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Female Firepower: Women Take a New Role in Gun Sales

By Published on .

Credit: Illustration by Zigor Samaniego

For most of her life, Carrie Lightfoot had no use for firearms. "Guns were just not a part of our world at all," says the mother of four, who was born in New York and raised her family in Arizona. "There weren't guns in the house. I didn't even let my boys play with squirt guns."

She had a change of heart a few years ago, after leaving a violent relationship with a boyfriend and catching a TV news story about a man who murdered his ex-wife. "I remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh, that could be me.' " So in 2010 she bought a gun for protection, thinking, " 'I'm never going to be a victim again.' "

Lightfoot has since become a leading pro-gun evangelist, founding a group called The Well Armed Woman, the aim of which is to educate, empower and equip women who want to buy guns. She's part of a growing movement of women and women-led organizations giving the gun industry new energy—and leading to new female-friendly product lines and gun accessories—that are narrowing the gender gap in the traditionally male-dominated $13 billion guns and ammunition business.

Industry efforts to target women are not entirely new. But they are more meaningful now as gun makers deal with a post-Obama political dynamic that has led to a softening of overall demand.

When President Obama was in office, anti-gun advocates counted on him to push for stronger gun control—but accompanying fears of new regulations also spurred gun sales, fattening gun makers' bottom lines. Firearm sales soared last year, as buyers stocked up in anticipation that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency and follow Obama's lead. The number of U.S. federal background checks, widely considered the best proxy for gun sales, reached a record 27.5 million, according to the FBI.

But Trump's surprise win eased those fears, eliciting a slowdown that took a toll on the market in the first half of 2017. Through July, 14.3 million background checks were performed, down from 16 million in the same period last year but still ahead of 2015's pace. But to boost sales, gun makers and retailers—which stocked up in anticipation of a Clinton win—were forced to give discounts to pare down elevated inventories, according to analysts. "Coming out of the election we saw a lot of inventory," Chris Killoy, CEO of gun manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Co., told investors in May. "So we had to be aggressive on our promotions."

Going forward, women buyers could be one way for gun brands to emerge from the so-called Trump slump. "With the overall decrease in demand for guns, the increasing prevalence of female consumers is more important to gun manufacturers than ever before," says Kevin Cassidy, who covers the industry for Moody's.

Credit: Illustration by Zigor Samaniego

The NRA's fiery female ambassador
In the U.S., 48 percent of white men say they own a gun, while 24 percent of nonwhite men say they own one, according to a Pew Research Center report published in June. The ownership rate for women is 24 percent for whites and 16 percent for nonwhites. But the potential female market is much larger, according to gun industry research. Southwick Associates, a market research firm specializing in hunting, shooting and sportfishing, found that women account for 46.8 percent of the 24 million Americans who have yet to purchase a firearm but are interested, according to a study the group conducted for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

"More women are working, more women are single, more women are in their own homes and they have a very unique interest in self-protection that they never had before," says Deb Ferns, co-founder of Babes with Bullets, which runs a traveling firearms academy geared to female first-time gun buyers.

A forthcoming study by Northeastern and Harvard universities also paints a tightening gender gap, albeit a lower percentage of female owners. Gun ownership among American men dropped from 42 percent in 1994 to 32 percent in 2015 while female ownership increased from 9 percent to 12 percent, according to the Guardian, which got an early look at the data last year. The typical female gun owner favors a handgun, not a rifle, and keeps one for protection purposes. She is also more likely than a male gun owner to live in an urban area, and less likely to have grown up in a gun-friendly household, according to the report on the survey by the Guardian. This is why the gun industry views females as a growth opportunity.

Consider the National Rifle Association, which is aggressively pushing the narrative that women need guns to protect themselves from rapists and domestic abusers. The NRA's most visible female supporter is conservative talk show host Dana Loesch, who last year was named the group's special adviser on women's policy issues. She has appeared in a series of videos hosted on the group's NRATV online network that promote female gun ownership while taking on Second Amendment critics. In one video that drew national headlines, and backlash, she targeted The New York Times, calling it "an old gray hag," while saying, "We are coming for you."

