At Bells Gun & Sport Shop, in Franklin Park, Wednesday is a slow night. Maybe not slow exactly, but it’s not Tuesday. That’s when the combat league holds its weekly competitions and there is always something new and lively going on then, usually something tied to the season, or the news. Sometimes it’s a hostage target practice—the human-shaped target you’re aiming at is hidden behind another human-shaped target, and the idea is to hit the barely visible “criminal” without hitting the “hostage” that shields him. For Thanksgiving there was a paper turkey shoot, and for December they’re thinking of doing something really fresh—shooting the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Tonight’s diversion is more prosaic. Though a number of cars, including a Jeep with the license plate GUNS, rings the parking lot, the men who came in those cars are strangely passive. They are not cruising the glass cases that display a wide array of guns—.38s and .22s, .357s and 9mms, new or used, with long or short barrels, adjustable or stationary sights, wide or slim grips. They aren’t flipping through the latest edition of Soldier of Fortune, and they’re not checking out the selection of T-shirts, which includes one modish design of an automatic with YES emblazoned across the barrel.

Instead, the men are standing around various points of the store—almost as if they were stopped in their tracks—watching television. This is not just a run-of-the-mill Wednesday night, after all; the original, unedited version of The Deer Hunter is being shown on Channel 32.

Surrounded by such a hard-core concentration of virility, I am definitely a stranger in a strange land.

The slight double take I get from a man behind the counter seems to confirm this. While Robert DeNiro yells “You fuckers, you fuckers,” I tell the man I am there to sit in on a firearms lesson, that it was arranged over the phone. He hands me protective glasses and ear protectors, then tells me that the instructor, Barb Mueller, is already back on the range.

“Go on back,” he says. “She’s the one with red hair and aviator glasses.”

Only later, after I’m back on the shooting range, does the description seem indicative of just how accepted, how one of the boys Barb Mueller has become. It would have been just as accurate for the man behind the counter to say, “She’s the only woman back there.”

Barb Mueller likes guns. You can tell by her car (that’s her Jeep with the GUNS plates), by her jewelry (one gold chain with a revolver charm, one with a little gold automatic, plus matching earrings), and by listening to her.

“Some people like tennis,” she says, “I like shooting. It’s a skill that’s 90 percent mental ability. You have to think; you have to know what you’re doing. It’s a discipline.”

Mueller is disciplined enough to be a regular in the marksman competitions; she has won five or six major trophies, an impressive feat for someone who handled her first gun only three and a half years ago.

“I came here with my husband and a friend of his,” she remembers. “The friend was shooting a .44 magnum, my husband had a .357. They thought they were going to be cute, so they asked me if I wanted to try it. One time I’d hit the target, the next time I wouldn’t. I couldn’t figure it out and they sure weren’t going to tell me, so I took some lessons. That’s when I found out what the sights were for.”

Mueller took some more lessons, practiced at least once a week, and watched her shooting improve. About the same time, her husband decided to give it up. (“He fishes now,” she says.) Then 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 just love it if it was a nice, safe world out there,” she says, “but it’s not.”

In Chicago, most women don’t need more than a quick read through the morning paper—a woman is accosted on the Kennedy expressway, a woman is stabbed to death in New Town, a woman who’s raped watches two policemen let her attackers go—to know that. The result is that while the vast majority of people in this country—over 80 percent—say they are in favor of strict handgun controls, an increasing number of women are arming themselves, or at least thinking seriously about it.

And once they start packing a pistol, most women want to learn how to use it—effectively. Like dressing for success, survival shooting is becoming a desired skill of our time.

That’s how Mueller runs her instruction classes at Bell’s—low-key and as if your life depended on it.

During the lesson that Wednesday night, Mueller’s student, a man in his 20s, said he was primarily interested in sharpshooting—bull’s eyes, target competition, that kind of stuff. Yet over the next three hours Mueller led him through those paces and more: instinctive shooting from the hip, combat crouch, close confrontation, and aiming around corners and barricades. The distance is seven yards (“According to police statistics, any confrontation will occur in seven yards or less,” she tells us); the target is Herman Human, a police silhouette of a man that is divided into zones. Each zone is marked with a K (kill) or a D (disable) and a numerical value, such as “K5 D2” at the silhouette’s neck, or “K2 D4” for the silhouette’s elbow.

At the end of the session, Mueller pulled her .45 Colt Gold Cup automatic (“the Cadillac of .45s,” she says) from her holster, loaded a clip, and let her student fire a couple of rounds. Then she handed it to me.

She told me how to hold it, with a perfect V in my right hand, my left hand wrapping it securely. I squeezed the trigger and felt a jolt from my wrist up through my shoulder. The noise and power of this gun were unbelievably scary, surprisingly intoxicating.

