All images by Spencer Chumbley/VICE. All graphics by Marvin Lau

Inside the All-Women Training Camp Where Guns Are Sold as Empowerment

Hundreds of American women traveled to the A Girl and A Gun conference in Texas to learn how to shoot in self-defense, protect their kids, and fire machine guns from a helicopter.

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Aug 8 2018, 9:30pm

All images by Spencer Chumbley/VICE. All graphics by Marvin Lau

I’m at a shooting range in Burnet, Texas, watching women pretending to protect their children while they gun down an attacker.

There are 11 of them who alternate between firing off five rounds and role-playing as each other’s kids. The shooters grip their the wrists of their “children” with their left hands and hold them firmly to their left hips. Since these aren’t actually children, it means grown women are forced to crouch down toward the red dirt, muddy from the rain. Using their right hands, the shooters draw their weapons from their holsters, take aim, and fire at targets that look a lot like Mr. Clean.

“Two to the chest, one to the head,” says Melody Lauer, the NRA-certified instructor leading the class, aptly-titled "The Armed Parent."

The class is one of many self-defense courses offered at the annual A Girl and A Gun conference in mid-April on the sprawling, 1,300-acre Reveille Peak Ranch. The weeklong event draws more than 400 women from across the US for specialized firearms training and socializing with fellow Second Amendment enthusiasts. If you tune out the steady spray of gunfire in the background, it has the atmosphere of a summer camp, complete with a traditional Texas barbecue.

There are an estimated 12 to 17 million female gun owners in America, roughly four or five percent of the total population, the majority of whom carry for self-defense. Numbers vary wildly because the government doesn’t keep track. For the sake of comparison, there are 275,695 women who have gun licenses in Canada—less than 1 percent of the population.

I’m at the conference to learn about these women and why they feel like they needed to be armed at all times.

I’m a Canadian with a gun licence. In 2016, I travelled to the NRA Convention in Louisville, Kentucky while working on a documentary comparing America’s gun culture to Canada’s. There, I met Vicki Kawelmacher, who was running a women’s shooting school out of Reno.

“I’m armed every day. But I’m not always armed with a gun. I have a knife, I have a kubotan, I have a taser, I have a stun gun… You name it,” she told me. She asked me what I was doing to keep myself safe.

I was stumped. I told her that it wasn’t something I thought about on a day-to-day basis. After all, Canada doesn’t allow its citizens to carry guns in self-defense—here, we buy guns for hunting and sport shooting.

“I want to take you to a place that you think about it every day,” Kawelmacher said.

That sentiment struck me as borderline fear-mongering. But I was also intrigued.

Many American women see carrying a gun as their responsibility to protect themselves and their families. But what exactly is it that they’re afraid of? In a country already plagued by fatal shootings, where women are 16 times more likely to be murdered by a gun than in any other developed nation, I wondered: Are more firearms the solution or do they exacerbate the problem?

For the women at the The Armed Parent class, there is no debate.

"The only way that we can redirect violence is by being more violent.”

“A violent criminal,” Lauer starts, “If they are shooting you, they will shoot through the child. If they are stabbing you, they will stab through the child. If they are beating you they will beat. Through. The. Child. And the only way that we can redirect violence is by being more violent.”

Melody Lauer teaches women how to shoot a gun while holding their children.

The 33-year-old mom of three is dressed in mostly black, except for a neon pink holster strapped to her waist. She has a commanding presence despite being five-foot-three, with a slight frame. At the start of class, she warns the women that pointing their guns at fellow classmates or handling their guns without permission will get them kicked out.

She also lectures them on keeping their guns away from kids. “If you are going to be around children, guns do not belong in bags. I am tired of hearing that children are hurting themselves.” (A study published in Pediatrics found an average of 82 American kids die from accidental gunshot wounds per year and more than 1,200 are injured.)

Lauer, who lives in Iowa with her husband and kids, tours the US teaching defensive handgun use to parents. Many of Lauer’s YouTube videos, on topics like carrying a gun and a baby at the same time, have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

She tells VICE the women who take her class are often worried about being attacked in home invasions, active shooter scenarios, even “Walmart shopping.”

Students at the Armed Parent class take turns pretending to be each other's kids.

One of them, range safety officer Becky Dolgener, 40, who lives in rural Texas, has two boys, aged 11 and 13, who she describes as “men-sized children.” She says she’s taking the course to figure out how she can incorporate the boys in her safety plan.

