I'm sitting inside a storefront in Orange, CA, trying not to look at myself in the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall mirror. A large metal chain, where a punching bag surely hangs sometimes, peeks out from the perforated ceiling. A rack of dumbbells sits next to a workout bench. On another wall, a bookshelf packed with books about gun ownership and magazines like Survivalist and S.W.A.T. sits a few feet from a five-foot-tall safe, which our instructor ensures us is full of guns. This is the NRA's "Refuse to be a Victim" training seminar, which for years has been replicated in every state across the country.
In total, there are six middle-aged men in the room, including our instructor. Of the five male students, four are studying to be NRA instructors themselves. Though the program is ostensibly designed for women, there are only two other women in the room, a mother-daughter pair (the dad is an NRA member and made them go). I feel very much like the only outsider at an intimate gathering.
We're talking about panic rooms—or, as they're called here, safe rooms. Our instructor recommends that we make our child's bedroom our safe room: Because babies are immobile in the case of a home invasion, the NRA suggests that we replace the door leading to our hypothetical baby's nursery with a far sturdier model made of solid-core wood and add a deadbolt lock. In addition, we're advised to keep firearms in the room, as well as a flashlight, a telephone, a folding ladder, and an extra set of house keys tied to a glow stick, in case we need to let the cops in. No mention is made about how to keep a gun safe from a baby.
The "Refuse to Be a Victim" curriculum, which the NRA describes as "a crime prevention program," was developed in 1993 to explain to women how to protect themselves against rape and abuse by strangers. In 1997, the program became coed—because, let's face it, it's not good business to refuse a $50 registration fee based on gender. The course covers everything from mental preparedness ("walk wide around corners—bad guys hide around corners") to home, automobile, and travel security ("put only your first initial of your first name on your luggage tags so criminals won't know you're a woman") to identity theft and cyber fraud. The main takeaway is to always be alert for people who are going to try to rape, rob, or otherwise harm you, with the assumption that no one you know will ever be a perpetrator.
Our instructor recommends we read a book called The Gift of Fear. To emphasize his point, he passes around two paperback copies for us to examine. Other items we pass around during the course include a wearable personal alarm, a high-powered "door scope" that can replace your average peep-hole with a wide-angle camera lens, a doorstop alarm for hotel use, a decoy wallet stuffed with fake credit cards to dispose of in case of mugging, a mini-baton that doubles as a very heavy keychain, and a stun gun. (The stun gun didn't come from the instructor; it was passed around by a classmate who pulled it out of his pants pocket to show off.)
The National Rifle Association has changed a lot since it was founded in 1871. For the first century of its existence, the NRA focused primarily on hunting, marksmanship, and responsible gun ownership. It lobbied to license firearm dealers, to restrict access to machine guns, and to pass major federal legislation such as the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Federal Firearms Act of 1938. In other words, today's NRA—which opposes background checks on people purchasing firearms, resists legislative measures that would keep guns out of the hands of felons and terrorists, and advocates for the right to carry guns into daycare centers and bars—would be essentially unrecognizable to its founders.
During a ten-minute class break, two of the men discuss how unfair it is that you get in legal trouble if you shoot someone who breaks into your home. One explains helpfully to the other that the key is to keep your story straight: He suggests firing a second round through the ceiling "so you can say you fired a warning shot." He also warns that, if you're going to place a screwdriver in the corpse's hand, you should make sure it's not part of a matching set you own. When the class is called back together, we're told to trust our instincts.
Our lesson plans are contained in a glossy, 60-page booklet with "Refuse to be a Victim" emblazoned on the front. Turning to the section on automobile security, we are told to never stop for a pretty woman in a short skirt who's waving down traffic for help during a breakdown. She is likely a decoy, the guide book explains, and her associate could be lurking around the corner waiting to carjack you. I ask whether stopping for an unattractive woman is a safer bet. Everyone laughs, but I'm not joking. Later on in the seminar, we are told to never answer our front doors for a stranger—even Girl Scouts are not safe from scrutiny. They, too, could be decoys, and the promise of seasonal cookies is simply not worth the risk.
"There's a reason that two million children in this country live in homes with unsecured guns, and in part that's because we have a gun lobby that says you are always in danger and you should have a loaded gun with you at all times," says Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. "It is not okay to store your loaded gun on the counter or on top of the refrigerator. We're the only developed nation with this problem, and in part it is because the gun lobby is so focused on selling guns and fear-mongering and creating panic in order to sell their product that they don't focus on the safety components of gun ownership that they should."
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a branch of Everytown for Gun Safety, was created to demand action from legislators, companies, and educational institutions to establish common-sense gun reforms. According to their research, a woman is five times more likely to be killed if there's a gun in a home where there's a domestic dispute.
Research shows that 94 percent of female homicide victims are killed by a man they knew. "[The NRA] should be much more concerned about the safety of the person who has a gun as opposed to their safety from strangers," Watts tells me. "If the NRA really wanted to save women's lives, they'd be focused less on violence outside of the home and focused more on domestic violence that happens with guns so often in the home. But that doesn't help them out monetarily."
Adrienne McCaherty, an NRA Certified Instructor and owner of His and Hers Defense Training in Illinois, disagrees with this point. She believes that guns are a vital way for women to protect themselves from domestic abuse. "I used to work at a shelter for domestic violence victims. Some of the women who lived there were literally being hunted by their abusers," she tells Broadly. "Unfortunately, the justice system doesn't prevent these women from dying at the hands of these men. Our judicial system is set up to provide consequences for actions that have already been performed… Because of that, some of these women die. The truth is they aren't strong enough, in many cases, physically to defend themselves. In these cases, a firearm is one of the few ways that these women could save their own lives and perhaps the lives of their children."
The last PowerPoint slide of the "Refuse to Be a Victim" seminar declares: "Refusing to be a Victim is a CHOICE!" The bullet points underneath read, "Practice awareness", "Follow your instincts", and "Learn to say 'NO.'" The instructor tells a story about a girl he knows who was raped by her doctor, who has always blamed herself because she was too scared to say no. He calls it a tragedy, sure that if she was able to articulate her Refusal, she wouldn't Be a Victim.
At the end of the class, we are asked to go around and state whether the class met our expectations. "I think I expected more advice about how to defend myself from people who aren't strangers, since most violence against women is perpetrated by people we know," I say. "I don't see how adding extra locks to our doors, for example, will defend against domestic violence. Also, I'm a rape survivor, and I said no, and that slide makes me feel really terrible."
I don't know what makes me say it. I don't feel comfortable or safe in that environment; I guess I'm trying to be shocking. I want to get everyone in the room back for saying things like, "It's a shame females are thought to be more justified when they act in self-defense"—which is a direct quote from one of my classmates—and for indirectly blaming any violence I've experienced on a lack of awareness on my part. And, on some level, I feel like I needed to raise my voice for the 19-year-old girl sitting across from me. But my monologue falls flat.
We break for lunch. The men walk toward an assortment of shiny new SUVs and lifted trucks. They will be returning to the room in an hour for the rest of their teacher training. I murmur goodbyes and walk swiftly towards my car, highly alert, and don't unlock it until I'm within arm's reach.