Andrea Forte was at work when she received the call that her child’s school was on lockdown. Someone had threatened to “kill all of the children” in her four-year-old daughter’s classroom.
“I couldn’t protect my child… I was powerless and had to let it play out however it happened,” said Forte, a 31-year-old mother of two. The threat was unrealized, but Forte decided then to carry a firearm whenever she could. On school grounds, where firearms are prohibited, she carries a stun gun and pepper spray.
Amber Haggard, on the other hand, was prepared when one day, after leaving a restaurant with her two young children, a disheveled man approached her asking for money.
The 26-year-old didn’t lose her cool, but when the man refused to leave after she politely told him she didn’t have anything to give, Haggard sensed the situation was escalating. The third time she asked him to step away, she brandished her weapon, a Smith and Wesson Shield 9mmpistol, and warned him she would protect herself and her kids if she had to.
“I have not had to pull the trigger on my weapon in defense yet, and I hope I never have to,” Haggard said.
Forte and Haggard are part of a growing contingent of gun owners—mothers. They’re members of Sheepdog Mama, a Facebook group created by moms and for moms, which serves as a “safe, nonjudgmental place... to discuss personal protection, protection of our families and children, [and] babywearing while carrying a firearm.”
Sheepdog Mama isn’t what you would expect from an online forum for gun enthusiasts. Even with more than 4,500 members, talk of Second Amendment rights and other “hot button” issues that surround firearms in America is noticeably absent.
A scroll through recent posts suggests many members are contemplating gun ownership and seeking advice; a few people ask for general self-defense information; one woman thanked the group for giving her a drama-free space to discuss concealed carry. When the conversation veers toward controversial topics—as it inevitably does when guns are involved—a moderator is quick to jump in and remind the moms this isn’t the place for political discussion.
It’s a surprising twist in the story about guns in America. With young children regularly the focus of tragic gun-related accidents and public health experts warning that kids are less safe when there is a firearm in the home, moms seem like the last demographic group that would be interested in packing heat. But despite the risks, more moms feel gun ownership and concealed carry are reasonable steps to take to ensure their family’s safety.
“With women especially, there’s this desire to take protection into their own hands, to protect themselves and their families. It builds on the tradition of feminism—the idea that they can protect themselves,” said Catherine Mortensen, spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Firearm industry associations do not specifically track the gun ownership trends of American mothers, but the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) enthusiastically report seeing more women purchasing firearms, taking gun safety classes, participating in target shooting and obtaining concealed carry permits.
According to the NRA, the number of women who owned a firearm jumped from 11 percent in 2004 to 23 percent in 2011, a 77 percent increase. When the NRA first offered On Target, its women-only firearms instructional course, in 2000, 500 women participated; in 2014, more than 13,000 women took the course. And, in the NSSF’s most recent Firearms Retailer Survey Report released in 2014, 74 percent of responding retailers saw an increase in female customers in their store in 2013 over 2012. None reported a decline.
Melody Lauer, a mother of three, certified gun instructor since 2007 and moderator of the Sheepdog Mama Facebook group, has also seen more moms become interested in gun ownership and a growing need for firearms safety courses that target the needs of this population.
“In the last three to four years we’re seeing a surge in moms; the demand is now here like it never was before,” Lauer said.
Lauer became an unofficial spokeswoman for moms with guns in early 2015 when her Babywearing and Concealed Carry firearms safety course sparked media interest—not surprisingly, since the name immediately conjures up the image of a pistol-packing mama, baby on one hip, holster on the other (which happens to be the safest way to carry, according to Lauer). It’s a controversial image, particularly in an era when the internet is quick to pile on a parenting debate. What could be more provoking than the intersection of babies and guns?
Lauer seems an unlikely advocate. She’s actively involved in several parenting groups, including the attachment parenting community—a philosophy that, in addition to promoting wearing your baby, co-sleeping and extended breastfeeding, has a decidedly crunchy image that at first glance would appear to be diametrically opposed to any pro-gun agenda.
That’s not the case, says Lauer. She adds that, while she knows gun owners typically skew toward conservative political views, she sees moms of all affiliations in her classes and online. The NRA and NSSF agree. Gun ownership in general skews white, male and Republican, but based on the associations’ surveys, women gun owners defy stereotypes of age, geographical location, race and, yes, even political affiliation.
