Sixth in a series

More women than ever own guns.

Nearly 79 percent of firearms retailers reported an increase in female customers between 2011 and 2012, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. From this surge in popularity come classes, specialized apparel, custom firearms, shooting-group memberships, and conferences for women.

Women have also become the sellers, lobbyists, and business owners.

Carrie Lightfoot founded the Well Armed Woman in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2012 to be a resource for women shooters, by selling female-friendly merchandise, establishing educational chapters, and hosting certified firearms-instructor training sessions. In just two years, Lightfoot said, it has become one of the largest female gun groups in the country, boasting 350 chapter leaders in 43 states.

"We focus on educating, equipping, and empowering women shooters," she said of her company's goal to introduce women to guns in a safe, supportive environment.

When Lightfoot started the Well Armed Women, she wanted to represent the "everyday woman" she felt was missing from the industry.

"There were these two common extremes," she said. "One was a, like, military-type, real rugged woman with a gun . . . and the other was the more sexual, sexy woman with a gun. A woman in a bikini holding an AR-15."

Lightfoot said women have always carried guns, but it wasn't until recently that they began forming their own community within the firearms industry.

More women are living alone and marrying later. Firearms are arguably another part of the equation. As Lightfoot put it, owning a gun as a self-protection tool mirrors this shift of women from "being the protected to being the protector."

"Women are taking on that role - they have to," she said. "And they're taking it on pretty fiercely."

One of the strongest allies of the gun industry, the National Rifle Association, capitalized on the women-and-guns trend. In the last few years, it has included women in its target demographics.

Karen Callaghan, an associate professor of political science at Texas Southern University who is writing a book on the organization, described it as a "softening of the NRA."

"They're tapping into groups that are really primed and ready to receive the message that gun ownership is a good thing," she said.

The NRA's original women's programs were formed by board members' wives as a way to get involved. Today, as NRA board member Todd Rathner said, "it's a whole world unto itself."

"The Women's Network folks are young gals with ARs and Glocks just beginning their hunting careers," said Rathner, as opposed to the traditionally older Women in Leadership Forum. "It's a demographic we have never touched before."

Several of the NRA's 84 official social-media accounts are dedicated solely to women, according to NRAnews.com. The NRA Women's Network has more than 40,000 followers across all major social-networking sites.

Self-defense is the common theme among women's shooting groups. In Austin, Texas, the Sure Shots women's pistol league and monthly magazine focus almost exclusively on self-defense.

Standing out amid the dimly lit walls of rifles and camouflage of Red's Indoor Range, where she runs Sure Shots, Niki Jones said she started the league in 2010. She encourages members - there are about 300 among three Texas chapters - to always take note of their surroundings.

"That doesn't mean in a paranoid sort of way, just a very aware type of way," she said.

Members "feel a lot more safe and confident and kind of have a whole new defensive mind-set that they never even considered before," Jones said.

Jennifer Carlson, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, said the self-defense argument mischaracterizes most crime against women as random violence.

"Men are more likely to be victims of assault" perpetrated by strangers, said Carlson, who is writing a book on gun culture in this country. "Women should actually be most afraid of crimes in their own homes."

Women are more likely to be attacked by someone they know, usually an intimate partner, than someone they don't, according to a 2014 Center for American Progress report and an analysis by News21 of domestic-violence gun homicides that occurred between 2002 and 2012.

More women also are getting involved in the political gun debate.

Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America started in 2012 in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., to advocate for gun-control legislation.

Jennifer Hoppe, a program director for Moms Demand Action, says women have always brought social change.

"I don't want to stereotype, but moms and women show up," she said. "They show up at the polls, they show up at the offices of elected officials, they pay attention."

On the other side, the 1 Million Moms Against Gun Control network formed as a direct response to Moms Demand Action, pushing for no new gun restrictions.

Beth Banister, the 1 Million Moms state coordinator in Arizona, said her job was to "keep up-to-date on what is going on in the gun debate" and stay active on social media to engage the group's almost 57,000 Facebook followers in discussion on issues.

Today, 40 percent of Americans live in a household with a gun, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. Thirty-six percent of women reported living in one of these households, and 14 percent of women said the gun was theirs.

Entrepreneurs are capitalizing on the movement of more women buying guns.

Among the firearms makers benefiting from the rise in female customers is Gordon Bond, president of Bond Arms in Granbury, Texas, which manufactures double-barrel derringers (small conceal-carry pistols). Bond Arms handguns are sold through individual dealers around the country.

Bond guessed that women made up 20 percent or so of his customers, up from about 10 percent five years ago.

To keep up with demand, Bond Arms markets differently to men and women. Bond said women are looking for something "very functional, very clean."

"Ours is very simple to clean and load . . . and it's pretty," he said.

When giving demonstrations at gun shows, Bond likes to bring out a pink pistol first and shoot a .357 magazine out of it. The loudness is jarring.

"My favorite comment [while demonstrating] is there's nothing like bringing down a bad guy with a pink gun," he said.

Not everyone is thrilled with the use of pink guns as a marketing device for women.

Former Secret Service agent Tina Wilson-Cohen, who in 2010 founded She Can Shoot, a national firearms training network for women with more than a dozen chapters, says the industry does not fully understand how to bring women into the fold.

"Most of the marketing is usually, the men think they can slap the pink and the purple and some bling on something and it captivates us as women," she said, "and it's not the case."

Lightfoot, founder of the Well Armed Woman, one of the largest female shooting organizations in the nation, said that women were working hard to gain respect in the industry and that taking the "sexy" or "girlie" avenues could undermine all that hard work. "Carrying a gun isn't sexy," she said. "It's a huge responsibility."

BY THE NUMBERS

40 percent of Americans living in a household with a gun

36 percent of women in such a household

14 percent of women in such a household who said the gun was theirs

SOURCE: The Pew Research Center

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Lauren Loftus is an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation News21 Fellow. Brittany Elena Morris, a News21 Hearst Fellow, and Allison Griner contributed to this story.

TOMORROW: The push to arm teachers.