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.
"The pitch is very simple," Sugarmann continued. " 'You're a woman, someone is going to attack you, you need a gun.' "
But having a gun in the home also increases the risk of homicide and suicide, added Caroline Brewer, spokeswoman for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "The risk is four times greater of being killed with the gun than in being able to use it for self-defense."
Neither the NRA nor the foundation responded to requests for comment.
To court women, merchants offer shooting equipment designed or modified for their generally smaller frames: lighter firearms, handguns with smaller grips, youth-size rifles and shotguns with shorter barrels and stocks. Padding to reduce the kick.
"Smith & Wesson, Colt, Ruger -- all the major players are making smaller handguns," Andrew Molchan, president of the American Firearms Industry, said in an earlier interview. The trade group is based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "There's been a big increase in the last five years for lighter, smaller guns that can be used by women."
At Cabela's, a sports outfitting chain headquartered in Sidney, Neb., "sales data indicate there are a large number of first-time female gun buyers in the market as well as women who already own firearms buying additional handguns," spokesman Joe Arterburn said in an interview earlier this year. "Many of these women have found they simply love to shoot as a recreational activity, plus there is a growing desire to be able to defend themselves and their families."
Women also say they take up guns and hunting as a healthful source of food.
Nancy Lanza, 52, was the registered owner of five firearms, including three used in the slayings at Sandy Hook Elementary: a .233-caliber Bushmaster rifle -- an assault weapon -- and two handguns, a Glock 9mm and a Sig Sauer semiautomatic.
Peggy Tarturo, editor of Women & Guns magazine, estimated most of its 18,000 subscribers are women age 30 to 60 who own, "on average, seven firearms."
The readership, she added, "is primarily interested in self-defense and personal protection, so that would skew pretty heavily toward handguns." They're also interested in shooting sports. "Hunting is not a big interest of my readers, so we don't generally have more than two features a year."
At the Blue Ridge Arsenal, a shooting-sports store and range in Chantilly, Va., every Monday is Ladies Day. Women can use the shooting range for $10 and get 15 percent off on equipment. "That's probably one of our biggest days," said Earl Curtis, who owns the operation with wife Nancy Curtis.
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