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A single mom wanting to protect her children. A mall worker fearing a dark parking lot. A real estate agent meeting strangers in empty homes.

They are Charlotte-area women. And they own guns. More women, gun advocates say, are buying, shooting and carrying firearms - in briefcases, purses or even on their hips.

For some, it's sport. But with violent crime up from five years ago and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police actively searching for a serial rapist, many women say it's about self-protection.

"Things out there are tough, for men and for women," Christy Barnes, a 22-year-old chiropractic assistant, said while practicing at a shooting range earlier this month. "I'd like to know I can handle myself."

Local gun retailers and range owners say women are one of their fastest growing markets.

And the National Rifle Association says female participation in its programs is soaring. The NRA doesn't ask members their sex, but 22,000 women across the country have taken its instructional shooting classes in the last five years.

The federal government doesn't track gun sales by sex, and some gun control groups such as the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence, question whether a national trend really exists.

The number of women with a permit to carry a concealed gun in Mecklenburg County has risen about 15 percent to more than 750 in the last two years, an Observer check of records found. The percentage of Mecklenburg's concealed carry permits issued to women, however, has remained about the same.

At a gun show at Metrolina Expo on Saturday, customers said some sellers offered guns with fancy, even pink stocks, to attract women. There also was a table full of purses with a special pocket and holster hidden inside.

Operators would not let an Observer reporter in the show.

The growing female market, experts say, can be attributed to many things, including more women heading households, more fear of crime, and less stigma attached to gun ownership.

Larry Hyatt, owner of Hyatt Gun Shop, says women - most with a husband twisting their arm - used to make up about 2 percent of his business. Now women account for about 15 percent, and he carries guns made especially for them and the purses equipped with a holster.

Hyatt said he has seen a slow, steady increase of female customers over the last 20 years - and then big jumps after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the chaos following Hurricane Katrina. He also saw an uptick in sales to women after police said a serial rapist attacked a Dilworth jogger last year.

Dan Starks, who has taught firearms safety courses for 17 years said a firearm can give women the power to control almost any situation. And with crimes like carjackings and home invasions increasingly common, Starks says they need the protection.

"When you have a firearm in your hand, and the knowledge, skill and chutzpah to use it, nine times out of 10 you won't have to use it," he said. "Criminals don't like armed citizens."

Lauren Hargett, 24, said she gets nervous walking to her car in an underground parking area near where she works at SouthPark mall. She intends to get a concealed carry permit and practiced her shooting the weekend after a convenience store clerk was gunned down in a robbery in that same part of town.

"Every night you hear about something happening," she said.

Hyatt said most of his female customers first buy a gun for protection. Some of them learn they like shooting, and then take it up as a sport. Since the NRA began offering women's only hunting trips in 2000, spokeswoman Ashley Varner said, participation has skyrocketed from 500 to 6,000. Locally, gun dealers say, few women hunt and most who do go with a spouse.

Saturday afternoon, 11-year-old Lindsay Sigmon, walked out the exit of the gun show resting a long gun on her shoulder. Her parents, Gary and Shanna Sigmon, said they began teaching Lindsay to shoot at age 4 because they have guns in their home and believe everyone who lives there needs to know how to operate them safely.

Lindsay and Shanna, an English teacher, shoot at a cone for practice at home. "We go hunting (for deer), but never get anything," Lindsay said. "I don't know if that counts."

At Firepower, an indoor pistol range and gun shop in Matthews, workers say about one in 10 who use the range are women, many of whom shoot for fun. Their regular customers include married couples and father-daughter pairs.

They wear safety glasses and ear protection, then take turns firing at paper targets in a small room with six shooting lanes 50 feet long. Bullet casing are scattered on the floor.

On Wednesday, a 72-year-old woman went in asking for information about the range. She owns two handguns, she said, and likes to shoot every couple of months so she hopes she'd feel comfortable if she needed to use a gun in an emergency. She didn't want her name printed in the newspaper, she said, because she didn't want people to know she's got the guns.

Zack Ragbourn, with the Brady Campaign, said guns don't necessarily improve your safety. If you have a gun at home, according to the campaign, it's at least 20 times more likely to end up accidentally shooting someone than it is to protect you from an intruder.

Anne Tucker, 50, said she's been shooting since she became an adult. She grew up watching Westerns. When she was a kid her brother shot her grandfather's guns, but she didn't get to do it. Now, she carries a gun on her belt. And six years ago, she gave up her job teaching job skills to disabled people to work at Firepower.

She's drawn a gun twice in self-defense but never actually pointed one at anyone. Mostly, she said, she enjoys shooting for sport.

"I like hitting a very small target from a very long distance," she said. "It's kind of like golf."

Knowledge is Power

When I'm teaching self-defense, the question women ask most is whether to consider buying a gun.

A tough, necessary question one must ask, is "Am I willing to take another person's life in self-defense?"

There is no easy answer, but if you move forward you must get training regarding:

Laws regulating firearms (local, state and federal).

Safe handling, cleaning and storage of firearms.

Proper shooting techniques.

Purchasing and transporting firearms.

Fit. The firearm must fit your hand to allow proficiency.

The use of deadly force in self-defense.

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