Proudly brandishing a target she had riddled with bullets, 62-year-old Sharon Schaefer could not hide her delight at joining America’s growing number of gun-toting women.
“It was fun!” she exclaimed breathlessly, much to the approval of her instructor Teresa Ovalle.
“You did a good job, Sharon,” said the former Marine, who had just given the senior citizen a crash course in pistols at the Fredericksburg Range, some 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of the US capital.
On Thursday evenings the range has a pink theme — the color of T-shirts and logos worn by the members of the Pistol Packing Ladies.
Gun ownership laws are once again at the heart of political debate in the United States after the horrific shooting in December in Newtown, Connecticut which left 20 young children and six educators dead.
But efforts in the wake of the massacre to impose tougher controls on firearm ownership have been blocked in Congress.
Earlier this month, a limited proposal — condemned by the gun lobby as an infringement on Americans’ constitutional right “to keep and bear arms” — failed to muster the votes needed to clear the US Senate.
Even though polls show most Americans would support tougher licensing requirements, gun ownership is a passion in the United States, which at around 300 million has almost as many firearms as people.
And in a growing trend, many of the pro-gun groups — like the ladies at The Fredericksburg Range — are all women, aiming, as Ovalle explains, “to teach a lady how to handle a gun safely.”
The “Shooting Divas” group trains just a few miles away in Virginia, while “Gun Powder Gals” is based in North Carolina and “A Girl and A Gun” organizes some 40 groups around the country.
And websites, magazines, merchandise — pink pistols and bra holsters — abound in the growing market.
According to polling firm Gallup, 13 percent of women in the US owned a gun in 2005 compared to 23 percent in 2011 — a significant jump, though women still trail American men, 46 percent of whom owned a gun in 2011.
The number of women shooting targets has also risen, by 51.5 percent between 2001 and 2011, as has the number of female hunters, by 41.8 percent, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
Women’s interest in firearms has been “a steadily growing trend” over the past decade, said Mary Zaiss Stange of Skidmore College, who has written books on women and weapons.
National Shooting Sports Foundation spokesman Bill Brassard explained it as women “placing a premium on personal and home security.”
But Pistol Packing Ladies founder Ovalle says it’s not about women breaking down barriers as about them claiming their birthright.
Guns are “part of the American fabric,” she said, and thanks to “the second amendment right, we have that option to buy a gun and to take care of ourselves.”
Zeiss Stange said it is important not to fall into gender stereotypes when thinking about women and guns.
The idea that “women are more passive, perhaps more emotional,” and that “a gun would be more dangerous in a woman’s hand than in a man’s hands, the idea that women need to be protected, that guns and femininity don’t go together, all those ideas are very well relegated to the past.”
“For a woman to become actively involved with firearm is a kind of self assertion,” she said.
That’s the case for Elizabeth Timms, who said she “always enjoyed shooting.”
Now divorced and in her fifties, she lives alone and carries a gun legally in Virginia.
“If I thought there was an absolute imminent danger and I’m gonna lose my life, yes I would pull it out,” she said.
But Dedra Brown, a real estate agent in her 30s dressed in fluorescent pink, didn’t start out as a gun aficionado.
She said she had always “hated everything that looked like a gun” — at least until the day she had to flee after being threatened in the street.
“I felt helpless,” she said, explaining why she now carries a gun all the time. “I definitely don’t have the fear that I once had.”
And like any number of armed men, Sharon Schaefer is wary of efforts to restrict access to weapons.
“I don’t want anyone” — such as President Barack Obama or reform-minded lawmakers — “telling me that I can’t have something that I’m really entitled to have.”