Girls With Guns

Christie Caywood is feeling good. Really good. She's been at the firing range for less than five minutes, and already she's hit a bull's-eye. Brass shell casings from her .22-caliber Smith & Wesson are piled around her feet, and her long, red hair shakes as she reloads. Keeping her fingers clear of the trigger but tight along the muzzle, she slides each bullet into the pistol's magazine and snaps it into place. Then she readjusts her stance and pushes the button that, with an abrupt and heavy hum, mechanically sends out a fresh paper target. She retrieves the used target it replaces the way the rest of us handle an old family photograph — with light fingers, and at the edges. And for good reason: It will soon hang proudly on the wall of her room back in the dormitory.

At the Smith & Wesson Shooting Sports Center in Springfield, an indoor shooting range, the stink of carbon from gun barrels is unmistakable, even to the untrained nose. Even through earmuffs, and even from a piece as low caliber as the .22, the noise of every shot is firecracker-loud. At each discharge, bits of flame spark from the gun's nose, and Caywood's hand jumps back with the recoil. Larger guns are going off all around her — .44s and .45s powerful enough to shake the floor.

Yet this scene couldn't be more relaxing for Caywood, a college senior. “The first time I picked up a gun, I knew shooting was for me,” she says. “It's a lot like yoga and meditation. When you're in the middle of the semester and all you can think about is work and stress, you come here and concentrate on your breathing and your heart rate. It's just you and the target.”

Caywood, who has been shooting recreationally for almost two years, is the 21-year-old founder and president of the country's first undergraduate chapter of Second Amendment Sisters, a controversial national group dedicated to the right of women to bear arms. The setting for this new branch is Mount Holyoke College, the all-woman campus where feminist thought germinated and bubbled 40 years ago, and which was at the forefront of the '60s women's movement. But all that, says Caywood, is not why she's here tonight.

“I just love to shoot,” she says, smiling. Then she lifts her gun and stares down the barrel, aims carefully, and pulls the trigger.

Had Little Red Riding Hood attended Mount Holyoke College today, her story might have made CNN rather than the fable books. “What big eyes you have,” she'd tell her snarling grandmother. “The better to see you with,” her hairy, hypothetical grandma would respond, drooling.

Red Riding Hood, who, let's say, has been a Phi Beta Kappa inductee since her junior year, would be long past the point of suspicion. “And, Grandma,” she'd say with feigned astonishment while reaching slowly underneath her cape, “What big teeth you have.” Then, with neither ceremony nor the patience to wait for the wolf's infamous punch line, she'd raise her semiautomatic and pump him full of lead.

She'd have the support of millions of American women, too. A woman's right to protect herself has served as an effective rallying cry over the last 15 years. Organizations dedicated to that cause have been active since at least 1989, when Paxton Quigley's book Armed & Female was published and the magazine Women & Guns came out. That same year, Smith & Wesson, recognizing a new gun market among women, launched a revolver labeled “LadySmith.” Soon after, the National Rifle Association (NRA) set up a Women's Issues and Information Office.

The national organization of Second Amendment Sisters came to be four years ago, when five women from various states created a vehicle to publicly oppose the antigun stance of the Million Moms March (since renamed the Billion Moms March). Today, Second Amendment Sisters has about 10,000 members, mostly concentrated in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Also today, at least 17 million women own firearms in the United States, according to the National Research Opinion Center.

The founding of a Second Amendment Sisters chapter at Mount Holyoke adds a new wrinkle to the issue. This branch marks the first time that the Second Amendment Sisters has a presence on a college campus, and, surprisingly, it's in the liberal state of Massachusetts. These aren't uneducated hicks getting together to go squirrel shooting; they're overachieving women with bright futures at an elite school dedicated to empowering members of their gender. And while they may say they “just love to shoot,” their group's very existence raises a swirl of issues that could only be described as fully loaded — gun control, personal safety, and the nature of female power.

Ultimately, this group of young students has taken aim at questions that have long nagged women, feminist and otherwise: Are women innately nurturing, or are they just as capable of violence as men? Does it fall to women as nurturers to protect their children from guns? Or does it instead fall to women, in a world undeniably filled with violence, to pick up guns themselves to protect themselves and their children?

Such questions are dovetailing at a moment when gun control is on everybody's lips. Snipers paralyze the Washington area. Michael Moore's film Bowling for Columbine lambastes American gun culture. A student at the University of Arizona guns down three professors, and the NRA provokes outrage by holding a progun rally nearby 48 hours later.

