MONTGOMERY, Ala. — With feet positioned shoulder-width apart and eyes narrowing in on a target several feet ahead, arms and hands are steady and knees, slightly bent.
The top third of the forefinger rests on the trigger of a .38 revolver and the outline of a man is the target. First shot: It is powerful and loud, with the sound of the force muffled only by ear protection. The target is hit in the chest area. The shooter looks at the instructor slightly and she is told to continue. Second hit: chest. Third hit. Fourth.
"You actually did really good," said Lt. Stephen Lavender, training bureau commander with the Montgomery Police Academy. "Want to do it again?"
The revolver is reloaded.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
It is a scenario Lavender handles on a frequent basis as he trains citizens through the academy's Firearms Familiarization Course, a monthly eight-hour course designed to make firearm owners familiar with not only their weapon, but gun laws and the parameters they have to accept when owning a gun.
"Women are coming here to learn how to use the weapon," he said. "And what we're able to offer is more than just the ability to shoot."
Nationally, more and more women are refining that ability.
According to Gallup poll data, the percentage of American women who own a firearm nearly doubled from 2005-2011, rising from 13 percent to 23 percent. In August, the National Shooting Sports Foundation reported that 37 percent of new target shooters are female, though they comprise only 22 percent of the established target-shooting population.
Dennis Cotton has seen those numbers.
As the project manager of the Alabama Shooting Complex located on the north side of Talladega, he said women are the largest growing group of shooters. The 800-acre complex is a full-service shooting complex that will address pistol, rifle and shotgun sports and archery. Within 35 miles of the complex, and of the 345,000 shooters within that range, 51 percent are women, Cotton said. The majority of the women are between the ages of 25 and 64 years old.
"Women are enjoying it," he said. "They like to have the ability to protect themselves. It's wide range, from teens to grandmothers."
At The Gun Shoppe on Bell Road, owners Doug and Marsha Williamson have seen a steady increase in women purchasing firearms over the past five to seven years.
"I think they realize in the society we live in they are not always in a group where gentlemen are around, and they are taking personal responsibility for that," Doug Williamson said. "These ladies have (made) the decision to be able to prepare ... to take care of themselves. We have been giving classes to the private sector for almost 15 years."
While many women still participate in the store's co-ed classes, in the past three or four years, there has been an increase in interest in the ladies-only classes.
"... Since we offered specifically ladies-only courses for those who have had no previous exposure to firearms, and make sure everybody is accommodated according to their skill level, we've had more interest," he said.
Most of the time, Williamson said, the women say they want to use the weapons safely, and that they want to learn to shoot because "they might need to use it for self-defense. The way we explain all of this is that they need to understand the Alabama provision ... the aggressor must have the ability to do you bodily harm. We don't make any recommendations in how they should deal with a situation. All we can do is explain to them what the code says and what the law says about it and what the jury looks at if there is a case of self-defense."
During training, Lavender teaches students what to think about when deciding whether to shoot if confronted: ability, capability and jeopardy.
"Does the person have the ability to cause harm, are they capable of causing harm — that depends on if they come through that barrier, like if they are in your house," he said. "Jeopardy is the number one thing we get them to think about because jeopardy asks them to look at 'If I don't do something right now, am I going to die or be seriously injured?
"If they can couple all this together, they are likely in the parameters of using deadly force to stop that person," Lavender said. "We look at all sorts of things. Gender is always a key. How big is that male versus that female? I don't have any self-defense tactics ... even if I knew it, he would overcome it. In those efforts, we tell them to look at that."
Lavender points out the Firearms Familiarization Course is designed to teach students to "stop, not kill.
"They also teach them to render aid. If they are breathing their last breath, they will stay down," he said.
They work in attorney offices, are city employees, and even teachers. Those in the course with the Montgomery Police Academy are between the ages of 21 through their 70s.
They are of all backgrounds and are taught immediately that pulling out a gun is not a bargaining tool.
"If you pull it out, it is intended to use," Lavender said. "If you can't answer the three components, don't use it as a bluffing tool. They'll come take it from you."
Asked whether burglars take seriously women who have guns, he said yes: "More than likely they'll run, because they didn't come to die."
Women are taught to always have their pistol permit on them, otherwise it is a violation of carrying a concealed weapon, Lavender said.
"We try to make sure we paint a clear picture with everything that has to do with being a responsible carrier," he said.
A lot of the women who take the course have guns, but have never shot them, Lavender said. It sits in a locked box and they never touch it — until crime spikes and they want to learn how to use it.
"We want to build confidence in them," he said, "especially when they hit the center of that target. If they don't, we sit here until they do."
Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com