“Try it again,” she said.

This time I hit Herman Human square in his K4 D3 zone. I was excited. I was disgusted. Three days later I was back for more.

A woman with a gun has always been considered a volatile image. It embodies both sexual fear (what if her gun’s bigger than mine?) and sexual fantasy (pistol-packin’ mamas are a staple of pornography). In popular culture, the subliminal message was that once a woman got a taste of a gun there was no telling what she would do next. Look at Annie Oakley. Bonnie Parker. Patty Hearst.

But in the past two or three years, as crimes against women have soared, women have started to feel differently about handguns. In 1978, during a Playboy interview, Dolly Parton was one of the first to go on record. She said she “never traveled without a gun … . A .38 pistol. I have a permit for it in Nashville. I just carry it for protection. I feel safer when I’ve got it. I just don’t like the idea of knowin’ I’m totally helpless.”

One good indication of how times are changing occurred last year when Nancy Reagan admitted to owning “just a tiny little gun … . I don’t know anything about it.” Yet, upon hearing this, a lot of women were incredulous. A .22. What a wimpy gun. What ridiculous self-effacement.

According to a New York Times article last May, not only are more women turning to guns, but they’re shunning small caliber pistols like Nancy Reagan’s .22. The most popular weapon of choice, at the moment, seems to be a .38 revolver—the same gun a Chicago policeman carries. And classes in “shooting to survive” with these weapons are being swamped. The New York Times reported that “[this] trend was evident in many cities.”

In September, Savvy took the “women and guns” theme one step further. In an article illustrated with a photograph of a business-suited, manicured model firing a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, one woman was quoted as saying, “My gut reaction is that women should be allowed to have guns and men should not.”

Perhaps most revealing of all was a Glamour magazine reader survey on gun control published earlier this year, the survey showed that 65 percent of the Glamour readers—the ones who read “Why Love Makes Us Fat” and “How Men Really Feel About Childbirth”—who responded said they keep guns in their homes.

The reason all these women in these articles cited for turning to handguns and survival shooting lessons: self-defense. For many, a poster of a smoking gun barrel says it best: “No one ever raped a .38.”

Actually very little data is available concerning victim handgun use in resisting rape or assault. (Since carrying a loaded handgun outside the home is against the law in many states—including Illinois—potential victims who have used firearms to ward off an assailant are reluctant to report this information to the police.) Yet Restricting Handguns, by Don Kates Jr. and Carol Ruth Silver, tends to support the poster’s premise. Kates and Silver argue that “There is no evidence that rapists have ever injured women because of armed resistance, while there is every reason to believe that other forms of resistance are at least equally likely to enrage them. But, while women who resist without weapons are sometimes injured because of it, it must also be noted that far more terrible injury has often been suffered by women who submitted abjectly.”

Even two studies for the National Crime Survey—”Rape Victimization in 26 American Cities,” published in 1979, and “Avoiding Rape: A Study of Victims and Avoiders,” published in 1980—reluctantly draw a somewhat similar conclusion. In summarizing its findings, the 1979 study reads “[the data] suggests that in a rape attack, the victim who manages to do something to protect herself has a much better chance of preventing the completion of the attack than the woman who does nothing. However, it is important to note that this finding alone is not sufficient basis for advising potential rape victims to use various methods of [resistance].”

Countering the arguments for resistance, at least armed resistance, the National Coalition to Ban Handguns publishes a pamphlet titled “Self Defense.” This pamphlet contains statistics about various kinds of crimes—burglary, assault, rape—and the NCBH’s suggestions, called “What You Should Do.”

The “What You Should Do” section on rape reads, in part, “Rape can be prevented. The best defenses: don’t hitchhike or travel alone at night; walk in well-lit areas; avoid suspicious-looking persons … “

“What You Should Do” about assault reads “Studies in several American cites indicates the best defense against injury when threatened by an assailant is to run away or, if he has a gun, to try to reason with the attacker.”

Barb Mueller finds such attitudes and advice unbelievably naive. “I went to a good Catholic school where the nuns taught us that the world was a nice, simple place,” she says. “It’s a rude awakening when you find out the truth.”

Mueller’s rude awakening came several years ago, when two men with a BB gun grabbed her and raped her. “I didn’t know anything about guns then,” Mueller says, “so I was terrified by the sight of it. If somebody came up to me today and tried to hold a BB gun on me, believe me, the fur would fly.”

After this, Mueller decided she needed some form of self-defense. She took karate and martial arts lessons, but wasn’t satisfied. “They tell you that those moves are good in any situation, that you can break out of any hold,” she says. “So after a while I came home and tried it with my husband. He weighs 280 pounds and when he put me into one of those holds, there was no breaking out.”

