Arms and the woman

<p>Toss Witherrite (left) and her daughter Toni Clary target practice Sunday afternoon in rural Lostine. Both are members of the Wallowa County Chapter of The Well Armed Woman, formed by Gina Birkmaier.</p>

A recent Gallup poll documented that within a six-year period the number of all women in the U.S. owning firearms jumped from 13 percent to 23 percent.

Although a startling statistic to some, it’s easily documented that the trend toward more female gun ownership started even earlier in Wallowa County.

When Keith Newburn first began teaching hunter education courses in Wallowa County 10 years ago, his class membership was male-dominated. Attendance today is about 50-50.

When the Eagle Cap Shooters Association launched in 2005, female membership was minimal. Now, says association president Steve Wolfe, the utilizing the Eagle Cap shooting range north of Enterprise has nearly 200 members, about 30 percent of them women.

In January this year, a group headed by Gina Birkmaier calling itself the Wallowa County Chapter of The Well Armed Woman first met in Enterprise in Toma’s Conference Room. The group – aimed at educating and making women comfortable with the use of firearms – has met twice, already has a growing membership of about 55 members, and plans to hold another meeting this month.

Wallowa County Sheriff Steve Rogers, as part of his job, keeps track of the number of concealed weapon permits that are active in his jurisdiction. At present, he says, there are a total of 794 concealed weapon permit holders in Wallowa County, and 242 of them are women.

One of three persons who teaches classes here for the purpose of enabling women and men to obtain concealed weapon permits, Joseph Melow of Pendleton, says women are seeking empowerment, often to provide better safety for themselves.

The other two men qualified and actively teaching such courses locally are Duncan Hunter and Brian Willard.

Melow, a firearm safety instructor at Blue Mountain Community College, says there’s been a “big increase” in the number of women getting permits in recent years, even more so in recent months. He says the trend has accelerated in the current political climate.

Seeing a need, Melow came to Wallowa Feb. 9-10 and to Joseph Feb. 23-24 to teach courses on concealed weapon permits. He says an estimated 40-50 percent of the estimated 140 people attending those four classes were women.

His next trip here will be April 13-14, beginning at 9 a.m. both days at the Wallowa County Courthouse, in Enterprise.

Melow charges an average of $75 per person for classes that last four to seven hours. In essence, the Sunday classes repeat what was taught on Saturdays, only to another group of students.

The instructor from BMCC says he hopes all county students of his who don’t have concealed weapon permits follow through and get them, yet admits some of his students already have permits for Oregon. Their overall goal, he says, is to become permit holders for Utah, Arizona, and Washington as well. This is possible because Melow also is a certified instructor at the state level in each of those states.

Wolfe, the Eagle Cap Shooters Association president, says there are many certified National Rifle Association instructors available locally who, for a fee, can instruct students in firearm safety. Among these NRA instructors are Tom Crooks, Kim and Holly Huchison, and Roger Curtis.

Becky Wolfe, a member of the local Well Armed Woman group, says the use of firearms is a fun sport that also can be used for self-protection if the need arises.

Attendees at the first two Well Armed Woman meetings here were a diverse mix in terms of their familiarity with firearms, ranging from those with no knowledge and possibly a fear of firearms, to others who’ve been using firearms throughout much of their lives.

Wallowa County District Attorney Mona Williams was guest speaker at the second Well Armed Woman meeting. Birkmaier said Williams focused her presentation on victims’ rights.

Wallowa County Chief Deputy Sheriff Fred Steen, who was sheriff here for 12 years, has no opinion as to whether a woman should be better armed than a man.

“The important thing,” he says, “whether it’s a man or a woman is that they are well trained and feel competent with their weapon.”

Sheriff Rogers is very pointed in opposition to existing law that allows individuals to take handgun safety courses online, pass a test, and then receive permits to carry concealed weapons without ever demonstrating their ability to handle a weapon.

“That only means they can pass a test,” says Rogers. “I don’t like it.”

This is not true for youth up to age 18, says Newburn, the hunter safety instructor. Students prior to age 18 can take courses online, but cannot receive the needed gun safety certificate without spending supervised time at a shooting range.

Birkmaier says membership in the Wallowa County Chapter of The Well Trained Woman is growing rapidly.

“I get calls every other day from women wanting to join,” she says.

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