Gunning for the female market

Chico gun shop thrives amid nationwide downturn in gun sales

PISTOL PACKIN’ Donna Sloan, who co-owns Safer Arms Indoor Shooting Range in Chico, says it’s important for a woman to choose a gun she’s comfortable with—not the one her husband wants her to have.

PISTOL PACKIN’ Donna Sloan, who co-owns Safer Arms Indoor Shooting Range in Chico, says it’s important for a woman to choose a gun she’s comfortable with—not the one her husband wants her to have.

Photo by Tom Angel

Gals with guns: About 30 percent of the members of the Chico Rod and Gun Club are women.

Behind the counter of Safer Arms Indoor Shooting Range in Chico, co-owner Donna Sloan deftly shifts from teaching a man how to work his new holster to explaining why the new Smith & Wesson can’t yet be sold in California. Impressed? Then, she gets ready to shoot. Sloan, petite and dressed in a classy pants suit, is about as ladylike as you can get, but her confident stance behind the power of the gun is no contradiction.

“We get a lot of female shooters,” Sloan said. “Some of them are afraid of guns and they’re coming here to learn safety. … There are a lot of single women, living in rural areas. Times have changed.”

Also, she said, “a lot of women do it to be with their husbands. It’s a good recreation thing.”

More and more women are turning to guns for protection and recreation, and Butte County is certainly no exception.

At a time when handgun sales are at an all-time low nationally (a recent Associated Press analysis of government records found a 52-percent decline in sales between 1993 and 1999), Safer Arms has managed to buck the trend in part by focusing on the safety and training aspects of gun ownership and by welcoming female gun owners.

And these shooters aren’t packing the dainty pearl-handled pistols you see drawn weakly out of handbags on daytime soaps. They know what they’re doing. “I find them very responsible, the women. They don’t claim to know everything,” Sloan said. “Women are usually better shooters than men because they don’t have any bad habits. They’re not indoctrinated by Dirty Harry.”

Besides, she grins, “cute little guns aren’t fun to shoot.”

Female interest in guns has exploded in recent years, with specialty magazines, Web sites and organizations cropping up nationwide.

Between 1988 and 1996, gun ownership by women rose 70 percent. A Gallup poll recently found that 27 percent of women have a gun in their home, while 51 percent of women have actually fired one.

There is even a Web site dedicated to helping women choose the right size gun to fit smaller hands, find a holster that doesn’t dig into their ribs, and avoid flinching when they pull the trigger.

“A lot of women have decided they have an equal right to self-defense,” said Penni Bacheler, a Philadelphia-based spokesperson for Second Amendment Sisters.

Second Amendment Sisters was incorporated in 1999 in the wake of the Million Mom March, which gun-rights advocates felt was rife with misinformation as it called for too-tight gun controls. “They’re confusing guns with violence,” Bacheler said.

The organizations have collected chilling stories of how, if not for a gun, many women and their children would have died at the hands of an intruder. Gun ownership saves between 1.5 and 2.5 million lives each year, they tally, while there are no shots fired in 99 percent of defensive gun uses.

“A gun gives a women equality. It gives her the ability to defend against someone who is bigger and stronger or has [a weapon],” Bacheler said. “The gun really levels the playing field for a woman.”

Helen Gippert, a retired Paradise resident, decided to learn how to use a gun after she got divorced.

“Life has changed a lot for women,” she said. “I had to learn to be independent. I wanted to protect myself. I didn’t think about it when I had someone to do it for me.”

Gippert was raised with four brothers and was no stranger to guns in then-sparse Paradise. “We always had guns in the house—it was something I took for granted. I just assumed everyone had,” she said. “It was like, that was a man thing, kind of. I wasn’t afraid of them or anything. I just wasn’t interested.”

When she decided to get a gun, Gippert said, “I didn’t feel like I had handled one enough. It’s like driving a car. You had better know safety procedures and feel comfortable with it.” So, she took a self-defense class at Safer Arms and got a concealed-weapons permit so she could take her gun—a “smooth” .357 Ruger—along in her car.

“After I started shooting down there I rather enjoyed it,” Gippert said. “It was rewarding just being comfortable handling it and feeling confident with it … applying myself and trying to get better and get a good score.”

She also joined the National Rifle Association. “I don’t feel the people who are legal and doing things properly should have their rights taken,” Gippert said.

Mike Harper, an assistant manager at Safer Arms, said that in the years since the shop opened in 1988, the political climate and gun market have changed in a way that affects gun shops’ business.

