Close to half of all new U.S. gun buyers since the beginning of 2019 have been women, a shift for a market long dominated by men, according to a new study.
The preliminary results from the 2021 National Firearms Survey, designed by Deborah Azrael of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Matthew Miller of Northeastern University, show an estimated 3.5 million women became new gun owners from January 2019 through April of this year. About 4 million men became new gun owners over that period, they found.
For decades, other surveys have found that around 10% to 20% of American gun owners were women.
The number of federal background checks for gun purchases hit an all-time high in 2020 of 21 million, according to an analysis of federal data by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade group.
Researchers and gun store owners attributed the jump to fears driven by the Covid-19 pandemic and the protests, sometimes accompanied by violence, that followed the police killing of George Floyd, as well as the divisive atmosphere around the 2020 presidential election.
The National Firearms Survey polled more than 19,000 adults. It is one of the largest nationally representative, population-based surveys about gun purchasing ever conducted, Dr. Azrael said.
In addition to its findings on gender, the survey found that new gun buyers were more racially diverse than existing owners who bought more. Among new gun buyers, 55% were white, 21% were Black and 19% were Hispanic. Among new women gun owners, 28% were Black. The 19.6 million existing gun owners who bought more firearms since 2019 were 71% male and 74% white.
After seeing women coming forward with stories of sexual assault and harassment as part of the #MeToo movement, Wendy Hauffen, chief executive of the gun-rights advocacy group San Diego Gun Owners, said she decided to found NotMeSD in 2019 to combat sexual assault and domestic violence through more women carrying firearms. About 400 women have gone through the program which pairs them with women mentors who guide them in purchasing a gun and training.
Kanisha Johnson, 39 years old, joined NotMeSD and bought a 9mm Glock earlier this year. The father of her children nearly killed her by shooting her in the head in 2017, according to court records.
"If any type of situation like that ever happens again, I just want to be better protected," Ms. Johnson said.
At first, the sound of her gun would give her flashbacks to getting shot, she said. But now, she said she feels safer having the handgun to protect herself and her five children.
Elaine Pierce said she decided to sign up for NotMeSD after she watched protests against police brutality devolve into looting and burning cars in a neighboring San Diego suburb last summer. Calls to defund the police compounded her worries. "I’ve seen riots before, but the police were always there," the 74-year-old, landscape-company owner said. With a gun, "you drive into a riot, which we’ve seen on TV, at least you have a fighting chance."
The fear of getting caught in a riot was so frequently stated by new gun owners at the San Diego chapter of A Girl and A Gun, another shooting club for women, that chapter founder Judi Wells said she recorded a radio show on how to survive such a situation.
At a recent chapter meeting at a local range, Ms. Wells, 64, led five women in target-shooting drills. "Two to the body, one to the head," she instructed.
Afterward, the group discussed some of the risks. Studies show gun-ownership is associated with higher suicide rates and that domestic abuse against women is more likely to turn deadly when the abuser has access to a gun.
"We are aware of the research," said Dakota Adelphia, who runs the chapter. "That’s what education is for."
The gun industry tried for decades to sell firearms to women with little success. Much of its strategy was known in the industry as "shrink it and pink it"—producing smaller handguns in brighter colors. Now, the industry is designing handguns that are easier for people with smaller hands to manipulate. Some companies have dropped sexualized marketing aimed at men, such as women in bikinis posing with new firearm models.
At an outdoor range in the Angeles National Forest outside of Los Angeles on a recent Sunday, Nielan Barnes practiced with the Girls Gun Club, a group that has grown to more than 1,500 members since it was founded in 2014. Ms. Barnes, 53, a sociology professor, got her first gun, a Glock, last September as she worried about breakdowns in the social order after watching supporters of then-President Donald Trump drive past her house on the way to rallies.
The instructors, mostly women dressed in black tops and pants, led the group through drills like kicking in the door of a fake house and quickly firing at targets in different rooms.
"They may not identify as feminists but they are empowered women who know how to use a gun," Ms. Barnes said.