It was just past 11 that quiet fall night when Laura Pinto headed back to her car. Tired but happy after hanging out with two friends in downtown Annapolis, she didn't bother looking around until it was too late.
In front of the courthouse, she was mugged. Before she could scream, before her girlfriends, trailing a few steps behind, could see what was happening, she was kicked to the ground by a purse snatcher.
The attack left the tall, athletic 29-year-old shaken and made her think twice about her safety. She's more cautious these days, even out in a crowd, and she's protecting herself in a way that's become increasingly popular with women. She's learning to use a gun.
Driven by fear, growing numbers of women in Maryland are buying firearms, signing up for basic training and practicing at shooting ranges.
The majority pick up their first pistol for self-defense, although some are so intrigued that they become recreational shooters. Single mothers, elderly women on their own and professionals working in dangerous neighborhoods say they're tired of being nervous and feel less vulnerable with a gun.
Maryland State Police don't keep a breakdown by sex of the estimated 30,000 guns registered in the state each year. But gun dealers from the Eastern Shore to Baltimore report a dramatic increase in female customers over the past five years.
A decade ago, a woman in a business suit shopping for a .38 special would have been an oddity at Arundel Firearms and Pawn in Glen Burnie. Now, at least 25 percent of his customers are women, says store owner Phillip Griffith.
Many stores started stocking up on revolvers, often preferred by women over the semiautomatic. Even shops that specialize in hunting gear, traditionally a male domain, are attracting more female customers. The small but loyal constituency of female hunters and skeet shooters has grown at Albright's Gun Shop in Easton. And women are driving to Nicoll's Guns and Hunting Supplies in Towson to check out the LadySmith, an elegant revolver with a rosewood grip designed for women by gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson.
Beginner courses targeting women have sold out in the city and surrounding suburbs. Firearms Training Inc. on Harford Road is developing an advanced course to satisfy women who want more instruction in self-defense. Its 12-hour introductory course is constantly booked, as is one offered at the Gunpowder Indoor Pistol Range outside Bel Air.
The Arundel Fish and Game Conservation Association, a private club near Annapolis, was overwhelmed with applicants this spring when it posted pink fliers with a sketch of a gun asking: "Women, do you have one of these at home?"
Madeline Zimmerman paid $25 to join the class, limited to 20 women, to learn how to handle a gun. "I just want to feel safe," said the 49-year-old mother of three, who keeps a little .25-caliber handgun at home.
She's not alone. Even as lawmakers consider imposing stricter controls on gun purchases, more women are joining Ms. Zimmerman.
* At least 15 million U.S. women own a pistol, shotgun or rifle, according to a 1988 Gallup Poll commissioned by Smith & Wesson. The number is growing, up 3.6 million from a similar poll two years earlier, as female gun enthusiasts across the nation learn to hunt and shoot skeet. A pro-gun group even publishes a monthly magazine, Women & Guns.
Gun-control advocates blame the movement on an "extreme push" by gun manufacturers to boost flagging sales by exploiting women's fear of crime. The National Rifle Association counters that women have every reason to be nervous and to arm themselves in self-defense.
Those favoring gun control contend firearms are more dangerous to their owners than to criminals and cite as evidence 11,000 suicides and 1,800 accidental deaths involving guns each year. They say less than 3 percent of the annual 11,000 homicides are "justifiable" as self-defense.
Pro-gun forces quote research that guns are used defensively more often than criminally, including a study by Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology at Florida State University, which found that guns were used in self-defense 645,000 times in 1990.
The polarized sides agree on just one thing: Women could become the deciding voice in the national debate over gun control.
"I think they [pro-gun groups] are looking for allies wherever they can find them. These people are playing on people's very legitimate fears, but it [a gun] doesn't protect you," said Jeff Muchnick, legislative director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a national gun-control group in Washington.
Traditionally, women have been among the more outspoken advocates of gun control. As Ms. Zimmerman of Annapolis said, "Our generation wasn't socialized to have guns. It wasn't part of 'the feminine mystique.' "
But that changed in the 1980s. Paxton Quigley, who worked for passage of the nation's first handgun control act in 1968, helped revolutionize the debate by switching sides after a close friend was raped by an intruder.
She wrote a provocative book -- "Armed and Female: 12 million American Women Own Guns. Should You?" -- and has become a guru of the women's gun movement, lecturing and teaching self-defense classes across the country.
Sonny Jones, the editor of Women & Guns, offers a feminist perspective. "The rise in gun ownership among women has paralleled their increasing independence and self-reliance."
Col. Leonard Supinski, a firearms instructor and Baltimore County police officer, said it's hard to know whether gun manufacturers are pumping sales or simply responding to demand. But he fears women will think a gun is a "talisman around your neck that's going to ward off criminals."
He also raises the moral dilemma, "the very sobering, not sexy thoughts" of killing another person.
For Sally Welch, an East Baltimore mother, that sobering reality was driven home in 1988 when her 15-year-old son was accidentally shot to death by his cousin in a relative's home. "I don't think people are prepared to kill somebody. I just can't picture it myself," said Ms. Welch, who has testified for gun control legislation in the General Assembly.
Although most women buy guns for self-protection, a fair number practice marksmanship out of fascination, not fear.
Many women say they're "anti-gun" or "scared of guns" when they sign up for their first class. But others grew up around firearms and want to take up recreational shooting. "My husband got me interested. He took me along once, and I just fell in love with it," confessed Janell Lawlis, a 34-year-old Baltimore resident, who routinely tags along with her husband to gun ranges.
The power of guns and the competitiveness of target shooting intrigues many women, even those with an anti-gun bias.
Jackie Aiken, a 42-year-old audiovisual technician at Harford Community College, said she would never have considered dating, let alone marrying, her husband, if she had known he kept guns for home protection. The last thing she expected when she signed up for an introductory course was to become an award-winning bull's-eye shooter.
"I was very nervous about guns. I wouldn't even get a twisty-tie out of a drawer near one," she recalls.
On the theory that "if you have a swimming pool in your backyard, you ought to know how to swim," she signed up for a class at Firearms Training Inc. The first time she went to the range, her hands were shaking so badly she could barely load the magazine. "I was so surprised when I hit the target. That was extremely gratifying," Mrs. Aiken said. She credits the thrill of the moment and her instructors, who patiently went over safety tips and shooting techniques until she felt comfortable, for her conversion.
The day the class ended, she bought her first gun, a .22-caliber pistol for target practice. Now, she's a member of the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore and she's out at the range more often than her husband, preparing for state and national meets. She owns a custom-made .45-caliber pistol and she's switched sides on the gun-control debate.
Her enthusiasm for competitive shooting delights her first instructor, Carl Rich, who founded Firearms Training Inc. He and other Maryland gun instructors have found women often make the best pupils.
They listen more closely, and they don't come to class with a John Wayne attitude that shooting a gun is somehow second nature, said instructor David Eccles. "They know this is an unfamiliar thing, and they pay good attention, so they end up with some incredible scores."
Her first time at the range, Diana Early surprised herself by outshooting some of the more experienced firearms enthusiasts. The petite 45-year-old homebuilder from Annapolis was "a little nervous" as she pulled her earmuffs and goggles snugly in place. She looked straight ahead as the bullet exploded through the target in front of her.
Moments later, she clutched the target tightly to her chest. Her shots had fallen into an enviably tight pattern, and she was vowing to display the target in a place of honor over her fireplace. "Power," she said happily. "Usually at this time of day, I'd be shopping at Macy's. But this is even better."