Why These Women Shoot

At a gun club in Chelsea, working women use firearms to relax
The Women's Shooting Sports League meet at the Westside Rifle and Pistol Range on West 20th Street every third Monday of the month. (Vicky Ge Huang)

It was early in February of 2015, and Clarisse Bell, not her real name, had just signed up for membership with the New York City Women's Shooting Sports League. At age 44, Bell revels in all kinds of adventurous activities, such as boxing and martial arts. When she found out that there is a group of women who meet regularly to practice shooting, she couldn't wait to join them. Then it got more complicated.

Bell's uncle was shot outside the front door of his home. Bell, who asked that her real name not be used because the investigation is still open, went ahead, though, and joined the shooting league any way. "So imagine," she said, "I still do it, even though I had to go to a funeral and bury someone."

Bell said this with a smile as she sat on the couch at the Westside Rifle and Pistol Range, the gun range in Chelsea that has been hosting the league. What draws her to the range every third Monday of the month—along with the other women in the league, who work in a variety of fields across the city—are some  unique qualities of guns and gun shooting that most people don’t associate with firearms. Many of these working women say that the practice of shooting demands tremendous focus, stability, and concentration, which in turn help them clear their mind and relax despite the stress and chaos that a city like New York often creates.

And then there is the confidence that comes with learning a skill. “It’s like getting a hundred on a test. No one can take it away from you, it’s a visual goal,” said Laurie Ginor, who is 52 and works in finance. Ginor took up shooting as a child of 12 or 13 while growing up in Connecticut. She didn’t know about the shooting league until a year ago and has been excited about coming back ever since she found out about it.

New York City has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country. Residents do not need to have a permit to shoot a rifle under supervision, but a permit is necessary for owning one. “However, you cannot even touch a handgun without a permit,” said the league’s volunteer instructor, Barry Cohen, 69, who has been involved with the shooting sport for five decades.

Cohen is one of the people who helped Amy Heath, the league’s founder, start the Women’s Shooting Sports League. Heath is the granddaughter of Jeff Cooper who was a former United States Marine and famous in some circles for his expertise on the use and history of small arms. Heath is still the president of the league, but no longer active since she’s had a family.

“We want to maintain the sport,” added Cohen. “In a society where there’s less and less experience with firearms, people are afraid of what they don’t understand. Well, when they leave here, even if they never come back, they understand something they didn’t before. They understand the sporting nature of firearms. They understand that serious shooters are safe shooters, that serious shooters are no danger to anybody.”

These days, the league remains a rather loosely organized group. It is mostly run by a group of NRA-certified volunteer instructors and administrative staff members who have bonded over their shared interests in what they call “a great sport.”

Erin Williams, the secretary and treasurer of the group, joined the league about three years ago, after coming across a flyer for the club. She bought shooting classes at the gun range as a Valentine’s Day gift for her husband and herself. “I really saw shooting and guns as being part of a boys’ club. And when I found out there was a women’s league where I could shoot with other women, I thought that was fantastic; I didn’t really know that it existed.” These days, besides promoting the league’s activities, Williams is also in charge of gun supplies and renting the space at the gun range.

Williams, who still calls herself a beginner, also teaches other women the basics of how to shoot. “I would like to give other women the opportunity to try something new,’ said Williams. “And I know there’s not a lot of access to a lot of people for this kind of thing.”

Although Williams doesn’t necessarily think of the league as a feminist group, she and other women in the group say they do feel a sense of empowerment from their knowledge about firearms. “I think being comfortable around guns is a powerful thing for some women. If you are ever in a violent situation where somebody is threatening you with a gun, it should not just be some alien thing that terrifies you,” said Williams, “but a tool that you know how to use.”


Vicky Huang