The Cornered Cat

Why don’t women take more firearms training classes, especially at the advanced levels? From watching the numbers in states that track demographic data for carry permits, we know that women compose roughly 25% of concealed carry permit holders, a number increasingly on the rise. In beginning classes, women often participate in numbers nearly equal to men. But when we get past the very basic classes, we find that women gradually drop out of the programs. It’s as if learning to be simply safe fills the need women bring with them to class. They apparently don’t bring with them a burning desire improve their skills or to learn more. But why not? Are they intimidated, fearful? Do they believe they already know everything they might learn in a class? Are classes physically or emotionally uncomfortable places for women to be? Do women face more financial and economic challenges than men do and are thus less able to afford advanced classes?

More to the point, what can we—as people who are serious about self defense and protecting our families—do to encourage our loved ones to continue learning even after they become familiar with the simple basics?

Life Experiences

It starts, I think, with understanding. From childhood, women’s experiences with firearms often differ from men’s experiences in dramatic ways. Although the rate of female firearms ownership and use has climbed sharply in recent years, firearms were traditionally a male domain. As a young girl, I remember asking to accompany my father and brother when they took the rifles down to the river bottoms for a little target practice. Sometimes Dad said yes, but more often he’d reply with a twinkle, “Not today, honey. Today it’s just for boys.” And that was normal. Shooting was for boys, shopping was for girls.

Today, many middle-aged men remember hunting or target shooting at informal ranges with their dads and brothers. They remember being encouraged to shoot shotguns, rifles, and handguns. As youngsters, they received Red Ryder BB guns and cap guns in “quick draw” cowboy holsters for Christmases and birthdays. They argued with friends over the relative merits of military calibers and they often had a rifle to call their own before they even reached the teen years. Because so much of their firearms knowledge came to them at very young ages, these older men often don’t remember learning firearm basics. They simply know the basics because they learned them in early childhood.

Compare this to the experience of a woman who grew up in the same era. Her childhood did not often include early familiarity with guns and gun terminology. She never learned the difference between semi-autos and revolvers, between rifles and shotguns, between “double action” and “single action” or between a bullet and a round of ammunition. She didn’t learn anything at all about firearms as a child. So when and if she begins her journey to armed self defense, she begins at a very different place than her male counterpart. Before she can arm herself with a firearm, she will almost certainly need to arm herself with some very basic knowledge. To her credit, she almost always realizes this at the beginning.

Of course, all of this is a gross generality. There are many women who did grow up around guns and who did absorb that basic knowledge as children. But there are far many more who did not. And what of the younger people? For them, because the culture has shifted, there’s less of a gender divide: today’s young men and young women are almost equally unlikely to have had the childhood exposure to firearms that many older men take for granted. These young people also need to educate themselves. But even among the young, there’s a gender divide. While a young man might be enthusiastically educated by an older mentor, a young woman often faces the same crippling assumptions that challenged earlier generations.

Expectations and Assumptions

What are those assumptions? Here’s what can happen: when someone who absorbed firearms knowledge as a child meets someone who doesn’t already know the basics, the knowledgeable person can tend to assume that the non-knowledgeable person is a bit … dense. If you managed to reach adulthood without learning the stuff “everyone knows,” they can feel, you might not be capable of learning it at all. And you probably don’t have any desire to learn, either, because if you did you’d naturally know this stuff already. Stated plainly, both of these assumptions make absolutely no sense. But it’s rarely stated so plainly. It’s a gut-level reaction, not a cerebral one. And it leads to scenes like this:

A woman walks into a gun shop. “I’m looking for a gun I can use to protect myself at home,” she tells the man behind the counter. The man—a very sweet, well-meaning older guy, who loves women and enjoys helping them arm themselves—nods.

“I have just the thing,” he tells her, and pulls out a 12 gauge shotgun. “Shotguns are very simple. You don’t really have to learn how to aim it, because the shot spreads out when you shoot…”

The woman looks at the shotgun, but isn’t quite sure if she really wants a gun that size. “I was thinking more about a handgun,” she says hesitantly. “So that maybe if later I want to put it in my purse, I could.”

“Sure,” says the helpful man behind the counter. “That’s good thinking. Here’s what you need, then.” He reaches under the counter and lifts out a .38 snubby. “This revolver is so simple, you won’t have to learn anything,” he tells her, and adds that she won’t have to learn how to rack a slide or figure out complicated controls.

As she holds the revolver in her hand, the woman looks a little doubtful. “Don’t you have something more … modern? Like, what about that gun, there?” She points at a semi-automatic pistol lying on the other side of the glass in the display case.

