When Terri Gallagher’s husband told her to close her eyes on Christmas while he went to get her present, she did not expect he would return with an AR-15.
He’d already bought her two guns, including a Ruger 10/22 rifle for her 50th birthday — her very first gun. His friends had even joked, “I don’t understand what you’re doing — you’re arming your wife.”
“What more did I need?” asked Gallagher, a Northern Virginia real estate agent.
But Gallagher’s shock quickly gave way to endearment: Her husband told her he built the semiautomatic rifle especially for her, with lighter materials to make it easier for her to fire. Her spirits were made bright.
Giving your wife a high-powered rifle for Christmas might seem in conflict with two turtle doves and peace on Earth, not to mention making the gun-control crowd shudder. But gun store owners and firearm instructors say gun-happy husbands are increasingly leaving weaponry under the tree for their beloveds — rifles, handguns, ammo, pretty much anything that makes a loud pop.
This year, husbands are even going to social networks seeking advice. On Reddit, a man recently posted, “Hey people, looking to get my wife a revolver for Christmas.” One reply: “Put function over form.”
While it is tempting, knowing men, to suspect they are purchasing the guns they want for themselves and wrapping them up for their wives — Homer Simpson once gave Marge a bowling ball with his name on it — gun experts say otherwise. They link gun gifts with a transformation in some women’s views toward firearms, fueled by an industry marketing push.
Twenty-three percent of American women owned guns in 2011, according to Gallup polling, up from 13 percent in 2005. And nearly 80 percent of gun retailers surveyed by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) reported increases in female customers from 2011 to 2012.
Gun experts and academics say there are several explanations for women’s growing interest in firearms, including a broad shift of gun culture away from hunting, a desire for personal protection, and an industry carefully appealing to women with female-only accessories, including bra and panty holsters, and colorful guns. People have even tried to customize guns with Hello Kitty — apparently for real, or as a prank.
“I find that once they get a gun, the fever starts,” said Tina Wilson-Cohen, the founder of She Can Shoot, a Virginia-based organization that trains women in several states to shoot. “They will literally get one for the range, one for walking the dog, one because it’s pink and purple. It starts. They love it.”
That’s what happened to Laurie Loughry, a 24-year-old in Fredricksburg, Va.
At her birthday party last year, her then-boyfriend-now-husband told her to come out to his car for her present. He wasn’t sure how her friends and family would react to a gun.
Loughry was confused. “I’m like, wait, what does this mean?” she said. “Is it a ring?”
It was not a ring. He handed her a brand-new gun — a blue .38 Special.
“Blue is my favorite color,” she said. “So seeing that it was blue was really cool.”
Loughry began shooting with Pistol Packing Ladies, a Northern Virginia group helping women, as it puts it, “grow as shooters and as empowered women.” Last year, for Christmas, her husband bought her a 9mm Ruger, a slightly smaller match to his Walther 9mm — “like his and hers,” she said. They like shooting together, and she frequently wins.
“He is faster,” she says, “but I am more accurate.”
Ah, shooting love. There is nothing quite like it.
“There’s something about the smell of gunpowder that we both like,” said her husband, John Loughry, a civilian Marine Corps employee. “It’s also just fun. It’s friendly competition at its finest.”
This Christmas he got her an early present: a PS90 assault rifle.
“It was the best Christmas present ever,” she said.
Loughry got lucky in his purchases for his wife — they suited her just fine. That is not always the case. Gun store owners and female firearm instructors say that men, being men, often buy their wives guns that are too powerful to fire or too large to hold comfortably and safely.
“Guns are like cars,” said Tyler Whidby, the owner of TW Firearms in Leesburg, Va. “You might like driving a Corvette. But what your wife really might want is a minivan, and if you show up with a Corvette, she’s never going to drive it, and she’s not going to like it.”
Wilson-Cohen had a slightly different metaphor: “It’s like me going out and buying you underwear. It’s a very individualized thing.”
That’s why Wilson-Cohen and gun store owners line up behind the safest of all gun gifts: the gift certificate. That lets the wife come in and try out a number of different guns first. (In its tips, the NSSF mentions gift certificates to head off any confusion over federal firearms laws.)
But even with a gift certificate, some gun store owners have to lay down the law with know-it-all husbands.
“Guys like to show off,” said Randy Farmer, the owner of the FreeState Gun Range in Middle River, Md. “I’ll tell them right to their face: When your wife or girlfriend is in here, she’s the boss. She’s going to make the decisions about what she wants to shoot. If she shoots something big once and doesn’t want to shoot it again, that’s the end of that. Don’t bother her.”
Asked how he caters to women, Farmer said, “I’ve got a whole section of pink guns now.”
But there have been more subtle changes in the industry, too.
Natalie Foster, the host of an online National Rifle Association “shooting lifestyle” show for women called “Love at First Shot,” said Smith & Wesson, her show’s sponsor, now includes several different-size back straps for some of its guns, making it easier for women to find comfortable grips.
Other companies, including Sig Sauer, are offering “scaled down” versions of firearms aimed at military and law enforcement customers. Cabela’s, a major outdoor retailer, has a special section online for female shooters, with products “handpicked with women in mind.”
“This is coming from the women,” Foster said. “These companies are just meeting the demand.”
Gun-control advocates disagree, saying gun manufacturers are targeting women with fear.
“They need to find new markets in order to survive,” said John Rosenthal, the founder of Stop Handgun Violence, a Boston-area organization. “They have oversaturated the male market.”
Men “have all the guns they could ever want,” Rosenthal said.
For Gallagher, the recipient of the Christmas AR-15, shooting has been a way for her to excel at a sport — with and against her husband — that doesn’t require a lot of athleticism. She has always gravitated to games that require a lot of hand-eye coordination: ping-pong, billiards. Now guns.
“It’s something that we found that we could do together that we really enjoyed,” she said.
She is taking firearm classes and practicing with She Can Shoot, which is hosting a firing-range event the day after Christmas so women can have an opportunity to fire their gifts.
“The next thing I want to cross off my bucket list,” Gallagher said, “is skeet shooting.”