My Grandpa Doc hunted antelope in Wyoming, shot javelina in Arizona, and took down Cape Buffalo on safari in Tanzania. Shooting things was as much a part of him as his bright red hair. And yet, even though most of his friends knew this, he was often asked, "Doc, how can you kill those creatures?"
"How?" he'd reply. "With a great, big goddamn gun."
You'd think that kind of passion for firearms would have been passed down to me genetically. As I enter the ATP Gunshop and Range in Summerville, however, I can tell it wasn't. I'm about to take my first shooting class, and the only instinct I recognize is panic.
Down College Park Road, just across the street from the Music in Motion Family Fun Center sits ATP, a two-story arms and ammunition supershop. Semiautomatics line the walls, handguns sit under glass, and a variety of shooting accoutrement are organized in neat rows. It has a Walmart-meets-the-"Most-Dangerous-Game" feel. Most shoppers are dressed in camo or flannel. I'm in a pencil skirt and heels.
"You here for ladies' night?" A clerk asks me. I almost snap, "How'd you guess," but stop short when I spot his holstered pistol. "Yes sir," I say and hand the nice man my credit card.
For $30 ATP offers one-hour shooting classes for us gals. Their website says, "Learn to shoot for Fun, Sport, or Self-Defense," and those three categories summarize exactly what the women here are looking for.
When a crowd of roughly 12 women assemble, our instructor Pat "Snap-Tite" Murray begins. "So, let me ask you folks, what brings you to ladies' night?"
"My husband signed me up," says a woman up front. "It's my birthday, and I wanted something fun to do," says another.
"You are the third birthday today," Murray says laughing. "That's wonderful and really highlights what a lot of folks don't realize and that's that firearms are fun."
Another woman says she's here thanks to a Groupon coupon, and, frankly, I get that. Whether it's a haircut or target practice, who can turn down a deal?
"I'm here for protection. I'm single, I live by myself, and I work with a girl that got shot a few weeks ago," another woman says.
With that sobering remark, Murray segues into the lesson. "First off, I want to commend all of you for coming tonight. This is a great opportunity for those of you who've never shot a gun or have been incorrectly taught by a guy to learn."
As the class chuckles, my anxiety begins to dissipate. Murray looks like the only thing he could kill you with is kindness. He opens with a few anecdotes, then encourages each woman to snag a free T-shirt from the wall. I choose a black shirt that says, "Ready, Aim, Ladies' Night." My Charleston Fashion Week ensemble is now complete.
The crowd is multigenerational. A woman sitting next to me, roughly in her 60s, sweetly raises her hand and asks if she can shoot her own gun tonight. I look over to see her pulling a Glock from her purse. Murray informs her that for this class she can't, but she can feel free to hit the range after the lesson is over.
"Now the NRA has lots of rules for us," Murray continues, "but I'm going to share three lessons that we're going to focus on tonight. Number one, always point the gun in a safe direction." Murray demonstrates this by holding the gun away from his body toward the ground. "Number two, how do we avoid the gun going off? Well, you keep your finger off the trigger." Murray says. In my head I've already created a dozen different scenarios in which my finger accidentally slips and releases the trigger. "And, number three, keep the gun unloaded until you're ready to shoot."
There's a "no-duh" quality to the 30-minute lesson, and yet I have to admit that prior to entering the building I couldn't have recited those rules if you were, well, holding a gun to my head.
"Any questions?" Murray asks as he scans the room. I mentally review: point gun in safe direction, hand off trigger, don't load till ready. Simple.
"No questions then?" Murray asks, "Great, now you'll head over to the range."
Sweet mother of baby Jesus, that's it? No one-on-one tutorial? No issuing of bulletproof vests? No background checks? What if I get saddled next to Ms. I-Forgot-to-Take-My-Paxil this morning and she pulls a Bonnie Parker on me?
"Each of you will have a choice between a .22 caliber pistol or a revolver." That's like asking me to choose between foie gras or caviar. How will I decide?
