WASHINGTON – Last summer, C.B. found she could no longer afford to pay the rent for her Arlington, Va., apartment. So she packed up her belongings and moved her two tween boys to a local homeless shelter.
But despite a roof over their heads, C.B. and her children did not feel safe at the shelter. Incidents of drugs and alcohol — which she says “freaked out” her kids — drove C.B. and her boys to sleep in their car. Fearing for the worst, C.B. slept with a kitchen knife in her hand to protect her family from impending danger.
The 2 1/2-month-long experience with homelessness prompted C.B., who now lives in Fairfax County, to research ways to protect herself and her family from potentially dangerous situations.
Two months ago, she joined a local chapter of women who meet bi-monthly to discuss gun safety and practice shooting.
The Well Armed Woman (TWAW) is a national organization that has more than 1,700 members in 70 local chapters throughout 30 states. It was established to introduce firearms to women in a safe and non-threatening environment.
Kathleen Whalen is the leader of the Northern Virginia chapter of the TWAW, a local branch she began in January 2013.
“I thought there was a need for another way for women to get together with like-minded women, whether you have a lot of shooting experience or a little shooting experience,” says Whalen, who is a certified range safety officer and shooting instructor.
Similar to C.B., Whalen says some of the chapter’s members are initially attracted to the group because they want to learn how to properly handle a gun. Others, she says, are more experienced with shooting and want to keep on top of their skills.
Tess Ailshrie spent 22 years in the Air Force and says she can’t remember when she didn’t know her way around a gun. She joined the Northern Virginia chapter of TWAW in order to be with a group of women who enjoy shooting.
The group meets twice a month — once at the range to practice shooting and once for a membership meeting, where Whalen covers the gamut in gun topics, from safety standards to the different types of firearms, ammunition to gun care and maintenance.
Whalen’s Northern Virginia chapter prompted Cindy Keys to launch TWAW’s Piedmont-Shenandoah Valley chapter in May 2013. Keys says the gun industry is a traditionally male-dominated field, and she wanted to form a group where women can learn and practice shooting in a safe environment.
“As a woman, I don’t feel comfortable just going to the range by myself. It’s not fun for me. So I wanted to have a safe place where women could come and practice, practice, practice,” says Keys, whose chapter meets at least once a month.
“I think it’s very dangerous to be carrying a firearm that you’re not used to using – – I think that’s just a really bad idea.”
Like Whalen’s chapter, Keys dedicates a lot of time to teaching safety and proper handling.
“Safety, safety, safety. That’s our No. 1 priority,” she says.
Her chapter’s meetings begin with an hour of lesson time in a classroom setting, followed by an hour of active shooting time at the range.
In addition to bonding with women over the topic of firearms, Keys says she anticipates her members — who range in age from 22-52 — will “become like family.”
“My hope, anyway, is that we can count on each other and call each other if we want to go to the range even on a day where we’re not meeting,” says Keys.
C.B. joined the Northern Virginia TWAW chapter to learn how to handle a gun for self-protection, and, as she describes, to learn more about her Second Amendment rights. But she also joined the group for the sense of camaraderie among other women interested in firearms and firearm safety. At the time of her homelessness, she did not have any relatives or friends who were gun owners.
“There’s a lot of fear – there’s a taboo when you mention a gun,” C.B. says.
With the topic of guns and gun safety so prominent in the news, Whalen and Keys both say they haven’t received any complaints and haven’t run into any obstacles with the two local chapters, as of yet.
“There’s so much negative thought these days on firearms and firearm safety, I thought we might get some negative feedback on (the chapter) and I really haven’t,” Whalen says.
For now, C.B. says being a member of the chapter has been a worthwhile experience. She says she feel more confident in her shooting.
“It’s nice to have that extra sense of safety,” she says.