Flush with anticipation, four students from the nation's oldest women's college peered into the display case last week at Smith & Wesson's Sports Shooting Center and considered which handgun each would select for target practice.
The .22, said Christie Caywood, because it fits so nicely in her hand. April Sparks swiftly chose the .357 over the .38, then opted for the .22. Student government president Erica Stock suggested they could all try different caliber weapons -- and then switch off. But Sabrina Clark was not sure she wanted to part with the .357. "I just love that gun," Clark said.
The 21-year-old senior at nearby Mount Holyoke College was quick to sign up when Caywood organized the first collegiate branch of Second Amendment Sisters, a national organization that promotes firearm ownership for women. One year later, the chapter at Mount Holyoke, a campus of just 2,000, claims up to 75 members.
Focused on political advocacy and gun-use education, Second Amendment Sisters contrasts with traditional hunting and shooting clubs that have attracted men and women at schools such as Harvard for more than 100 years. The group's emergence at a venerable women's college in a state with some of the nation's strictest gun laws has troubled some alumnae. Most of the Mount Holyoke community, said spokesman Kevin McCaffrey, "is on the opposite side of this issue."
But members of the group's Mount Holyoke chapter see themselves as the vanguard of a movement they hope will soon encompass girls in high school -- and even younger. They view firearms as tools toward empowerment and self-defense.
And why Mount Holyoke?
"We've been doing things differently since 1837," Caywood said.
Political views in the Mount Holyoke chapter range from Caywood's conservatism to Stock's support of the Green Party. Some say they have taken up handgun shooting as a stress-buster, like yoga or meditation. Others revel in the precision required by the sport. Most of all, the students say they have embraced gun use as the ultimate feminist response to a culture marked by violence and danger.
"Women are assaulted and women die every day -- and I don't plan to be one of them, just because society thinks women are not supposed to use guns," said Stock, a 21-year-old biology major.
Second Amendment Sisters has no handbook, but if it did, Stock might have taken this opinion straight from its pages.
"We are fighting to preserve the right to self-defense, and the most effective means of self-defense is a firearm," said spokeswoman Maria Heil.
The organization was founded in December 1999 by five women who went online to share their outrage over the Million Mom March against handgun violence. Heil said Second Amendment Sisters has chapters in every state, "but as far as how many members we have, I have no idea." Although the grass-roots advocacy and educational group has no affiliation with the National Rifle Assn., "They love us," Heil said, "because we boost the gun-owner numbers."
When Caywood approached Second Amendment Sisters about starting the first campus chapter, Heil said the organization welcomed the chance to reach a younger audience.
"At that age, they are not brainwashed against guns," she said. "Many of them are very intelligent. They can look at the true facts and make up their minds for themselves."
But Dr. Garen Wintemute, an epidemiologist who runs the Violence Prevention Research Unit at UC Davis, said Second Amendment Sisters may be mistaken in assuming that handgun expertise and ownership assures protection.
Members of the Mount Holyoke chapter do not own firearms because most are underage, and because Massachusetts law prohibits guns on college campuses. But many say they will purchase a gun after they turn 21 and are living away from school, and will keep that weapon at home.
"Research shows categorically that having a gun in the home is an independent risk factor for suicide or homicide," Wintemute said, citing a California study that showed that women who purchased handguns were 50% more likely to be homicide victims than the state's general female population. "If we are talking about personal protection," he said, "how about a weapon that when you fire it is not going to discharge a projectile hundreds of yards and kill some kid on a tricycle?"
Conceding that "I see a clear internal logic for saying that 'I am under threat and I am going to take this action to exercise my responsibility to protect myself,' " Wintemute also noted that gun manufacturers began aggressively courting a female market at least 20 years ago.
Figures from the National Opinion Research Center show that at least 17 million of the country's 90 million gun owners are women.For the Second Amendment Sisters at Mount Holyoke, Wintemute said, "I suspect that part of the attraction is its unconventionality, its coolness, which they can create just by doing it." Caitlin Kelly, a New York author whose book "Blown Away: American Women and Their Guns" is scheduled for publication next year, said her two years of research told her much the same thing.
"The things that women reach for when they reach for guns are often the things that all girls want: self-esteem, something fun to do with your friends, something really interesting and offbeat," Kelly said. "The debating society just isn't going to cut it. Working with the homeless? Been there, done that. We're in 2003 and there are not a whole lot of boundaries left. Guns are an area where young women haven't really gone yet."
Besides, Kelly said, "Shooting is really fun. This is a dirty secret these girls have discovered. It horrifies many people to hear that. How can it be fun to shoot a gun? Well, it just is."
Stock, the student government president, said that discovering the joy of target-shooting was one of the benefits of her membership in Second Amendment Sisters. "I was afraid of firearms for a very long time because I didn't know how to use them. I identified with the antigun stance," she said, adding that now she not only plans to own a gun, but, "I want to educate my children about this someday, too."
Stock said Second Amendment Sisters' enthusiasm for its subject sometimes continues into hearty dormitory debates, or impassioned conversation at M & C: the school's long-held tradition of serving milk and cookies at 9:30 every school night. She has worked out a standard response to students who challenge her views about gun ownership for women.
"If you don't want one," she recited, "don't buy one."
Clark, who is majoring in the ethics of foreign policy, said she recently dumped a boyfriend who told her he would never permit handguns in their home.
"I thought about it for maybe 30 seconds, and then said, 'No, never mind, you can go away now,' " she said. What galled her, Clark said, was the dismissal of something she considers an integral part of her life. "You don't even have to love me and my guns," she said. "Just respect them."
At the Smith & Wesson shooting alley -- a 20-minute drive from campus -- Caywood stood near a man shooting an assault-type rifle as she studied the pattern of bullet holes on her target.
"Haven't shot like that in quite a while," she said, satisfied.