping through the alley before she could get to the door--to close and lock it and push a chair against it with shaking hands.

Did she call the police? "Of course not. This is Chicago. That means the gun was illegal. Best case, the cops would have confiscated my gun. Worst case, who knows? The important thing is that I decided I wasn't going to be a victim if I could help it. And I could and did help it."

A patchwork of laws determines who may legally own a gun in this country. In Chicago handguns must be registered to be legal--but registration was ended under Jane Byrne in 1982. Any handguns purchased since are de facto illegal. (Recently several aldermen noted their dismay at the number of illegal handguns now in the city; they want to reopen registration so that officials can get a better idea of who owns what.) Handguns are illegal, period, in Morton Grove, Evanston, and Oak Park, though the laws are essentially unenforceable.

In October gubernatorial candidate Richard Phelan, attempting to seize the crime issue, pushed through the County Board an ordinance that banned assault weapons in the county (except where local governments had a related ordinance; it doesn't, therefore, apply to Chicago, where these weapons are already banned) and required all gun dealers with a federal license to get a county license as well. Moreover, no dealer can be within a half mile of a school or park, though existing stores inside those boundaries are exempt through the term of their leases or until the store changes ownership.

This illegality--and the threat of future illegality, thanks to various laws proposed by various showboating politicians--is one reason why most of the women interviewed for this article insisted on partial or complete anonymity. Other reasons include a disinclination to draw attention to themselves and a fear of the stigma gun ownership has in many areas.

Elizabeth J. Swasey is director of women's issues and information at the National Rifle Association. It was as the result of a criminal attack that this personable attorney got interested in firearms.

The year was 1983 and Swasey was living in Boston. One night she and a male companion went to dinner at a restaurant near Fenway Park. On their way out he realized he'd shorted the waiter on the tip and went back to plunk another buck or two on the table. "I walked through the foyer door--and the second I did I had my head smashed against the brick wall and a knife held to my throat, while he alternately whispered how much he loved me and what he was going to do to me--which wasn't very loving." When Swasey's companion emerged and saw what was happening, he simply pushed back his jacket and displayed a handgun in a holster. "The jerk fled."

Swasey suffered a mild concussion and lost a little hair and skin in the attack: "There's probably still some of my blood on those bricks." But she realizes she was lucky. "If my companion hadn't been there I could have been dead." She doesn't remember getting to the car. "But I do remember sitting in the front seat. I thought, 'This is never going to happen to me again.' The second thing I remember thinking is how all [her companion] had to do was show his gun, and I realized I could do that too. The ninth day after that, I had my first gun."

That experience also led her to become a progun lobbyist in her native Massachusetts and eventually to start working for the NRA. An NRA-certified firearms instructor, she's also an accomplished debater on the gun issue, having gone up against the likes of Sarah Brady, as well as dozens of hostile interviewers. She writes a bimonthly column for the NRA's primary house organ, The American Rifleman.

The NRA seems to have finally caught on to the fact that a female constituency beyond the spouses of male gun owners is out there. Swasey points out that the NRA board has had a women's policy committee since 1976, yet it wasn't until 1990 that the Office of Women's Issues opened, offering programs in personal protection, child gun-safety information, and hunting.

The office also encourages women to become politically active. They can join CrimeStrike, which works for reforms in the criminal justice system, such as eliminating parole for certain crimes and a "three strikes, you're out" law, which would land malefactors in prison for life after three felonies. This group also works to expand prison capacity, which Swasey admits is expensive, though she says U.S. Department of Justice figures show that the average criminal who gains early release commits crimes whose cost is far in excess of the expense of keeping him locked up. The office also has a Media Alert program, a monthly letter-writing program designed to respond to antigun articles in women's magazines and elsewhere, and a program to train more women to use firearms.

Swasey estimates that 25,000 women volunteer for the NRA. Approximately 5 percent of the NRA's members are women, and most of them have joined on their own. "Spouse memberships are declining in popularity," says Swasey. "Women are standing on their own two feet and getting their own memberships." The most recent Gallup poll on gun ownership (1988) showed an impressive 53 percent increase from the previous poll (1983) in women's gun ownership: it showed 12 million women owned firearms and another 3 million were "actively considering" buying. "Our estimates are that there are now 15 to 20 million women gun owners," says Swasey, "based on a number of surveys [mostly in women's magazines]. Self reported that 16 percent of their readers had bought firearms for fear of crime. The National Opinion Resource Center, in its annual survey, reported that 34 million women have 'access to firearms.'"