In another video, she directly addresses rapists and domestic abusers. "Your life expectancy just got shorter, because there's a very good chance your next target will be armed, trained and ready to exercise her right to choose her life over yours," she says. "This is what real empowerment looks like."

The NRA also runs a Women's Leadership Forum that includes women-only shooting events and hunting excursions. While the group has been around for more than a decade, it is now "one of the largest and most influential philanthropic groups within the NRA, gaining momentum with each passing day," according to its website.

Last year, an NRA-backed group called the Coalition for Civil Liberties, which opposed a California ballot measure to toughen the state's gun control laws, ran an ad showing a woman shooting an attacker in a parking garage. A second ad featured a transgender victim. The tagline for both: "Take away our rights, take away our life."

Cameka Crawford, chief communications officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, calls such messaging "misguided." The hotline has "heard many stories from survivors that make it clear how easy it is for an enraged abusive partner to take a firearm from the victim and use it against them,"
she says.

The California measure, called Prop. 63, requires background checks for bullet purchases and prohibits possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines. It passed despite the ad. But the California Rifle & Pistol Association downplayed the loss, suggesting in a post-election statement that the measure had become redundant because the state legislature had already passed duplicate gun control laws. "With our victory in the presidential election, successful legal challenges will now be filed against all these new ill-conceived and unconstitutional laws, and those cases will be heard by a new Supreme Court that will see these laws as the Second Amendment violations that they are," the group stated.

'Pretty-looking' guns
But as pro-gun groups push their agenda they will be met by an equally ardent group of gun control proponents, including one female-led organization called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. "The NRA has figured out … they have to create a culture war now to sell guns. They don't have a bogeyman in the White House to use in their marketing campaign, so they have to make Americans afraid of one another," says Shannon Watts, a mother of five who founded the group in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Moms Demand Action celebrated numerous legislative victories in a report it issued earlier this year, including defeating proposals for permitless carry—which allows the carrying of concealed guns in public without a permit—in 20 of 22 states.

But pro-gun groups are winning battles in other parts of the country, including North Dakota, which as of Aug. 1 became the 12th state to allow permitless carry. In Missouri, a new permitless carry law that took effect Jan. 1 has spurred female gun demand, according to one store owner. "We are getting a big influx of ladies," says Dave Hart, owner of Kirkwood Outfitters, a store that sells guns and gear on the outskirts of St. Louis.

He suggests female demand is coming from people concerned about crime in St. Louis. In response, the store has stocked up on what he referred to as "pretty-looking" guns in colors such as pink and purple that are easy to find in a purse. "Those are the ones that the females are buying mostly," he says.

Two years ago the store might lure one female shopper a day accompanied by a husband or boyfriend, he says. But now an average of five women come into the store daily, he estimates, including many single women who visit by themselves or with girlfriends, moms or sisters.

That's a good sign for gun makers trying to get sales back on track after the sluggish start to 2017. In the first half of the year, Sturm, Ruger & Co.'s net sales fell to $299.2 million from $341.1 million in the first half of 2016. But Killoy, the CEO, points to its more diverse consumer base, including "a lot more women shooters," as reason for optimism.

Credit: Illustration by Zigor Samaniego

American Outdoor Brands, whose brands include Smith & Wesson, reported a 4 percent increase in revenue to $229.2 million for its quarter ending April 30. But that trails the 40 percent growth in its first quarter and 63 percent uptick in its second quarter, which was followed by "flattish" growth in the third quarter, as noted by investment analyst firm Wedbush Securities. Across the industry, market research group IBISWorld projects that gun and ammunition industry revenue—including consumer and military purchases—will grow annually by 3.5 percent from $13.3 billion in 2017 to $15.8 billion in 2022.