But Lauer makes a point of not alienating parents in her circle who may feel differently about firearms. In fact, she doesn’t seem too interested in sparking controversy or participating in a debate. She, like many moms and women who become interested in gun ownership, is primarily concerned with practical matters of handling, carrying and storing guns safely.
“People are going to carry guns. If they don’t have guidance, they are going to do it incorrectly. It can be done safely, and plenty of people do it safely,” said Lauer, who began promoting the Babywearing and Concealed Carry class after hearing about Veronica Rutledge, who was accidentally shot and killed by her toddler son when he managed to remove her handgun from her purse at an Idaho Walmart in December 2014.
Lauer says the perception that a mother owning and carrying a gun is a threat to her children’s safety is overblown, and with training and strict adherence to proper gun storage, the majority of tragic accidents can be prevented.
“The biggest misconception out there is that you can’t carry [a gun] safely. One of the biggest recurring comments that has been shared with me is, ‘Oh, I can’t wait for the story when this child gets her mom’s gun and shoots her.’ It’s almost like it’s assumed that it’s going to happen. It’s assumed that there’s going to be an accident,” Lauer said.
Women do tend to be more cautious than men when it comes to gun ownership. Lauer and the NRA point out that women take longer to decide they want to purchase a firearm and women are more likely to take a safety course. But public health experts warn that the sense of protection people get from gun ownership doesn’t translate to actual safety.
“There’s no good evidence that having a gun is going to make you any safer,” said David Hemenway, professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. There’s been little research on the correlation between moms carrying firearms and accidental shootings involving children, but according to Hemenway, studies have repeatedly shown guns are bad for children and women—more so for black women who, according to a report released by the Violence Policy Center in September 2014, are two-and-a-half times more likely to be victims of homicide than white women, guns being the most common weapon used.
For children, American Academy of Pediatrics states that firearm-related deaths are in the top three causes of death, and according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, every day seven children and teens die from gun violence, and 41 children and teens are shot and survive. Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, a nonprofit organization, tracks accidental shootings involving children under age 17 with an interactive map. As of June 12, there had been at least 112 this year.
Experts are largely in agreement on the issue. After surveying 300 experts who had published gun-related articles in peer review studies, Hemenway found 64 percent agreed that having a gun in the house makes it a more dangerous place to be, and 72 percent agreed that it increases the chance that the woman in the household will be a victim of homicide.
“That’s why pediatricians tell parents to get rid of their guns,” Hemenway said.
While the female gun owner may not be defined by her politics, the larger debate on guns rights and gun violence is. The June 17 shooting in Charleston reignited the gun control debate, which tends to fall along political lines: Many Democrats, including President Obama, who told Marc Maron at the end of June during a taping of the WTF with Marc Maron podcast he had largely given up on gun control policy due to the NRA’s grasp on Congress, argue that stricter gun laws will prevent these horrible tragedies; the conservative, pro-gun lobby insists that loosening restrictions on guns will save us from them. The sheepdogs will protect the herd.
There’s also little evidence that a gun is more effective than other forms of self-defense. In his latest study, published in Preventive Medicine in March 2015, Hemenway reviewed data from National Crime Victimization surveys from 2007-2011 to determine the outcomes of victims who use a gun in self-defense. The sample size is admittedly small—it’s rare to use a gun in self-defense—but based on the available information, there was no significant difference in the likelihood of being injured during or after a self-defense gun use as compared to being injured during or after taking other forms of protective action.
“You’d probably be better off going through training to learn how to defuse dangerous situations rather than carrying a firearm,” Hemenway said.
But to a mom who is responsible for small children, access to a firearm means leveling the playing field against a would-be attacker.
“You may be a petite woman and you come across a large man who is a threat to you or your family, a firearm is what they call ‘the great equalizer’ in any confrontation,” Mortensen said.
And even though the likelihood of a confrontation that could lead to an attack is slim, Lauer argues carrying a gun is no different than preparing yourself for other unlikely, but potentially devastating events.
“People commonly ask me what I’m afraid of in that I carry a gun, and my response is always, ‘I’m not afraid of anything.’ And most of these [moms], I don’t think that they are afraid, I don’t think that’s the driving force,” Lauer said.
“It’s more along the lines of it’s a logical step of preparation, like, I’m not afraid that my house is going to set on fire, but I’m going to go out and get a fire extinguisher, just in case.”
Louisa Fitzgerald is a freelance writer living just west of Chicago with her young daughter, husband and dog.
Image via AMC