There are no figures on how often women use guns for self-protection. "If there are 65 million gun owners in America, say 17 million are female," says Swasey. "People use handguns about one and a half million times a year to protect themselves, so extrapolate from that."

The shift in women's attitudes toward guns began in the early 1980s, says Swasey. "It's really fascinating--it's like the collective psyche of women started to change, started to evolve. Just like women discovered they could be responsible for their own economic well-being, they discovered they could be responsible for something more important: their physical well-being.

"According to the Department of Justice, three of four women will face at least one violent crime in their lifetimes. Crime touches women, their families, their neighbors in a way it didn't 20 years ago. It forces women to think about something very unpleasant. We're all grown up enough to realize that a whistle is a child's toy, not a self-defense tool. By now we all know that Mace doesn't work on drunks and druggies. There's usually no time for martial arts--Lisa Sliwa [of the Guardian Angels], who's a black belt, was overcome by multiple attackers.

"Several court cases have demonstrated that the police have no legal duty to protect you. If the government has no duty to protect you, it's really hard to look citizens in the face and say 'We're going to take away your one effective means of protecting yourself.' It really breaks my heart when people are forced to break the law to protect themselves. But people in high-crime cities [with gun bans] feel compelled to break the law."

"I'm ashamed of myself--this is just not me. But I'm scared, and I need to know how to buy a gun."

I'll call her Colleen. She lives in Oak Park. A "lifelong liberal," she supported the village's 1984 handgun ban, voted for Bill Clinton and Carol Moseley-Braun in the last election, and regards the "gun nuts" at the NRA as nasty, scary folks. However, cold reality--in the form of a daylight rape of a woman who lives near her and the possibility of a facility for recovering crack addicts being set up not far from her home--has her frightened.

The neighbor "was raped in her own garage, with her two little kids watching. I don't want that to happen to me," she says. "We've talked about moving--some of our friends have moved to Naperville--but we've put so much into this place! We love our neighborhood, we love the village, we love the location. And these things are happening everywhere, I guess. I want to be able to defend myself and not have to run away."

In the movies female characters have recently become marginally less likely to serve solely as victims: Would the rapist have relinquished his hold on Thelma if Louise hadn't had the drop on him? In Terminator 2 Linda Hamilton takes care of an evil android of the future, wielding an impressive arsenal with what one older male shooter calls "the best weapon handling I've ever seen in the movies--sheer artistry." Other strong, capable--and sexy--armed women in recent films include Bridget Fonda in Point of No Return and Drew Barrymore in Guncrazy. The little woman isn't merely quivering at the male action hero's side anymore.

The trend toward women owning firearms has not gone unnoticed in the news media, which have reacted primarily with negative stories. A recent piece in the Dallas Morning News, reprinted elsewhere, was entitled "Women buying more guns: Critics contend industry exploits the fear of crime." It notes that gun purchases by women for self-defense are up considerably, along with crime: "Forcible rape increased by 2 percent [in 1992], aggravated assault by 3 percent. Fear is a powerful motive."

But then the author quotes at some length a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, who states, "Women have been carefully selected as pawns" of the gun lobby. No one from the progun side offers her views. That's typical; balanced journalism when it comes to Second Amendment issues is rare. This overt bias makes it even more remarkable that more women are buying guns.

"Women approach guns differently than men--yes, especially in this day and age!" says Pat Valentino, member of the Illinois State Rifle Association's board of directors. "I've had an unbelievable number of calls recently--calls from women who find themselves single parents, women who don't want to be abused anymore, women who are worried about themselves and their children. So they want to buy a gun. I explain to them where to go and what to do. Women nowadays are willing to learn how to shoot, just like they're willing to go to self-defense class. I get an upsurge [in calls] every time I do a talk show--when I do a radio [call-in] show I get more calls than you can imagine. I did a CNN piece recently, and I'm still getting calls from women who want to know about firearms. I think it takes women a little longer than men to decide. They think about it more."

Valentino was born and raised in Maryland. She started out as a squirrel hunter at age six and grew up to own a gun shop and shooting preserve. She's hunted all over North America ("Bear, boar, antelope, whitetail"), and became a life member of the NRA in the 70s. She met her husband, Jim, president of the Illinois State Rifle Association, through the NRA; he convinced her to marry him and move to Illinois.

Valentino has used a gun in self-defense. As she started to get into her car in a Maryland mail parking lot, a man pulled a knife on her. "I pulled my gun out of my purse instead of my car keys. He took a nosedive, went under the car, and ran. The police got him, and he got and served six months."

