Hitting the Target
Hagerstown Chapter of The Armed Women of America Celebrates One Year Anniversary.
By Jessica Trovato and Photos by Siera Rinkinen
Like so many during the COVID-19 pandemic, Beca Hafer received the devastating news that someone she knew had passed away. Just two days prior, Donna Seiler had been a visitor to Beca’s business, Hafer’s Gunsmithing in Hagerstown, and the pair discussed Seiler’s desire to purchase a handgun for protection. Unfortunately, the transaction was unable to take place that day, as Seiler did not have a handgun license. News of her death made the local paper: Seiler had not been a victim of the virus, but instead died at the hands of her husband, from whom she had a court order of protection and had just filed for divorce.
Beca says that although she practiced medicine for 16 years before working at the gun shop, Seiler’s death affected her in a way she had never experienced in the healthcare field.
“I’ve told people they were dying before and I’ve never felt as helpless as I did that day,” Beca says.
Beca had already started the stringent process to form a Hagerstown chapter of The Well-Armed Woman (now The Armed Women of America), a non-profit organization committed to educating women in making well-informed decisions regarding firearms, equipping them with products that specifically fit women’s bodies, and empowering them with a supportive community of like-minded ladies. Now, she was convinced that the group would not only be a great opportunity but an absolute necessity.
The first meet-and-greet to gauge interest in the chapter was held in March 2021 at Hafer’s store and drew 33 curious women. Just over a year later, the chapter boasts a total of 162 dedicated members from Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Beca describes the chapter as a “joint venture” between The Armed Women of America, Hafer’s Gunsmithing, and the North American Rod and Gun Club, where monthly meetings are hosted at no charge to the chapter as a token of support.
“We have one of the longest meetings in the organization,” says Beca, “It’s four hours. And I did that because I didn’t want anyone to feel rushed. One of the things, as women, that we’re horrible about is making time for us.”
At the beginning of each meeting, Beca divides the group into two parts: one half goes to the range to practice shooting with a group of instructors from Hafer’s Gunsmithing and the other half stay in class to learn about that month’s chosen safety topic. Two hours later, the groups switch places. At a recent meeting, attendees used a MantisX dry fire system that linked to their phone and analyzed their shoot-ing skills, giving feedback on how to improve.
Trainings also focus on real-life scenarios and unexpected factors that may occur in defensive situations. A problem simulated at a prior skills station involved participants placing their hands in ice water to mimic a loss of fine motor skills due to coursing adrenaline. Another station altered the amount of light in the room and others focused on dominant and non-dominant hand function, so that the gun operator still has full control if one hand is injured.
Beca mentions that a particularly stimulating class centered on the possibility of a malfunctioning gun. Participants were given an unfamiliar, jammed firearm and asked: What if your gun wasn’t working? Could you operate a gun you weren’t familiar with or dislodge a jammed gun?
“That was probably the best meeting we ever did because some of the ladies were hesitant to go to the range on their own. After all, they weren’t sure they could clear something, and are now independent on the range. It went well and nobody came in crying,” Beca says proudly.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, as a group of chapter members gathered to talk about their experience with The Well-Armed Woman, the topic of firearm safety and its importance in self-protection was certainly central. But perhaps even more prevalent were the themes of awareness, self-confidence, and the bond that comes from being in a supportive community of like-minded women.
“When I first started, I was very nervous on the range. Even though I had ear protection, just the sound of all the guns firing around me made me very anxious,” says Julie Hixon. Being new to using firearms, Julie credits the safety officers at the range who educated her in safe handling, target accuracy, and many other skills that have boosted her confidence.
“I’m very impressed and very happy with the progress I’ve made,” Julie says as her fellow members nod in support and agreement.
Despite owning firearms, the majority of guns in her home were gifts for her husband, her son, or prizes from bonanzas. Traci Welch confesses that prior to joining The Well-Armed Woman, she had no idea what caliber the guns were, what ammo went into each gun, or how to operate them. Now, she has a clear understanding of where to look on each weapon to find the pertinent information.
