Women who own guns -- and know how to use them -- offer these suggestions:
■ Picking a gun is like buying a pair of shoes. If it doesn't feel right, you're not going to use it. Get a gun that fits you. Many women get turned off by guns because they try out their husband's or boyfriend's guns and the weapon is too big for them and hard to handle. Try out a few at a gun store; some offer rental guns for shooting.
■ If you've never used a gun, start with a .22-caliber handgun. After you get the hang of it, you can move on to bigger guns.
■ Gun triggers are stiff when you first buy them, so break them in. The trigger will get easier to pull with use.
■ If you've got arthritis or your hands are weak, exercise will help. Squeezing a Koosh ball or other rubber ball can strengthen your hand and your trigger finger.
■ Practice makes perfect. Practice shooting regularly; like any skill, it will deteriorate unless you use it.
With her cropped silver hair, white orthopedic slip-on shoes and a silver cross and a Virgin Mary pendant around her neck, you'd never suspect that Pat Bagley is packing heat.
But nestled in a zippered pocket of her black leather purse, Bagley's matte-black Ruger .38 pistol goes with her almost everywhere. It's loaded with a five-cartridge clip of hollow-point bullets, the ones capable of tearing huge chunks out of whatever they hit, especially flesh.
"If I need more than that, I figure I'm already dead. But those things will tear you up," says Bagley, almost 70 years old, a retired nurse, grandmother of four and known to nearly everyone as "Miss Pat."
Walking out of her house, she unzips her bag and keeps her hand on the butt of the gun, ready to draw. She has to remind herself to leave it behind when she goes into places where guns are prohibited -- federal buildings like the post office and the Tivoli Theatre, where she volunteers as an usher.
"I even take it into church," she says. "My pastor knows, and he says it's fine."
American men are still three times more likely than women to own guns, according to the Pew Research Center. But the scale is slowly tilting, at least in Tennessee. In 2010, 24,450 women were issued carry permits, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety. By 2013, 58,833 got them. For both men and women in Tennessee, the average age for getting a carry permit hovers between 46 and 60.
Georgia's exact numbers of men versus women are harder to pin down, because the state doesn't keep such records readily available. But with a total of about 600,000 concealed carry permits issued, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, it has the third-highest number of permits overall, lagging behind Florida's 1.2 million and Pennsylvania's 872,000.
Alabama's male-versus-female numbers are also unavailable, but the state has issued about 350,000 concealed-carry permits total, according to the Alabama Sheriff's Association.
Overall, the number of women shooting for sport has jumped in the last decade. From 2001 to 2011, 51.8 percent more women reported participating in target shooting and 41.8 percent more for hunting, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
For Bagley, getting a gun was a matter of safety, a reason echoed by other female gun owners. She'd never touched a gun until four years ago, when someone broke into her car in a Cracker Barrel parking lot as she ate lunch inside. Now she holds a carry permit and visits a shooting range regularly for target practice.
"I can tell when I haven't gone to a range in a while, my shots are all off," she says. "Just because you get a gun doesn't mean you're suddenly Annie Oakley."
In a pocket of her rocking chair recliner that sits in view of the TV in her den -- filled with pictures and shrines of the Virgin Mary, porcelain dolls and framed pictures of her family -- Bagley has tucked another gun, a tiny antique revolver, which is easier on her arthritis than semi-automatics, which require a slide reload.
"It's just a little thing. It can't do much damage," she says. "But if someone hears that 'click' [when I pull the safety off], they'll know I'm not going down without a fight."
None of Bagley's friends carry guns, so for camaraderie, she goes to monthly meetings of the Locked and Loaded Ladies gun club. Held at Carter Shooting Supply in Harrison and led by store owner Kristi Manning, the all-female group started in September 2013 and is 64 members strong.
It's a chapter of the national Well-Armed Woman, whose tagline is "Where the feminine and firearms meet." The group gets together for monthly gun cleaning parties, to hear speakers on gun safety and politics, to gab about their guns and -- most importantly -- to shoot on the shooting range.
With Locked and Loaded Ladies, guns are fun. For a room full of armed people, the mood is lighthearted. Ladies know each other's husbands' names, crack jokes and try out each others' firearms. Manning says the non-competitive vibe is a main component of the group's importance.
For the most part, the ladies of Locked and Loaded seem to share the same politics as their male gun-toting counterparts -- they love the Second Amendment and defend it vociferously.
"I ain't giving 'em up by no means," Manning says at a recent meeting.
"I'd rather be tried by 12 than carried out by six," says another woman.
"You know what gun control is? Being able to hit your target," another two women say almost in unison.
The Facebook page for Chattanooga Gun Girls, another local women's gun group, is filled with pro-gun memes centered around women.
"You can tell a lot about a woman by her hands -- if she's holding a gun, you should either run or marry her," reads one post.
"This is my rape whistle ... because I shouldn't have to blow anything for a rapist," reads another.
Female gun ownership isn't an entirely new thing, since gun companies began courting women buyers in the '80s. Smith & Wesson introduced its LadySmith line of revolvers in 1989. But the current growth is distinct in its appeal to women. Female gun culture is playful and irreverent, feminine and tough.
