Fear of violence draws women to handguns

For years, Monica Alexander thought handguns were a bad idea.

But frequent news reports about violence led the self-described "60-plus grandmother" to change her mind.

"There are more problems," Alexander said. "The economy is getting worse, and people are more desperate."

So, Alexander and her friend Sharon Skvoretz decided to buy .40-caliber handguns after taking a tour of FN Manufacturing, a gun maker located off Clemson Road in Columbia. The women then completed a concealed weapons permit class and received their licenses to carry guns two months ago.

They are part of a growing trend of women who are applying to carry concealed handguns - in their purses or hidden beneath their clothes.

In 2008, 3,386 women in South Carolina received new permits to carry concealed weapons. Five years earlier, 859 new permits were issued to women, according to statistics from the State Law Enforcement Division, which administers the state's concealed weapons permits.

The rise in permits issued to women coincides with an increase in the number of women who participate in shooting sports.

Gun Owners of South Carolina, a branch of the National Rifle Association, started offering women's programs after seeing more females among its membership.

Patty Clark, 49, of Gaston heads up the women's programs. She said more women are carrying concealed weapons because they want to protect themselves.

"Women don't want to be victims," she said. "They know the police can't be everywhere."

That's the case of Alexander and Skvoretz. Both bring up crimes in Columbia that generated big headlines.

Last year, a woman was raped outside Alexander's downtown Columbia church.

"You need a gun for protection, that's why we got them mainly," she said. "I never believed in guns. I was against guns."

Skvoretz, who works in customer service at a plastics company, pointed to February's fatal shooting of a woman at a drive-up ATM in Forest Acres as an example of why one might need one.

"You realize how brutal people can be," she said. "You realize how vulnerable you are."

The two women honed their skills at Shooter's Choice in West Columbia.

Ten years ago, the majority of women who came to the Shooter's Choice range were brought by husbands or boyfriends, said manager Ronnie Thrailkill.

That's changing.

Women are coming by themselves or with friends - whether for self-defense or sport, Thrailkill said.

The number of women in handgun classes has doubled, Thrailkill said. Applicants for concealed weapons permits must pass a shooting course to be eligible.

Alexander and Skvoretz honed their skills at Shooter's Choice. There, Alexander realized a .40-caliber pistol was too big for her.

Since then, she and her son shopped for a .38-caliber revolver at a gun show.

"I feel good about it," Alexander said. "I didn't know I could shoot."

Barbara Eaton and her husband, David - yes, men are allowed in - fired about 200 rounds between them on a Ladies Night at the range last spring.

Eaton, a paralegal, finds shooting relaxing and enjoys challenging herself to improve.

She went back to shooting after taking a break for about 30 years.

She encourages other women to give it a try because "they might surprise themselves."

"I think it's great," she said. "I didn't realize how many women were into handguns. I never paid any attention to it."