Among the military-grade home defense guns and combat gear on display at the annual SHOT Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, last month, the new Blue Studded Tote from Illinois-based apparel shop Gun Tote’N Mamas stood out. The dusty blue satchel, made from textured American cowhide leather, costs $199.95 and features a trait not found in department store handbags: special padding to prevent gun imprinting. The product is part of what’s become a burgeoning retail category. Along with gun-friendly purses, there are now enough thigh, corset and garter holsters and pistol-porting sports bras on the market to fill entire concealed carry fashion shows.
Rates of gun ownership among women have held relatively steady since 1980, according to the 2015 General Social Survey, hovering between 9 percent and 14 percent of those polled. What has changed is that women have become more outspoken about their status as gun owners, prompting merchandisers to woo them in earnest with pink guns, holsters made out of lace and concealed-carry handbags.
But as fashion trends go, handgun-friendly handbags give new meaning to edge. Experts say that carrying a firearm in a purse, even one with a special pocket, can be hazardous at best.
At a Walmart in Hayden, Idaho, in December 2014, Veronica Jean Rutledge, a 29-year-old nuclear research scientist and concealed carry permit holder, was killed when her 2-year-old son reached into her purse, grabbed her loaded 9mm Smith & Wesson semi-automatic handgun, and fired. Rutledge’s bag, made by Gun Tote’N Mamas, had a zipped front compartment designed specifically for a handgun, but her curious toddler was able to unzip it. A scan of recent news items reveals that several toddlers have been just as dexterous: In Pennsylvania in 2013, a 2-year-old boy got his stepfather’s gun out of his mother’s purse and shot himself in the face. In February of this year, Pamela Gillilan, a security officer with a firearms license, was shot in the leg with a handgun her 3-year-old son found in her bag. “I should’ve never left the gun in my purse like that! I never do!” she was quoted as saying in a police report.
The Idaho incident, which made international headlines, prompted gun-rights blogger Bob Owens to denounce the “stupid carry” of guns in handbags on the website Bearing Arms. The use of purse holsters indicated a lack of “decent training” and “common sense,” he wrote, because so-called off-body carry “encourage concealed carriers to put their firearm down.”
Whether it’s a concealed-carry model or an everyday purse, the clutter that inevitably accumulates inside a handbag makes it a less than hospitable environment for a deadly weapon. “Your purse attracts junk like nails to a magnet,” Alicia Rockmore, the co-founder of Get Buttoned Up, a blog about organizing, wrote earlier this year. “No matter how much we try, no matter which purse we buy, our stuff seems to overtake the purse.” Can’t ever find your keys? You may not fare much better fishing out your Baby Glock.
Which raises questions about a Mississippi bill signed into law last spring that allows people to carry a concealed handgun in a purse or briefcase without a state-issued license. When Governor Phil Bryant announced his support for the bill, he said that his wife, Deborah, planned to carry her Ruger .380 in her handbag. “She’s a darned good shot,” he boasted. That may be. But after the bill passed, Kristie Matthews, who has firearms training, told Mississippi News Now that she doesn’t think it’s safe practice. “Personally I have way too much stuff in my purse,” she said. “And I know for me it would be hard to get to.”
Another problem with keeping a gun in any sort of purse is that women don’t delicately carry their bags and gingerly set them down. They swing them from their arms, balance them on hips (to look for those sunglasses), fling them down. That means there’s always the possibility of accidents. “The purse could swing around and hit a wall or some other piece of hard material and go off,” Mike Weisser, author of the blog Mike the Gun Guy, tells The Trace. “The purse could be dropped and the gun might go off.”
Both of those hypotheticals have in fact happened. In a Starbucks in Florida two years ago, Pamela Beck’s purse dropped to the floor and “hit the ground hard,” police said, causing her fully-loaded .25 caliber semi-automatic handgun to fire. Her friend was hit in the knee. Beck, who did not have a license to carry concealed, said the gun, which her father had given her, sat at the bottom of her purse for a year; she forgot it was there. A couple of months later in St. Louis, a 7-year-old girl was shot in the leg when her mother’s purse fell to the floor, setting off a Cobra .38-caliber handgun. At a resort in Panama City, Fla., last year, a 19-year-old woman was unpacking when her duffel bag dropped to the concrete, causing her two-shot 9mm Cobra Derringer pistol to fire, hitting her in the leg.
One thing that might reduce the risks of purse carry would be to tote the gun unloaded. But the message from the gun and gun-accessory industries is that a woman with an unloaded firearm leaves herself vulnerable. The Well-Armed Woman, a website “where the feminine and firearms meet,” recommends that women venture into the world fully loaded. According to a post authored by Beretta, “Not having a round in the chamber can put us at a great disadvantage and at risk.” The piece goes on to say that women tend to avoid chambering because “we fear having a negligent discharge and someone getting hurt,” and that this fear causes them to make decisions that “are not in our best interests. The KEY factor in this decision I believe is CONFIDENCE.”
For women who prefer a loaded weapon, concealed carry clothing would seem to solve the problems that accompany purse carry. Rugger Cotten, the manager of a gun shop in Washington State, told a local news station after Rutledge’s death that it’s better for women to wear a hip, stomach or garter holster than to keep their firearm in a handbag. But even those can pose dangers if not correctly designed. “Holsters that don’t adequately protect the trigger from both sides are begging for a negligent discharge in an age where so many are carrying firearms without external safeties,” Owens wrote in his Bearing Arms post, citing the case of a 55-year-old woman who fatally shot herself in the eye while adjusting her bra holster. That same holster was showcased at the Fayetteville fashion show.
“‘Concealable’ clothing has nothing to do with gun security,” says Weisser. “Either the gun is encased in a secure holder, or the gun is a risk. Period.”
[Photo: Flickr user Frederik Ranninger]