Through all of this, the Second Amendment Sisters chapter at Mount Holyoke has flourished, in spite of a controversy that broke out when it was founded. Membership is up 50 percent from what it was back then. Students at two other colleges have plans to create similar chapters. Their goal: to make the archetype of the damsel in distress as stone dead as their members would render the wolf.

It's a brisk and gusty day on the Mount Holyoke campus in South Hadley, and the scene couldn't be more peaceful. Freckled, L. L. Bean-clad students wearing purple chenille hats cavil about classes outside Eliot House, the multifaith center. It's the same combination of young faces you'd see in the catalogs of most elite New England colleges. Yellowing, sunlit maple trees flutter around the quad where college founder and noted 19th-century feminist Mary Lyon is buried. The scene is about as bucolic as they come: an enclave of personal growth minus the pressure of the outside world. It's the last place you'd expect to find a circle of young women discussing their favorite firearms.

But that's exactly what's happening inside one of the ivy-covered, red-brick dorms. In a small single room made cozy with blankets and pillows, four girls are taking a break from study sessions. They chat about everything from boyfriends to movies to the food in the dining hall. (“It can be pretty bad,” says Christie Caywood.) Mostly, though, they talk about Second Amendment Sisters. Their reasons for supporting the group are as varied as their personalities. One proclaims, to a chorus of nodding heads, that women have the same right to defend themselves as men. Another extols the virtues of education as the key to gun safety. Still another says simply: “So I like to shoot. I resent that people are making this into a women's issue. If we were boys, no one would care.”

Mount Holyoke's modern-day Annie Oakleys are nothing of what you'd expect because they are, in fact, everything you'd expect. Among the cross section gathered in this room, some don conservative plaid and long tresses, while others wear such liberal props as pierced noses and punkish haircuts. They're hardly the militant leftist “feminazis” derided by Rush Limbaugh any more than they are the bloodthirsty, rightist rednecks cooked up by some gun control advocates. The group's politics run the gamut — mostly liberals, a few Republicans, at least one Green, and a smattering of Libertarians.

“I've been shocked by who's joined us,” says Caywood, curled up on the floor. “Most people think you need to be politically conservative to want to shoot, but our diversity is all over the place.” The reason, say members, is largely the school's climate of tolerance. “We're into increasing viewpoints,” pipes up 20-year-old April Sparks, a Middle Eastern studies major who has been target shooting since 2001. She jumps in and out of the conversation between glances at a laptop, the back of which sports a sticker in block lettering: “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History.” “The point is to be educational, so people can learn about the issue,” Sparks says.

In response to the angry letters and editorials that surfaced in the Mount Holyoke News, the student newspaper, the school quelled further controversy with a forum that was attended by a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Most students and faculty here are pro-gun control,” says Kevin McCaffrey, the college's spokesman. “But there's also a community here that's willing to engage in a discussion. Even when there's opposition, it's been a healthy debate.” McCaffrey, too, chalks that up to a bubble of tolerance around the campus. “There's a commitment here to free speech and to different viewpoints. Most people don't agree with [Second Amendment Sisters], but they realize they have a right to exist.”

Not everybody, though. On campus, some of the opposition is underground. “We hear rumors that students spread,” says Caywood. “For example, someone just told me they'd heard I have guns all over my dorm room. Stuff like that is ridiculous. . . . Most days, we operate just like any other club.” Except, that is, for the legal reason why Caywood doesn't have guns all over her dorm room: By state law, no firearms are allowed on campus — even for the public-safety officers — without school authorization. To shoot, the women have to drive to a nearby gun range.

Angry alumni are chiming in, too. Some clearly feel the group is threatening the foundation of ideals upon which the school was built. And unlike students still on campus, they aren't wrapping their words in any veils of tolerance.

“I can only partially understand your group by putting it down to extreme youth and ignorance,” one member of the Class of '42 wrote in a letter to the Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly. “Do think what you are doing. My mother, MHC '16, and aunt, '14, are slowly turning in their graves.”

The Second Amendment Sisters frame their agenda around these issues: equal rights, the U.S. Constitution, and the harrowing fear of rape. To that list, Caywood adds discrimination in gun licensing, her own personal white whale. When she went to talk to the local police about forming her group, she learned of the state's convoluted application system that lets authorities turn down any applicant without volunteering the reason. “What do you need a gun for?” an officer asked Caywood. “You're a girl.”

“The authorities shouldn't be able to discriminate in who they decide is a suitable gun owner,” says Caywood. “If you pass the background checks, you should be able to carry a gun. No matter whether you're a man or woman, or what race you are. Besides, why do people want to know why I want to shoot? Just because I'm female? There's a lot of sexism inherent in those questions. Why isn't it enough that I like to shoot?”