The National Rifle Association has recently ramped up its efforts to attract female shooters with programs, local networks, webinars and a slick video series on its website featuring women shooters. Former Alaskan governor, 2008 vice presidential candidate and fervent hunter Sarah Palin has been a vocal proponent of gun rights.
A recent cover of Personal & Home Defense magazine shows a 30-ish woman, nicely coiffed, with a black leather handbag on her shoulder. A mall scene is in the background. With one arm she holds a little girl protectively; in the other, she confidently points a gun at an unseen attacker.
Gunmakers are offering handguns in pink and purple, with flower decals and snakeskin handles. Companies like Sweet Shot -- a women's shooting accessory company whose motto is "Look cute while you shoot!" -- sell leopard-print gloves and ear muffs, as well as jewelry made from bullets.
The Thunderwear holster lets ladies stash guns in their undergarment areas. There are sticky holsters that heat up and meld to skin so they'll rest comfortably in a waistband. Belly bands and garter bands conceal a gun and are adorned with brightly colored, corset-style lace. The Flashband holster nestles on the underwire of a bra, and there is an array of purses with specially designed pouches for carrying a concealed weapon.
"If you're like me, you have what I call 'purse dirt,'" says Aimee Gregory, who co-owns Shooters Depot, which has locations in Chattanooga and Ringgold, Ga. "So putting your gun in a separate pouch is a better option. And I don't need anything to make my hips look any wider, so I don't carry on my belt."
Gregory started Chattanooga Gun Girls in June and already has 70 people signed up and a full roster of speakers scheduled for coming months. Like Locked and Loaded Ladies, the group aims to educate, equip and provide support for women with guns.
Even Gregory, who grew up shooting guns, says she used to feel uncomfortable going into gun stores with an all-male staff because they made her feel like she didn't know anything.
Most of the women she knows who have guns are buying them for protection.
"A lot of women are waiting longer to get married, so they're living alone," she explains. "We have college girls who live out of the dorms and want to feel protected. The crime rate is not going down, and it's empowering to be able to protect your family yourself, rather than wait for a man."
Women also tend to score better than men in the classes that must be taken to earn a carry permit, she says, because they listen more closely to the instructor than the guys and naturally have good hand-eye coordination.
Gregory says she also sees more and more women over 60 showing up at the store to get a permit. Widowed, divorced or single by choice, they're suddenly seeing themselves as targets for crime and want to protect themselves.
"You would be shocked to know the number of little old, white-gloved ladies sitting in the front row at church who are packing .357's," she says. "I had an 85-year-old lady come in last week looking for a pistol for each of her nightstands. And she said she was a good shot, too."
Trevor Haines has taught martial arts-based self-defense to women since 1986 and owns Dojo Chattanooga on the North Shore. He's not against guns -- he has a carry permit and shoots at a range once a week -- but he cautions women not to rely on their weapon alone. Instead, he advises women to use bodily self-defense practices and add a gun to the mix if they want.
"Your fist is going to be your least-deadly weapon, but it's always on you," he says. "It's not like a pistol, where you pull the trigger and there's the chance someone is going to die."
During a lecture he gave in California, a woman in the crowd touted her mace spray as her sole form of self-defense. He told her to get the spray out of her purse and, in the meantime, he climbed over a table, snatched her purse and threw it on the floor -- all while she was fumbling to grab the spray bottle. That situation is not unlike one in which the victim has relied too heavily on their gun to save them, he says.
"With any weapon you have to recognize its limitations," he says. "If you become fixated on that weapon, you're going to lose sight and flexibility if the situation arises."
Reasons for packing
The members of Locked and Loaded Ladies vary in age, experience and their reasons for joining. Erica Albers, 40, is a certified police officer and a founding member of the group. She's also the daughter of a by-the-book cop who gave his two daughters BB guns for Christmas when they were young, but wouldn't let them shoot them until they'd memorized the safety rules on the box.
Marilyn Spickard, a sixth-grade teacher at Soddy-Daisy Middle School, got involved as a fun activity to do with her sister. As she's gotten older, she's started to feel more like a target for crime. Entering her 23rd year of teaching, she also wanted to be prepared to carry in case she was asked to be armed in the classroom.
"I'm the first line of defense between a bad guy and those kids," says Spickard. "I don't know if I'll be asked or if I would volunteer, but I want to be prepared."
Miranda Young, one of the younger members of the group at 34, joined in the midst of dealing with a stalker. That situation has been resolved, but Young still carries. Now she has memorized the gun laws of Tennessee as well as most every other state -- a necessity since she has made cross-country road trips on her motorcycle and carries her gun nearly everywhere. She also designed the logo for Locked and Loaded T-shirts, which feature feminine silhouettes holding guns on the front and a pockmarked target on the back, under which it says: "Group therapy."
When Traci Whitcraft's husband got a gun, she was terrified at first. Now she's taught all five of her daughters, whose ages range from 10 to 18, how to shoot.
"It's just fun to blow stuff up!" she says.
Cheri Meredith's husband works in offshore oil drilling and is gone for months at a time; the pistol in her bedside table makes her sleep a lot better.
"I think it builds confidence in a woman," she says. "You don't have to be afraid of every little bump in the night.
"I always thought if you touch a handgun it's just going to go off," she says. "Now I see it as just another tool, like a lawnmower or a blender."
Contact Anna Lockhart at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6578.