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Schultz: Every woman with a gun has a story to tell

Published: Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Gina Odom didn’t like guns until she felt that her baby’s safety was threatened.

Daniela Halliburton armed herself when she returned to a home ripped apart by Hurricane Katrina.

Susan Fowler and Mary (last name withheld) grew up with weapons in the house. Ask about their first guns, and their voices soften to describe cherished childhood memories.

Earlier this week, I posted a Facebook request to interview female gun owners. In two hours, more than 150 responded, including these four women. Like many who reached out, they are liberals, which is why I wanted to talk to them. We agree on many issues, but I do not share their comfort level with guns.

It is increasingly clear that for many – men and women, Democrats and Republicans – gun control is an issue of personal experience, not politics. We never are going to find common ground without trying to understand one another.

Odom is 40 and lives in Cordele, Ga. She did not grow up with guns, but her husband did. To her initial dismay, when they bought a house, his guns moved in with them.

Odom changed her mind after an encounter with a stranger as she pushed her newborn daughter in a stroller.

“It was clear he’d been watching us,” she said. “He could describe my furniture. I was terrified. My husband was working nights. I went into mama bear mode. I told him, ‘I can’t be here alone at night with no way to defend myself.’ ”

She researched and bought a .22-caliber pistol. Her husband hung a man’s shirt for target practice. “If you can hit that shirt,” he told her, “you can protect yourself.”

Odom and her husband share the same politics, except on gun control. “We both voted for Obama, both times, but my husband is part of that culture of fear,” Odom said. “Like a lot of his friends, he’ll say, ‘Obama’s going to get our guns.’ ”

She blames the National Rifle Association. “I see the stuff he gets in the mail. They keep telling him, ‘If you give up any little right, the government will take away your guns.’ They’re promoting fear, and it shuts down the conversation.”

Mary, who asked that her last name not be used, is married, with a daughter and another on the way. She is an equities trader in Denver, but she grew up in rural Tennessee. Guns were a way of life. She has four, including a Winchester Special, which she bought with her own money at 16. In our interview, she used the word “responsible” nearly two dozen times.

“The whole gun culture has changed,” she said. “It used to be you learned how to be responsible. Now it’s, ‘Get a gun.’ They aren’t learning self-defense. They’re not taking gun safety classes. If you aren’t willing to go to safety class, you’re exactly the person who shouldn’t have a gun.”

Daniela Halliburton is a 42-year-old lesbian who works as a data analyst at Tulane University in New Orleans. She grew up in rural Louisiana. At 6, she was the proud owner of a BB gun. Her father gave her a “real gun” when she was 12 and taught her how to use it.

“He taught me how to aim, how to load and clean a gun, how to shoot better,” she said. “It was part of family life.”

After Katrina destroyed her home, she returned to salvage what was left of it. She carried a gun on her at all times. “Eight years later, I still think that was the right thing for me to do,” she said.

Susan Fowler is 54, a self-described “flaming left-wing liberal” and the chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Lyon County, Kan. She is a former police dispatcher and teaches psychology at a local college.

She, too, grew up with guns. She owns two handguns and a rifle and uses them on her farm. “I like taking out critters when I have to,” she said.

Fowler said most female gun owners she knows support universal background checks. This was true of virtually every woman I interviewed. Repeatedly, they also brought up domestic violence. A man with a restraining order against him, they said, should lose his gun.

It’s popular right now to say women own guns to feel a sense of power, but most of the women I interviewed scoffed at this notion.

“That’s a masculine take on guns and power,” Halliburton said. “We never talk about feeling any power. Women talk about defending against rapists and batterers, someone who’s going to invade the home and hurt women.”

Odom said: “Safety? Yes. Power? No. Power for me means I’m respected for my opinion. It means I’m heard.”

Fowler agreed. “I don’t make the connection between gun ownership and power. My power comes from my intellect, not the tools I own.”

Mindset matters, Mary said. “Thinking from a position of ‘I’ll show you’ or ‘I feel weak’ is not power,” she said. “Being in control of your emotions before you use your gun – that’s power.”

Fowler said that many express surprise when they learn she owns guns. At the most recent county fair, she struck up a conversation with the local NRA president, whose booth was near hers.

“I don’t think he likes me,” she said, “but he did tell the sheriff later that I’m the only Democrat he knows who owns a gun.” She laughed. “That is absolutely wrong,” she said. “We’re everywhere.”

• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.

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