“Well, if it’s a pistol you want,” the man says, “take a look at this.” He shows her a striker-fired polymer handgun. “This one has no levers or extra controls,” he says, “so you won’t have to learn much.”

Have you caught the underlying theme, yet? “You won’t have to learn.” The sales pitch in each case rests on the assumption that the female shopper will never learn more than she already knows.

My purpose here is not to berate the nice man behind the counter, who enjoys helping people and who doesn’t realize the message his sales pitch sends to his customer. Nope. My purpose is to talk to you, the reader, about this “I don’t have to learn” attitude and what we can do to combat it within ourselves. Because it doesn’t stop with the salesperson in the gun store. It’s more pernicious than that.

The woman who encounters this attitude from others often ends up internalizing it for herself. She understands that she needs to learn the basics—the safety rules, at the very least—but later on, she might balk at learning more. Repeated encounters with others teach her that almost no one expects her to know much about firearms or how to use them effectively. And even fewer people expect her to learn. While she enjoys practicing her marksmanship, helpful friends rush to fill the magazine for her, or refill the speedloaders on her behalf. When the gun jams, someone takes it out of her hand and fixes it for her, rather than showing her how to take care of the problem and then expecting her to clear the jam herself. When she wants to buy a gun, someone jumps in and does the research for her, “narrowing down her choices” so she won’t have to learn anything about guns as she shops. When she purchases her gun, the sales pitch targets her assumed reluctance to learn. And when she finally takes the gun home with her, a loved one offers to clean it for her, so she won’t have to learn to take the gun apart and put it back together. At every step of the way, people who really want to see her succeed limit her success by assuming that she either can’t or won’t learn more.

Repeatedly encountering this silent belief from others that she doesn’t want to learn anything but a very limited list of basic skills sends a strong social message (all the stronger for being unspoken and merely assumed) that women who do want to learn more are unusual, uncommon, freaks. And nobody wants to become a freak.

Again, all of this sounds absurd when stated plainly. But these are emotional reactions, not logical ones. These simple assumptions are like very fine threads woven into the fabric of our interactions with each other, obvious when examined up close, but functionally invisible otherwise.

A friend of mine and I went to a gun show together awhile back. An accomplished shooter with literally hundreds of training hours under her belt, my friend was looking for a 1911 she could customize. My own travels took me to different parts of the show, so we split up. When we met to compare notes later, my friend was angry and discouraged. “It’s not that my gun isn’t here—good grief, everyone has a bad shopping day now and then,” she told me. “But I just get so tired of having to prove that I’m not a clueless newbie, every single stinking time I ask about a gun.” As an experienced shooter, she was tired of dealing with the unspoken assumption that women don’t know much about firearms and aren’t interested in learning what they don’t already know.

To be very clear, this belief isn’t unique to gun salespeople. It’s everywhere among shooters. One afternoon, some friends and I enjoyed shooting together and working on our one-hand skills. On a break, the women began to compare notes about practice on other ranges. “I’ve got a story that takes the cake,” one said. “I wanted to get in a little one-handed work before we all got together, so that’s what I was practicing. This other shooter came up to me and said, ‘Let me show you how to hold a firearm. You can hit the target better if you use two hands, like this.’ I hadn’t asked for his help, and my one-handed targets looked better than his two-handed ones!” Everyone laughed. But why would a stranger assume that a woman shooting one-handed was an untrained beginner who didn’t even know how to hold a firearm? Would he have approached another man, especially one whose targets looked better than his own, with similar unsolicited advice? Whatever his ultimate motive might have been, he began his approach by assuming that she was ignorant and needed help. And, in turn, that reaction from another shooter colored how she saw herself; she later asked me if I thought her stance looked “too amateurish.” (It didn’t.)

So that’s one face of the problem: the powerful, unspoken assumption that even experienced female shooters know very little about firearms and have no desire to learn more than the absolute minimum, and our tendency to internalize this belief about ourselves—to doubt our hard-won knowledge, to question our own experience, to think we’re weird if we want to learn more. But it’s not the only hurdle that keeps women away from the range.

The Guilt Factor

My mom had great hobbies when I was a kid. She loved to plan parties, inviting friends and neighbors over to enjoy her warm hospitality. She decorated the house with artistic flair and enjoyed finding just the right knickknack to complete the feel of a room, to create a relaxing haven for her loved ones. She became a talented speaker at ladies’ luncheons. What she didn’t do: anything at all that took her out of the sphere of giving to others. She did nothing solely for herself. Even the things she did for fun had an others-centered focus.

