Women with weapons bonding in the woods

The sweet sounds of gunfire crackle through the back woods of Greenbelt, Md., Monday morning, mixed with gales of feminine laughter and whoops of joy.

Who’d have thought a day of blasting small orange saucers — they looked like dessert plates — with 20-gauge shotguns could be such a delightful way to bond?

A cool fall Columbus Day it is. But the event, the Fall Girls and Guns Shoot sponsored by the Washington Women’s Shooting Club and the Women of the NRA, has zero to do with the famed explorer. The fact that it is a holiday, however, means there is a decent turnout — 62 women, many of whom are aides and lobbyists on Capitol Hill, show up in faded jeans and sweat shirts, their hair clasped in ponytails.

The Washington Women’s Shooting Club was founded 11 years ago by lobbyists Suzie Brewster and Bess Conway. There are fall and spring shoots with more than 100 women participating and six-week leagues in the fall, spring and summer.

Beth Hellman — “like the mayonnaise” — an employee-program coordinator at the National Rifle Association and one of several instructors for the shoot, is among the first to arrive. Hellman, in high spirits, looks the marksman in a shooting vest and chocolate-brown Boy Scout hat that tied beneath her chin. Her explanation for her hat: “It’s waterproof and warm, and it will keep shells from hitting me in the face.”

With her dark hair cut in a bob, she bears an uncanny resemblance to Kathy Bates (imagine a more amiable version of the actress who tortures James Caan in “Misery”). Put a shotgun in her hands and the effect is a little disconcerting.

“This has been our busiest year,” Hellman says, explaining that the NRA has hosted 2,000 such shooting clinics for 5,000 women across America, from places as near as Manhattan to as far as Alaska. “The purpose of these clinics is to help women who have never been close to a firearm before.”

Other reasons for women to learn to handle guns: “To overcome fear and learn to enjoy recreational shooting,” Hellman explains. “Women make better students because we have no preconceived notions that we should be good at shooting.”

But really, they say, there are advantages to being a female shooter, such as that “we have excellent eye-hand coordination.”

Hellman is serious about her shooting. Five years ago, she left her job as a chess coach for Fairfax County Public Schools to become a volunteer instructor at the NRA, where she is now a full-time employee.

Her shooting roots run deep. “I grew up in the deep south of Oxford, Mississippi, so I’ve always been around guns. My first gun was a BB gun, which I got when I was four.”

But, she says, she has never shot a living thing. Not that she’s above it; she just never has. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll be out there in 10 years shooting deer. Goodness knows I’ve been tempted when I see them eating up my hastas and azaleas.”

Former Rep. Bill Brewster (D-Okla.) is also on hand for the day’s shooting. He’s an instructor for the “Beginner Beginners” (my group) and insists that women are naturals.
Brewster, who served in Congress from 1990 to 1996 and now runs his own lobbying shop, Capitol Hill Consulting, insists I try my hand. I’ve never shot and have never felt like doing so.

 But Brewster, who has been shooting since he was 6, doesn’t give up. “People are afraid of the unknown,” he says convincingly, “Why are people afraid of the dark? It’s the same thing.”

He believes women have a more open demeanor about shooting. “Guys will come out here [and say], ‘Yeah, I’ve never done this, but Bubba, give me the gun.’ It’s just a different attitude. Women are more supportive of each other.”

The day begins with a brief safety workshop that lasts 10 minutes. We receive goody bags with NRA paraphernalia and an NRA water bottle. We learn things such as to hold the gun straight up or straight down, never to aim at anyone, keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot, and wear ear plugs and safety goggles at all times.

Later, the women will get a shot at a door prize: a 12-gauge Charles Daly shotgun.

One House Republican staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says, “I came out here because I’m really excited to get more comfortable with guns and learn to use them safely and comfortably.”

She tells me she had only shot once, and that was with her family, shooting tin cans.

Once the groups of women are divided up, I leave with Brewster and 13 others. JaNeen Ball, who works in the Office of Personnel Management, is in my group. “I’m the only one in my family who hasn’t shot a gun,” she says as we walk to the range. “They are country folk” from Louisiana.

As the morning progresses, it becomes apparent that the reason many of the women came here is the same: to learn something new. But some have special reasons. Angel Goodson of the Food Market Institute says, “I have this little fascination with guns and power. It’s like a little bit of excitement.”

Excitement or not, clay is all she’d ever shoot. “A big deer? I’d probably cry,” she says.

As the women take turns being instructed by the ever-patient Brewster, each eventually shoots the orange saucer out of the sky. With each successful hit, the other women clap in support or call out things such as “sharp shooter, woo hoo!” or “all right!”

Brewster, too, is full of compliments. “If that was a pheasant, you’d have dinner right there,” he says to one of the women who has just blasted an orange clay birdie.

Later, he explains how odd it is that so many beginners are hitting targets: “This is the best group I’ve ever had. These are smart women, and they listen.”

Megan McChesney is here with all nine of her female co-workers from Americans for Tax Reform. She, too, has never fired a gun before but says it has always interested her. Aside from the fact that it’s a federal holiday, McChesney says she and her co-workers had no problem persuading their bosses to let them come — after all, the organization’s president, Grover Norquist, sits on the NRA board.

While the women wait their turn, they chat about personal experiences. One woman recounts that she killed a squirrel when she was 11. “It was sad,” she says. Another replies that she, too, had killed a squirrel, but with her car.

Colleen Kiko, an administrative judge at the Department of Labor, came to the shoot because she felt left out of family shooting activities. Her husband, Phil Kiko, is chief of staff of the Judiciary Committee; her daughter, Sarah, is a staff assistant for the International Relations Committee.

“My husband and the kids shoot,” she explains, “so I thought it would be a good idea for me to start shooting. I’ve shot guns before, but I never hit anything.”

As the waiting line of women dwindles, I know Brewster, tough as nails but sweet, like a grandfather, isn’t going to let me take a pass. Since every woman before me has hit the target, the pressure is on.

With my ear protection and goggles in place, I step up and follow Brewster’s instructions with care. Place the gun in the crook of my shoulder that “God created” for just this purpose. Look down the barrel and line up the two dots. Close my right eye (we’ve determined I’m left-eye-dominant) and say “pull” when I’m ready, and shoot when he shouts “bang.”

Seems simple enough. Six failed attempts later, including the first try, in which my ear gear goes flying off my head, Brewster is as patient as ever. He’s trying to figure out why my shot is to the right of where it should be and finally tells me to keep my right eye shut.

I do. “Bang,” he instructs. I hit it. The women clap in support. “You knocked it right out!” Brewster affirms.

A bit shaky, I walk off the field, content that I didn’t break my group’s perfect record, along with the fact that I didn’t hurt anyone or blow my eardrums out in the process.

For more information about the Washington Women’s Shooting Club, contact the co-directors of the league activities, Caroline Fisher at Caroline.Fisher@weil.com or Lynne_Parrish@Crapo.Senate.gov.