Liberte Austin has over 130,000 Instagram followers, which isn’t that unusual. What is unusual is that, in addition to the standard selfies, memes, and pictures of her dog, there are also tons of photos of her with guns. In shot after shot, the 30-something Austin is shown hunting, at target practice, or just posing with a firearm. Austin — a Trump-supporting Texan who has been a brand ambassador for gun companies like Beretta, and has appeared on Alex Jones’ alt-right talkshow, InfoWars — is a die-hard, female gun enthusiast. And she’s part of a growing movement.
The gun control discussion in the U.S. typically revolves around men, both as firearms owners and defenders of their right to bear arms. When women show up within the debate, it’s often as a force opposing guns, referenced in statistics that show women are more likely to support gun control laws than men, or voiced by women-led gun reform groups, like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
But women like Austin are becoming increasingly common: Around 24 percent of white American women and 16 percent of nonwhite women reported owning a gun in 2017, while only 13 percent of all American women reported owning a gun in 2005.
These women aren’t just buying guns. They're participating in gun culture, too. The NRA has special video programming for women, including a show profiling notable female gun enthusiasts called “Armed & Fabulous." They sponsor women-only shooting clinics across the country, and claim that 30 percent of gun gear is now manufactured and marketed exclusively for women. There are also a number of other national shooting organizations run by and for women, and groups and classes aimed specifically at arming black women and queer women are cropping up in cities across the country. Female gun ownership was even a plot arc on the latest season of Bojack Horseman.
While women are purchasing the same firearms as men, their reasons for doing so are often wholly different. A Pew Research study found that 27 percent of female gun owners say protection is the only reason they own a firearm, while just 8 percent of male gun owners reported the same. “If the criminal element knew and understood that women were empowered for self-protection and that they were carrying guns, I think there would be less crime,” Carrie Lightfoot, 56, founder of The Well-Armed Woman, tells Bustle. Lightfoot is a lifetime member of the NRA, and will be up for a position on their board of directors in February. Her all-women gun organization boasts 280 shooting chapters in 49 states.
Criminals, Lightfoot says, “pick their prey ... and they want the easiest target, the person who’s not going to fight back.” A woman who owns a gun, she says, “feels like she has leveled the playing field and can fight back, no matter how big or drugged up or evil that bad guy is.”
To Lightfoot, gun ownership doesn’t just increase a woman’s personal safety. “It really is kind of life-changing, kind of transformational,” she says. “Gun owners just have this strength and this confidence that I think is not always equated with women …. Culturally, I think it would have a huge impact if more women knew how to use guns, because they’d feel more confident and realize, ‘Boy, I can do anything.’”
Robyn Sandoval, the executive director of A Girl & A Gun, a national women’s shooting league, agrees with this sentiment, telling Bustle, “There’s something special about a woman who wants to stand up for herself and take responsibility for protecting herself and her children.”
A Girl & A Gun has around 5,100 members in 48 states; the organization coordinates “girls nights out” at 145 gun ranges across the country, as well as an annual convention where around 400 women gather for women-led courses in everything from firearm handling to tactical medicine — what Sandoval describes as “pretty much everything you can think of for female empowerment.”
"When I learned how to defend myself, I regained control. Guns really gave me my life back."
Like several of the female gun owners Bustle spoke to, Sandoval used to be anti-gun. “I didn’t even let my children play with toy guns because I thought they were part of a violent culture,” the 42-year-old says. Her husband liked firearms, but she resisted having one in the house until 2005, when watching the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina from her home in Texas made her concerned about keeping her family safe in a similar disaster. “Seeing an American city decimated overnight was a real mental shift for me — what would I do if I called for help and no one came?” she says.
Sandoval started stocking up on extra food and provisions in case of an emergency, but fear of looters eventually convinced her to let her husband keep a gun in the house. Even though that gun was locked away, she says she was still scared of it: “I thought it was going to come out of the safe and act on its own somehow.”
Sandoval’s attitude changed after her husband signed her up for A Girl & A Gun’s third-ever “Girls Night Out” at the local gun range. Once she started learning more about firearms and safety protocols in the company of other women, she became so enamored of gun culture that she ultimately teamed up with Girl & A Gun’s founder Julianna Crowder to take the operation national.
She said it’s now her focus to “be a role model of someone who is a caring, loving mother who’s also a firearms enthusiast.”
Though some women told Bustle that their interest in guns developed from worries about future crime, others become involved in gun culture after experiencing or witnessing violence in their own lives.
Austin's relationship with guns began after a harrowing experience that left her with severe PTSD. When she was 16 and visiting her sister at college, Austin recounts, an intruder broke in, assaulting her sister while Austin was in the next room. Austin says she managed to run for help and later identified the rapist, who she reports is now in prison — but the trauma shaped her life going forward. “Before I got into guns,” Austin says, “I was terrified of leaving my house, terrified of being in the dark, just so scared all the time. I felt paralyzed with fear for many years. When I shot my first animal while hunting, I felt like I got my power back. When I learned how to defend myself, I regained control. Guns really gave me my life back.”
She also believes that, “Had we had a gun in our house when the guy broke in, it could have saved my sister from years and years of trauma.”
Lightfoot, too, became interested in guns after enduring a trauma. Like Sandoval, she was once opposed to guns and didn’t permit her children to play with toy versions, but after divorcing her husband, she became involved with someone she describes as a “very angry, violent man” who she says abused her. Though she managed to exit the relationship safely, she still felt unsafe. Her kids had left for college, she was in an empty house alone at night, and she had started working with a ministry, serving the homeless and poor, which she says took her to a “rough part of town.” So she asked a friend to take her shooting.