Weekends were family time: we camped, we visited friends, we went to church on Sundays. We went to the park, to the zoo, to museums and air shows and flea markets and public events. To the best of my knowledge, my mother never took a weekend day away from the family, except for a very occasional church retreat which was supposed to help her become a better wife and mom. How does that affect my own perspective on life? For one thing, although I spend roughly half of my weekends at the range—for me, these days, it’s a job—I’ve never taken a class for myself without feeling a twinge of guilt. Shouldn’t I be with my family? Shouldn’t I be at the kids’ soccer game, or taking them to the Saturday market, or at least catching up on work around the house?

Guilt is, of course, the occupational hazard of motherhood. We all know it and it shapes our lives in curious ways. For me, I didn’t feel much guilt about the first firearms class I took. That class, after all, was all about safety. Safety affects other people, especially your family, so I found no reason to feel selfish for taking that class and enjoying it. Ah, but I did enjoy it. And I wanted to learn more. And that’s where guilt reared its ugly head. How selfish I was, to want to learn to be not just safe, but competent with a firearm! That’s all about me, me, me: what I can do, what I can learn, how I can become better at doing this thing I want to do.

Again, all of this often runs below the conscious level. We don’t think too much about such things, usually. Instead it translates to a vague wariness, a distrust of our own desire to learn more. And that’s where a lot of women stay: perhaps willing to learn more, maybe even eager to learn more, but also feeling slightly guilty for that desire, suspicious of its origin and worried about being too selfish by pursuing it.

Speaking of guilt, how’s this one? Classes cost money. Sometimes quite a bit of money. We can justify spending money on safety, but on a mere hobby? Not so much. I don’t know whether men face this problem as much as women do, but I suspect that’s one reason why men who get really gung-ho about firearms classes often spend a lot of emotional energy building up sheepdog dreams and exploring warrior fantasies: they’re armoring themselves against feeling guilty for using family resources on a mere hobby. Self defense isn’t a hobby, these men believe—it’s a vital part of protecting their families and their loved ones. And I agree! But we have no cultural expectation that women will similarly take an active role in family defense. Our little-girl dreams centered on being the rescued princess, not the heroic knight in shining armor. The boys were supposed to rescue us; we weren’t supposed to rescue them. So when we do want to learn more about self defense, we are less likely to see this desire as being others-centered (and therefore an acceptable use for family resources), and more likely to see it as self-centered (and therefore not an acceptable expense).

Quite apart from money, a woman who has young children at home faces a lot of practical issues when she thinks about taking that weekend class: Who’s going to watch the babies and mind the house? Is her husband fully capable of getting the kids to soccer practice, play dates, and other scheduled events? Does she trust him to do those things capably and without resentment? Does he have other obligations that will make his weekend difficult while she goes off to have fun and learn stuff? (And there’s that guilt again.) Without a husband it’s even thornier: can she hire a sitter to watch the kids all weekend, including overnight, and trust that the children will be well taken care of? And how much more will that cost?

Even without young children to complicate matters, most of us have jobs and busy lives, and use our weekends to catch up on all the things we just couldn’t get done during the week. When you take a weekend for personal development, you lose your catch-up time. Dragging into work on Monday morning, worn out and with the weekend laundry still undone, you wonder if your “selfishness” was really worth it after all.

But is taking the time and money to get good training really selfish? Becoming more skilled makes you better able to protect not just yourself, but also your loved ones. Furthermore, increased skill in such a life-affirming area often leads to improved self confidence. And self confidence often helps you become a better wife, better mom, better friend and better lover if that’s what you’re inclined to do. 1

Doing a Man’s Job

In an online discussion several years back, one man scornfully wrote the following to another man: “If ever confronting a possible threat while in the company of a lady, do you stand beside her, or in front of her? I can’t imagine even the most PC man ‘suggesting’ that she help fight the ensuing struggle.” For this person, at least, it would be an insult to his manhood if his wife or girlfriend took an active role in protecting herself while he was around to do the job for her. That’s a noble impulse that really grows out of a beautiful and worthwhile place: the desire to protect and cherish the people we care about. But even a man who feels that desire on a very deep level can’t always be there when his loved ones need him most. He probably has to work to provide for his family, and that means he won’t always be there to protect his family. Further, if he’s honest with himself, he knows that people who work together as a team to defend themselves have many strengths and advantages denied to a man who works alone.

This means that many men who feel the protective instinct very strongly are thrilled when their loved ones begin learning to protect themselves. Why? It should be obvious: a man who takes his protective role seriously will also be aware of the gaps in his own plans. He knows there’s only one of him, and that he has physical limitations common to all people. He also knows that his ability to protect his family is improved, and not challenged, when his family members learn how to protect themselves.

