Whitney Wright vows to never let herself be as powerless as she felt nearly two years ago when a convicted felon came into her business and locked himself in a back office with her.
Wright was so unnerved that she was unable to form the words to tell the man, armed with a knife, fresh out of prison and smelling of alcohol, to leave the Decatur real estate and property management business she owns with her husband.
The man confided he was homeless and on drugs, and demanded money. He took off when Wright received a phone call, and was later caught and charged with misdemeanor trespassing.
The confrontation ended without violence or injury, but it made a permanent impact on the 38-year-old mother.
"After that, immediately I got a gun," Wright said. "And now, if it came down to me, my husband or child and somebody trying to hurt us, I wouldn't think twice about what I needed to do."
She keeps a .38-caliber pistol nearby at her office. The small pistol offers Wright a sense of security and confidence that she said the attacker took from her.
An increasing number of women are becoming more receptive to owning and using firearms for protection and sport. Young mothers, college co-eds and even grandmothers are taking up arms. Recent polls and statistics suggest 15 to 20 million American women own guns.
"I have men come to me all the time for advice on what kind of gun their wife, girlfriend, mother or sister should get," said Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin, the first female to hold the county's highest law enforcement position. "They want them to be safe. Women are more independent now. They're heads of households, trying to protect their kids.
"They don't have a man at their side everywhere they go. I think that's why you're seeing a surge of ladies using guns."
For four decades, gun ownership was falling — from more than half of American households in 1973 to just more than 30 percent in 2010. But in 2011, the number spiked to its highest level (47 percent) since 1994, according to statistics compiled by the non-partisan General Social Survey.
A large segment of these new gun owners were female — 43 percent — up from 36 percent in one year, according to Gallup data.
The topic of firearms leapt into a renewed national conversation after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that left 20 children and six educators dead last month in Newtown, Conn. The gunman, Adam Lanza, who also killed himself and his mother, used a high-powered rifle owned by Nancy Lanza, who reportedly was a gun enthusiast.
As gun owners fear a new federal crackdown on firearms, many are stocking up, and gun dealers are selling out across the country. The U.S. could have more than 250 million guns in private circulation, according to the University of Chicago crime lab.
In Alabama, 135 of the 199 reported murders, or 68 percent, in 2010 were committed with firearms. Fifty-four percent of robberies and 27 percent of aggravated assaults involved them, according to FBI crime statistics.
Pistol permits have surged in recent weeks, Franklin said. Alabama requires handgun owners to obtain the annual permits to carry a concealed firearm.
"I don't know if it's because of the Newtown tragedy or what exactly, but we've gone from processing 20 to 30 permits a day to more than 100," Franklin said. "And yes, we're seeing a lot of women coming in to renew theirs or get their first one."
Franklin could not provide numbers of how many women have obtained permits.
In recent years, gun manufacturers have tailored firearms to women, with numerous feminine designs and colors available at national retailers.
But a common mistake women and men make is buying a gun based on looks rather than how well they can handle it, said Franklin and retired Decatur policeman Frank DeButy, who offers classes on proper gun use. DeButy served 32 years on the force and was the department's firearms instructor.
"It's not unusual for ladies to gravitate toward smaller handguns, and I can understand why," DeButy said. "They think, ‘Well, it fits in my purse. It will fit my hand and be easier to carry.' But what you trade in on size, you often get back in recoil."
Franklin recommends women interested in buying a firearm practice with gun models borrowed from friends or relatives.
"Go shoot, and see what you're comfortable with," she said. "Every hand is different. Every gun is different. You need to be comfortable shooting it if you're serious about using it for protection."
Another mistake is how a gun is stored, DeButy said.
"Women aren't alone in doing this, but it seems many of them simply unload their firearm, take it apart and hide it in the back of their closets, behind purses and clothes," he said. "That's not going to help you if you wake up in the middle of the night and someone is breaking into your house."
DeButy and Franklin emphasize the need for firearms to become a part of an owner's daily routine, like brushing your teeth and having coffee in the morning.
However, gun control advocates point to the 851 people who died from accidental shootings and the nearly 20,000 suicides committed with firearms in 2011.
In 2010, 129 children between the ages of 1 and 19 died in gun accidents. Another 749 committed suicide with a gun, most of which were owned by a parent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
DeButy and Franklin contend it's those who are unfamiliar with proper gun safetywho make up most of accidental shootings. Franklin recommends gun owners with children living in the home to investigate trigger locks and gun safes.
DeButy said the biggest problem with American gun policy is that there are lots of laws to regulate firearms but too many loopholes in them and not enough resources to enforce them.
"You have to have respect for it," DeButy said. "You have to be mentally prepared for the idea of shooting another human being. Many people think they can until they're in that situation. But that's a decision that has to be made long before you pick up a gun."
Tiffeny Owens can be reached at 256-340-2440 or email@example.com.
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