S. HADLEY, MASS.–Mount Holyoke College always has fostered in its students the absolute certainty that women can do anything. A campus club called Second Amendment Sisters would like that sentiment to include firing a handgun with dead-on accuracy and lobbying to make sure that women are educated about guns and are comfortable owning them.
Founded two years ago as the first college branch of a national organization that advocates firearm ownership for women, the Mount Holyoke chapter of Second Amendment Sisters numbers about 75 members–a sizeable group at a campus of just 2,000 students.
Maria Heil, a spokeswoman for the national organization, sees a certain symmetry in establishing the group’s first college outpost at an all-women’s school in a state with the most restrictive gun laws in the country. Feminism long has flourished at Mount Holyoke, Heil pointed out, and part of the college’s mission is “to empower women to go forward.”
“More women are realizing they have to be responsible for their own safety, and we do empower women to take responsibility for themselves,” Heil said. At the first campus chapter, “they are doing a fantastic job. Reaching this population is very significant. At that age, they are not brainwashed against guns.”
Students, Alumnae, Media Uncomfortable with Club
While the Mount Holyoke rowing club is rowing, or the Spanish club is conjugating verbs, the Second Amendment Sisters are heading off to the shooting alley at the Smith and Wesson gun company, about 20 minutes from campus. The students are barred from keeping guns on campus by state law and school policy. Besides, most are under age. But a wide selection of guns is included as part of the range fee at Smith and Wesson.
“I’ve never shot a .32,” said Christie Caywood, 22, founder of the Second Amendment Sisters at Mount Holyoke. “What is it like?”
Joe Marcoux, who runs the Smith and Wesson shooting range, pulled the gun out of the glass display case so Caywood could examine it more closely.
“I don’t think you’ll like it,” he cautioned.
Caywood agreed and went back to a .22, a gun she just loves because it fits so nicely in her hand. At a “conservative political action conference” in February, 2001–two months after she first fired a handgun–Caywood came across information about Second Amendment Sisters. The national organization was barely two years old at that point, founded in December, 1999, by five women who had never met one another but who all opposed the anti-gun philosophy behind the Million Mom March on Washington. Second Amendment Sisters remains an Internet-based organization, with no central headquarters and no official membership roster. Heil said the group–which has no connection to the National Rifle Association–may have as many as 10,000 members nationwide.
Caywood was intrigued by the organization and at first thought simply of signing up herself. But friends on campus wanted their own chapter. The reasoning went like this: “It would be interesting and different, and we didn’t have anything else like it,” Caywood said.
At a campus that still serves cookies and milk at bedtime, the group’s founders were unprepared for the controversy that ensued. Second Amendment Sisters became the focus of a national television report on gun-toting students and school officials found themselves defending Mount Holyoke’s culture of tolerance.
“We thought, maybe at the most, there might be a little campus discussion,” Caywood said. “I know that for myself, I never thought of it as a political issue. I could never have imagined that CNN would be interested.”
The school’s Second Amendment Sisters also did not foresee that not all alumnae would be overjoyed. Campus shooting clubs are a venerable tradition at many schools, including Harvard. But those groups focus on hunting, not recreational handgun shooting.
“I can only partially understand your group by putting it down to extreme youth and ignorance,” a member of the class of 1942 wrote to the school’s alumnae quarterly. “Do think what you are doing. My mother, MHC ’16, and aunt, ’14, are slowly turning in their graves.”
Some Students See Firearm Mastery as Feminist Issue
One avid member is student government president Erica Stock, a 21-year-old junior who is majoring in biology. Stock is a dedicated member of the Green party and reluctantly gave up vegetarianism recently because her mother thought she was becoming anemic. Aside from the fact that handgun shooting turns out to be fun, Stock said she sees firearm mastery as an essential tool for women’s self-defense.
She conceded that she generally does not feel her life is in great danger at the rural campus in western Massachusetts. Nor does she feel threatened in her hometown of Grosse Pointe, Mich. But, Stock said, “I think it is inevitable that we are going to be living in a world where firearms are prevalent. Telling ourselves that we will live in an idyllic society where there will always be a policeman on the corner, and where no one has handguns, that is ridiculous.”
One in four women will likely be a victim of sexual assault, said Stock, citing widely-used figures. “I believe that using any means of defense that you consider appropriate to your situation is okay,” she said. “It may not always be the best way. But it is okay to do whatever you want to defend yourself, including using a gun.”
April Sparks, also a junior, said she preferred not to think about having to use a gun to defend herself if “some guy” threatened her life.
“But if I were in that kind of situation,” said Sparks, 21, “I know I could.”
New York author Caitlin Kelly has spent several years observing female firearm usage as research for her forthcoming book “Blown Away: American Women and Their Guns.” Kelly said she suspected the Second Amendment Sisters at Mount Holyoke were motivated as much by a concern for self-defense as by a desire to be involved in something offbeat, “maybe something controversial.”
But, she stressed, “These girls are very smart cookies. They have stopped to consider what they are doing. I think it is extremely frightening to people to think this can be a rational choice. Strong women are scary, and a woman with a gun is especially scary. You can’t dismiss these young women.”
Kevin McCaffrey, a spokesman for Mount Holyoke, said the school supports Second Amendment Sisters the way it endorses any campus group.
“There is a commitment here to accept different points of view, and to accept the fact that students can explore different political positions,” McCaffrey said. Nevertheless, he added, “the majority of the Mount Holyoke community, including our graduates,” are on the opposing side of this issue.
But out at the Smith and Wesson shooting range, a group of Second Amendment Sisters said they were not seeking institutional approval. Caywood said she looks forward to owning a gun, sometime after graduation. Stock said she hopes to teach her own children how to shoot handguns. Senior Sabrina Clark, 21, said she broke up with a boyfriend who opposed handgun ownership.
One more thing, said Clark, taking aim at a bull’s-eye target: “This is a real stress-reliever, almost like meditation. All your energy goes into your hand, and then down to that little mark on the target. You can lose yourself here. It’s such a wonderful feeling.”
Elizabeth Mehren is the New England bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.
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