It was just past 11 that quiet fall night when Laura Pinto headed back to her car. Tired but happy after hanging out with two friends in downtown Annapolis, she didn't bother looking around until it was too late.
In front of the courthouse, she was mugged. Before she could scream, before her girlfriends, trailing a few steps behind, could see what was happening, she was kicked to the ground by a purse snatcher.
The attack left the tall, athletic 29-year-old shaken and made her think twice about her safety. She's more cautious these days, even out in a crowd, and she's protecting herself in a way that's become increasingly popular with women. She's learning to use a gun.
Driven by fear, growing numbers of women in Maryland are buying firearms, signing up for basic training and practicing at shooting ranges.
The majority pick up their first pistol for self-defense, although some are so intrigued that they become recreational shooters. Single mothers, elderly women on their own and professionals working in dangerous neighborhoods say they're tired of being nervous and feel less vulnerable with a gun.
Maryland State Police don't keep a breakdown by sex of the estimated 30,000 guns registered in the state each year. But gun dealers from the Eastern Shore to Baltimore report a dramatic increase in female customers over the past five years.
A decade ago, a woman in a business suit shopping for a .38 special would have been an oddity at Arundel Firearms and Pawn in Glen Burnie. Now, at least 25 percent of his customers are women, says store owner Phillip Griffith.
Many stores started stocking up on revolvers, often preferred by women over the semiautomatic. Even shops that specialize in hunting gear, traditionally a male domain, are attracting more female customers. The small but loyal constituency of female hunters and skeet shooters has grown at Albright's Gun Shop in Easton. And women are driving to Nicoll's Guns and Hunting Supplies in Towson to check out the LadySmith, an elegant revolver with a rosewood grip designed for women by gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson.
Beginner courses targeting women have sold out in the city and surrounding suburbs. Firearms Training Inc. on Harford Road is developing an advanced course to satisfy women who want more instruction in self-defense. Its 12-hour introductory course is constantly booked, as is one offered at the Gunpowder Indoor Pistol Range outside Bel Air.
The Arundel Fish and Game Conservation Association, a private club near Annapolis, was overwhelmed with applicants this spring when it posted pink fliers with a sketch of a gun asking: "Women, do you have one of these at home?"
Madeline Zimmerman paid $25 to join the class, limited to 20 women, to learn how to handle a gun. "I just want to feel safe," said the 49-year-old mother of three, who keeps a little .25-caliber handgun at home.
She's not alone. Even as lawmakers consider imposing stricter controls on gun purchases, more women are joining Ms. Zimmerman.
* At least 15 million U.S. women own a pistol, shotgun or rifle, according to a 1988 Gallup Poll commissioned by Smith & Wesson. The number is growing, up 3.6 million from a similar poll two years earlier, as female gun enthusiasts across the nation learn to hunt and shoot skeet. A pro-gun group even publishes a monthly magazine, Women & Guns.
Gun-control advocates blame the movement on an "extreme push" by gun manufacturers to boost flagging sales by exploiting women's fear of crime. The National Rifle Association counters that women have every reason to be nervous and to arm themselves in self-defense.
Those favoring gun control contend firearms are more dangerous to their owners than to criminals and cite as evidence 11,000 suicides and 1,800 accidental deaths involving guns each year. They say less than 3 percent of the annual 11,000 homicides are "justifiable" as self-defense.
Pro-gun forces quote research that guns are used defensively more often than criminally, including a study by Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology at Florida State University, which found that guns were used in self-defense 645,000 times in 1990.
The polarized sides agree on just one thing: Women could become the deciding voice in the national debate over gun control.
"I think they [pro-gun groups] are looking for allies wherever they can find them. These people are playing on people's very legitimate fears, but it [a gun] doesn't protect you," said Jeff Muchnick, legislative director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a national gun-control group in Washington.
Traditionally, women have been among the more outspoken advocates of gun control. As Ms. Zimmerman of Annapolis said, "Our generation wasn't socialized to have guns. It wasn't part of 'the feminine mystique.' "
But that changed in the 1980s. Paxton Quigley, who worked for passage of the nation's first handgun control act in 1968, helped revolutionize the debate by switching sides after a close friend was raped by an intruder.