She says she gets a tremendous number of calls from nurses. "They work at night, and they're scared to death to walk at night. Fear drives women to get guns, and the women who work at night are scared the most. Women don't like to take jobs working at night, and rightly so. I wouldn't want to work at a 7-Eleven store at night--I wouldn't want to work there at all, unless I had a gun under the counter."

She once gave a firearms class to a group of judges' wives and mothers--set up by the judges--but most of Valentino's students back in Maryland were decidedly blue-collar. "Lately I've been getting a lot more people that are financially extremely stable," she says. "They have the money to do it, and they're just doing it. That's a real change. Most of the women are in their 30s and 40s. I'm finding that more and more liberals are getting scared and wish to protect themselves. They're not going to be openly progun--they're closeted."

Valentino says that whatever their age or status or politics, women are buying handguns. She recommends staying away from "hand cannons," which have a real kick. "The average person can't take a .44 magnum. I recommend a nice little double-action revolver, like a .38. For home defense I suggest a +P+ [between the .38 special and .357 magnum in power] for stopping power. Too many times when somebody breaks into a house he's on drugs--and it takes a lot to put somebody like that down." Valentino recalls that a druggie once broke into a police station in Maryland. The officers on duty put a total of 38 holes in him--and he was still alive and running. "If you're looking at somebody who's breaking into a house, you have that problem. It used to be that guys bought their wives .25 automatics. Not only do they jam, but you can put five rounds in somebody and he'll keep coming. And get a hollow-point bullet, which will expand and do some damage."

Women with children naturally worry about the dangers of having a gun. But it's a myth that having a handgun in the house leads to mayhem, according to David B. Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado, and a nationally recognized expert on handgun use. Although the number of guns in private hands has increased by more than 100 percent since the 70s, the number of children dying by accidental gunshot wounds has declined by more than half.

In five years of study, says Kopel, "we've never had a case where a child found the woman's loaded gun and had an accident. The kind of woman who gets a handgun for protection is usually urban and relatively young. She's more apt to be serious about the safety stuff. She's not the kind of person who's getting the gun to fire it off on New Year's Eve, then passing out--so the kid finds the gun on New Year's Day and has an accident. These women go out of their way to be careful." Gun accidents, he says, are usually "part of a pattern of careless behavior."

In the United States in 1990, he says, there were 34 accidental gun deaths among children under 5, 56 among children 5 to 9, and 146 among children 10 to 14--accounting for a total of 3 percent of accidental deaths among children 14 and under. "A child is four times more likely to die in a fire, and 13 times more likely to die in a car accident," he says, adding that in 1990 90 children age five and under died as a result of playing with cigarette lighters, while 350 drowned in swimming pools and bathtubs. "Does this mean we should ban cigarette lighters or swimming pools and bathtubs? No, it just means people need to be careful and use some common sense."

The first time Grace Petersen thought about getting a gun was when she was working the second shift at Harris Trust. "Second shift goes from 4 to 10 PM if you're part-time and until midnight or 12:30 if you're full-time. I had many black female colleagues who lived on the south side, and several of them carried guns. They made no bones about it--they had to ride the Dan Ryan el very late at night. They were not going through very nice neighborhoods, and it just wasn't safe. Most of them carried a snub-nose in their purse. It seemed at times a practical necessity."

Petersen, who recently moved from Cicero to a more exurban setting, used to carry a knife for her nighttime commute "or big, heavy knitting needles--I did a lot of knitting then." She learned to use a gun after her husband bought one. "He dragged me off to a gun range. He insisted that if there were going to be guns in the house I should learn to shoot. That seemed reasonable, so I went. I found I enjoyed it." She regularly goes target shooting ("it's a sport, and a very pleasant one") with a high-powered rifle as well as a handgun.

Her personal defense weapon is a Colt .357 magnum revolver ("I don't like semiautomatics") with a four-inch barrel. The Petersens have two young children, so they take a number of precautions. The guns are locked up; the adults know where they are and can get to them quickly. She keeps her pistol unloaded; the ammunition is in an autoloader, kept separately, that holds six bullets. If she needs to use it, she can pop open the cylinder, push a button to shove all six rounds into place, twist a knob, and be ready to go. She estimates that takes less than five seconds. "I just wouldn't keep a loaded weapon around--when you've got small children around they get into the damndest things.

"I've never had a situation where I needed to use it. I've contemplated what I'd do--I would do what I had to to protect my family. Like any rational human being, I hope I never have to."

