Growing number of women taking up guns for sport, safety in recent years

WASHINGTON - Nancy Lanza -- whose son Adam used her guns to kill her, 26 others and himself -- was one of a growing number of women who've taken up guns for sport or to defend themselves and their families.

Female participation in target shooting rose from 3.3 million in 2001 to 5 million last year, a 51 percent increase, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Over the same period, female participation in hunting jumped from 1.8 million to nearly 2.6 million, a nearly 42 percent increase.

Nearly three-fourths (73 percent) of respondents in the National Sporting Goods Association’s annual survey of firearms retailers reported an increase in female customers in 2011 over the previous year.

And a Gallup poll released last year indicated 23 percent of U.S. women personally own guns, and 43 percent live in households with guns.

They include women like Sarah Dallas of Alexandria, Va., who shoots sporting clays at least once a month at a public range in northern Virginia.

"It's instant gratification. It’s all about focus, aim. It's skill building more than anything," said Dallas, 27, who has "been around guns since I was little." Now a contractor for the U.S. Marshals Service, she shoots a 20-gauge Browning over-and-under shotgun.

When the National Rifle Association introduced its Women on Target programs in 2000, it drew 500 participants for instructional shooting. Last year, the organization signed up more than 9,500 women for the clinics and hunting excursions.

"Women typically get into firearms because they want to own a gun … for safety reasons," Stephanie Samford, an NRA spokeswoman, said in a phone interview in the spring. "Once they’ve done training, they realize, hey, this is kind of fun. … And that’s when they branch out to target shooting" or hunting.

Behind those rising numbers lies a certain fear factor, said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based national nonprofit working to combat gun violence.

Firearms manufacturers' "traditional market of white males is dying off. You have fewer and fewer homes that have guns in them, but the ones that do have more and more guns. So, there's a new push to engage women in gun ownership every five to six years," Sugarmann said, citing the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, located in Newtown, Conn. -- the town devastated by Friday's shootings.