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Darn good question!

Author’s Note:  I’ll be honest: this was a difficult article to write, and I’ve hesitated to put it up for fear of unnecessarily discouraging other women from carrying a gun at all. Please remember, I don’t know you. I don’t know what physical or financial difficulties you might need to work around, and since I’ve never met you, I don’t know your body type, or what holsters and guns you have tried, or what your life is like. As you read the information below, please remember that I’m just one voice. As a competent, adult woman, you will need to make up your own mind about these things, because you are the one who must live with the consequences of whatever choices you make.

While I’ve tried to be as objective as possible, the fact is that I’m not a fan of carrying a handgun off-body. While I understand that some women literally have no other viable choices, my suspicion is that most women who carry in a purse do so as their default option, or because they have never given on-body carry the serious consideration it deserves. The article below is an honest attempt to explain the benefits and drawbacks of carrying a concealed handgun in a purse. The sections are alphabetized because what’s most important to me may not be as important to you.

If you got here through a search engine, are are looking for more general information about whether you should carry a firearm at all, please head back to the Table of Contents and run your eye down the rest of the articles offered on this site, especially the ones in the chapters titled, “Why a Gun?,” “Mindset” and “Firearms Safety.” You may find what you’re looking for there.

Clothing

Let’s face it, clothing is the biggest reason most women prefer purse carry to the other possibilities. And it’s true enough that carrying in a purse involves very little wardrobe adjustment. Oh, you might have to get used to the idea of carrying a large purse rather than a tiny one, and surrender the idea of carrying a purse with a designer label, but that’s really about it. No wardrobe angst required.

But before you decide that purse carry is the only option that will work for you, I want to tell you a dirty little secret. It is my opinion, as an avid people-watcher, that roughly 95% of the outfits I see on other women would work for concealed carry with no alterations whatsoever. 1   Fond of tight, skimpy shirts and classic bootleg jeans? Guess what — that’s a great ankle carry outfit. The low-rise, wide-legged polyester pants that so many women wear to the office work well with ankle holsters too. Love shrug sets? If the cardigan hits the waist, it can conceal a behind-the-hip holster; if the cardigan is short, the outfit will probably work well with a belly band. Whether you love crafty vests, pretty blouses, boxy blazers, or cozy cotton sweaters, the chances are that with a little determination and creativity, you can wear a firearm on your body without altering your wardrobe nearly as much as you fear.

When it comes to fancy dress clothing, the pickings get a little slimmer (but still not entirely impossible). In some dress clothes, a carry purse might really be your only viable option. But unless you wear your party clothes twenty-four hours a day, chances are that you’ve got other choices most of the time.

Expenses

If you do decide to carry in your purse, it’s really, really a good idea to purchase a quality holster purse. Carrying in a normal purse is so rarely a safe option, and is so slow to access, that it simply should not be done if you can possibly avoid it. On the other hand, a holster purse from either of the two biggest makers will set you back $150 to $300. No lie. They often cost as much as a good leather holster, plus the cost of a high-end leather purse.

But listen to this: I found a Chinese knockoff of a concealed carry purse online awhile back! It cost all of $15. It looks good enough, but the internal structure is lousy and the zippers are rough. There’s no built in holster, just a floppy-bag compartment of rough cheap material which provides no real structure to protect the gun’s trigger from inadvertent movement. It’s bound to fall apart before long. I had to order it though, simply from fascination. A knock-off of a concealment purse! Whooda thunkit? 2

Between those two ends of the scale, there are many lesser-known holstermakers who offer holster purses for sale. I have handled a lot of these, but I’m also interested in hearing from you if you have one and are willing to share details.

In contrast to this, you can expect to pay $100-$150 for a custom leather belt holster, or $75-$100 for a kydex belt holster. Nylon ones can be found for as little as $20, but these are not recommended for serious every day use.

Firearm Selection

When carrying on-body, you’ll want to select a handgun with the smallest overall dimensions that you are able to shoot comfortably and accurately. Size is the limiting factor.

When carrying in a purse, the most important issue becomes the gun’s weight, rather than its size. If you decide to go with purse carry, gun weight will very likely be your limiting factor when you are selecting a firearm. When carrying on the belt, provided you have a sturdy belt designed for the task, there’s little appreciable difference between a heavy gun and a lighter one which has the same overall dimensions. Not so when carrying in a purse. For a purse, you’ll want the lightest handgun you can have, because you’ll notice every ounce.

Keep in mind, though, that heavier guns have less noticeable recoil and are therefore more pleasant to shoot. If you are very recoil-sensitive, you may want to avoid purse carry just so that you can comfortably carry a slightly heavier handgun.