“I felt instantly empowered,” she says, adding that she wishes she’d had a gun during her relationship with her abuser. “I also wish I’d had the knowledge, skills, and awareness that I have now, because [the abuse] certainly would have only happened once,” she says. “And then I wouldn’t have had to go through what I went through.”
Lightfoot and Austin’s belief that guns could have prevented the trauma they endured is one that often turns up within gun culture — the NRA, for example, frequently touts the narrative that defensive gun ownership saves lives. But studies have repeatedly shown that gun owners — and women in particular — are more likely to be either harmed by their own guns or to mistakenly harm an innocent person with them than they are to use them to successfully prevent a crime.
Lightfoot disagrees, countering that statistics can’t be trusted unless they come from pro-gun sources. She adds, “When you have women telling other women, ‘Sorry you’re not capable, you’re gonna get hurt with that dangerous thing,’ it’s a life sentence to victimhood. I’m sorry, but that’s really a bunch of B.S.”
"A Girl & A Gun has always been about more than shooting … and for me that day, it was about sisterhood."
Other gun enthusiasts, like Ohio radio show host Amanda Suffecool, maintain that the statistics only look the way they do because no one is tracking “good guy with a gun” success stories in the same way that we track gun violence. Suffecool, 55, an engineer for an aerospace company who hosts a show about guns and has put on several concealed carry fashion shows in partnership with the NRA, tells Bustle, “You hear about the one percent of the time someone pulled a trigger. But you don’t hear about the 99 percent of the time you didn’t have to pull a trigger. Everybody’s got those stories.”
These women's interest in guns extends beyond personal safety concerns, though; many of them are part of a tight-knit community of female gun-enthusiasts. Sandoval’s daughter’s brain began herniating a week before A Girl & A Gun’s third annual national convention; she was rushed into emergency care where Sandoval learned her daughter had brain cancer. Once her daughter was in stable condition and under the care of other family members, Sandoval briefly stopped by the the convention she’d spent hundreds of hours helping to organize.
“This is going to sound cheesy‚” she says, “but I really believe God put 400 of the strongest women in the country in one place to stand with me. Because when I was falling apart, I had the strength of all these women who are warriors. There were mothers, sisters, granddaughters, friends, all telling me, ‘It’ll be OK, you’ll get through this,’ or ‘I’ve lost a child, so I know what you’re going through,’ or ‘We’re praying for you, we’re here for you.’ A Girl & A Gun has always been about more than shooting … and for me that day, it was about sisterhood.”
Lightfoot and Austin also value the sisterhood of female gun owners, partly as a response to the sexism of the gun community at large. Austin says she loves the bond that comes from teaching a “newbie” how to shoot, and Lightfoot points out that many women feel more comfortable learning how to shoot from other women, saying male gun enthusiasts can sometimes be patronizing or condescending.
“Gun culture is definitely still male-dominated,” Austin adds, “there’s a lot of disrespect toward females who are attractive in the gun community.”
"There were all these men in the industry telling the ‘little ladies’ what they needed and what they could or couldn’t handle."
She continues, "It’s difficult at shot shows and things like that, because attractive girls get put into categories like ‘gun bunnies,’ and treated like they’re just out for attention instead of being taken seriously as real shooters.”
Lightfoot says, “When I was first looking into guns, there was this over-sexualized idea about women and guns in the industry. And there were all these men in the industry telling the ‘little ladies’ what they needed and what they could or couldn’t handle. It was a little condescending ... I didn’t identify with gun babes in bikinis. My aim was to create something intelligent, respectful, and to the point, to help women make decisions about guns.”
“We’re not talking about an emotional thing, we’re talking about rights.”
She adds that in her experience, women are particularly committed to being ambassadors for firearm safety and responsible gun ownership. “For women, it’s often so important to do things well and do things right because we have that perfectionist gene …We know we can’t be the jerks provoking police by walking around with AR-15s on our shoulder — we don’t do stupid stuff.” She adds, “What concerns and frustrates me is, we all get cast as the lowest common denominator. I can tell you categorically that is not the average American gun owner.”
Regardless of the increase in female gun-ownership, “the average American gun owner” is still male, Republican, and increasingly dangerous. According to a 2017 Pew Research study, mass shootings in this country have almost all been committed by white men — most of whom had a history of violence against women.
Fear of violence directed at them and their families, PTSD, personal experiences with violence, and concerns about being victimized because they are women are many of the reasons why the women we spoke with have taken up arms. And if these reasons sound familiar, it's because they're the concerns of many survivors of gun violence, as well. Lightfoot claims that the important difference between these two groups is how they respond.
“So many gun laws are there because of an emotional response, not an objective one," she says. "[Gun advocates] are not talking about an emotional thing, we’re talking about rights.”
Each of the women Bustle spoke to also expressed heartache over the recent scourge of mass shootings in the U.S., but also countered with the belief that those are just the types of “bad guys” they’re looking to defend themselves against — and that more gun control legislation won’t put an end to the scourge.
After the Las Vegas shooting, which left 58 people dead and 546 injured in October, Austin took a hard look at her Instagram, and the impact she has as an influencer. “I haven’t posted as much since then,” she confessed. A paralegal by day, Austin says was so distraught over the shooting she cried at work a few times the following week. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, what am I doing with my life,’ or anything like that,” she says. “But things like this do make me want to focus less on just showing guns, and more on educating people about them."
Austin tells me that her experience with hunting has taught her a lot about the violent impact of guns, but that certainly hasn't made mass shootings any less disorienting. Hunting has, at least to Austin and other fans of the sport, a clear purpose and a set of understood rules — mass shootings are total chaos in comparison. "Nothing anyone could have done would have helped those people,” she says of the Las Vegas shooting.
But victim advocacy groups believe stricter gun control is probably worth a shot.
Correction: A previous version of this article included the incorrect name for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. It has been updated.