MIDDLE RIVER, MARYLAND — She only owns a handgun. She’s more likely than male gun owners to live in an urban area, and less likely to have grown up in a gun-friendly household.

And regardless of how many and what types of guns she owns, she’s more likely to report owning firearms for protection than men.

This is the portrait of the American female gun owner, as depicted by the most definitive survey of U.S. gun ownership in two decades. While gun ownership has long been dominated by men in the U.S., the survey finds that the percentage of women who choose to pack heat is increasing.

Of those who own handguns only, 43 percent are women, and nearly a quarter of those women live in urban areas, according to new research from Northeastern University and the Harvard School of Public Health.

At a recent meeting of the Well Armed Woman’s Central Maryland chapter, members of the women-only gun club were emphatic that they own guns for self protection. These women hailed from the suburbs and city in the Baltimore area and if they did not already own a handgun, they were in the market for one.

“Women are the prey and women are generally weaker and there has to be a way to equalize the battlefield,” said Carrie Lightfoot, who founded the Well Armed Woman business in 2012 to create a resource for women to learn more about guns. In January 2013, she created a not-for-profit branch for women’s gun club chapters, which has grown to 280 groups in 49 states.

“I really think women are driving the growth [in gun ownership] because it’s now accessible to them in ways it has never been before,” Lightfoot said.

She bought a gun during Baltimore’s police brutality protests.

The first time Jenny Hildebrand went shooting, she screamed each time she pulled the trigger. She was shaking and wanted to cry as she fired off dozens of rounds.

Bang. Bang. Bang. By the end of her first session, she felt more confident around guns and returned to the range a few days later to check out the Well Armed Woman club.

“I felt so good I just wanted to come back,” she said. Hildebrand, who is now a co-leader of the club, was raised in a household where guns were considered “evil,” but she decided to go to the range for the first time during what she described as a “facing-my-fears kick.”

She did not learn to shoot for self protection, but that is why the Baltimore city resident ultimately decided to buy a gun. When the city erupted in protests after the police killing of Freddie Gray, she bought a shotgun.

And since acquiring a handgun license, she has purchased two more firearms. She also carries a knife.

“Women need to be able to protect themselves no matter what, whether it’s with a gun, with a knife, or their own body,” Hildebrand said. “I think everybody needs to be able to do that.”

She said that shooting guns had taught her more situational awareness even when she was not armed. “I feel so much stronger and more comfortable,” she said.

And while her opinions on gun rights are the opposite of those held by the family that taught her to be afraid of guns, she steers clear of politicians from both sides of the aisle.

“I don’t think there is any message in the politics these days — it’s just whatever will promote their cause for the moment.”

A stand for the Second Amendment

Andrea Hunt dreams of moving from Howard County, Maryland, to Texas, where she can “truly enjoy the Second Amendment”.

She only took up shooting a couple of years ago, but fell in love with it quickly. So much so that it put her marriage to a liberal man from England at risk.

“He’s totally against it. We almost divorced because of that,” she said.

But for Hunt, who is originally from Brazil, the right to bear arms is an essential part of the American experience — one that she fears Democratic politicians are going to take away.

“When Governor Martin O’Malley, in conjunction with the Democratic party in Annapolis, decided to ban certain weapons and to make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to exercise their Second Amendment right, then I decided to purchase a gun,” she said.

In contrast with the other women in the club, self defense is not Hunt’s main reason for owning a gun.

Her reason is the Second Amendment.

“I grew up in a military regime and socialism, and the government will not protect you, they can’t,” Hunt said. “The police cannot protect you. You have to protect yourself and your family.”

She was not raised around guns and she said gun ownership was “demonized” in Brazil.

Because she had “no idea what she was doing,” she joined Well Armed Woman to learn more about her rights, how to safely keep a gun in the home and to become better at shooting.

Now, she said, her husband wants to learn how to shoot.

‘They’re going to think I don’t belong.’

The leader of Well Armed Woman’s Central Maryland chapter, Stephanie Stockman, said her favorite part of volunteering is helping women overcome their fear of guns.

“It’s incredibly empowering when you know that when you go out there that you don’t have to worry, you don’t have to be afraid,” Stockman said.

Her brothers and ex-boyfriend shot guns, but going to the range with them meant getting different, relentless instruction from family — a universally stressful experience.

“I wanted a place where if I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, I could go there and not feel judged — like you do with guys, unfortunately,” Stockman said. Even with the exposure to guns through the men in her family, she did not become serious about shooting until joining Well Armed Woman three years ago.

“When I first started, I was terrified: They’re going to think I don’t belong,” she said.

But now she is chapter leader and owns a 9mm handgun. Stockman said the club attracted women of all skill levels. While some members own no guns, others own 15 guns. And recently, Stockman has seen a rise in inquiries in the club, though she is not sure why. “No matter where people are living now, they are just deciding that protection is more important altogether,” she said.

‘There is a perceived increase in vulnerability.’

Tish, who did not want her full name used, shot rifles as a child and married a former gun store worker. But she only became serious about shooting in the past three to four years, after her children had become older and she had more free time. She has also learned to crochet.

“Having an ability and having a skill set, that’s one thing,” Tish said. “Being able to own that skill set is different.”

She emphasized that for any aspect of life, people needed to be experienced so they could “become less vulnerable to critics or to those who want to take advantage of someone not skilled in a particular area”.

Sunday was Tish’s first meeting with Well Armed Woman, which she attended to get advice on concealed-carry holsters. This sort of peer-to-peer guidance is a key draw for female gun enthusiasts, because gun accessories makers only recently started paying attention to the design needs of women. Another draw was, as all the women agreed, that women were usually more open about their inexperience than men. Tish said overall, she saw more people learning how to properly shoot guns.

“That tells me there is a perceived increase in vulnerability,” she said.

This story was produced by The Guardian, as part of a partnership to report on exclusive new gun ownership data.

[Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images]