Yesterday I found myself caught in a conversation I’ve had countless times over the years. A volunteer RSO at my local sportsmen’s club had shown up while I was running a few guns for work and he was more interested in talking than shooting. After awhile – I would shoot a mag, he would start talking again – The Dreaded Topic came up: why don’t we have more female hunters and shooters and how we do we attract new women to the club? I knew the club had – has – dismally low numbers of women.
It’s crazy, but I’m not a wizard. I can’t tap into the consciousness of females everywhere and discover how to get them hunting. If I could I’d be a wealthy marketing guru. Instead I’m a poor outdoor writer.
Reality is, gun ownership is actually at an all-time high among women.
This isn’t overnight growth; women have been hunting and shooting alongside men – and without them – not for decades but centuries. Despite the truth to those words, women simply do not participate in the shooting sports – which includes outdoor sports such as hunting – at the same rate men do. That said, the industry has experienced a surge where female gun ownership is concerned. The past fifteen to twenty years alone are quite noteworthy on their own. Narrowing it down further to the last five to ten years makes it crystal clear: women aren’t just buying guns more often, they’re doing it all from turkey hunting to deer hunting to elk hunting.
Back in the 1980s the General Social Survey (GSS) released what’s become an oft-quoted set of statistics culled from their studies on firearms ownership. Some feel it’s the “best available data on the ownership of firearms by gender,” but it is an admittedly small pool to cull from (the studies just don’t exist in great numbers). GSS collected stats with assistance from the National Opinion Research Center, which was based at the University of Chicago at the time.
Results were based on full probability samples – samples purportedly collected using random selection. Selection back then took place in a door-to-door fashion; today it’s done by online questionnaires. The wording of the questions is included with the data meaning we can look back and see exactly what they asked: “Do you happen to have in your home [IF HOUSE: or garage] any guns or revolvers? IF YES: A. Is it a pistol, shotgun, rifle, or what? B. Do any of these guns personally belong to you?”
In 1983 approximately 6.7% of American women informed interviewers they had a firearm compared to over 50% of men. Here’s the thing: the study’s methods are detailed and show this means 6.7% of women said they had a gun in their house, not that they owned it. By 1994 those numbers increased to a reported 14.9%.
When the GSS surveys ended in 1994 the National Rifle Association (NRA) attempted to estimate how many of its members were female. How? By reading through their list of members’ first names, a method admittedly less than precise since many members were listed with only their first initials. According to their estimates, 5% to 16.7% of NRA members at the time were women.
The methodology left the NRA with a gap in their results but the numbers made a point. With under 15% of women telling GSS interviewers they had a gun in their home and scarcely more belonging to the NRA – using the high end of the organization’s estimates – the industry at large was obviously missing the mark when it came to female involvement. This should have been an “Aha!” moment but no, it didn’t herald the beginning of substantial efforts to increase female firearms ownership.
It was when we made our way into the 00s the real rise in female firearms ownership was seen. At first they were gradual changes but it began gaining speed as women not only took a more active role as gun owners but began to work for a foothold within the industry.
Here are some more numbers: according to the National Sporting Goods Association there was a 36% increase in female target shooters between 2004 and 2014; the same time frame saw a 23% jump in women hunters. The Gallup polls reflected a simultaneous surge in female gun ownership. Gallup polls in 2005 showed 13% of women owning guns; the same polls in 2011 showed those numbers had risen to 23%. That’s a 77% increase in women owning firearms in just seven short years. It’s an impressive leap. Since then those numbers have continued to accelerate with today’s estimates and industry polls tipping the number over 30%.
And yet, women remain the minority.
Women tend to approach firearms a bit differently. Various factors come into play with one in particular standing out. In 2014 the National Shooting Sports Foundation did a new survey, one that’s currently the most comprehensive study available on women and guns. It detailed how training affects female gun ownership. I’ll bottom-line it: women who train buy more firearms (and accessories). It’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. If more women can be drawn into training, will sales increase? Probably. But do they need to buy their first gun before being convinced to train? Yeah, usually.
Statistics drawn from various polls over the past forty years show there aren’t just a few more women at the range today. There are thousands, even tens of thousands, more. Women are buying guns, training, and hunting in greater numbers than ever. Women make up an incredible portion of the shooting sports industry and will continue to do so in constantly growing numbers. And yet, it’s not about gender. It should never be about gender.
Firearms give those who use them the ability to master a slew of skills. They can be used for self-defense, hunting, shooting clays, competing, or just slinging lead down-range for the pleasure of seeing a watermelon explode (try it, it’s awesome). The gender behind the finger on the trigger should be inconsequential. It isn’t, but it should be. We are not women shooters, we are shooters; we are not huntresses, we are hunters. Whether we are new hunters or seasoned, avid hunters – hunting Africa, now there’s a goal – it’s about the guns and what we do with them.
Back to my unplanned conversation yesterday. How do we get more women hunting and shooting? Not with pink pistols or revolvers, that’s for sure. The entire industry needs a facelift not for women but for people in general. Many of the behaviors and attitudes in the gun industry stem from the 1960s, not the 00s. Maybe it’s time to start considering why women are hesitating instead of how to get them in the door. Diagnose the root of the problem rather than leaping into guesstimate-based treatment. I’ll leave you all to your own conclusions regarding what those problems might be.
As for me, I have guns to test and hunts to plan.