(FLORIDA TODAY) - If she's ever confronted in the darkness by a home invader or parking-lot prowler, Holly Young is determined: She does not want to be an easy target.
"I just choose to carry a firearm because I don't want to be a victim," said Young, founder of the Brevard County chapter of The Well Armed Woman.
Riding a nationwide trend of rising female gun ownership, The Well Armed Woman introduces females to target practice and classroom instruction on firearm safety and personal self-defense techniques.
Young launched the Space Coast chapter in March at the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum firing range in Titusville. Membership has grown to about 40 women ranging in age from 21 - the minimum to join - to an 80-year-old grandmother who lives alone.
Skill levels vary from competitive shooters to intimidated women who had never fired a gun. Members are attending from as far away as Vero Beach, and Young hopes to start a second Brevard chapter at the Port Malabar Rifle and Pistol Club.
"It's amazing how it's starting to grow and the word's getting out, and the girls are just wonderful. It is a nonpolitical group. We make sure that we stress that it's all about safety. We have a motto: equip, empower and educate women on firearms," said Young, who owns a 9mm pistol and .380-caliber handgun, among other weapons.
"It's so important for me to get these women safe. And it's a lot easier for women to learn from women. No offense to my husband, but I don't learn well from him. Men have their own way of thinking," she said.
According to Gallup poll data, the percentage of American women who own a firearm nearly doubled from 2005-11, rising from 13 percent to 23 percent.
And last month, the National Shooting Sports Foundation reported that 37 percent of new target shooters are female, though they comprise only 22 percent of the established target-shooting population.
Billed as a group "where the feminine and firearms meet," The Well Armed Woman was founded in February 2012 by Carrie Lightfoot, a Scottsdale, Ariz., pistol instructor who sells female-themed gun accessories. Fueled by explosive growth, the organization now boasts about 3,000 dues-paying members in 107 chapters across 37 states, along with more than 103,000 Facebook fans.
"I think women have been kind of laying in wait. Over this last generation, women have had to move into the role of self-protector, but there were barriers. The doors have opened," Lightfoot said.
The Well Armed Woman boasts nine chapters in Florida, including an Orlando group that meets at Gander Mountain in Lake Mary. Chapters are full and not accepting new members in Yuma, Ariz.; Cherokee County, Ga.; Macon County, Ill.; and Wendell, N.C.
Florida remains Ground Zero in the national debate over the use of deadly force for self-defense.
The George Zimmerman murder trial generated sensational headlines, and Stand Your Ground debate still focuses on last year's conviction of Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville mother of three who received 20 years in prison after firing a warning shot above the head of her then-husband.
Next year, South Patrick Shores resident Michael David Dunn likely will stand trial in the shooting death of Jacksonville teenager Jordan Davis. Prosecutors say Dunn fatally shot Davis in a gas station parking lot during an argument over loud music. Dunn is claiming self-defense.
Young plans to invite an attorney and a police officer to address her chapter on consequences of firearm use. She also hopes to schedule a self-defense class to teach members how to escape from a chokehold, how to use a knife and other tactics.
The Brevard chapter co-leader is Rachel Bonham, who owns Red Dot Shooting in Rockledge. This month, Bonham led a class on personal protection techniques. Afterward, the women moved to the firing lanes for an hour of target practice.
Safety as marketing
On the flip side of the coin, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America was founded by Shannon Watts, an Indianapolis mother of five, the day after the Sandy Hook shootings in December. Her organization now boasts more than 100,000 members across the USA, and she said the gun industry is targeting women as a marketing ploy to boost sales.
Watts points to a Violence Policy Center report released last week. This report cites studies that show two-thirds of female gun owners primarily bought their weapon seeking protection against crime. But, women who live in a home with a gun were nearly three times as likely to be murdered than women with no gun at home.
"We support the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms, but women shouldn't be fooled into thinking that makes them safer," Watts said.
Young works as an office manager and phlebotomist at a Melbourne weight-loss clinic. Today, she is a certified National Rifle Association range safety officer. Three years ago, she had never fired a gun before her husband, Mark, took her to the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum.
"The minute I shot, it was one of those 'Aaaaa!' moments," Young recalled, singing and raising her arms skyward. "And I knew that I just loved it."
She volunteered to found a chapter after she got her concealed weapon permit "quick-and-dirty" last year at a gun show.
"You take a hourlong class. They take your fingerprints. You shoot one time. And they issue you a concealed-carry. But, what I realized is that I didn't learn all the safety features and the fundamentals and the responsibility of carrying a firearm," Young said.
"The safety is such an important aspect to me," she said.
Barbara Rumpel is a Winter Park real estate entrepreneur. She and her husband, John, are developing Victoria Landing Waterfront Resort Assisted Living at the former Ramshur Towers housing complex in Eau Gallie.
Rumpel attends The Well Armed Woman meetings in Titusville and Orlando, and she got hooked on shooting while attending the 2010 Women's Wilderness Escape firearms camp at the NRA Whittington Center in Raton, N.M.
"I spent nine days with 90 women shooting everything - pistol, shotgun, black powder, archery, rifle," Rumpel said.
"I was never into women's groups until I started shooting with women. More and more women are getting into shooting, because A) they realize they have to be able to protect themselves, and B) because it's fun," Rumpel said.
"It's empowering. It really is cool to be able to pick up a skill and do things that you didn't think you could do - that you find out you can do very well," she said.