Guns are different for women in the West

  • Christina Nealson


“In Montana, women go around with a baby bottle in one hand and a gun in the other,” quipped a man recently as he sat at the bar in Happy’s Road House, outside of Libby.

Unlike the rural Montana women to whom he referred, my introduction to guns didn’t come about because I was surrounded by an avid hunting culture. My experience began in Tucson with phone calls that terrorized me in the middle of the night, coming from a whack-o stranger who threatened me and my 10-year old-daughter. Realizing that self-defense classes would pale against a lunatic, and faced with a police department geared to response and not prevention, I headed to a gun range in the name of protecting myself.

I remember that class over 30 years ago as if it just happened. I’d never touched a gun before. I was a liberal who abhorred violence. I picked up the handgun with sweaty hands and took a deep breath, held it, and squeezed the trigger. It felt like an eternity until the blast. I flinched at the recoil, let my breath go and felt the most amazing wave of power and elation.

All doubts were gone: I was a single parent who could and would protect my daughter. I didn’t have to get close to fight off an intruder who might overpower me. This metal between my hands was the equalizer that made self-defense possible.

Recently, we’ve all seen horrendous gun events, from Anders Breivik mowing down innocent children on an island off Norway (where guns are illegal) to James Holmes who opened fire in a Denver theatre, and the horrendous killing of 20 first-graders and six adults in a school in Newtown, Conn. Every time there’s a massacre, there’s a call to tighten handgun restrictions.

Convicted felons and those with mental health records should be banned from purchasing firearms. Background checks should be thorough. But we know that these necessary safeguards still won’t protect the innocent from an armed assailant’s intent to harm. Bottom-line: The gun issue is different for women.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, a woman is sexually assaulted every two minutes in the United States. That’s 207,754 a year. While many women opt for protection in the form of Tasers, pepper spray and knives -- and bear spray around here -- all of these are dependent on staying close to the attacker. You can fire a gun, however, without getting close.

After that fateful day in Tucson, I obtained handgun certification and taught basic pistol for women and a two-day class called “Personal Defense in the Home.” Women, after all, are the keepers of the hearth and home, and around here that includes protection as well as bringing home the bacon, er venison.

As a Western woman who has lived for years solo in the wilderness and likes to travel the back roads alone, a gun has become my indispensable tool. I’ve shot rounds in the air to chase off bears. When I’ve lost my way, I’ve fired the universal 3-burst distress signal, and I once warned off a threatening male who showed up uninvited at my cabin door in the middle of the night, miles away from police protection.

But most important is the mindset of a woman who knows she can protect herself and her family, thanks to owning a gun and knowing how to use it. A confident attitude is everything, and not only when a direct threat requires an instant, skilled response. Projecting confidence can keep potential threats at bay.

Rapists in prison, the subject of myriad studies, state that when they search for victims they choose a woman who is not paying attention, the easy mark who walks without confidence. I think also of the women on the streets texting or jabbering away on their cell phones, oblivious to their surroundings. I think of the statistic that 80 percent of sexual assaults are against women under 30.

I walk an independent line -- staunchly pro-life in the way the words intend. It’s my body and it’s my decision how to live, whether the question is birth control, pregnancy or self-defense, a baby bottle or morning-after pill in one hand, and a gun in the other.

Christina Nealson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She presently travels the back roads of the West from Taos, New Mexico; her latest book is Drive Me Wild: A Western Odyssey.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Charles Finn
Charles Finn
Jan 22, 2013 11:12 AM
I find this a well-reasoned, very well-written, and carefully considered decision on the writer's part, no matter if I or anyone else agrees or disagrees with her premise that a gun makes her safer. Hopefully vitriol will not be directed her way and I thank WOTR for printing it. As stated the background checks and what not are needed, even if they will have very little real effect, at least it is a step in the right direction. No mention of banning automatic weapons with 10 and more rounds was made, however, and I think such restrictions are at the heart of the matter. I have no trouble with responsible people owning guns for hunting or perceived protection, but will note that in many cases the gun owner's gun was used against them or their family, and so it is debatable if it truly is added safety or the exact opposite. No case can be made against it being psychologically comforting, which is huge, and at least in one case the writer was able to warn off a potential attacker. Still, the argument from the more adamant 2nd amendment rights groups that the government is out to take away their guns is bogus. Again, a well written and thoughtful essay. Thank you, and be safe.
David Olsen
David Olsen
Jan 22, 2013 03:52 PM
Being a son of a mother from Montana, I remember her in pink bathrobe
and curlers holding her Remington after chasing off a bear that had
chased 6 year old me and a friend into our summer trailer.

As far as the government taking away guns being bogus, just listen to
New York Governor Cuomo " “Confiscation could be an option. Mandatory sale to the state could be an option."

When owners of guns hear this sort of talk, they realize the next thing
that could be looked at for confiscation will be Mom's deer rifle, since
the same off the shelf gun was used by Vietnam snipers.

Between 200,000 and 2.5 million times each year (depending on whose data
you trust) guns are used defensively by citizens. Those are
not insignificant numbers. In my own family I have evidence of such uses.

To quote Gene Hoffman regarding the need for the 2nd amendment as a
hedge against tyranny "Tyranny isn't the president going off the rails, tyranny is being gay in South Dakota"
Erik Jensen
Erik Jensen
Jan 22, 2013 08:17 PM
Good self-defense argument, but you have to admit it is an overused motivation for owning firearms. I own only guns for hunting, but if something came up, I'd get a handgun in a minute. But, I'd have to have to the reasons described.

Norway being my "other country" (my dad is from there and my sister has both U.S. and Norwegian citizenship, and I've lived there), I really have to take issue with "guns are illegal in Norway" statement. Norway has the one of the highest private firearms ownership rates among rich industrial democracies, not far behind the U.S. It's true they have no conceal and carry there, and you have no constitutional right to own a handgun for self-defense, but you would have the right to use a handgun or long gun that you legally owned for other purposes in a self-defense situation. It is a gun culture that is largely hunting and sport-shooting based, which is the Norwegian public consensus.
Greg Nagle
Greg Nagle Subscriber
Jan 22, 2013 11:38 PM
I don't have any issue with this, I know of isolated western women like you who I recommended guns to although I have rarely felt the need for any although I do carry bear spray. Instances of women misusing firearms are relatively rare and 61 out of 62 mass murders in recent decades were by males. If women just had guns I would be OK with it since few harbor the kind of pathologies too common in males.
Robert Laybourn
Robert Laybourn Subscriber
Jan 26, 2013 11:02 AM
I just hope that when Montana women are going around with a gun in one hand and a baby bottle in the other that they are very careful to ensure that they don't get confused and have the baby sucking on the wrong one. Seriously, I read a lot of self-justification and fuzzy thinking but a lack of much logic. Carrying a GPS capable cell phone in the case of disorientation (geographically speaking) is much more likely to help you find yourself than firing indiscriminately into the air, hoping someone else will attempt to locate you. Only if you are already being looked for will firing a gun even get as much attention as yelling.
Quin Ourada
Quin Ourada
Jan 30, 2013 01:22 PM
IF you can avoid having any kind of accident with your gun OR having your assailant take in from you in a scuffle your gun just might, maybe, someday make you safer. Of course that is all predicated on the fact that someone is going to attack you...and that person also doesn't have a bigger, badder gun and the insanity to use it...which, scary as it sounds, doesn't actually happen all that often.

I worry more about driving safely and getting enough sleep to keep my mental state sharp. In the backcountry I carry a decent quantity of's good for emergency use AND I can offer it to any crazy that comes along wanting something from me. You know what they say, cash is king! It's all about statistics.