“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 (hcn.org). She presently travels the back roads of the West from Taos, New Mexico; her latest book is Drive Me Wild: A Western Odyssey.