She worries about attempts to legislate away legal gun ownership and points out that many antigun arguments could be used against automobile ownership. To her, a gun is just a tool. "Any tool can be used correctly, or it can be used incorrectly and cause injury. I keep my kitchen knives in a wooden block away from my children--and I keep my guns away from them too. I don't give my children power tools to play with. If you have tools of any sort you have an obligation to use them correctly and keep others from misusing them. You have to have a sense of responsibility--something which I find sorely lacking in our society today."

"I've noticed quite an upsurge in women getting involved in shooting sports and buying guns for self-defense--that's something we never had before," says Barry Levin, owner of Maxon's gun shop in Mount Prospect. "Ten years ago they never even mentioned it, they never thought of it. Now they're calling up and saying, 'Can you help me?'"

Levin estimates that women are now 15 percent of his customers, up three-fold in the last five years. They're buying handguns--revolvers and semiautomatics--mostly in .38 or nine-millimeter calibers. "They come in with no ideas. We talk to them about what they want it for and advise them."

He says that most of the women buying guns have a specific reason to be afraid. "Most of them have had incidents--most of them indicate they've had problems. A lot of them have been victims of home invasions. They want to make sure they're a little more secure the next time around. I really feel for women. In most cases they are the weaker sex physically, they're most often victimized. It's just not fair."

Levin, who says he's been in business more than 20 years without a single problem with the police, is keen on gun safety: when a woman comes into the shop, he tells her that she needs to learn to use her firearm, that she needs a trigger lock, or a lockbox to keep it away from children and "irresponsible adults." He tells her that bullets can penetrate walls, that she needs to consider the other members of her family. "I try not to talk about using deadly force, because I don't want that to be her idea about what she's doing with it. Hopefully, she will never have to use it."

He insists that his customers take training and believes it should be mandatory. "Anyone who doesn't want training in firearms--I don't want to sell 'em one. Fortunately, I've got the ability to refuse service if I don't like who I'm talking to, what I'm hearing." He's now in the process of building an indoor range for handgun practice and competition.

"Guns are nothing more than an extension of people's insecurities," he says. "They're equalizers. Everything they say about guns is true: guns are meant to do one job. We're to a point in this society where we have to stop people from breaking these laws--and attorneys from making money getting them off. The criminals are laughing, because instead of getting tough with them we keep giving law-abiding citizens more restrictions--and there is no mandate to get crime down. If they would take care of these bad guys, guys like me would be out of business."

It's Saturday night at Bell's, a gun store and shooting range in Franklin Park. The parking lot is filled with everything from beat-up pickup trucks to suburban vans, from an elderly Oldsmobile to a BMW. Inside, the air is filled with equal parts cigarette smoke and powder smoke, and there's the pop-pop-pop of handguns being fired on the other side of a couple masonry walls.

There are safety posters everywhere, in the store and in the passageway leading to the range in back, and there are cases full of guns. Bell's will sell you everything from a teeny .22 five-shot revolver (it looks like a handgun for a teddy bear) to intimidating semiautomatic pistols that wouldn't be lost in Arnold Schwarzenegger's paw to assorted long guns. There are boxes of ammunition, fancy handgrips, holsters, magazines, books--on history, politics, The Street Smart Gun Book, Know Your Broomhandle Mausers--and targets: everything from traditional bull's-eyes to police silhouettes to line drawings of a burly man with a handgun, a threatening man in a ski mask, and a beefy blond with a shotgun.

Saturday is ladies' night, which is when you'll find Angela behind the counter. Angela has long black hair, eyeliner halfway up her lids, seven earrings-two dangling triangles, four hoops, and one diamond stud--and, over the right rear pocket of her blue jeans, a black holster that contains a .45 semiautomatic.

She's friendly and forthright. She bought her first gun a year and a half ago, after a break-in left her feeling uneasy. She was living in Chicago at the time, so the purchase made her a de facto criminal. "But I lived where I needed it," she says. "I bought it for self-defense." She came to Bell's to practice shooting it, and when their need for a clerk coincided with her need for a part-time job she was hired.

"We're getting more women in here every week," she says, "and I'm so happy to see it. They're 21 to 70 years old, and most are buying them for protection, for self-defense in their house or apartment."

What does she recommend to the novice female shooter? "For home protection I steer them toward a revolver-it's easier to use. It won't jam like a semiautomatic. It can sit in a drawer, and it will still go off a year from now, even if it hasn't been shot. If it's a smaller woman or if it's a first gun I might recommend a .38--but I usually try to talk them into a .357 because it's so versatile. It can shoot both .38 and .357 [ammunition]. When you're learning you can use .38s, which have less kick. That's a great aspect of the gun."

