Aiming at Empowerment

Written by: Kharin Gibson | Photographed by:  Jonathan C. Ward

More than ever before, women are making great strides toward empowerment. The possibilities for today’s female are expanding, and women are continuing to chip away at stereotypes portraying them as the vulnerable and vacuous gender.

Increasingly, women are harnessing their potential and steering the direction of their lives and pursuits. This sense of autonomy traverses every aspect of their lives, including the desire to feel safe and protected.

The topic of firearms in our society is a controversial issue, but many women in America are becoming a growing part of the conversation. Ownership and enthusiasm is undoubtedly dominated by men, however, the relationship between females and firearms is continuing to evolve.

Recognized as sports, target shooting and hunting are predominantly enjoyed by men, though female enthusiasts do exist. For the majority of women, interest in firearms commonly stems from the need to feel secure—both for themselves and for their families. There is a burgeoning population of women, including single moms and widows, who are taking a proactive stance in fortifying their response to this need for personal protection.

The implications surrounding firearms can be daunting. Whether they be shotguns, rifles, pistols or revolvers, they all have stopping power and the potential for danger. Lack of knowledge is one of the biggest fears most women have. By gaining a better insight into the handling, the care, and the liability behind firearms, women are able to reduce much of their anxiety. Women seeking instruction on the use and safety of firearms are often discouraged due to the male dominance in this field. And let’s face it, men and women sometimes speak different languages.

Mary Anne Rodrigues, a veteran of the Marine Corp and Army Reserve, is one of the few female instructors in the Cape Fear region. Unlike her male counterparts, she is more sensitive to women’s anxieties. Rodrigues recognizes that women need a different approach when learning about the fundamentals of firearms. “Men get frustrated with women, who are already apprehensive, so yelling at them doesn’t help,” she says.

She currently operates She Shoots, where she offers firearm instruction and concealed carry classes to interested women. Though her classes are not female exclusive, the majority of her students are women ranging in age from mid-twenties to mid-seventies. On average, 50%-75% of her classes are composed of female students.

Rodrigues is steadfast in dissolving the stereotype that women are too weak or frail to handle firearms. Her style and approach resonates well with other women. “I understand the apprehension that women experience, and as a woman myself, it’s easier to address,” she says. 

Rodrigues shared that once women develop a better understanding of firearm fundamentals, their fears subside. She explains that after about a half-hour with hands-on training at a range, it’s not uncommon for women to express their exhilaration about the experience and their anticipation of returning.

“A lot of women can’t wait to come back to the range because it’s so addictive,” Rodrigues admits. For many women, seeking protection is usually initiated by fear, but after some instruction, their firearm practice morphs into an empowering hobby.                        

Yet there are women who want to take that first step into the world of firearms but remain hesitant, preferring a slower approach to self-protection. Backwater Guns & Outfitters, a local retail store offering the largest selection of ammunition and firearm accessories in southeast North Carolina, has solutions that can bridge the gap for many women not quite ready to dive in headfirst.

Backwater Guns & Outfitters, a family-owned business of firearm enthusiasts, has three women on staff. These women are knowledgeable about personal protection and are eager to assist other women find options suitable for their individual needs. “Some women like to ease into self-protection, so they’ll purchase pepper sprays, gels or even stun guns. Many times these women will come back as repeat customers to purchase a handgun,” says Jessica Conant, Backwater’s office manager.

Without a doubt, there is a great deal of anxiety over firearms, not only because of their stopping power, but because of factors like recoil effect and sound intensity. These elements can be distressing to first-time firearm handlers. There is a method that can help women establish expectations and therefore reduce apprehension. Backwater Guns & Outfitters is the only retail store in the area that offers customers use of a virtual reality simulator.

The simulator is housed in a private room with a huge, theatre-style screen and projector that mimics hundreds of scenario-based events requiring participant interaction. Scenarios range from fast-paced home invasion and zombie apocalypse down to more benign sessions of target practice using stationary objects.

Participants choose from several laser-activated firearms including a “dummy gun” to real pistols that have had their firing mechanism removed and replaced with a CO2 cartridge to simulate the recoil effect. The simulator is intended to be a training device that assesses a shooter’s precision and effectiveness, but it also doubles as a preparation tool for those feeling too intimidated to experience actual live fire. It is an intermediary step for those that aren’t quite ready for the real thing. The simulator can dispel much of the initial discomfort women feel about recoil and sound, allowing them to muster a little confidence to then go to a range and shoot with real bullets.

Practicing at a live range is important, and it’s a part of the concealed carry class that Backwater Guns & Outfitters offers, usually every six to eight weeks. Students have use of the New Hanover County Law Enforcement Officers’ Association classroom and shooting range, and upon successful completion on the class, will have a good understanding of North Carolina firearm laws and the ability to apply for a concealed carry permit.

Shooting live rounds under the direction of a trained instructor really helps women become more comfortable with their handgun, and the more they practice the more confidence they develop. “After their first time shooting, a majority of women say they wish they had done it sooner,” says Jessica. “They don’t know why they’ve waited so long, and they say the experience wasn’t nearly as bad as they thought it would be.”

When women decide they’re ready to make a purchase, finding the right handgun can be intimidating. The staff at Backwater Guns & Outfitters gladly share their expertise when helping women choose guns that meet their needs. They have an extensive selection of handguns including several uniquely colored pistols, in turquoise and purple, which may appeal to the stylish sensibilities of some women.

One thing in particular that women seem to gravitate toward when they’re in the store is the impressive selection of concealed carry handbags. It’s amazing how contemporary and fashionable these purses are, coming in a variety of shapes and colors. They function as a woman’s handbag, yet have a completely separate compartment to safely store a handgun. This allows a woman to maintain her sense of fashion, yet feel secure knowing her gun is inconspicuously in close proximity. That would give any woman a sense of empowerment!




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