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October 24, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST
The dogs don’t flinch at the sounds of gunshots here. They’re used to that on a shooting range. It’s silent except for the steady beat of bullets echoing across the grass of Prairie Grove Shotgun Sports in Columbia. Eight women line up with a strong stance, arms extended, fingers ready around their handguns, and their focus aimed at the cardboard targets in front of them. Whether they are new to the trigger or experienced markswomen, they all learn how to properly pack heat.
These women at the Prairie Grove event belong to A Girl and A Gun Women’s Shooting League, a national organization that started its Columbia chapter in July. The organization educates women about firearm use in a social atmosphere. Ellen Kliethermes, who began the chapter, says there are 35 to 40 members in the league.
A Girl and A Gun Women's Shooting League has racked up bullets since its start in Austin, Texas in 2011. By the looks of the organization's growth, the heavy metal is not too much to handle.
64 - Chapters of A Girl and A Gun in the country.
22 - Different states that are home to the organization. The first state to fire it up was Texas.
5 - Women showed up to the first league that Julianna Crowder started in 2011.
1,937 - Women who are now members nationwide.
80 - Estimated number of attendees at the Columbia chapter launch party in July.
2 - Monthly events that the Columbia chapter holds
This local group is an example of growing gun ownership among women. A February article in The New York Times recognized this trend, as well as the difficulty of officially tracking how many women own guns. The federal government doesn’t break down background checks demographically, and manufacturers do not distribute sales information to the general public.
But a 2011 Gallup poll on self-reported gun ownership in the U.S. found that 23 percent of women and 46 percent of men own a gun in comparison to 13 percent of women and 47 percent of men in 2005. The poll also lists the top three reasons for the gun ownership trend: protection from crime, target shooting and hunting.
The members in the Columbia shooting league joined for reasons such as self-defense, independence and a way to socialize. Each woman might have joined for her own reason, but one thing is certain — it’s for women, by women.
“Typically you wouldn’t see one female go to the range just to go,” Kliethermes says. “They like to do it socially, but they want to know how to use a firearm to protect themselves and their family, so it’s both recreation and self-defense.”
During one of the league’s events, October’s Breakfast and Bullets at Target Masters, Audrey McFadden donned alkaline green ear protection while pumping bullets at a human-shaped grey silhouette. “It’s very exciting, and it’s kind of a rush,” McFadden says. “It’s kind of addictive.” Breakfast and Bullets was only her third time shooting; she joined the organization purely for self-defense. “My husband has some guns, and he travels a lot, so I thought maybe I should at least know how to use one just to protect myself rather than hurt myself.”
Tom O’Sullivan, a detective with the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, says anyone who owns a gun is responsible for using it safely. “There’s a whole array of different self defense products out there, and obviously it’s up to the individual what they feel comfortable with.”
And firearms aren’t just for protection. Julianna Crowder, founder of A Girl and A Gun in Austin, Texas in 2011, says giving women the tools for self-defense didn’t drive the organization. “It’s a means to an end,” she says. “To get them to shoot in the competitive sport, we have to start somewhere.” Crowder wanted to help women find their way to the range, and she ultimately became an ambassador for the sport. “We took a lot of the fear factor and a lot of the unknown, and we made it something fun.”
In Jessica Senkevech’s family, shooting was a tradition — for the men. So she learned how to shoot as a way to spend time with her dad and brothers. Now she shoots to meet like-minded people.
She attended her first A Girl and A Gun event this month because she needed a new hobby, even if she hasn’t officially joined the group. “The people who shoot because it’s fun are fun people for me to be around,” Senkevech says. “I just enjoy the camaraderie and the sportsmanship.” For Senkevech, it serves as a sport that clears her mind and releases stress. “I hope the only thing I ever shoot are paper targets and clay targets.”