She usually recommends either a Smith & Wesson or a Taurus snubnosed revolver; both companies are reputable, and their products carry lifetime warranties. The Smith & Wesson, made in the U.S., has a longtime good reputation; the Taurus, produced in Brazil, is less expensive. "But they're both good. If you have a problem with a gun from one of them and you send it back, they're going to fix it.

"I always tell women, never carry a gun in your purse--because if they get your purse, they've got your gun." Instead, she shows them the line of unisex fanny packs from Bianchi that start at $49.95 and are available in three sizes and assorted loud colors. They look perfectly ordinary until you rip open the Velcro fastener at the side to reveal a holster.

Nancy, who looks to be around 50, is here to practice shooting. In contrast with many gun owners, she doesn't have a problem with longer waiting periods to buy guns or further restrictions on who may own them. She bought hers after an attempted break-in at her home in Rosemont. "It was the middle of the night. They knew we were home, because we turned on the lights. But they kept coming." The would-be burglars finally left, but Nancy says, "I realized that I had to learn how to use a gun. And I found out it's fun."

Is she prepared to shoot an assailant if it comes to that? "If somebody broke in, I hope I would be able to use it. I hope I could. It wouldn't be my first thought--my first thought would still be to call 911. But I hope I would be able to. I think I could."

The LadySmith model 65LS is a .357 magnum/.38 special with a six-round capacity and a medium frame. Its barrel is three inches long, for an overall length of 7 and 15/16 inches, and it weighs 31 ounces. It features slim, rounded rosewood laminate grips and a frosted stainless finish. It comes with a soft gun case for carrying and storage.

Ken Jorgensen is director of communications for the firm that makes it, Smith & Wesson, of Springfield, Massachusetts. He says the LadySmith line, which was introduced in 1989, came into being because of a series of polls the company conducted between 1983 and 1988. "One thing that came out of them was that the number of women thinking of buying a firearm doubled in that time, from seven and a half million to 15 million. Then we did a series of focus groups: if you're thinking of buying a firearm, would you buy a handgun? What would you look for? We found that women wanted easier-to-pull triggers, smaller handgrips, and easier-to-reach triggers. We found that the aesthetics of the gun were more important to women than they are to men." He adds, "We found that a lot of women were carrying handguns in their purses. The frosted stainless can rub up against cosmetics and keys and not be damaged."

Jorgensen won't talk numbers, but he will say that sales of the LadySmith line doubled from early 1991 to the end of 1992 and that it's popular. He expects a safety-related rebate program--buy the gun, take an NRA gun-handling course, and get $50 back--to boost sales through the end of the year.

The LadySmith may not be reaching all of its potential audience. "We're advertising primarily in firearms magazines because we've had problems getting into some of the other publications we would like to be in. When we launched the line one women's magazine ran the ad and received a lot of flak--and the other magazines wouldn't run it."

Ronnie, who has a small business in the northwest suburbs, became a gun owner 25 years ago, "partly because I enjoy pistol shooting, and partly for protection." Her gun of choice is a Walther PPK, the same compact pistol James Bond carried in Dr. No. "I like the size, the power that's behind it if you need it, and the ease of handling. It'll fit in a pocket. It's a very nice pistol for a woman." Does she have one for home and one for her store? She pauses. "Let's just say it's with me."

Does she worry that her gun could be used against her? "If you know how to handle a pistol properly, an attacker is not going to be able to use it against you or take it away from you. For one thing, most of the time he's just going to try to get away from you. And if you're looking at a life-or-death situation--your life or the attacker's--you know how you'll choose."

She says she knows women who've defended themselves with handguns, but they won't talk about it, even anonymously. They're too afraid of being tracked down. But, more and more, women will do what they have to do to defend themselves."

From the Chicago Tribune, November 9, 1993: "A 92-year-old wheelchair-bound South Side woman shot and killed a teenager who had forced his way into her home Monday afternoon, police said.

"Bessie Jones, of the 7700 block of South Ridgeland Avenue, told police she was looking out a storm door when two teenage boys came up to her house. One of the young men yanked the door open and entered the house while the other stayed outside, said Pullman Area Sgt. Larry Augustine. The youth pushed Jones throughout the house in her wheelchair and demanded money, she said.

"Jones said she told him to leave several times, Augustine said.

"The young man began searching through drawers, leaving Jones in the living room, where she was able to get a gun she owns and place it in her lap.

"When the young man approached her, she again asked him to leave, and then fired one shot, striking him in the neck.

"Augustine said a representative from the state's attorney's office ruled that the shooting was justified, and no charges will be filed."

