141st Annual Meeting: NRA Gets in Touch With its Feminine Side

The gun industry is having a banner year, and women are a huge part of the boom. Michael Ames reports from the NRA’s 141st annual meeting.

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Lisa Looper has a gun in her bra. A small crowd has gathered to watch how fast she can draw. The scene wouldn’t be so different from any other demonstrations at the National Rifle Association’s 141st annual meeting were it not for the nearby mannequin wearing nothing but some black satin C cups and a Colt Mustang .38. With a half dozen white, middle-aged conventioneers looking on patiently, Looper reached up under her billowy emerald shirt and in a flash had her J-frame revolver cocked, aimed, and ready to fire.

“Nothing comes between a girl and her gun,” she said with a smile. One man became so giddy with excitement, he slapped the mannequin’s plastic derrière before scuttling away.

Looper is the down-to-earth inventor of the Flashbang Women’s Holster, one of the buzziest small-business inventions at a convention that drew more than 500 vendors, roughly 75,000 gun enthusiasts, and a raft of conservative politicians to St. Louis this weekend. The response to her heat-packing bustier has been “overwhelming,” and for Looper and husband and business partner Bart, Saturday was the third straight marathon day spent standing, talking, and selling their product.

Like many in the firearms industry who were caught off guard by the surge in female buyers, Bart initially was skeptical about his wife’s idea. “She pestered me for three years about it,” he said. Now, the Flashbang product line is on pace to double the size of the business his grandfather founded in Oklahoma City in 1938, and he regrets not listening to his wife earlier.

The 2012 election has presented the Loopers with a conflict. “I don’t want Obama reelected,” Bart said, “although it would be good for sales.”

The gun industry, buoyed by concerns over a second Obama term, is having a banner year. Stocks of heritage firearm manufacturers Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger are both at multiyear highs. After a million orders arrived in the first quarter of 2012, Ruger announced it had to refuse any more until it could catch up with demand. After the announcement, company stock promptly hit an all-time high.

Gun sales in America have been following political cycles for decades, said Herb Belin, a product manager at Smith & Wesson. The Obama administration has passed laws that have expanded gun rights and stayed totally mute on calls for moderate safety measures against human-assault weapons. Nevertheless, fears of his reelection have combined with an improving economy and surging interest among women to push sales past new high-water marks.

“We are afraid the government is gonna come and start reporting everyone who owns [a gun] or take away our rights,” said Suzanne Becker of Troy, Mo., as her 16-year-old daughter took aim with a pink-camouflage air-cooled, hydraulic-buffered AR-15 military assault rifle made by Precision Firearms of Hagerstown, Md. Since the expiration of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 2004, small companies like Precision have been building AR-15s again, and owner Mark Hostetter said the pink model was handled more than any other gun his company had on display in St. Louis.

“If I was living alone, I would definitely get one for protection,” Morgan Macchio, 18, who works in sales for Precision, said of the AR-15. “I’d rather be safe than sorry.” With pink fingernails and in flip-flops, Macchio was a poster child for the NRA’s demographic spread. Shooting assault rifles on the weekends, she said, is “fun” and “empowering.” Hostetter said his guns aren’t dangerous. “That’s just liberal-media hype.”

Down the aisle, Charter Arms owner Nick Ecker said women’s models now account for 35 percent of his Connecticut company’s total sales. The high-polished pink stainless-steel Chic Lady revolver is billed as “the perfect addition to any woman’s arsenal” (and comes with a pink faux-alligator-skin box).

Over at Bond Arms, Amy Graves showed off her Girl Mini 357 Derringer, a gun so compact (4.5 inches long by 3.75 inches tall), it could fit in a small purse. Graves—a single mother who lives in Forney, Texas, and recently bought her 15-year-old son his first handgun—sees the women’s gun market as a natural evolution of gender equality.

“Ladies started out doing Tupperware parties, but all that did was keep us stuck in the kitchen. Now you get a CHL (concealed handgun licensed) instructor and have a pistol party,” she said. Keen to the trends, gun ranges have joined bars and restaurants in hosting ladies nights, where Graves said women will be more at ease and less burdened by the distracting egos of strutting men.

