How the NRA is re­brand­ing — with women

The stead­fast group takes a pro­gres­sive tack.

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - EXTRA - By Ju­lia So­nen­shein

In a slick, well-pro­duced roundtable dis­cus­sion hosted by Su­san LaPierre, NRA Women’s Lead­er­ship Fo­rum cochair and wife of NRA ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent Wayne LaPierre, mem­bers sit to­gether on plush leather couches and de­clare women the new face of the NRA.

“It’s no longer some grubby, dirty, un­shaven guy in camo,” ob­serves ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee mem­ber J.P. Puette in the View-type video, avail­able on NRAWomen.TV. Sandy Fro­man, for­mer NRA pres­i­dent, says, “Haven’t you no­ticed that women seem to be so much more re­cep­tive and in­ter­ested in the NRA than maybe five or 10 years ago?”

While the im­age many Amer­i­cans have of the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion is pre­dom­i­nantly male, th­ese women are right: That’s all chang­ing. In the past few years, the NRA’s mes­sag­ing has de­vel­oped a dis­tinctly fe­male tone, ac­tively court­ing women mem­bers across ages and gun lit­er­acy lev­els.

In 2013, the NRA launched NRAWomen.TV with the tagline “Armed and Fab­u­lous.” A year later, women be­gan to ap­pear promi­nently in NRA ad­ver­tis­ing. And in 2015, the NRAblog be­gan to in­clude con­tent specif­i­cally for women: hunt­ing recipes, fe­male guest bloggers, a per­sonal es­say en­ti­tled “Yes, I’m a Girl and I Shoot Guns.”

For a group not of­ten seen as pro­gres­sive, it’s a sur­pris­ingly for­ward-look­ing shift. Jeremy Greene, di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing and me­dia re­la­tions at the NRA, tells MarieClaire.com that the or­ga­ni­za­tion be­lieves women are the fastest-grow­ing co­hort of firearms own­ers in the United States. And the NRA is keen to wel­come them. (Ex­ter­nal data doesn’t re­flect the same spike in women’s gun own­er­ship— ac­cord­ing to the MarieClaire.com and Har­vard In­jury Con­trol Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey, 12 per­cent of Amer­i­can women own guns, which is con­sis­tent with pre­vi­ous own­er­ship rates.)

Greene high­lights the NRA’s long-stand­ing Women on Tar­get pro­gram, an in­struc­tional shoot­ing course de­vel­oped in 2000 “in re­sponse to per­sis­tent calls from women who wanted to learn how to hunt and shoot, prefer­ably in the com­pany of other women.” An­nual par­tic­i­pa­tion in the pro­gram’s shoot­ing clin­ics has grown “be­tween 12 and 20 per­cent per year since its in­cep­tion, and over 70 per­cent since 2008,” he says (the NRA does not re­lease over­all mem­ber­ship num­bers by gen­der). It’s been so pop­u­lar that the NRA has even added a Fe­male In­struc­tor De­vel­op­ment ini­tia­tive “to help meet the de­mand for more women in­struc­tors across the coun­try.”

New NRA mem­ber Gabriella Hoff­man, the 24-year-old founder of the blog

Counter Cul­tured, is the daugh­ter of im­mi­grants who “lived un­der tyranny in Soviet-oc­cu­pied Lithua­nia—and that’s what com­pels me to sup­port the Se­cond Amend­ment and re­spon­si­ble firearms use.” She be­lieves that “guns, not govern­ment, are the great equal­izer,” and has found the NRA very wel­com­ing since she joined in 2015.

Twenty-two-year-old Rebekah Har­grove, pres­i­dent of Florida Stu­dents for Con­cealed Carry, who also joined the NRA in 2015, echoes sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments: “They’re do­ing a won­der­ful job of reach­ing out to women. As a His­panic woman, I feel that they ad­e­quately speak to me—even through age and cul­tural bar­ri­ers.”

A ma­jor talk­ing point in the NRA’s women-cen­tric mes­sag­ing is per­sonal safety — and for women, that means self-de­fense. Greene points out that “women say the sin­gle most im­por­tant rea­son they de­cide to pur­chase or own a firearm is pro­tec­tion, both per­sonal and at home.”

NRA mem­ber Shayna Lopez-Ri­vas—who joined in Novem­ber—says she was raped twice while she was in col­lege, once at knife­point. “I was ac­tu­ally very anti-gun be­fore that,” she says, but she be­came a gun user when her friend took her to a shoot­ing range to teach her how guns could be used to de­fend her­self. She is now an ac­tivist for the group Cam­pus Carry.

Har­grove also feels that be­ing gun lit­er­ate keeps her safe: “Be­ing a trained woman who car­ries a gun gives me a much bet­ter chance at sur­vival if my life is ever in dan­ger, and the NRA de­fends that right.”

Sta­tis­ti­cally, self-de­fense gun use in the U.S. is so rare that it’s hard to get a re­al­is­tic pic­ture of it, says David He­men­way, Ph.D., di­rec­tor of the Har­vard In­jury Con­trol Re­search Cen­ter. In fact, in the MarieClaire.com and Har­vard In­jury Con­trol Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey, less than 1 per­cent of women used a gun in self-de­fense in the last five years.

And the NRA’s in­clu­siv­ity of women, both in brand­ing and in mem­ber­ship, isn’t nec­es­sar­ily new, points out Josh Su­gar­mann, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Vi­o­lence Pol­icy Cen­ter. He main­tains that the as­so­ci­a­tion has been try­ing to reach women since the 1980s—but with dif­fer­ent, and less em­pow­er­ing, tac­tics. Back then, the NRA fo­cused on fear. The idea of rape was ever present, and “the pitch to women is sim­ple: You’re a woman. Some­one is go­ing to rape you. You’d bet­ter buy a hand­gun.”

Su­gar­mann at­tributes the NRA’s re­newed fo­cus on women to a de­cline in firearm own­ers more broadly. A 2015 re­port from NORC at the Univer­sity of Chicago, an in­de­pen­dent re­search in­sti­tu­tion, found that gun own­er­ship has been steadily de­creas­ing since the 1970s, even though the rel­a­tive num­ber of fe­male gun own­ers has risen. As the core group of gun own­ers— white men in up­per in­come brack­ets—die off, women are more cru­cial to the NRA than ever. It’s a smart political move. Women rep­re­sent a huge por­tion of the elec­torate: The Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Women and Pol­i­tics says that since 1964, the num­ber of fe­male vot­ers has ex­ceeded male vot­ers in ev­ery sin­gle pres­i­den­tial elec­tion — the 2012 elec­tion saw 9.8 mil­lion more fe­male vot­ers than male vot­ers. With gun con­trol al­ready a fac­tor in the up­com­ing pres­i­den­tial race, the NRA’s in­creased fe­male ranks could help fur­ther its cause.

Whether the NRA is re­tain­ing the women it re­cruits re­mains to be seen. But to new mem­ber Har­grove, the or­ga­ni­za­tion is crit­i­cal to her sense of what she’s en­ti­tled to as an Amer­i­can woman: “Women’s is­sues are highly in­ter­twined with equal­ity and free­dom. And that, to me, is what the NRA ex­em­pli­fies.”

New NRA mem­bers Shayna LopezRi­vas, Rebekah Har­grove, and Gabriella Hoff­man

Re­cent ad­ver­tise­ments from the NRA have fo­cused in­creas­ingly on women.

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