The Chicago chapter of the National Organization for Women believes in empowering women, but not with firearms. Director Sue Purrington says, "We are very, very strongly in favor of women attempting to take control of their lives. But guns--we do not encourage women to arm themselves in that way. All it does is add to the number of guns out there. There's nothing that shows that having a gun deters anyone."

When it's suggested that having a gun may indeed deter bad guys and can act as an equalizer, Purrington responds, "A gun is never an equalizer. [A woman who uses one] may have wounded or blown away another individual, may have temporarily saved her own life. For one brief moment it may in fact solve something, but she has to deal with it for the rest of her life."

Purrington, who advocates taking water guns away from children, wants to see tougher gun-control laws and the return of cops on the beat. She thinks women who choose to defend themselves can do so by taking self-defense classes that do not include firearms training.

But what about the woman who isn't physically capable of defending herself with a well-aimed kick to the groin? What about the Bessie Joneses of the world? "I can't stand in judgment. A woman either decides to [submit] or decides to defend herself She makes the choice for herself "

Yet when it comes to Women using guns, she does offer a judgment: "If we think that's what equality's about, we're wrong. Our stand is very, very strong on this. Very strong. It's very easy to arm yourself, but I will not do that. I am not going to take responsibility for killing another human being. I think that it takes out the last part of ourselves as human beings."

Denise Krasicki is a repository of gun-related anecdotes. She says her husband drove off a burglar with his .357 magnum, and when she was working on a city ambulance "a cop friend told me, 'Let me get you a throwaway [gun]. It'll cost you $50, and if you have to use it you just wipe it clean and pitch it.'"

She once worked the night shift in a rough neighborhood and was harassed regularly. Now she lives in Prospect Heights, not far from Strictly Shooting, the gun shop near Hersey High School that brought on the anti-gun-store law passed by the Cook County Board. She also shoots competitively. She doesn't worry about her two daughters, 10 and 13, finding a gun and getting into trouble, she says, in part because she and her husband have demystified weapons by taking the girls out to shoot regularly. "They're excellent shots."

Krasicki, who's involved in trying to repeal Phelan's ordinance, takes a pragmatic approach to self-defense. "The days of blowing your brains out with a whistle waiting for someone to help you are over. The cops can't take care of you--how many cops are there per thousand? [Parts of the city are] battle zones. The cops have wives and kids they want to go home to--and they're underarmed. Passing more laws isn't the answer--we have plenty of laws. The judicial system is a joke."

Krasicki complains that even feminist leaders "are telling women to submit to rapists. They say there are better ways than guns to defend yourself. They're telling us to be victims. No way! It's him or me."

She believes women ought to be able to obtain permits to carry concealed weapons because they can be attacked anywhere. "In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to have guns. But it's not a perfect world." However, she does add, "Nobody wants to talk about the fact that most city shootings are gang-related. Nobody wants to talk about the fact that this is mostly a problem for just a couple of [ethnic] groups."

Phil Andrews claim to fame is that he was shot by Laurie Dann in his family's North Shore home five and a half years ago. He's now executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, and he thinks women who arm themselves are making a big mistake.

He says handguns are not an answer to the problem of crime against women "principally because statistically it's very clear that a gun purchase for self-defense is far more likely to be used against the purchaser or the family of the purchaser [than against a criminal].

"Certainly women need something to balance out their fear--the fear is certainly justified. But a gun only acts as an equalizer psychologically; it's very clear from the data that they're not being used successfully for self-defense. Women are particularly susceptible right now because they're being marketed to." With the LadySmith and its advertising campaign? "Yes, and the ads in the Ladies' Home Journal: 'It's not only your right, it's your responsibility.'"

He calls the marketing "very fear driven. The NRA is attempting to bandwagon this as newfound membership, completely skirting the whole issue of safety--particularly since many women aren't getting any training at all." Andrew says he'd feel better about women owning firearms if training was mandatory. "But it would concern me that it would exclude people who couldn't afford training."

Was Bessie Jones wrong to have a handgun? "She could have had a loaded shotgun in her apartment," he offers, pointing out that long guns are less apt to be involved, in accidental shootings. A 92-year-old woman confined to a wheelchair trying to wield an awkward, heavy shotgun? Sure, says Andrew. "She sounds like a pretty tough woman."

He advises pepper gas or Mace as self-defense weapons. When it's pointed out that they're ineffective, particularly against the chemically impaired, he says women should avoid situations where they might meet up with a drunk or drugged offender. And if such a criminal breaks into ones home? "That's a worst-case scenario. Statistically, it's just not happening."

