Robin Natanel picks up a compact black pistol, barrel pointed down range. Gripping the gun with both hands, left foot forward, she raises the semiautomatic and methodically squeezes off five shots. The first one creases the left edge of a red bull's-eye on a target 25 feet away. The four others paint a 3-inch pattern around the first. If the target were a person's head or heart, he'd probably be dead.
Natanel is a Buddhist, a self-avowed "spiritual person," a 53-year-old divorcee who lives alone in a liberal-leaning suburb near Boston. She is 5-foot-1 and has a ready smile and a soothing voice. She's a tai chi instructor who in classes invokes the benefits of meditation. And at least twice a month, she takes her German-made Walther PK380 to a shooting range and blazes away.
Two years ago, an ex-boyfriend broke into her house when she wasn't home. The police advised a restraining order.
Ultimately, she got the Walther, joining a confederacy of people who might once have been counted on in the main to be anti-handgun — women, liberals, gays, college kids. They are part of a national story: Domestic handgun production and imports more than doubled over four years to about 4.6 million in 2009, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun-industry trade group.
The surge has been propelled by shifting politics and demographics that have made it easier and more acceptable than at any time in 75 years for Americans to buy and carry pistols. Post-Sept. 11 fears also seem to be a factor, as has been the pro-gun politicking of the National Rifle Association and marketing, particularly to women, by handgun manufacturers. Events like Thursday's fatal shootings on the Virginia Tech campus reinforce a feeling that the world is an unsafe place, even as violent U.S. crime rates fall.
Natanel found it was no trouble to purchase the Walther, a brand favored by movie superspy James Bond, or to locate experts to train her. Her circumstances won her a conceal-carry permit in a state with tough gun-control laws. Her friends have been broad-minded about her conversion.
"I'd never considered a gun," Natanel says. "I thought they were scary. I wanted nothing to do with them. I didn't think anyone should have them."
Twenty years ago, 76 percent of women felt that way about handguns, and 68 percent of all people in the country were wary enough of firearms of any kind to tell Gallup pollsters that they backed laws more strictly limiting their sale. Then what Gallup calls "a clear societal change" began.
In October, a Gallup poll found record-low support for a handgun ban — at 26 percent among all, and 31 percent among women. The poll, which has tracked gun attitudes since 1959, documented a record-low 43 percent who favor making it more difficult to acquire guns and record-high numbers of women and Democrats saying there is a firearm at home. Forty-seven percent said someone in the household owns at least one gun, the highest reading in 18 years.
The growing acceptance of guns echoes a transformation in the politics of weapons. In 1987, Florida joined a handful of states that by law or tradition allowed people to carry hidden guns; now Illinois is the sole conceal-carry holdout, and the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 16 sent to the Senate a bill advocated by the NRA that would require those that issue concealed gun permits to recognize licenses from other states.
In decades past, mass shootings, such as the Jan. 8 rampage that killed six and wounded Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, provided a potent rallying cry for the anti-gun movement. These days, pro-gun forces are as likely to parade them out as evidence that citizens need to arm themselves against attacks that authorities are often helpless to prevent. Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, which claims 45,000 adherents on Facebook, sprang up in response to the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.
"Post-9/11, the thinking of more and more people is that, when push comes to shove, I need to be more responsible for my safety," says Peggy Tartaro, executive editor of Women & Guns, a magazine published by the Second Amendment Foundation, a Bellevue, Wash.-based group named for the constitutional amendment regarding the right to keep and bear arms.
At the same time, the conceal-carry movement has gained momentum, in part because the dire predictions of anti-gun groups in the early years of the fight — that carriers of hidden guns would deploy them to settle disputes over road rage and the like — haven't materialized.
The advent of the 24/7 news cycle and its steady thrum on violent crimes may also be helping to drive people to handguns.
While middle-aged white men own the most handguns of any demographic segment, according to federal data, other groups are arming up. Besides Students for Concealed Carry, there are the Pink Pistols, Mothers Arms and the International Defensive Pistol Association, among others. Their influence may be outsized in gaining converts as they set up Facebook pages, churn out blogs and post recruiting videos on YouTube.
The public face of the 11-year-old Pink Pistols, which claims 1,500 members across 29 chapters, is Nicki Stallard, a 52-year-old, San Jose, Calif., medical technician who has a Colt .45 and a conceal-carry permit. She recruits under the group's motto, "Armed gays don't get bashed."
Stallard, who had a sex-change operation in 2007, is in a documentary that amounts to a call to arms for gays. The title, Arming Laramie, derives from Laramie, Wyo., the site of the 1988 murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay college student, that led to the passage of a 2009 federal hate crimes law named after him.
Those Americans who have acquired handguns for protection are living with "serious delusions," says Caroline Brewer, a spokeswoman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. She contends that few are trained rigorously enough to deploy their weapons in the shock and heat of an attack, that they'll shoot innocent bystanders, that more times than not their firearms will be turned against them.
Over lunch at a Friendly's restaurant in Springfield, Mass., Natanel marvels at her changed attitudes. A half-hour earlier, she was browsing the Smith & Wesson retail store and, she says, "drooling over guns — it's like shoe-shopping to me now."
Natanel recalls the Oct. 12 shooting rampage at a Southern California hair salon in which eight people died. "If people couldn't get guns at all, yes, maybe that would have prevented the shooting. But that's not the world we live in," Natanel says. "And what if I had been there with my gun? What if I could have intervened? Slowed him down. Would people judge me then?"