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The gun lobby denies that it pursues women or youth shooters over any other demographic. “We want everyone to be a member of the NRA,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Samford. But as America’s white males fade from their majority status, the gun industry and its lobbying allies must recognize that they can either recruit new kinds of members or risk losing influence.

The Second Amendment Foundation, founded in 1974, is a close NRA ally and one of the main engines behind a new generation of assertive gun-rights legislation. Together with the NRA and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, the lobby has seen stunning successes in the last decade with expansive concealed-carry laws, conservative Supreme Court rulings against handgun bans, and the broadly defined self-defense bills that have come under intense national scrutiny following the Trayvon Martin case.

SAF also has published Women & Guns magazine, “the world’s first firearms publication for women,” since 1989. The small bimonthly ran a recent profile of conservative beauty queen Alana Lee (“We live in a time where our personal freedoms are constantly being tested”) and a safety-oriented discussion on “children and firearms.” Whether it’s the result of this kind of targeted messaging or a natural growth in demand, the NRA is attracting far more women than it did just a decade ago. In 2000, 500 women participated in instructional handgun-shooting clinics with the NRA nationwide. Last year, that number had risen to nearly 10,000.

Fear is almost never mentioned among gun enthusiasts, but individual women shooters often cite it as a motivating factor for buying and keeping guns.

At Oklahoma State University, Desiree Webb, 22, and Stef Arpealer, 20, are members of the local chapter of Students for Concealed Carry, a state-level lobby that pushes to legalize guns on public campuses. They drove seven hours from Stillwater, Okla., for the convention, and as the Nashville-sound patriotic boy band Madison Rising dug into the opening chords of their signature anthem, “Right to Bear,” the girls told me that having guns on campus “just seems natural.”

Violent crime in their college town is roughly half the national average, but Webb said that “people have a false sense of security.” Arpealer agreed. “There’s no telling who is going to walk on that campus at any time.”

In February an illegally stowed gun discharged in an OSU dorm, sending a bullet through a wall. Accidents like that don’t scare these girls. To the contrary, they ascribe to the belief that more guns on campus, in the hands of the right people, will make them safer. As proof, they point to Sarah McKinley, the widowed, 18-year-old Oklahoma mother who shot and killed a man who broke into her house on New Year’s Eve in search of prescription drugs.

Lisa Looper said her Flashbang concealed holster is all about “making sure that we’re staying safe.” Violent crime in America may be at historic lows, but Looper maintains that “there is a threat out there. You don’t have to be a doomsday prepper or a crazy huntress to be a part of the shooting industry,” she said.

The fear isn’t always about crime. Dave Lakso lives on a farm in southern Illinois, a place where he teaches his grandsons the basics of hunting and gun safety. The tradition is vitally important, but so is the fact that Illinois is the only state in the nation where concealed handguns are illegal.

“We want our guns,” Lakso said. “Remember, the first thing Hitler did was take the guns away from the people in Germany. Put that in your article.”

To gun-control advocates, there is little connection between a hunting rifle and a concealed automatic handgun, much less an air-cooled, piston-fired, magazine-fed military assault rifle. But to the NRA faithful, any law that finds nuance in the words “the right to bear arms” is an existential threat. Giving an inch on extended magazine clips, or machine guns, or guns on campus, is equivalent to total surrender.

This view is neither logical nor productive. After all, grenade launchers are illegal, and most people are OK with that. But for an NRA that foments a tribal ideological fealty, success is only measured in forward progress.

The power of such dense cultural freight is not lost on national politicians. On Friday in St. Louis, Rick Santorum purchased a lifetime membership for his daughter Bella. To say that a stricken 3-year-old girl has little use for a firearm would miss the point entirely. When the NRA says it wants “everyone” to be a member, it means it. Newt Gingrich did Santorum one better when he proposed a United Nations treaty promoting a Second Amendment “for all mankind.” That’s coalition building, Gingrich style.

This absolutism is not the NRA’s fault alone. Our political-media-entertainment complex rewards hype over substance and purity over complexity. For any political lobby, be it the NRA or the NTF (the National Turkey Federation), the system demands total war to achieve total victory. Turkey in every sandwich, a gun in every purse, or nothing at all.