When I suggested that it's inappropriate and rather patronizing for privileged white men who live in good neighborhoods to tell impoverished minority women living in places like the west side what they can and cannot do to defend themselves, Andrew responds, "A woman living on the west side has the right to self-defense, but she should consider what is most effective. And what is most effective is organization at the community level. The watched street doesn't have crime on it."

She says to call her Miss Rico. She's a 30-year-old black woman, single, with a son. She lives on the south side, and guns are an everyday part of her life. "I can't remember a time I didn't have a gun," she says. "Oh, I didn't have one when I was a child, but all my teenage years, ever since I've been up, I've had a gun. I've used guns several times. I've never actually taken anyone's life, but I have shot people with my gun."

The first time, she says, was on the street outside a party. "I intervened in an argument between my girlfriend and her husband. He hit me--he knocked me onto the hood of a car. He was laying on me, and he grabbed me by my coat. I had my pistol in my pocket and I shot him. I didn't aim, and I hit him down by the bottom of his stomach." Miss Rico heard the police were looking for her and hid for two days at her mother's. When they caught up with her, she was charged only with possession of an unregistered firearm. As it turned out, there was a warrant out for her assailant's arrest; he spent three months in a hospital and then went to prison.

Later she was alone late one night, doing the books in the small south-side shop she owned, when a man attempted a break-in. "I waited until he was halfway in, halfway out, and I shot him. I got him in the stomach. He was taken to the hospital and charged with breaking and entering." She says the police told her, "'You should have killed him--there would have been less paperwork.' They told me, 'You did us a favor.'" The police confiscated her gun each time. "They always take them, even when they're registered. If it's registered you eventually get it back, but it takes a while." But she regards that as a small price to pay to avoid being hurt or otherwise victimized. "There's no problem getting another one [on the street]. If you're choosy about what kind you want it may take a little longer."

On another occasion Miss Rico caught some men breaking into her car. She fired a shot or two into the air, and they departed in haste. "I would never use my gun in an argument or to intimidate. I would only use it if someone was physically hurting me or threatening me. Then I would have no hesitation in using it." She says she has never bought her child, or any other child, a toy gun--not even a water pistol. "I'm totally pro-nonviolent. It's just this world we live in.

"Any people that have guns use guns. They should teach their children that guns are dangerous. You have to teach children from the cradle: if you see a gun lying around go get [a grownup]. Everyone in my family knows that I've had a pistol for years. It's no secret. And we've had no accidents." She enjoys shooting and makes regular trips to a range to practice.

She has three handguns: a small one for her pocket, a large one for her home, and a midsize one for her car, which she keeps in a pouch that resembles a cosmetics bag. "The police don't realize what it is. The police will go in your car, but they won't really search it that carefully."

Miss Rico has some advice for those contemplating gun ownership. "It's bad to need one and not have it--but do not take it and not use it. Don't pull it out and say, 'Stop, or I'm going to shoot! If you pull a gun on a man, all conversation should be done. If you are a person who does not think first, if a woman is sort of ding-y, guns are not for her. But if you've got a woman who's abused who's got her head on tight, then a pistol's for her." She mentions some of the horrific details of the Dawn Wilson case; Wilson's husband, Christopher, abused her for years, stalked her, and beat her nearly to death in a northside alley. "If it'd been me, he'd have been dead so long ago his mother would have forgotten his name. If I'd felt that boot go into my spine, and I'd been spared, I would have shot him. If you're married to someone and he has no problem with cracking your ribs, beating you in the head, breaking your bones, you've got to do something. Suppose next time he cracks your rib a piece of it goes into your heart?

"They say the police are prejudiced in favor of the man, but I don't see that. If the police come to you when you've shot someone who was hurting you or harassing you and it was a legitimate thing, they really don't give you that hard a time. If a man is raping you or beating you, what are you supposed to do? If a man is raping your child, what are you supposed to do--walk up to him and ask him to please stop? I hate the thought of killing someone, I really do. But self-preservation is the first law."

Elaine, a friendly, cheerful woman, gives her age as "almost 75." She requests anonymity since she lives in Chicago and recently acquired a handgun. She carries the gun with her at all times. "Living in the city, you have to be very, very careful," she observes. "I worry when I'm going to or from the car. So I got a .22 pistol for security. I haven't had any incidents myself, but you just hear a lot of stories. There was that 78-year-old woman in Lincoln Park not too long ago--a fellow broke into her house and raped her. I don't want that to happen to me."

