More women learning to use firearms, gain confidence, feel safe

By Bill Buell July 12, 2015

Jessica Braun grew up around guns out West, so when she felt her life was at risk on a dark night more than 10 years ago, she knew how to handle the situation.

“I was 22, a man tried to kidnap me, so I was required to pull my concealed firearm to save my life,” said Braun, now a Schenectady resident.

“I grew up in North Dakota and everybody there shoots, so I’ve always felt comfortable around guns. But that experience was the impetus to get me started sharing my passion about guns with other women, and helping them learn how to defend themselves and feel safe.”

Braun, 34, is now a licensed gun-safety expert and certified instructor, and as head of the local chapter of a national group called The Well Armed Woman, she is doing her utmost to help women ready themselves for defensive action if it ever becomes a necessity.

“It was never something I advertised or talked freely about,” she said of her long interest in guns. “But after my experience I realized I had to get involved to help other women.”

When Braun came across The Well Armed Woman website about two years ago, the group’s motto, “Educate, equip and empower,” really struck a chord.

“We had an informational meeting and about eight ladies showed up,” she said. “We have around 20 members now, and around 12 to 15 who come regularly to our sessions once a month on Fridays. We share information for about and hour, and then we practice for an hour.”

The women convene at the Iroquois Rod and Gun Club in Rotterdam, where club president Ron Michon, who couldn’t offer official numbers, says more and more women seem to be showing up and learning how to safely discharge a firearm.

“I remember a time when a woman wouldn’t even look at a gun,” he said. “Now it’s changing a bit, and I think it’s because of a little bit of everything. Some women do it for fun, and I can’t really say how many do it for self-defense. Hey, I’ll say it in plain English. It takes a lot of balls to pull a gun on a person, for a man or a woman.”

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That may be true, but just knowing you’re prepared is more than half the battle, according to Carrie Lightfoot, a single mom who created The Well Armed Woman website back in 2012.

“There is a level of confidence a woman gains when she knows she is equipped to protect herself,” said Lightfoot, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“It is transformational. Whether or not you actually have to use a gun, knowing you’re prepared gives you a certain air. You learn about situational awareness, and you’re not afraid to look someone in the eye if you have to. It’s subtle, but when an attacker is looking for a target, he’s going to go find somebody else.”

For the first 40 years of her life, Lightfoot had no interest in firearms.

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“My youngest child was about to go off to college, I was a single mom, and I had just taken a job in the rough part of town,” said Lightfoot, who grew up in Westchester County before moving out West.

“It got me thinking. What would I do if I was confronted with a scary situation? I felt very vulnerable for the first time in my life. I realized I wasn’t really prepared to protect myself if I needed too.”

Little help available

She found very little help immersing herself in guns and gun safety in the Scottsdale area, so she formed her own small group to see what might happen.

“I got an overwhelming response, so it was clear to me that women wanted some place to go to learn more about guns,” she said. “So I began creating this network for women to get together and talk about things. Going to a shooting range or a gun club by yourself the first time can be pretty intimidating.”

After working with the website for a year to provide women with a reliable source of information, Lightfoot officially started her national organization in January of 2013. By the end of the year she had 100 chapters across the country. There are currently 225 chapters in 49 states, and Lightfoot is optimistic that a group in Rhode Island will also soon join the fold.

“My instincts were pretty good,” she said. “Women were hungry for a group like this. When I first began looking into guns, all the information was geared toward men or over-sexualized. It was the ‘bathed in guns’ type thing, or something that was very condescending to women. It was a male-dominated world. I have a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit, so I said to myself, ‘somebody’s got to do something.’ So I launched the organization.”

Jodi Vaccaro of Rotterdam, married and the mother of a 14-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, is a member of The Well Armed Woman.

“My husband and I both got into guns as a hobby,” she said. “We found out we really enjoyed shooting, and then getting involved with The Well Armed Woman was a great way to educate ourselves about gun safety and responsible gun ownership.”

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While she had no prior experience with guns as recently as five years ago, Vaccaro now carries a concealed weapon much of the time, a Sig P938 pistol.

“I’m a stay-at-home mom, and I’ll do what I have to do to protect my children,” she said. “I have my unrestricted license, and while I don’t go looking for trouble, I’ll do what I need to do, not what I want to do, to protect my family.”

Family experience

Julie DeBrito, another Rotterdam resident, grew up in a family with guns, and competed in shooting matches throughout high school and college.

“I was never afraid of guns and I always understood about gun safety,” she said.

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“When I wanted to learn about shooting other firearms and was looking for information, I found The Well Armed Woman web site and then met Jessica. For much of my life I was shooting rifles. I would practice with a .177 air gun, but I’ve branched out lately and just a couple of months ago I got my pistol permit.”

DeBrito continues to think of her interest in guns primarily as an outlet for competition, not in terms of self-defense.

“For me it’s a hobby, but I also think that people should learn how to use a gun, and they should at least shoot a gun once in their life,” she said. “Even if it’s a little scary for them, I would encourage women to learn more about it and learn the safety behind handling a gun. It’s really not that scary.

Lightfoot has designed The Well Armed Woman not to be a political organization.

“We have liberals and conservatives who are members who support the private ownership of guns,” she said. “Typically, many of us might lean one way more than the other, but we don’t advocate for a particular candidate. Our core mission is to educate, equip and empower. Those are our three guiding values and goals.”

Increasing interest

There isn’t a whole lot of definitive evidence indicating that more women are becoming interested in guns, but there is some and it all points to an increase.

A CNN poll stated that in 2012, 80 percent of gun retailers reported an increase in female customers, and according to Statistic Brain, the number of gun owners who are female increased from 13 percent in 2005 to 31 percent in 2014.

Perhaps the best indication is the meteoric rise of The Well Armed Woman, which is holding its annual Concealed Weapon Fashion Show today at the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Conference at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie.

“One of the first things I did with my website was to design a holster for a woman’s body,” said Lightfoot. “The gun industry had never recognized the need, but us women do have some unique needs when it comes to carrying concealed weapons. Our hips are different.”

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or bbuell@dailygazette.com.

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