Amid this year's slowdown, American Outdoor Brands kept accelerating its advertising, which mostly includes TV and magazine ads, as well as printed materials. Spending increased to $22.3 million in the year ending April 30 from $21.8 million the year prior, including selling and marketing expenses, according to its annual report.

In magazines and online ads, gun and firearm gear manufacturers are making direct appeals to women. "Confident Women Carry the Cross" states a banner ad for gun holster brand CrossBreed that recently ran on Women's Outdoor News. A Smith & Wesson ad shows a woman grasping a handgun with the copy, "Where protection meets performance." The website for Miss Concealed includes a variety of female gear, such as a stylish "concealed carry purse." Boise, Idaho, resident Lorelei Fay founded the retailer in 2014 after noticing "there is nothing out there that's even remotely feminine," she says.

Female training camps
Grassroots female-led gun training groups—not political advocacy or fancy ads and retailing—might be providing the biggest boost to the female market. In short, women are teaching other women about guns.

Lightfoot's The Well Armed Woman sports the tagline, "Where the Feminine and Firearms Meet." It oversees an online discussion forum and a nonprofit organization that helps gather local groups of women around the country that "meet monthly to practice, learn and grow as shooters," according to its website. As of early August, the group oversaw 357 chapters in 49 states, with the 50th state, South Dakota, expected to be represented soon.

Lightfoot started the group after finding gun makers were unaware of the needs of women and relied on outdated marketing. "If you look at any gun magazine, it's a lot of metal and a lot of black and a lot of grey. And up until recently, if there was a woman represented in that magazine it was in a sexual expression," she says. "It was either the babes in bikinis holding a gun … or 'Here, little lady, let me tell you what you need.' "

Gun makers have taken notice. National sponsors of The Well Armed Woman meetings include Sturm, Ruger & Co. and Glock, according to Lightfoot. Ruger also sponsors "The Women's Gun Show," a weekly podcast co-hosted by Lightfoot and Barbara Baird, publisher of Women's Outdoor News. The Well Armed Woman also provides regular feedback to gun makers about female-friendly gun designs. Some 200 members of the group actively participated in the design of a new lightweight rifle by gun maker LWRC that is specially designed for women, Lightfoot says.

Credit: Babes with Bullets

Ferns' Babes with Bullets has backing from Smith & Wesson, which sponsors the 11 female training camps it's running this year, from California to New Hampshire. Smith & Wesson furnished the camps with loaner guns, holsters and other financial support, such as gun-range fees, Ferns says. (Women cannot buy guns at the camp.) American Outdoor Brands did not respond to a request for comment.

Ferns, 63, of Arizona, didn't shoot her first gun until her 45th birthday. As a corporate meeting planner, she was always on the road shuttling among Tucson, Phoenix, San Diego and Palm Springs. At one point she decided, "I want to take my personal protection a little bit more seriously," she says, and soon began spreading the message to other women after co-founding Babes with Bullets in 2004. About 85 percent of the attendees of the Babes with Bullets camps have never touched a gun before they arrive at the multiday sleepover camps, she says. "It's women teaching women," she explains. Much of the new gun demand, she notes, comes from women who travel long distances for work during off hours and in crime-ridden neighborhoods, including female veterinarians, nurses and real estate agents.

Women gun owners appear to be more accepting of at least some restrictive gun policies. Of gun-owning Republican women, 60 percent favor banning assault weapons and 57 percent support creation of a federal gun-sales tracking database, according to a recent Pew survey. That compares with 28 percent and 35 percent, respectively, for Republican men gun owners. (Pew did not include a similar statistic for Democrats.)

Both Ferns and Lightfoot say their groups avoid getting overtly political. "It's just women who want to protect themselves," Ferns says. "We have a large number of gun-owning, more liberal women … that are maybe more liberal-thinking on the social issues but believe firmly in the Second Amendment and their right to own a gun."

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