Whether or not her partner really believes that her ability to defend herself threatens his manhood, a woman setting out to learn about self defense sometimes suspects he could decide to feel that way, and therefore feels reluctant to claim too much territory in an area he might regard as rightly his. Some find themselves wondering: will he resent it if I become really good at this? Or will he honestly welcome it? Obviously that’s not something a stranger can reassure you about. But perhaps a little heart to heart with your loved one might be in order. You might find that you’ve been making assumptions that don’t really line up with his feelings.

Finding Some Solutions

First, a word to those who would challenge women they care about to take classes and learn more about self defense: it seems to me that telling a woman, “You should go take a class,” appeals to self-focused thinking—what does she need, how can she benefit. For women with a strong sense of social responsibility and obligation to others, this can backfire. Consider appealing to other-focused thinking instead: “I would like to take this class. Would you consider coming with me to keep me company?” Not only does this neatly sidestep the self-focused trap, it also sounds like more fun. If a joint venture isn’t in the cards, find another way to focus the appeal on the “others” side of the equation, to help reduce any guilt she might feel about taking a class to enrich herself.

For women: realize that while you might learn new skills and refine old ones for enjoyment, for personal development and other self-focused reasons, you also do these things for the benefit of people around you. How much safer would your family be if your children had two fully-qualified bodyguards living with them? Would your husband or boyfriend’s stress level go down if he worried less about your ability to protect yourself? If you were attacked, would bystanders and witnesses be in less danger if you had excellent marksmanship skills? These are non-trivial concerns and they are worth thinking about.

If you carry a gun regularly or keep one at home for family defense, but don’t intend to take any classes beyond the basic safety level, think about the impact this choice has on others around you. People without advanced training sometimes don’t realize how limited their skills really are. Being able to hit a stationary piece of paper on the range feels great, but developing a strong ability to protect yourself and people you love during a criminal encounter takes more than that. It might require you to hit a small, rapidly-moving target in the dark, for example. Would your current skills be up to that? More important, protecting yourself and your family might require you to have a stronger understanding of self-defense tactics than you currently enjoy. Becoming more skilled with a firearm means you can devote less of your brain to how to run the gun and more of your brain to how to solve the problem if you are attacked. This, in turn, helps protect people around you from dangerous choices you might otherwise make.

The same goes for regular practice. Failing to practice allows your existing skills to rust and prevents you from developing new ones, a downward spiral that can thwart your ability to defend yourself and your loved ones when it really matters—or that can actually endanger innocent others if your shots go wild instead of hitting the intended target. Although you might eventually grow to enjoy practicing, perhaps you never will enjoy it enough to do it simply for fun. That’s okay. One woman I know, a determined but not especially enthusiastic shooter, puts it this way: “I don’t always enjoy doing the dishes, but I do them anyway because they need to be done. I don’t always enjoy shooting, but I practice anyway because it needs to be done.” This woman feels a strong sense of responsibility to others, including her life partner, to develop and maintain the skills she needs to protect herself and those around her.

If you feel alone in your desire to protect yourself, you might want to recruit allies in your quest to learn more. Classes and the regular practice which follows them are more fun when others you care about get involved. If your husband or boyfriend isn’t a shooter, invite a girlfriend to shoot with you. When you practice at the range, be alert for friendship possibilities and don’t be too shy to reach out to others. The people you see at the range often make excellent class buddies, too. At the very least, making social contacts within the firearms community can help you avoid feeling like a freak if people in your regular circle don’t understand what you’re up to.

To avoid (or at least reduce) the guilt you might feel for spending money and time on learning more about your new “hobby,” think about ways to reduce your hard costs. When I first started shooting and then taking classes when my children were young, I found another mom who was willing to swap babysitting hours with me. That reduced the amount of money I needed to carve out of the household budget when I took a weekend class, and thus reduced my guilt feelings for spending money on myself. Later on, I often worked out three-cornered barter deals with friends in order to raise the money to fund classes and purchase ammunition. Don’t be afraid to negotiate prices with instructors—many of them fully understand the difficulty of time and budget constraints and will be willing to help. Even if they cannot cut you a break on class costs they may be able to suggest less-expensive alternatives.

Humans are complex creatures, and we often aren’t aware of our own motivations. Perhaps some of the things I’ve speculated about here don’t really apply to you, but you’re reluctant to learn more for some other reason. If that’s the case, would you consider dropping me an email to discuss it? I’m always eager to learn more about what people are thinking and how they come to make the choices they do.


  1. Improved self confidence also allows you to become a more selfish jerk if that’s what you’re inclined to do, but that’s a separate issue. Whatever your goals are, self confidence helps to achieve those goals, and learning to become truly skilled with a defensive weapon helps you reach a more assured level of confidence.