“I carry all the time, and I watch people, and I’ve learned to pay attention.”

“They always knew that if we are in public and I draw my gun, they are to get as far away from me as possible because I become a target,” Dolgener tells Lauer and the other women. “But now I may need to adjust the plan because they are pretty well-trained and continue their training in firearms, so I’d like to engage them as part of our protection plan.”

She tells VICE she won’t go anywhere she’s not allowed to carry a gun.

“I carry all the time, and I watch people, and I’ve learned to pay attention,” Dolgener says, gesturing with her forefinger to emphasize how closely she watches people. “I understand what some movements may mean in terms of an imminent attack. And I can get myself and my children to safety.”

•••

For decades now, violent crime in the US has been trending downward, but gun deaths continue to rise and gun purchases are at historic highs. The latter point certainly feels true in Burnet, a rural city of just over 6,000 people where even the owner of a diner I pop into for lunch has two pistols on hand.

While the number of American men who say they own guns has dropped over the last two decades, female gun ownership slightly increased between 1994 and 2014, according to a survey by Harvard and Northeastern universities. Female gun owners are more likely than men to only own a handgun, and a recent report says concealed carry permits for women went up 270 percent between 2007 and 2015.

The reason, research shows, is more American women believe guns will help them protect themselves. It’s an idea that’s repeated ad nauseam by the NRA, which spends millions of dollars specifically marketing to women and selling guns as a form of female empowerment.

An NRA ad from 2017 features controversial spokeswoman Dana Loesch telling the story of a woman who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in her driveway while waiting for her concealed carry permit to be issued.

“Armed and trained women mean fewer rape victims, mean fewer assault victims, mean fewer soft targets,” Loesch declares.

She released a similar statement this past International Women’s Day, accusing feminist groups of telling women they’re “too stupid, and too weak, and too simple-minded” to own a gun.

“You want to be safe if you’re out and about, if you’re going to get gas, if you’re going to the supermarket, if you’re walking to your car in a dark parking garage,” Loesch says, framing the NRA as true feminists for supporting the Second Amendment. The ad ends with a call for donations. The NRA declined multiple requests for comment for this story.

Pro-gun women’s groups tout similar messages, with some even instructing women on exactly how to walk through a parking lot or unload their groceries to minimize the chances of being attacked by a stranger. These groups are often sponsored by gun and firearm accessory manufacturers and offer merch sales (much of it pink and purple) on their websites and at their events. A table at A Girl and A Gun is lined with baseball caps that say “Gun Goddess” and there are stalls selling items like concealed carry purses.

Central to pro-gun marketing efforts are women like Liz Lazarus, who was victim to a home invasion in the spring of 1990. Lazarus, who gives a speech at A Girl and A Gun and has written a novel based on her story called Free of Malice, now does videos for the NRA and other gun rights’ groups on the importance of being armed at home.

At age 50, she carries a Sig Sauer handgun “half the time” she’s out of the house and keeps a 9mm Ruger in her nightstand. She got her concealed carry permit about six months ago.

“You can’t predict when you’re going to need your gun,” she says. “It’s Russian roulette to not take it.”

But after several days of conversations, not a single woman I come across at A Girl and A Gun says she has ever used a firearm in self-defense. And research doesn’t bear out the theory that more guns keep American women safer.

According to a Harvard analysis of 14,000 incidents of crimes where the victim was present, only 127—less than 1 percent—involved self-defensive gun use and the gun did not make them less susceptible to injury or property loss.

“I think that [owning] a gun, for women, is being pitched as a way to increase equality but the reality is the circumstances in which a man might use a gun… is not the kind of violence that women encounter,” Susan Sorenson, a public health professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Ortner Center on Family Violence, tells VICE.

"Women are much more likely to face violence in the home from a male intimate partner.”

“A man who might be carrying a gun is anticipating a confrontation with a stranger in public.... Women are much more likely to face violence in the home from a male intimate partner.”

On average, 50 American women are shot to death by their partner every month.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network [RAINN], seven out of ten rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. The Harvard study showed that women never use firearms to protect themselves against sexual assault.

Sorenson’s research paper on guns in intimate relationships noted American women are more than twice as likely to be shot and killed by their male partner as they are to be fatally shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, strangled, or murdered in any other manner by someone they don’t know. The report said an estimated 4.5 million women in the US have been threatened by a gun held by an intimate partner—and 900,000 have been shot or shot at by a partner.

The paper also found that when guns were used by men against female partners in non-fatal incidents, they were most often used to threaten or instil fear.

