If you are a woman and you worry about your safety, you are not alone.  A recent Gallup poll reported that six of ten women in America are afraid to walk in their own neighborhoods or go out alone at night.  For these women, the feeling of an ever-present threat of violence effectively denies them the basic guarantees of life and liberty.  And the feeling is more than a perception.  It is based on a strong dose of reality, not just what naysayers would call a neurotic obsession with danger.  Many women in America really are at constant risk.  They are victims of society’s disquieting inability to protect women from violence inside or outside their own homes.

The female fear factor is doubly destructive because it makes women victims not only of their attackers but of their own fear.  Ironically, most women are just too afraid to take responsibility and prepare themselves against a possible life-threatening situation.  They shrink from learning how to protect themselves, even when they are given the chance.  Over the years, I have spoken about self-defense gun training with no end of women who rejected it with a variety of lame excuses.  These excuses often echoed the messages of such influential organizations as the American Public Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Harvard School of Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Medical Association.  Well meaning as these groups may be, they issue skewed, half-digested statistics that twist the facts and increase the chances of female victimization.  Sadly, the messages from these prominent groups are all-too-often accepted by the media and the unsuspecting as gospel.

I have seen the problem from a different perspective.  I have been in the unique position of teaching nearly 8,000 women over some ten years in more than 20 states how to shoot a handgun for self-defense.  As a result, I have had a chance to witness powerful attitude changes in most of these newly trained women.  Whether they are 20 or 50 years old, they usually come to my seminars with enormous trepidation, a sense that guns are somehow evil, a tool of the Devil.  I always applaud them for breaking through a gigantic mental barrier to learn how to use a piece of equipment—that is all a gun is—that has long been an instrument of power.

When a woman first grips a loaded gun, her palms sweat, and her heart races.  When she fires that first shot into a paper target, her “startle reflex” is activated by the gun’s blast and its “kick.”  After firing round after round, though, she realizes that she controls the tool—the weapon does not control her.  She is in charge, and, for some, it is for the first time in their lives.  A few women are so excited that they hoot and yell, “You go, girl.  Don’t mess with us!”

That is what the 50 women at Mount Holyoke College, an Ivy League women’s institution, pronounced implicitly when they started the first college chapter of the Second Amendment Sisters, a national pro-gun women’s organization, in March 2002.  The group motivated impassioned exchanges in the student newspaper and on e-mail chat groups.  “You can’t achieve power by using guns,” exclaimed Jean Grossholtz, an emeritus professor at the college and chairman of the women’s studies program.  “When women can take their rightful place in the world as who they are, not as little make-believe men, that’s women’s liberation.”  The presence of the Second Amendment Sisters caused the college president, Beverly Daniel Tatum, to issue a special statement reassuring alumnae that members of the women’s group do not carry guns on campus.  That, of course, would violate state law.

The Sisters attracted considerable national media attention.  New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof grumbled that college girls were now shooting guns and blamed it on the September 11 attacks, rather than admitting that women have every right to arm themselves just like men.  Although he himself had been brought up with guns in Oregon and was “comfortable” with them, his comfort level apparently did not extend to women.  He insinuated that more people would be killed if women were armed.  What he did not say was that those killed might be burglars and rapists rather than innocent women.  Since September 11, there has been a 25 percent surge in gun sales, and women have accounted for roughly 60 percent of the increase.

Lt. Margot Hill, commander of the Boston police department’s domestic-violence unit, said she was not surprised to hear that more women seemed to be interested in having a gun for protection after September 11.  “It was a wake-up call to everyone.  People felt that the government couldn’t protect them.”

Most of these women are not politically motivated but propelled by the most basic of female instincts: the urge to protect their own.  After years of just being scared, women are doing something about it.  Women living alone, working late, or rearing children are beginning to look at guns in a new light.  They are getting over the blind fear of guns and the media’s wholesale demonization of gun owners.  Despite the naysayers, skepticism, and scorn, women are also seeing that there may be more than a little truth to the maxim that it is not the gun itself but the person holding it who matters—who controls how the gun is used or misused.

With the specter of suicide bombers in our midst—no longer just a remote fantasy—women may actually be able to play a role in American homeland defense.  Crazy, you say?  Hardly.  In Israel, where the government has issued some 60,000 gun permits so ordinary citizens can help stop attackers who try to set off bombs, an Israeli housewife just a few months ago saved countless lives when she shot dead a terrorist about to detonate a bomb in an Efrat supermarket.  How many innocent men, women, and children would have died if this woman had not been trained to use a gun?

