Rising violence prompts worried Chicago women to join gun clubs
Her hands slowed by rheumatoid arthritis, 71-year-old Marietta Crowder stands in front of her paper target, steadies her gun and pulls the trigger. Shots are fired in quick succession.
Crowder is perhaps not the typical patron of a gun club.
But she is one of seven women learning to safely handle firearms at a shooting range in a suburb of Chicago, a city wracked by gun violence and a soaring murder rate.
“My husband influenced me and we thought about it a long time. Maybe you need a gun these days, in your house at least,” said Crowder, who lives in a gated community with her retired banker husband.
A fellow retiree, Javondlynn Dunagan, came up with the idea of gun training classes geared toward women, and for the “Ladies of Steel” gun club – after successful training, the women gather twice a month to practise their skills.
Dunagan served as a parole officer for 25 years before finishing her career in January, but had rarely held a gun when dealing with convicts.
She said she started carrying one after divorcing her police officer husband.
“I was at home by myself with my daughter, and I was used to having a firearm in a home with my ex-husband,” she explained. “So, I wanted to make sure that we were safe.”
But Dunagan noticed something curious when she visited gun ranges around Chicago to practise.
“I noticed that I never saw two women at the range together or a group of ladies,” she said.
Dunagan was particularly struck by the lack of African American women like herself interested in learning how to use firearms.
“I started asking friends and they said, ‘Yeah, I’m scared of guns.’”
That answer prompted her to start JMD Defence & Investigations, offering gun training programmes geared towards women. The “investigations” side of the business will debut next year.
Dunagan also offers classes such as the “Mommy & Me Self-Defence Class”, where women can bring their daughters, ages eight to 18, to learn hand-to-hand combat.
“That came about because my daughter was going to college four years ago and she couldn’t find a self-defence class on the south side of Chicago,” Dunagan said.
Her clients are from the predominantly African American communities in Chicago’s south side, in or near neighbourhoods struggling with runaway gun violence.
Chicago does not have the worst crime rate in the nation, but owing to its large population – it’s the third-biggest US city – it has seen a staggering number of killings and shootings.
By mid-July, there had been 1,557 shootings and 369 people murdered so far this year, according to the Chicago Police Department.
Gangs and the drug trade are behind most of the shootings, and they are indiscriminate.
Just this week, a 78-year-old man was wounded in one shooting, and a six-year-old girl and her four-year-old brother were wounded in another. All survived.
“Things happen in the neighbourhoods all the time,” said Shandrea Boyd, a 40-year-old physical therapist wearing a “Black Girls Rock” T-shirt.
Boyd said she wished she did not feel the need to carry a gun, but there were too many others who were armed, she said.
“You see people shooting on expressways. You see people shooting everywhere. You just never know. So you’d better be prepared [rather] than unprepared,” she said.
Boyd planned to buy a gun with enough safety features that she would feel comfortable having it at home with her four-year-old child.
That is likely to be an expensive proposition. Buying a gun can cost several hundred to thousands of dollars. A concealed gun permit in the state of Illinois costs another US$150.
The process is not for those without means. But, for students like Rhonda Gary, the cost is worth it.
“I get up before daylight and I live alone,” said the 51-year-old railway worker. “I’ve been broken into before.”
Gary was also joining Dunagan’s gun club to get regular practise shooting with other women.
“I think it will be a little bit of comfort,” she said. “A feeling of security.”