“It creates an environment of intimidation and fear so that she’ll do what he wants or at least she’ll back down,” Sorenson says.

There are examples of women using their guns to ward off attacks by strangers. A woman in Goochland, Virginia, recently shot a 25-year-old man in the neck after he allegedly tried to break into her home by throwing a brick through her glass door. Authorities say he was armed with pepper spray, duct tape, and a hunting knife when they found him.

While Sorenson says you can’t discount the reality that for some women guns are empowering, “the research that we have so far indicates if a woman buys a gun she is more likely to become the victim of homicide and more likely to commit suicide.”

Cassandra Crifasi, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells VICE the way that guns are marketed to women as a means of protecting themselves from “all these scary people in the world” creates division in society, particularly along racial or socioeconomic lines.

“If you’re a person that buys into that narrative that there are scary people everywhere, how are you going to react to people you don’t know or people who are different from you or people outside of your community?” Crafisi says, noting it’s an issue that feels more prominent in light of President Donald Trump’s crackdown on asylum seekers and people from Muslim countries.

“People are very nationalist and focused very closely on themselves and not wanting immigrants or others coming in because of the the threat that they bring.”

At the 2016 NRA convention, I observed a loop of ads like this one positioning guns as a way for the average American to protect themselves against terrorists. It felt like a dog whistle, and I was highly cognizant of the fact that I was one of the few people of color in attendance—something that a stranger sitting beside me even pointed out just before he spoke to me in a mock Indian accent.

Everyone at A Girl and A Gun is friendly to me. But walking around, I can’t help but notice that once again I’m one of the only non-white women here. I broach the issue with Tiffany Johnson, a black lawyer and firearms instructor from Memphis who is at the conference to give a lecture.

“It's uncomfortable, I'll be honest,” she says. “Not as uncomfortable as it used to be because frankly, I'm starting to get used to it.”

Tiffany Johnson is a pro-gun lawyer who says she used to fear guns.

Johnson says she used to be “deathly afraid of guns.” Her best friend was murdered with a firearm. (Black Americans are eight times more likely to be fatally shot than white Americans, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

With the goal of being able to critique guns from an educated perspective, Johnson decided to take a firearms course. Instead, it changed her perspective on guns, she says.

“It definitely opened my eyes and made me curious to learn more, and the more I learned, the more myths were dispelled for me.”

Johnson says before, when she would hear about a shooting of an unarmed black man, she would immediately wonder “Why is this community being disproportionately gunned down?” Now, she believes “there are lots of different ways for somebody to pose a serious imminent deadly threat to you besides that person being armed with a firearm or even with a knife… It’s not that cut and dry.”

•••

As the week at A Girl and A Gun comes to a close, I attend a class that shows a group of mostly middle-aged women how to use a tourniquet to wrap gunshot wounds. The instructor, who passes around a model of simulated flesh with gunshot holes in it, advises everyone there to have medic supplies on hand at all times—even strapped to their bodies while at the gym.

I also sit in on a lecture given by a self-described mental health professional, who goes over the reasons humans kill each other. Those reasons include being involved in a love triangle, protecting kids, tribalism (he uses the example of wearing the wrong sports jersey), and road rage.

In one particularly grotesque anecdote, he recounts a tale about a psychopath who hung a woman upside down, “filled her vaginal vault with lighter fluid and burned her from the inside out.”

As the participants eagerly take down notes, looking horrified, I can’t help but think about the cost of being prepared at all times, both financially—guns and medical supplies aren’t cheap—and mentally. It feels as if these experts, most of whom have businesses related to self-defense, can’t sell empowerment without selling fear as well. At what point does being “situationally aware”—a phrase I hear over and over again from women who carry—cross over into paranoia?

Many of the female gun owners I speak to describe feeling fearful around strange men in parking lots, or while driving through neighborhoods they deem sketchy. I can relate to feeling nervous when walking home alone at night, but it’s generally not something that crosses my mind in Toronto—I worry far more about raccoons. Then again, I don’t live in a country where I’m surrounded by people who carry handguns. If I did, it’s very possible that being armed would make me feel safer, statistics be damned.

The conference ends with several raffles. One of them, organizer Robyn Sandoval tells me, is to raise money for the daughters of A Girl and A Gun member who was allegedly shot to death by her husband.

“Our community was really rocked by that because she was a girl with a gun,” says Sandoval.

The item being raffled off is a pistol with a silencer.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

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