If your carry gun is not a super-lightweight one, be aware that you’ll be tempted to set the purse down more often than you otherwise would, or to leave it behind on short errands. You already know that the gun cannot save your life if it isn’t with you when you need it, and that there are safety issues to consider whenever you set the purse down. So if you go this route, consider in advance what you will do on occasions when the purse becomes too heavy to tote comfortably.

Safety Issues — Accidental Discharges

Whether you decide to go the regular-purse route or to carry in a holster purse, be aware that literally nothing else can share a compartment with the gun — not your lipstick, not the car keys, not a piece of paper. Even a double-action revolver can get caught in all the other clutter when it’s dumped into a crowded purse, with messy and perhaps disastrous results.

In the news awhile back was the tragic-comic story of an off-duty policewoman who dropped her purse in a crowded fast food restaurant. The gun discharged, and while no one was hurt, great pandemonium ensued. The police officer panicked and fled the scene, leaving her purse behind. Someone called 911 to report shots fired. When other officers arrived at the scene, they found their co-worker’s newly-ventilated purse on the floor, with her driver’s license and all other identification still in it. Oops.

Safety Issues — Security and Gun Retention

One of my biggest concerns with purse carry is that it is very socially awkward to treat the gun purse with the respect it must be treated. Because it is socially awkward to give the firearm-containing purse the respect it must be given, the human tendency is to disregard the safety rules “just this once” and leave the purse and its gun in an unsecure location. One problem with this is that “just this once” is literally all the time it takes for an unexpected tragedy to strike. And the larger problem is that “just this once” has a nasty tendency of turning into an ongoing bad habit.

For instance, few women keep their purses literally on their laps the entire time they are visiting friends, even friends with children. Most women toss their purses casually over the back of their chairs in a restaurant (with the attendant risk of walking away without it). We shove our purses underneath our desks when we get to work, and don’t think about them again all day. We plunk our purses into the shopping cart in the grocery store, then turn away to pick out tomatoes. But it literally only takes a split second for a purse-snatcher to do his thing — and even less than that for a child or grandchild to get into your purse when mommy’s not watching as carefully as she ought. There is literally no safe place to set a gun purse down if it is not locked up. But physically holding onto your purse all the time will definitely earn you some odd looks from your friends. You must be prepared for this fact, and consider ways to cope with it.

While it is easy to think, “Oh, that won’t happen to me,” there are enough horror stories out there about this that it really gives one pause to think. For instance, in Half Moon Bay, California, there is a woman who was being stalked by her ex-husband. Her danger was acute enough that she managed to score a concealed-carry permit (in California!) and routinely carried in her purse. One day, she absent-mindedly walked out of the grocery store without her purse. The manager got into her purse to get her phone number, spotted the gun, and called the police. Now the woman is facing a legal nightmare: charged with a crime for leaving her firearm behind, she cannot have firearms anywhere near her until her case is settled, and her name and picture were plastered all over the local papers. Her previously-private address has become a matter of public record. This is no way to avoid a stalker.

Speed of Draw / Ease of Access

Drawing from a purse can be difficult. If the purse isn’t designed for concealed carry, you may find yourself rummaging through your purse with your head down at the very moment when you most need to have your head up and be scanning the area around you for trouble.

Even if the purse is designed for concealed carry, unless the center compartment is very sturdy, it is possible that other objects in the purse can negatively affect your ability to draw the gun. I vividly remember watching a friend work with her carry purse on the range one afternoon, and her acutely frustrated expression when the contents of her overstuffed purse defeated her every effort to draw quickly.

Remember, it isn’t enough simply to have a gun with you. If you’re going to use the gun to save your life, you have to be able to get to it. The thing to keep in mind is that if you need the gun at all, you will very likely need it in a hurry.

The lesson here is that if you carry in your purse, you absolutely must practice getting the gun out, so that you will be able to do it as efficiently as possible if you ever really need it. And you must practice doing this under realistic conditions, with all the other stuff you routinely carry in your purse along for the ride.

The practical difficulty of this is that it is hard enough to find a range which allows people to practice drawing from the holster. Finding one which allows practice drawing from a purse might be an impossible mission. But such practice is very important. If you cannot find a range which allows it, remember that you can always practice drawing an unloaded firearm in your home, provided you have a safe backstop and follow the dryfire safety rules.

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Footnotes

  1. Obviously, this varies according to time of year, the age of the women, and the region of the country. During a summertime visit to California’s central valley, I observed that the proportion of women who could be carrying underneath what they were already wearing had dropped to around 85%. That’s still overwhelmingly high, but not as high as the 95+% I see in the Pacific Northwest.
  2. Politically, I regard this as an incredibly hopeful sign. It means there are now enough female concealed-carry permit holders that we are driving part of the marketplace. Cool stuff, if you think about it.