As the gray, nondescript classroom begins to fill this Tuesday evening, a quick scan of the room reveals two unusual features of this gathering.
First, it’s immediately apparent there are no men in the room. Second, these women are packing heat. It’s impossible not to notice pistols hanging from the hips of a number of the women.
The gathering, called Women of Steel, takes place at C2 Tactical Gun Range in Tempe. The classes cater both to women with firearms experience and to those who have never picked up a gun.
“I think it’s important to know how a firearm works and how to properly handle one,” says Lora DalBo, a range safety officer at Tempe-based C2 Tactical. “And as a female, I particularly think it’s important to be able to protect myself if I have to.”
Classes meet once a month on Tuesday and Thursday for 30 or so participants to learn about firearms and become more proficient and comfortable in their use.
Tonight, the women are reviewing the fundamentals of shooting, including stance, grip and trigger control.
Some instructors say the classes are indicative of a trend: women becoming increasingly interested in guns, whether for personal defense or recreational use.
DalBo started shooting in the desert with her family—“plinking” as it is commonly called. But soon she became interested in the defensive side of gun ownership.
Then, a close encounter in the parking lot of a store in the East Valley led to her decision to seek training.
She was shopping in a big-box store when she noticed someone following her. She began to worry.
As DalBo walked to the parking lot, the man following her attempted to take her purse. At the time, she said she had no way to defend herself.
DalBo said she was able to escape the situation unscathed but the experience reinforced her decision to arm herself.
“You just freeze,” she said. “If you don’t have the training, then you become a victim. I won’t be a victim again.”
DalBo is quick to mention, though, that lethal force is a last line of defense—and a line she hopes she never has to cross. “The last course of action is to fire a weapon,” she says.
Many of the women in the room agree that owning a gun isn’t to be taken lightly.
Debbie Johnson from Gilbert began regularly attending the Tempe Women of Steel nights after hearing about an incident that she says “shook her to her core.”
“I bought a .38 (caliber) revolver because one of the girls was killed on my college campus in Florida,” she said. “She was raped and murdered.
“I was going to college, and I had two little boys at the time. I wasn’t going after that without being armed. I was going to be able to protect myself.”
While many women initially get introduced to guns for personal protection, others participate for the enjoyment of the sport.
Victoria Johnson, who lives near C2 in Chandler, carries a 9-millimeter Heckler & Koch VP9 pistol on her left hip with two spare magazines on her right. She married into the gun culture. Her husband was an infantryman, and she says she “became indoctrinated” by simply being around him and his friends.
“It kind of comes with the territory,” she said with a laugh. “If you’re the wife around heavy combat arms in the military, you kind of have to become gun-oriented.
“I always went and shot with the guys (in the desert) but there weren’t a lot of women involved. So when I found out about the Women of Steel group, I was like ‘Sweet! Girls who shoot!’,” she said.
“When you go out with the guys it’s kind of macho. But when you get with a group of ladies, it’s fun.”
Current classes are filled with regular participants, and the group is still growing.
Heather Glaser, a Chandler resident, also runs the women’s program with Gena Wagoner, the events manager at the Tempe range. Glaser says she has noticed a surge in interest in the Women of Steel program.
Now with more than 100 members, the number of classes was recently expanded, increasing the program from one day a week per month to two.
The two-hour program is split into one-hour segments. The first is spent in the classroom studying topics ranging from the basics to advanced skills and mental conditioning. The second is spent training and shooting on the range.
And C2 isn’t the only East Valley range to notice an uptick in the number of women shooters.
Caswells Shooting Range in Mesa has its own program, coincidentally also called Women of Steel. The numbers have been growing in that program, as well.
Paul Abela, who manages sales and marketing and sales for Mesa’s Caswells, notes that shootings in the U.S. seem to trigger the growth trend.
“With what happened in San Bernardino recently, that was the biggest spike I’ve ever seen in the East Valley in women’s training and the purchase of guns,” Abela said. “Women felt it was on their doorstep … and the response was massive.”
On Dec. 2, 2015, two terrorists in San Bernardino killed 14 people and injured 22 others in a shooting and attempted bombing.
The growth in gun ownership among women has also created an upsurge in specialty products, ranging from brightly-colored accessories and clothing to pink and pink-camouflaged AR-15 rifles.
“Woman shooters are flooding the market, so they’re being targeted 100 percent,” Glaser said. “More women are all-in, so of course the shooting industry is responding with more women’s products.
“How women dress can have a significant effect on how you’re going to concealed carry a weapon,” Glaser explains. “I can’t wear the same thing as a man wears to carry a weapon. I have a lot more curves, and I wear tighter clothes,” she says.
Even with the dramatic rise in the number of women learning about, obtaining and even embracing guns, there are still those who do not believe that a woman is well served by possessing a firearm, no matter how well trained.
Mari Bailey, who lives in Phoenix, is chapter president of the Greater Phoenix Chapter of the Million Mom March part of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. She is among those who believe that possessing a gun doesn’t necessarily make a woman safer.
Bailey says she carries pepper spray for protection and doesn’t believe she needs a gun to be safe.
“There’s very credible research that says your chance of dying by gun violence increases exponentially when there is a gun present in your home, your purse, in your pocket, in your car,” Bailey says.
“That doesn’t make me feel very safe. And, if you have a gun, you need to ask yourself, ‘When I use this for my protection, am I going to hit the bad guy? What if I hit an innocent bystander?’”
Bailey is intimately aware of the devastating impact of gun violence. Her 21-year-old son was shot to death in 2004.
That tragic event motivated Bailey to take action by forming the Phoenix chapter of the Million Mom March. She says she is not anti-gun, but she promotes due diligence for women considering the step of gun ownership, including reading research about the risks.
“It’s important to seek out unbiased sources. If you really look into the statistics indicating that guns make us safer, you’ll find more credible research that shows that really isn’t the case.”
Bailey believes the best key to safety for all—not just women—is to avoid situations that may pose a danger.
“Making smart choices will make you safer,” she says. “I have big dogs, I keep my doors locked, and I do what I can, short of carrying a gun, to stay as safe as possible.”
– Contact Eric Smith at 480-898-6549 or follow him on Twitter @Eric_Smith_evt.