White American Women Stick to Their Guns

White American Women Stick to Their Guns

Susan Carrichner

SourceNick Fouriezos/OZY

Why you should care

Because the debate around gun access and control is heating up. 

Tune in tonight at 8 p.m. ET on YouTube or your local PBS station for the second episode in OZY’s innovative and compelling town hall series, Take On America, where we tackle the nation’s toughest issues through the lens of race. Last week, we spotlighted Black men in Baltimore. This week, we speak with White women in Nashville.

Nearly three decades ago, Susan Carrichner was held hostage in her Knoxville-area home at knifepoint by a former romantic partner. She remembers calling 911 and nobody answering, and her former partner tearing the phone out of the wall. She describes the rain combining with her tears as she made a break and ran out the front door, only to get caught again. Five and a half hours passed before the police finally arrived, after which her attacker calmly walked out the door without being charged. Officers chalked it up to a domestic dispute.

That was in the winter of 1992. Carrichner spent the night in a hotel, and a few days later the county sheriff advised her to get a gun. Since then, the 61-year-old has tried to make sure that women who want to carry are well-protected, and she has trained at least 100,000 people through her Shooting Women Alliance classes, at least half of that total in handgun permitting courses. Carrichner claims to have the only gun ranges in America that only allow men who are guests of female members to shoot. She has multiple locations across Tennessee and nationwide, with some 28,000 active members and a quarter-million women on her company’s email list.

Carrichner’s story is indicative of a trend in firearm ownership at a time when gun laws are in the crosshairs amid school safety concerns and mass shootings. Even while personal gun ownership among men has dropped dramatically, female ownership has remained remarkably steady — and is often driving growth in industry sales.

About half of men and a tenth of women owned a firearm in 1980, while over a third of men and 12 percent of women owned a firearm in 2014.

That research, from a University of Chicago study, found that men are still much more likely to own guns but that declining gun sales among men had helped narrow the gender gap. Another survey, released by the Pew Research Center last year, revealed that White women are more likely to own guns than women of color — about a quarter of the White women surveyed owned guns, compared to just 16 percent of women of color. The firearm industry has noticed the loyalty of female gun owners: Twenty years ago, there were few guns or hunting clothing marketed to women; now, stylish handle grips and camo fashion lines — not just in pink! — are more widely available.

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Carrichner with one of her students at the range.

Women’s shooting groups have popped up across the country, and Carrichner has helped the National Rifle Association and other organizations create female-focused curricula. “I don’t like being a single girl in the gun world,” Carrichner admits, saying that men tend to sexualize women like her. “Most men think women with guns are Tomb Raider chicks — and I don’t want to be seen as a Tomb Raider chick.”

But women may be changing their minds too, as the death toll from school shootings rolls in with the nightly news. “That affects how women feel about the need for gun laws,” says Beth Joslin Roth, executive director of the Safe Tennessee Project. Through the pro-gun-control organization, Roth advocates for “common sense” gun regulations, which include allowing courts to temporarily take guns from men convicted of domestic abuse and harsher punishments for adults who leave loaded guns within access of children. She also advocates for background checks for all gun sales. “These are policies that the vast majority of Tennesseans support, even those who are gun owners,” Roth says.

“Anti-gunners and pro-gunners want the same thing,” Carrichner says, and that’s safety. “Gun advocates know that a firearm can help you in a situation, while people who are anti-gun think no guns solves the problem.” She believes that gun-free zones give women a false sense of security. “Have gun-free zones stopped shootings at schools? No, they haven’t,” she says.

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Carrichner teaching a class at the Family Fun Range.

As my conversation with Carrichner before tonight’s episode of Take On America confirmed, the gun-owning community is far from monolithic on key issues. Unlike the NRA, which has steadfastly opposed any restrictions on ownership, Carrichner welcomes better mental health safeguards and background checks to make sure that guns are in the right hands. “You know, when we drive a car, we need a license,” she says, although she insists community education and a more stable family life will be of greater help than more laws.

In many cases, Carrichner says, gun owners and their families and friends should be aware that even gun-safe people can quickly become unfit to carry and need to be protected. She tells the story of a friend, a teenage shotgun champion who was licensed to carry, who, heartbroken over a failed relationship, shot and killed herself with the gun she had won nationals with. “She had become what I call an unauthorized person with a gun,” Carrichner says. “Had her father taken the gun out of the house, she wouldn’t have had access to it.”

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