Most of the time, however, it is not homeland defense but home defense that concerns the average woman.  And, if trained properly, the average woman can be a redoubtable defender of her home.  Jeanine, a St. Louis mother of two young sons, had to confront an intruder alone at 4 A.M. while her husband was away on business.  When awakened by a noise, Jeanine got out of bed to investigate and found a man sitting on the roof of her patio storage cabinet.  “I realized immediately,” recalled Jeanine, “that he was under the influence of drugs by his incoherent mumbling, glassy eyes and bizarre behavior.”  She ordered him to leave, told him she was calling the police, and then slammed and locked the patio door.  She yelled to her kids to lock their bedroom door and then went directly to her bedroom and called the police; a dispatcher assured her a patrol car was on the way.  Aware of the drugged condition of the tall, muscular man, the petite Jeanine proceeded to arm herself.  Just as she finished loading her gun, she heard a crash as the intruder forced open the patio door and entered the living room.  The police were on the way, but the situation called for immediate action.  Gun in hand, Jeanine moved down the hall toward the living room.

“I knew I was violating the training doctrine which says to stay put, take up a defensive position, and let the intruder come to you,” said Jeanine.  “But I felt compelled to put as much distance between the danger and my kids as I could.  I didn’t know what was about to happen, but I wanted it to be as far away from them as it could be.” 

Entering the living room, she faced the man at close range.  “I knew instantly he was already too close!  I knew that if I had to fire, it would be necessary to shoot him in the head to be sure of stopping him.”  She chambered the first round in her pistol and flicked the safety off.  Her finger found the trigger and she leveled the sights right between the man’s eyes.

Jeanine did not say a word; her actions spoke for themselves and spoke with great conviction and persuasion.  The man looked at her and at the pistol pointed at his head.  “Oh sh-t!” he exclaimed.  Turning, he fled through the door he had forced open, vaulted over a six-foot-high patio wall, and raced away.  This potentially lethal confrontation came to a happy conclusion.  No shots were fired; no one was killed or wounded; and the man was arrested a short while later.

I asked Jeanine how she managed to do everything right in the face of such danger, even terror.  “It seems like I was on automatic pilot,” she said.  “I knew what to do.  In time of emergency you seem to do what you are trained to do without thinking about it.  I was never conscious of thinking about what I was doing or intended to do next—I just did it.  I was prepared to defend my kids, prepared to shoot if necessary; he could not mistake my resolve.  That made it his next move.  Fortunately for both of us, he made the right choice—he turned and ran.”

Of course, there is always a risk in owning a gun when you have children, just as there is a calculated danger in having sharp knives, cleaning fluids, a medicine chest, and even a swimming pool.  Any sane, serious, responsible person must be very concerned about having a gun in the house.  Tragic accidents do occur.  However, such accidents are far more rare than antigun groups would like us to believe.  The National Safety Council estimates that, in 1995, among children under five, accidental deaths from guns numbered 50.  That’s right: not 500 or 5,000, but 50.  Among all children under age 15, the number was 200, and a majority of these were gang-related deaths.  Meanwhile, in 1995, 2,900 children died in motor-vehicle crashes, 1,000 from fires and burns, 950 from drowning, and 220 from choking.  Hundreds more died in bicycle accidents.  They just don’t make the six o’clock news.

Guns clearly deter criminals.  Polls by the Los Angeles Times, Gallup, and Peter Hart Research Associates show that there are as few as 760,000, and as many as 3.6 million, defensive uses of guns each year.  The defensive nature of guns is further revealed in the different rates of so-called “hot burglaries,” those where a victim is at home—and, more often than not, the victim is female—when a burglar strikes.  In Canada and Britain, which both have very restrictive gun-control laws, almost half of all burglaries are “hot.”  In America, where half of all households have guns, only 13 percent are “hot.”  Criminals do not behave differently simply by chance.  U.S. felons admit in surveys that, when committing crimes, they are much more worried about encountering an armed homeowner than encountering the police.

I will never forget a Sunday when three sisters—a preteen and two teenagers—were on the shooting line having the time of their lives.  And who was the best shot?  The youngest, who was 11 years old!  Moreover, she was a better shooter than any of the adults on the line that day.  When I asked her how she felt, she replied, “This is very cool.”