"You'll each have 50 rounds of ammunition," Murray continues. I can't think. I'm being ushered into the gun range. Suddenly, I find someone has placed hot-pink ear protectors on my head.
"Ma'am, would you like a pistol or a revolver?" a perky young gal asks me. Hmm, what would Annie Oakley pick?
I reach for the revolver and step up to the range.
To Catch a Predator
In the Palmetto State, we've had a functional militia since the colony was founded in 1670. Like the Bill of Rights, the South Carolina Constitution clearly says, "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." While men have traditionally been the main gun owners, the right to bear arms has never excluded women.
On the outskirts of the Carolina territory during the Revolutionary War, Nancy Hart, a six-foot-tall, red-headed Amazonian — I like her already — proved her sharpshooter skills when six Tories showed up at her cabin demanding information concerning the location of a certain Whig leader, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia website. Cunningly, Hart invited the men in to indulge in some wine. They stacked their guns against the wall. As her guests became intoxicated, she secretly passed their loaded muskets, one by one, through a hole in the cabin. When the Tories noticed and jumped to their feet, Hart threatened to shoot. One man lunged, and Hart shot and killed two of them. She held the others captive until help arrived. Her husband Benjamin wanted to shoot the other men, but Nancy demanded they all be hanged. Legend has it that as the nooses went taut around their necks she sang "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
But that was 1781, and this is now. Flintlocks are out, Berettas are in. Any gal who's looking to buy a gun for defense or sport can do so in this state so long as she can pass a background check and has the cash.
One ATP class alum, a woman we'll call Sheila, decided to purchase a gun for protection. "I have a little semiautomatic Kel-Tec. It's small and comfortable, and you can shoot multiple times without stopping," she says. Sheila learned to shoot from her former husband, a police officer, but recommends taking a class.
"I think it makes you more confident. I would not want to get in a position when I needed to use it and have to think through it. I'd rather everything come natural," she says. Sheila now has her concealed weapons permit and carries the gun in her purse or in her glove box when traveling.
"I'd say 30-35 percent who attend the ladies' night class end up purchasing a firearm," says Jody Welch, an ATP employee. "The class has been incredibly successful."
ATP got the idea for the course when an ATP employee realized how many different businesses offer ladies' nights, says Welch. "You've got ladies' nights offered at bars, bowling alleys, everything. So we decided to try it out here," she says. The courses began in June, and since then, it's been booming. Every Thursday there are five classes available, and they fill up fast. "We've tried to create a comfortable atmosphere for women to learn to shoot. There's no pressure," Welch says.
According to Tasha Gandy, who first took an ATP class thanks to Groupon, learning how to shoot a gun isn't necessarily about personal protection. She says, "I feel like learning to use a handgun is a life skill like knowing how to use a power drill or how to change a tire."
For others, it is for protection.
"I wanted a man stopper," says Jess Turner, a petite personal trainer who lives in Beaufort. "In the heat of the moment, I do not want to be forced to perfect my aim or attain extreme accuracy. One and done."
The birth of her son Jack solidified the deal to buy a firearm. "Preparedness and planning are important to me," says Turner. "Knowing that I have the training and the tool in the event if such a situation should arise empowers me, both physically and psychologically."
South Carolina has historically been a gun-friendly state. Some say too gun friendly. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gives South Carolina a score of 10 out of 100 for its weak gun laws. However, the very liberal state of Vermont scored even lower, with eight out of 100. In South Carolina you can buy a gun without any prior training, and you can get a concealed weapons permit, which allows you to keep your gun locked in your glove compartment. And, thanks to the so-called Castle Doctrine, if someone attacks you in your home or car, you have the right to use deadly force to protect yourself.
What Are We So Afraid of?
The State reported that in 2009 South Carolina was eighth in the nation for the number of women killed by men. Also, according to the FBI's annual crime statistics, as of 2009, South Carolina had 4.63 firearm-related murders per 100,000 people or 68.9 percent of all the murders that year.