Shortly afterward, Mueller accompanied her husband for the first time, to Bell’s shooting range.

On Saturday morning, Bell’s Gun and Sport Shop is crowded. Men mill around the display cases, which are already blurry with fingerprint smudges, and they crowd the narrow cubicles in the shooting range. In the midst of all the men, Barb Mueller is waiting for me, a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver in one hand, a box of ammunition in the other. I have asked her to teach me the basic skills of self-defense with a handgun, a request she says she has been getting often form women lately.

After we settle into a lounge off to the side of the range, Mueller goes through basic safety practices. “Never take anyone’s word—not even mine—that a gun isn’t loaded. Always check it.”

I check the .38.

She then demonstrates how to hold a gun, how to load it, how to uncock it when it is loaded. I practice each technique several times. By now the gun no longer feels awkward or heavy; I’m getting used to it.

“That’s good,” says Mueller when I mention it. “The gun must become an extension of your hand.”

Learning how to use the sights is next. “Don’t worry about the target,” she says. “Forget it. Just concentrate on lining up the sights; square the front one between the back two. And use both eyes. The target must be a blur.”

I tell Mueller that I’m getting all the separate pieces, but it doesn’t feel like it’s adding up to much. She suggests we go back to the range.

“We’ll start with a blank sheet of paper,” she says, reversing a Herman Human and cranking it out to the maximum confrontation distance of seven yards. “A white sheet of paper is the hardest target to use. The Russians practice eight hours a day shooting at blank pieces of paper.

Mueller is talking about the USSR Olympic sharpshooting team, but for a moment I’m confused. Am I expected to prepare for handgun-to-handgun combat in the streets with Russians? Once proficient, can I stave off anything, even a foreign attack? Already, an “under siege” mentality is taking over.

I roll with the mood, load the revolver, cock it, and line up my sights. Even though the target has been reversed, it’s easy to discern the human silhouette on the other side. I aim for the upper torso and fire.

“Good,” says Mueller. “Again.”

I fire again, and then again for more times. Even as Mueller is cranking the target back, I can see where my shots have hit—one in the neck (K5 D2), three in the upper right chest-shoulder area (K4 D3), two right through the lungs (K5 D2). It’s all over for Herman Human.

And so the lesson goes. Round after round, single action, double action (squeezing the trigger through instead of cocking it first), right hand unsupported, then left hand. It turns out I am a good shot. The paper body count is piling up. It’s a giddy, seductive sensation, like playing a good game of Space Invaders.

“Hey, you guys, look at this.” Mueller is showing off some of my targets to the men who are also on the range. “It’s her first time out.”

“Her first time out today,” counters a man.

“No, no. Her first time ever. Eat your hearts out.” Back to me, she whispers, “These guys just can’t take it when a woman can shoot.”

The lesson progresses through instinctive shooting (“Bring the gun up—whap. It’s a definite move, like a punch.”); the combat crouch (“You’re trying to make yourself as small a target as possible.”); and a position for close confrontation.

“You’ll try and ward them off,” Mueller says. “So you step back on your right foot and your left hand goes up. You’ll be shooting from the hip, so the gun’s there. You’ll yell ‘stop’ and, god forbid, if they don’t, then you let them have it. It sounds like a terrible thing, but it’s called survival.”

Mueller says she has been in a similar situation only once. “Over a year ago, when I had a different job, I had to make bank deposits occasionally. The police in that area knew I carried my gun with me but they let it go; they felt I knew what I was doing.”

As Mueller tells it, one day a man came up, grabbed her by the arm, and told her to come along with him. “I had my hand in my purse, on my gun,” she says. “So I just raised the barrel up and said I didn’t think so. ‘I don’t want any trouble, lady,’ he said and ran away. By the time I got home I had almost wet my pants but I knew then that I could defend myself.”

As for me, Mueller says I should remember a couple more things. One is to “always fire two rounds at an assailant. The first one slows the body down and the second one is the punch power. That’s what brings him down.” And the second thing to remember is that “after death there is a seven-second delay on the body’s muscles. So if somebody’s gun is cocked, the safe way to take him out is a head shot.”

Suddenly I feel that I’ve learned enough.”

“Go home and think abut it,” Mueller says. “And when you’re home, stand in various rooms and pretend that someone’s breaking in the back door. Find where your best vantage point would be. And don’t go looking for him.”

A little chill passes over me. What if this wasn’t a lesson anymore? What if someone besides Herman Human had actually broken in?

“Remember, you have the advantage,” says Mueller. “You know where you are. You know you are armed. And you know what you’re willing to do to survive.”

Well, maybe.