Author Paxton Quigley and the oh-so-fashionable .38 Credit: SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION

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The early 80s were a dangerous time for women. Actually, every time is probably equally dangerous for women, but in the early 80s, the media decided to make a Thing about it. But the other part of the story was that women who were imperiled decided to take matters into their own hands. Dolly Parton was the first famous woman who admitted to owning a gun. “One good indication of how times are changing occurred last year,” Marcia Froelke Coburn wrote in 1981, “when Nancy Reagan admitted to owning ‘just a tiny little gun. . . . I don’t know anything about it.'” In a survey, 65 percent of readers of Glamour magazine reported owning guns. According to the New York Times, the most popular model among women was the .38 revolver. “The reason all these women in these articles cited for turning to handguns and survival shooting lessons: self-defense,” Coburn wrote. “For many, a poster of a smoking gun barrel says it best: ‘No one ever raped a .38.'”

Coburn decided it was time to become a modern women and learn how to use a gun herself. Then as now, Illinois law prohibited carrying a loaded handgun outside the house. But Coburn could take shooting lessons. Which she did, at Bells Gun & Sport Shop in Franklin Park, from a woman named Barb Mueller.

Mueller had begun shooting three and a half years earlier. She’d had a talent for it.

She started making the rounds of sharpshooting competitions. “That’s the fun part, especially when you go up against some guy who’s six-two and thinks he’s great stuff and then you beat him. That’s when they really give you looks.”

What kind of looks?

“Well, you know,” she says after a pause. “If you’re a woman, some men think you’re stupid or defenseless.”

If, however, Mueller implies, you’re holding a gun in your hand, some men might decide to think again.

According to Mueller, more women should learn to shoot because, one, “Women turn out to be better shots than men,” and, two, “You can build up your confidence because once you know how to handle a pistol, you have total control.” And when Mueller talks about control, she doesn’t just mean out on the shooting range. “I’d just love it if it was a nice, safe world out there,” she says, “but it’s not.”

Mueller, as it happened, had taken up shooting because she’d been raped. The standard advice at the time—don’t walk alone at night, stay in well-lit areas, run from your attacker or, if he has a gun, try to reason with him—had turned out to be completely useless. So did self-defense classes; she discovered that she couldn’t defeat her 280-pound husband. So shooting it was.

She turned out to be a good shooter and a good teacher. During Coburn’s first time out on the shooting range, she manages to “kill” the target, a police silhouette nicknamed Herman Human, many times. “It’s a giddy, seductive sensation, like playing a good game of Space Invaders.”

It’s a little strange to read this story now, in a time when guns are no longer a fashionable means of self-defense for women but agents of mass destruction—even if the weapons in school shootings are assault rifles, not the smallish revolvers Mueller taught Coburn to shoot. Mueller’s reasons for owning and carrying a gun seem valid—and yet Coburn isn’t convinced, despite her pleasure in hitting the target on the shooting range. All her joy evaporates when Mueller gives her very specific instructions on how to shoot to kill: suddenly this is real. A gun is a weapon.