But for every woman who likes to shoot, there's at least one other opposed to it — including women bent on protecting their children by banning guns. “We love our children more than the gun lobby loves its guns,” is the rallying cry of the Billion Moms March. To that, Second Amendment Sisters has branded its own form of nurturing: Many killings are the accidental kind, which can be curbed with education, they say.

“The fact is, guns don't go off by themselves,” says Caywood, echoing more than one NRA talking point. Recently certified as a range safety officer, she teaches women and children how to use guns. “Ideally, I'd like to see everyone knowing how to handle a gun,” she says. “If you or a child were to find a gun, would you know how to make sure it isn't loaded or that there isn't a round in the chamber? . . . I don't ever want to have a child who finds a gun and says, 'What happens when I pull this?'”

From safety, it's not a far leap to the topic of rape. “We're told, 'Don't go out at night unless you have to. Only go out in groups. Better yet, stay in your room,'” Caywood says. “That's empowerment? So many things that women are told are conflicting. We're supposed to stand up for ourselves and not depend on men anymore, but we're not allowed to defend ourselves because we're women and women shouldn't want guns.”

Erica Stock, a 21-year-old Second Amendment Sisters member, dedicated environmentalist, and president of Mount Holyoke's Student Government Association, puts an even finer point on it. One in four women in this country, she points out, is assaulted. “Once you've been sexually assaulted, I think you feel differently about protecting yourself,” says Stock. She pauses to take a cell-phone call from her boyfriend, a student at Harvard, then continues. “Women just aren't going to take assault anymore. We're dying every day because of domestic abuse and getting attacked on our way back from work. And I'm not going to be one of those women because society thinks that, because I'm a woman, I shouldn't have a gun.”

At the front desk of the Smith & Wesson Shooting Sports Center, a twentysomething man is working the counter. “In general, women shoot better than men,” he says, “because they pay more attention and they listen better.” Caywood has made the 15-minute drive from campus alone tonight. (There are also group trips to the range, which are especially popular during finals.) The place is crowded. Here, Caywood can put her theories about guns into action. But she's also blowing off steam. “I just see it as a sport,” she says with a shrug as she picks up her rented pistol. “It requires concentration, it can be exhilarating, and when you do it right, it makes you feel great.”

Of all the opinions put forth by the members of Mount Holyoke's Second Amendment Sisters chapter, that argument — they just love to shoot — may be the hardest to swallow. Because for a woman, Freud notwithstanding, a gun is rarely ever just a gun. Guns undeniably represent something many women have been seeking for decades: a rebalancing of power. To the millions of women who cheered as they watched Thelma & Louise, guns symbolize the ability to wrest control in almost any situation.

Guns are also an adrenaline rush for all the alluring reasons that people oppose them: They're dangerous, noisy, and culturally off limits. Mary Zeiss Stange, coauthor of Gun Women, a bible among women shooters, says the rush is that of the verboten. “I had felt it deep down,” she writes in Gun Women. “Buried so snugly that I could scarcely acknowledge its presence. The sense of thrill, of forbidden fruit. What exactly was I afraid of? Not the gun, oddly enough, but the enjoyment of it.” Some women, it seems, do just love to shoot. (It also turns out that some women like to kill things. In 1999, upwards of 2 million American women were issued hunting licenses.)

As for Caywood, she is scheduled to graduate this spring and acknowledges that, far from Mount Holyoke, her stance on guns is about to be challenged. She says she plans to stay involved with Second Amendment Sisters and gun education.

Then she turns to her target. As she starts snapping off rounds, each shot seems fueled as much by ideology as it does by gunpowder. “Teach people how to use guns properly, and you'll have fewer deaths,” she says above the din. “People are too afraid to learn about guns, but education leads to less violence, not more.”

As if on cue, a little boy sidles up to her. “I've shot a .44 before,” he yells proudly over the noise. He's here with his dad, who's pounding bullets from a booming .45 several booths away. “I've been shooting since I was 9,” he says, grinning. “Now I'm 12.”

He walks up to his father, who watches him carefully as he picks up a .22. He's clearly been taught how to use a gun. He shoots off about 20 bullets and makes his way back over.

Then he says something more jarring than the sound of the shots ringing out all around. His words demonstrate exactly how complex this issue is, how it's not as simple as those NRA talking points about gun-safety education. “Do you know what the reason is why you want to shoot a .44 instead of a .22?” he asks, his voice full of authority. “Because if you're shooting a real guy, he's dead in one shot. Shoot him once in the head, and he's gone.”

Caywood sees the boy, but she's too engrossed in firing to hear him.