Elaine has been going to shooting ranges for several months. "My son insisted that I learn how to shoot. Gosh, it's not easy! I'm not that good yet--it's hard to train an old dog, you know? And I'm amazed at the number of women who go to the shooting galleries. All kinds of women, all ages."

Would she use her pistol if threatened? "Oh, yes. I will. I don't like that it's illegal, but I gotta protect myself."

Women and Guns magazine, founded in February 1989, has expanded in five years from a 12-page black-and-white newsletter with a subscriber base of 600 to a glossy 50-page magazine with a circulation of 18,000--even though it can be hard to find and isn't even available at some gun shops.

The December issue has a cover story on singer/shooter Louise Mandrell. Other articles include editorials, technical gun articles, a legal column, a first-person account of a justifiable shooting, and a piece on warning shots (Are they a good idea? No, concludes the author). Virtually all the contributors are women. There are lots of ads, most of them for small, concealable guns (the Charter Arms .38 special, billed as "A Pound of Protection," two-shot derringers, tiny semiautomatics), and "sandwich-style" pocketbooks--with Velcro-closed gun compartments between two regular purse sections.

Peggy Tartaro, associate editor since the fall of 1989 and editor in chief since mid-January, says, "Our readers are primarily interested in guns as a self-defense tool, so we concentrate on that. We like to run first person [self-defense stories], but they're difficult to come by." She hears plenty of accounts, but most women don't want their experiences in print. "Members of the press call regularly, and they're usually looking for something very specific--like a 20-year-old blond who kills someone. They're not interested in stories where a woman displayed a weapon and scared someone off, even though that happens all the time. Women hold [criminals] at bay much more often than shooting them. It's difficult to convince people in the media of that, that it's not all like a TV movie. And they don't understand that not everybody wants to be on TV or in a magazine, that there are emotional repercussions to crime, and many women don't want the publicity."

In the course of writing several articles on abused women, I talked to many who've been stalked, battered, threatened, made afraid every minute of their lives by controlling men who seemed unclear on the concept that women are not property. In the course of our conversations the subject of self-defense usually came up. Not one had owned a gun before she started fearing for her life; almost all of them had since bought guns and learned to use them. "The police and the courts have shown that they can't or won't keep me safe," said one. "I don't want to die."

Lori B. was in an abusive first marriage. When she left, her husband threatened her life. She got a handgun, and goes target shooting regularly. "If he ever comes after me I will use it. I feel if a lot more women did this there'd be a lot less rapes. If my ex-husband comes after me or my children, I will stop him, plain and simple." She likes knowing that she's no longer a sitting duck. "It's an amazing feeling, knowing you can protect yourself. I'm not going to give up without a fight."

A study by criminologists James D. Wright and Peter H. Rossi found that most of the criminals they surveyed agreed with several statements: "A criminal is not going to mess around with a victim he knows is armed with a gun." "One reason burglars avoid houses when people are at home is that they fear being shot." "Most criminals are more worried about meeting an armed victim than they are about running into the police." "A smart criminal always tries to find out if his potential victim is armed." "A store owner who is known to keep a gun on the premises is not going to get robbed very often." An overwhelming majority of them disagreed with the statement: "Committing crime against an armed victim is an exciting challenge."

Most antigun editorializing is done on a purely emotional basis that ignores inconvenient facts. Many who oppose the private ownership of handguns display an appalling ignorance of firearms. Handguns, in particular, have been demonized. There has been an attempt by those who dislike guns to delegitimize all shooting sports, including hunting and target shooting. Many who consider golf a sport sneer at the idea of target shooting as a hobby. In fact, the two activities cost about the same, though the shooting wardrobe is slightly less ridiculous. And target shooting, unlike golf, has some applicability to real life.

There's a large component of snobbery at work here: people who live in wealthy neighborhoods and can afford expensive security systems tend not to look at the issue from the point of view of the poor. There's also a large component of hypocrisy: in New York, where special permits to carry a gun are handed out largely on a political basis and denied to those who don't have connections, there was the embarrassing disclosure a few years ago that such stalwart and implacable gun foes as John Lindsay and the publisher of the New York Times were among those packing pistols. And syndicated columnist Carl Rowan demonstrated his disdain for the party line he preaches when it came out that he kept a gun in his home.

There's also an element of sexism. Men, usually larger and burlier than women, can never fully understand how we're threatened by the possibility of rape and other violence. Sometimes staying home where it's "safe" is not an option. And sometimes home isn't that safe.

The evidence is strong that an armed woman who has the knowledge and will to use a gun can effectively protect herself and her family. The evidence is equally strong that in many cases it's going to be up to her to do just that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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