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In McHenry County and beyond, more women becoming gun owners

CRYSTAL LAKE – Four ladies watched, their unloaded handguns on the tables in front of them, as instructor Susan Parker went over the fundamentals of hitting their target.

A stance with a foot out in front makes for better control for women, Parker lectured, as does putting the nonfiring hand on the other side of the grip rather than holding it on the bottom like a saucer for a teacup.

And among the many things Parker drilled into them was the need to practice – especially how to recover from a weapons jam – and the need for safety. Parker quoted a saying popular among firearm instructors: Every round you fire has a lawyer attached to it.

“You are responsible for every bullet that exits your gun, even in self-defense,” Parker told her students.

The women – two younger, a senior citizen and her middle-aged daughter – then practiced their stances and grips while facing the walls of the John Wayne Room at On Target Range and Tactical Center in Crystal Lake. Once the downstairs handgun range was clear, they would end their morning “Gals and Guns” basic class by shooting paper targets.

The stereotype of the American gun owner as a middle-aged white male is becoming increasingly inaccurate as the number of female shooters surges, according to surveys and local firearms instructors and salespeople.

A 2011 Gallup poll put the number of women who own firearms at 23 percent, almost double the 13 percent it found in 2005. Another 2011 survey by the National Sporting Goods Association found women’s participation in shooting sports surged over the previous decade by more than 50 percent for target shooting, to more than 5 million women, and by more than 40 percent for hunting.

Parker, a 30-year instructor with civilian and military law enforcement experience, said the majority of her female clients are getting into guns for self-defense. While she teaches the female-oriented gun course for On Target, she owns her own training business, Artemis Protection Training.

“Many want to empower themselves so they can be responsible for their own personal safety. Most aren’t getting into firearms because they want to become a competition shooter. It’s not the world it was 20 years ago,” Parker said.

Her students that day had varying reasons for taking the class.

Dianna Dietrich of Wauconda took the course with her mother, who lives alone. But while both were interested in home protection, Dietrich has become interested in shooting through renting weapons at the range, and wanted to make sure she had the right skills when she gets a Ruger 9 mm handgun of her own.

“We just wanted to learn the right way to shoot, and the safety. … I wanted to make sure I didn’t learn any bad habits,” Dietrich said.

Sara Craig of Cortland has been shooting for a while and took the class after getting a Smith & Wesson M&P 9mm for Christmas. She is considering getting a concealed-carry permit for Illinois – last year was the first time people could do so.

“It’s always a good thing to keep up [on skills],” Craig said.

Parker, who is certified to teach the 16-hour Illinois concealed-carry course, credits concealed carry for contributing in part to the increasing number of women firearm enthusiasts. State lawmakers legalized concealed carry after a federal judge in 2012 struck down Illinois’ total ban. Illinois was the last state in the union that did not allow residents some form of carrying firearms in public.

The lawsuit that ended the ban was filed by a woman who was beaten and left for dead in a church in downstate Anna. She owned handguns, had training and several out-of-state concealed-carry permits, but the law barred her at the time from carrying them outside the home.

“Women may have been on the fence about having a firearm, but now that concealed carry’s been approved, that was kind of the tipping point on their decision, even if they have no intention of ever getting [a permit]” Parker said.

While the National Instant Criminal Background Check System administered by the FBI does not track gender or other demographics, it processed more than 12 million requests in 2014, slightly lower than 2013 but still reflecting a steady upward trend since the system’s 1998 inception. That number only tracks requests to purchase firearms, the laws for which vary from state to state.

A July 2014 report by the pro-gun Crime Prevention Research Center pegged the number of Americans with concealed-carry permits at 11.1 million, almost two and a half times the 4.5 million it estimated in 2007. That number does not include “open carry,” which is allowed in a number of states, both with or without a permit required.

Tom Dorsch, operations director for On Target, said about half of the female shooters his business sees are in it for self-defense. He’s also seeing a trend of experienced female shooters familiarizing themselves with the basics to sharpen their skills before taking the concealed-carry class.

But he also said he sees the increased interest in firearms transcending more than the gender barrier.

“It’s breaking through all the stereotypes. We have all sorts of folks, on both sides of the political aisle, and men and women of all ages,” Dorsch said.

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