Robert D. Butler, director of South Carolina's Grassroots Gun Rights organization, says statistics like that convince him that more law-abiding citizens should have easier access to guns. "If you have the right to life and liberty, then you must also be given the effective means to protect that right and liberty," he says.
Butler and his organization work to stop new gun control legislation. "We've been able to lead the fight to kill every single gun control bill in South Carolina since our organization began," he says.
"What people don't understand," Butler adds, "is that gun control laws do absolutely nothing to stop the criminal elements to do their evil deeds. It's like the war on drugs. You think people aren't able to find drugs? Same with guns."
Butler has two daughters. One is just about to graduate from Lexington High School, and one is close to finishing up at Clemson. "Both of them will be obtaining their concealed weapons permit when they graduate," he says. "I sincerely doubt that they'll be carrying at all times. They look at things and think, 'Oh, I won't be attacked. Why do I want to carry the extra weight?' But, I have yet to see a criminal call up a victim and make an appointment."
Butler thinks that a concealed weapons permit should allow a person to carry a gun on the premises of a business that serves alcohol, which is currently illegal in South Carolina.
He also says that there should be no regulation on the sale of guns even to formerly convicted criminals. "If you have committed a crime and served your time, is your need to be able to defend yourself any less than the need of anyone else?" he says.
And he doesn't believe a person should have to take a training class prior to purchasing a gun. "That'd be like me requiring you to take a government regulated class to be a writer," Butler tells me. "That would infringe on your First Amendment right."
I ask Butler if the Grassroots Gun Rights organization faced any opposition in the state. He answers, "Opposition isn't of any significance right now. We just don't have any.
"Guns," Butler concludes, "are what make America civilized."
Annie Get your Gun
Incidentally, there's a group of women in South Carolina who have guns for an entirely different reason than to fend off predators.
"Some girls just want to catch a big buck," says Beth Rivers, a retired makeup artist and founder of the Lightsey Hunting Club for Ladies. The all-female hunting group, located outside of Walterboro in Brunson, S.C., was established to exclusively service the hunting needs of ladies.
"I loved taking women's outdoor classes at the Department of Natural Resources, but then Gov. Sanford killed the program," says Rivers. Wanting to continue her outdoor sports, Rivers looked for alternative options. "I started making connections, finding out the rules and regulations for hunting." She already had property to use, thanks to a friend of her father's. All she needed to do was recruit some female hunters. "I found that guys had lots of places to hunt, but women didn't have any place to go."
So in 2003 she started the Lightsey Hunting Club for Ladies. "We have 400 acres to shoot deer and turkey," Rivers says. While most of the women already are skilled hunters, for novices, Rivers says, "What they don't know, I teach them."
Each year Rivers offers six memberships. For ladies interested in just a day of sport, she offers daily fees. "We have women of all different ages, mothers and daughters, friends," she says. "The same girls keep coming back every year."
In the past Rivers has done some advertising and been involved in the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, but inquiries about the group remain small. She says, "I believe most women just don't think they have the ability."
Back at the gun range, 50 bullets sit in a pile waiting for me. I pick up the cold revolver. It feels like I'm clutching the hand of God. Not for one second does it escape me that this is a deadly weapon. I spin the magazine. Lock. Load. And bam. I score a direct hit to the heart of the paper target in front of me.
Bam. Bam. Bam.
I'm tearing up this target like Biggie at a buffet.
Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Click.
The revolver is out of ammo. I pause to reload. I'm smiling.
Maybe Murray was right. Maybe firearms can be fun. The same way shooting off bottle rockets or doing shots is fun. However, in all of these circumstances you need to be aware of your limits, the safety of others, and the law.
I pull down my target and hold it up, admiring my work. I don't intend to purchase a gun tonight, or perhaps ever. But I am happy I came. A healthy fear of guns is good, but acquiring a gun education is better. If you intend to carry a great, big goddamn gun, you better know it comes loaded with a great, big goddamn amount of responsibility.