Out here, girls just wanna have guns

Women find they're at home at the range

Star-Ledger Staff

It was an otherwise quiet Saturday in the woods of Sussex County, when gunshots pierced the air. Again and again, all day long.

Girls with guns, females with firearms, women with weapons -- anyway you put it, there were a lot of armed women in the woods yesterday, and most of them had never touched a gun before.

Welcome to Cherry Ridge Range, northern New Jersey's largest rifle range, and backdrop for the annual "Women's Day at the Range."

Many of the women would never have pictured themselves holding a firearm, much less having a good time doing it.

Take Jennifer Herrera, for example. Though yesterday was only the second time on the range for the 20-year-old Staten Island resident, she looked liked a natural with the shotgun, disposing of two clay birds with a shot, a swift swing to the left, a pump of the firearm, and a second quick blast.

In a matter of seconds, the sky was filled with shards of the orange discs. The crowd -- Herrera's fellow shooters -- went wild.

Herrera, a student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, was all smiles as her mother Lillia watched with equal parts horror and admiration.

Herrera first came to the range after some co-workers at her summer job invited her to check out the rifle range's Minority Day earlier this summer; she was hooked.

"I was hesitant at first, but once you start shooting it off, it's great," she said. "It's definitely something I want to get into. I'm waiting till I turn 21 so I can get my first gun. I just haven't decided which one yet."

It's for women such as Herrera that the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs organizes the annual event at Cherry Ridge Range in the Highland Lakes section of Vernon.

"It's an opportunity for women to learn the sport in a relaxed environment, without pressure from boyfriends or husbands," said Nancy Ross, a spokeswoman for the event. She said that about two-thirds of the 300 women at yesterday's event had never handled a gun before.

"When we began in 1999, it was considered such a guy thing," she said. "We wanted to say, 'Wait a minute, there are women who shoot, too.' And look how many we have."

Many of the women said their success at shooting -- traditionally, a male-dominated sport -- gave them a feeling of accomplishment. Yvonne Kellogg of Watchung is one of five members of a divorced women's recovery group that attended Women's Day.

"I can't tell you the sense of satisfaction I find here," said Kellogg, who picked up a shotgun for only the second time in her life. "It's really empowering to have a sense of control, especially when nothing else is going well in our lives."

The all-female environment was a key factor in some participants' decision to attend.

"It's definitely more comfortable without guys trying to take over," Kellogg said.

"It's awesome," said Theresa DiCandio, 34, of Rockland County, New York. "Since it's just women, it's less intimidating than when men are around. My husband won't argue as much with me any more."

Most of the women said they had never considered shooting as a means of recreation, and many approached with trepidation.

"I was a little intimidated at first because I started with the shotgun, but it wasn't what I expected at all," said Abby McCaw, 24, of Sparta, who was invited to the event by two friends who have memberships at the range. "It was really easy. I had so much fun today."

Almost all the women praised the instructors, who provided one-on-one instruction and safety tips for the first-time shooters. Most of the instructors -- who were almost all male -- belong to various New Jersey gun clubs, and all volunteered.

One instructor, Sarah Quinn, an 18-year-old riflewoman, is hoping to make the U.S. shooting team and head to the Olympics one day. The recent high school graduate, who hails from Somerset and trains in Bridgewater, has already won a full scholarship to University of Nebraska-Lincoln based on her shooting skills. But yesterday, she was an instructor at the rifle range.

"I enjoy helping out," she said. "It's great to see so many women involved." Like many of the instructors and organizers, Quinn is quick to point out the accessibility of the sport to women, who she said are on par with men when it comes to marksmanship.

"There's a misconception that it's a man's sport," Quinn said, "but I'm proof that women can succeed in the sport. I'm teaching women who are two or three times my age, which just shows that it doesn't matter who you are -- your size, height, age, body figure."

"I've always been interested," said Audrey Garcia, 50, of West Milford. Because of her husband's interest in firearms, she already had a gun permit from her local police department. But until today, she had never picked up a gun. The verdict? "I like it, and I'm going to join something soon," she said.

The presence of women like Garcia, who grew up in Harlem, is part of the National Rifle Association's attempt to reach out to minority groups.

"The message today is, we want to open up the sport to people who wouldn't otherwise be here," said Chuck Lehnert, one of the event's organizers. "If you're in the typical white male bastion, you'll run into people who shoot." Otherwise, he said, it's up to outreach events such as this to draw in these potential members.

And the NRA is interested, so much so that it may adopt similar programs nationwide. "As far as I know, this is the only event like it," Lehnert said.

Given the success of the outing, which has tripled in size over five years, it may work. "It's not so much an instructional event, as it is about fun," Lehnert said. "You won't find too many unhappy faces here today."

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