“Because of what I have learned at The Well-Armed Woman, I have a deep respect for handgun safety and love for the sport of shooting. It has restored my confidence,” Traci says.
Amy Babbie can attest to becoming more confident in other areas of firearm knowledge since joining the chapter.
“I feel like [being in the group] has given me the confidence and freedom to talk about the Second Amendment and your rights and why it’s important. You know, people come to me now with firearm questions and I try to educate them. You have to know laws, too. A lot of us travel and firearms laws are different from state to state.”
Being able to freely share and compare knowledge, questions, and even firearms among a group of women with similar interests was among the reasons that Cindy Collier signed up for the tight-knit group.
A self-proclaimed “perfectionist,” Cindy says that being a part of such a supportive organization has helped her to realize that she doesn’t have to be perfect, as everyone is growing and learning with every practice. Part of that growth for Cindy was her recent advancement into a position as an instructor for the chapter, a leadership role that she and 10 other members took on recently to help Beca with the increasing size of the group.
A few members stated they grew up watching their father or grandfather shoot but never felt comfortable enough, as a female, to ask them many questions or request to practice with their firearms. Heather Kendall was one of those women until March of last year when she joined the chapter.
“My father was a police officer and I have sons who hunt and are in the military. I never felt comfortable because all the men would be like, ‘Oh, just let me show you how to do it. You’re not doing it right.’ So, I thought a woman’s organization would help me get confident and feel more comfortable asking questions and not be embarrassed. And it’s done that, it’s been wonderful,” Heather says.
While members expressed an excitement in learning about firearms and increasing their technical proficiency, no one had any desire to have to put those skills to the test in a real-life scenario. However, they also know that being prepared is worth the time and effort if it means that they or their loved ones won’t become victims.
“A relative and her husband have a handgun, but she doesn’t know anything about it,” says JoAnn Pellegrini. “I said, ‘You know, you really should take a course.’ And she said, ‘Oh, I would never want to hurt anybody.’ Well, neither do the rest of us. I was like, ‘You have two toddlers, right? What if somebody comes in?’ She said, ‘Well, maybe I could shoot them in the hand.’ I said, ‘No, it doesn’t work like that.’”
Beca concedes that she hears that type of response often.
“Especially from women, I hear all the time at the [Hafer’s Gunsmithing] counter that ‘I don’t want to kill anybody,’” she says, “And I say, ‘OK, if your children were behind you, well, that’s different.’ Why do we not value our own lives as much as we do our children’s? Think about your husband trying to raise your children by himself.”
To lessen the chance that members might ever experience an unsafe scenario, Beca instills the importance of situational awareness, a skill that all members say they use on a daily basis.
Holly Marceau, a chapter member who also works at Hafer’s Gunsmithing in Martinsburg, now communicates more with her husband when they go shopping about the actions of those around them or if anything just feels “off.” Looking up and making eye contact is also a way that she lets others know she is paying attention, Holly says.
This signal can throw those with ulterior motives off their mark, as they expect most people in today’s world to be distracted with their phones and, therefore, easy targets.
Although firearm education is a serious topic, the friendships formed within this chapter of The Well-Armed Woman certainly allow for levity and bonding, as Christina Price can confirm. Originally Holly’s friend and neighbor, Christina didn’t know any of the other ladies when she joined. Now, she says, she talks to several of them at least once a week and some every day.
“A lot of the ladies, when they shoot outside of our monthly meetings, they’ll post pictures of their targets on their personal Facebook page. You’ll see everyone commenting on how much improvement you’ve shown and how good you’re doing. Those are things that you don’t typically see in a group of ladies—they can be catty and judgmental.”
Although female camaraderie is in full force in the chapter, being a part of The Well-Armed Woman has even come into play in a positive way in at least one member’s marriage.
“Just this year, my husband goes, “Irene, I was look-ing at the jewelry but—would you like jewelry or a firearm?” And I said, I’d like a firearm. I bought my husband a new wedding band because he desperately needed one and he bought me a firearm,” says Irene Mirch.
“So that was my 20th wedding anniversary,” she says with a grin.