Besides waiting periods and background checks many consider intrusive, there’s the simple fact that most of the people who want guns already have them, so the market has topped out to a degree. Fewer dealers are selling guns, and the 1.3 million handguns manufactured in 1998 made for the smallest number in 31 years, reports the Associated Press. (Rifle sales, though, are up 8 percent.)

“The handgun legislation, of course, hurts us tremendously,” said Harper, his position punctuated by his NRA ball cap and a poster on the wall equating gun abolition to Hitler’s Germany. “From when this place opened to now, our paperwork has almost quadrupled,” he said. “I think it becomes too much when an honest citizen is deemed a bad person before they can even purchase a firearm. It’s guilty until proven innocent.”

So, Safer Arms counters with customer service. And, unlike the gun shops of earlier decades that limited themselves to sales and repairs, Harper said, “We’re all about safety education. If we’re not in education, we’re not in business.”

The approach was a business decision as well as an ethical one. “People need a place where they can get [gun] education. That’s the whole reason that this place opened up,” Harper said.

And interestingly, at Safer Arms, women have proven three times more likely to sign up for safety courses than the male gun buyers and often ask for private lessons as well.

Gail Dibble, a 23-year-old Chico resident, is a “brand-new” shooter.

Her husband target shoots, and that intrigued Dibble. “I started shooting and I fell in love with it.”

“I love how it’s an equal sport between men and women,” added Dibble, who talks excitedly about the Browning pistol she just got. “I held it, like, a thousand times before I bought it. It’s lighter. It fit my hand pretty well.

“I am comfortable with my gun,” she said. “I want to be on a league and target shoot and stuff like that.”

Traditionally, gun sales are geared toward hunters during hunting season, and in the spring and summer the focus is more on self-protection-seekers. Others target shoot competitively or for recreation.

“A lot more women are looking at them now,” Harper said, specifically mentioning single mothers and women who work in others’ homes as health care providers. “A lot more women are dealing with the fact that they need to be conscious of their safety.

“It’s not accepted socially for women to want to be violent,” Harper said. But that gun-owners are sitting on their porches with itchy trigger fingers is the furthest thing from the truth. “Nobody ever hopes that they’re going to have to shoot somebody.”

Oroville resident Yvonne Katsuyama’s father, who is “really into guns—mostly revolvers,” took her to an indoor range when she was in her teens. When she got married, she started shooting again as a way for her and her husband to spend more time together.

“It’s more of a test of skill, and if I can shoot better than my husband I’m happy,” she laughed.

In her family, Katsuyama hasn’t noticed any gender differences when it comes to attitudes about guns. “We pretty much have the same idea as to guns—they’re used for safety.”

Although she found it easy to get a concealed-weapons permit in Butte County, Katsuyama said she got a much different reception when she lived in Sacramento and down south. “I think they should be more accepted all around California, especially around Los Angeles,” she said.

For Katsuyama, it’s target shooting only, with rifles. “We don’t hunt,” Katsuyama said. “I don’t think I can shoot anything that is running. I’d much rather take it home and keep it as a pet.”

She and her husband have a 5-year-old daughter, so they take special care to keep the guns locked in a safe. “We also talk to her about safety,” said Katsuyama, who feels more secure with the gun in the house. “I know I have a skill where I could protect us both.”

Sloan, Safer Arms’ co-owner, had little experience with guns before she and her husband, Richard, who had retired from the Chico Police Department, joined forces with another couple to open the shop and range.

“I worked for Pac Bell for 23 years,” Sloan shrugs, and running a gun shop “was completely out of context for me.”

When she and the other female owner started working the counter, Sloan remembers, “the customers didn’t really think we knew anything.”

Even now, she said, “I don’t claim to know everything about it. In the gun business you really have to be honest and up-front with people.”

Sloan says it’s important for a woman to choose a gun that she feels comfortable with and not let a “macho” man talk her into something. Sometimes, Sloan will get “vibes” that the husband is thinking, “here is another gun that I can have, too,” and tactfully talks him down.

If a woman starts out with a gun that’s too powerful—say, a .357 magnum—she’ll come away “thinking everything is way too loud or too much for her.”

Sloan, looking down through the glass countertop where Safer Arms has more than 50 guns to try out there in the store, suggests a revolver, with no magazine and less potential for jamming, over a semi-automatic: “This is a point-and-shoot gun,” she says.

And she knows what she’s talking about.