Annie get your Walther PPK. 380 ACP: Progress on US gun control was made last week, but the firearms lobby is busy raising an army of Dirty Harriets

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The Independent Online
THEY WOULD make the perfect yuletide present for any wife or girlfriend. They are dangerous, and sort of sexy. They are expensive and precision- made. They can save a person's life (that's the theory anyway). In fact, why not give her one this year: a handgun.

Stuck for choice? Turn to the Annual Gift Guide in this month's issue of Women and Guns, available on any American news-stand. 'I would love to find a Glock 17 with luminous night sights and three extra magazines under my tree on Christmas morning,' begins one item, with an accompanying photograph. Alternatively: 'If I didn't already own one, this little Seecamp LWS .32 ACP would be high on my wish list. This little gem is just right for slipping into a pocket or a holiday stocking]'

As the first headway in years towards gun control is being made in Washington, notably with the passage in Congress last week of the long- debated Brady Bill, suspicions have been aroused that gun manufacturers and firearms lobbyists are deliberately targeting women, preying on their fear of rape or violent assault, to prop up sales and political support. The charge is directed particularly at the National Rifle Assocation (NRA), until recently the most feared of Washington lobby organisations.

Certainly, gun ownership by women in America is no longer an exotic rarity. Gun shops and firing ranges across the country report a steady increase in female custom. According to a recent Gallup survey, 50 per cent more women own handguns today than a decade ago. Although precise numbers are hard to come by, it is calculated that more than 12 million women are packing some kind of lethal weapon, around the home and often outside it, in the office or the shopping mall.

The Brady Bill, named after the White House press secretary James Brady, who was disabled in the failed assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan in 1981, may mark the turning of the political tide against the NRA and the gun-making industry. Due to be signed next week by President Clinton, it will enforce for the first time a five-day waiting period on all gun purchases nationwide to allow time for background checks by police authorities.

Controversy over gun sales to women has been sparked by NRA advertisements in such magazines as Cosmopolitan and Family Circle, featuring Dallas actress Susan Howard (Donna Krebbs) urging readers to call - free-phone - and discover 'How to Choose to Refuse to be a Victim'. As well as Howard wearing her meanest 'make my day' moue, there is a picture of a woman looking nervously over her shoulder as she leads her daughter through a deserted underground car park. Those who telephone are invited to take a dollars 20 NRA course on ways to avoid being attacked and, if it comes to it, to repel an assailant.

The bearing of firearms is carefully buried amid a series of less radical options like carrying debilitating sprays and planting spiky bushes under your ground floor windows. This has not stopped the gun-control lobby and women's groups from attacking the NRA for, among other things, appropriating the language of feminism to persuade women that their safety and independence can only be assured by the acquisition of firepower.

One of the most outspoken critics has been Sarah Brady, James Brady's wife and chairwoman of a Washington handgun control coalition. 'They prey on fear, on guilt,' she said. 'The newest twist is, 'be assertive; do what the men are doing'. Well, no thank you very much - those kind of men are not men in my estimation.'

Meanwhile, firearms products aimed exclusively at women multiply. The Bang Bang Boutique in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, reports that sales of its women's gun garter, the 'bushwhacker' - a holster strapped to the thigh for wearing beneath a dress or skirt - are rising fast. Business is also good for Lady B Safe of Oklahoma, manufacturer of speciality handbags and purses with holster fittings that can be ripped open in a moment. And there are guns, too, made specially for the female audience.

The Italian gunsmith Beretta, which has a factory in Maryland, is running an advertisement that shows one of its female models alongside a framed photograph of a mother and two children and a bedside alarm clock. 'Tip the odds in your favour,' it declares. The head of Beretta USA, Robert Bonaventure, is enthusiastic about the emerging market. 'My guess is that 10 times more women are buying handguns now than five years ago,' he said. 'Boyfriends and husbands are giving them as gifts.'

Take Louis Helmke, 33, a computer programmer, who on Friday was browsing in the Blue Ridge Arsenal in Chantilly, Virginia. He was hoping to buy a Smith & Wesson 'Lady Smith' handgun for his wife, Carla, for Christmas. Cost: about dollars 350 (pounds 235). 'I'm looking for something for her personal defence,' he concedes. Although he and his wife might target-shoot together, her protection is the first consideration. 'I think it's become just a growing concern among a lot of people nowadays, you know, especially rape.'

Hayward Long, the owner of the Blue Ridge, a gun shop and firing range combined, confirms that women customers are becoming more important, buying more and taking more shooting lessons. Women make up about 75 per cent of those on his beginners' courses. 'I think it is an untapped market. It's amazing how many women come in here, fire a few shots in the range, and say 'Gee, this is fun',' he explains. 'But they realise also that the police just can't be everywhere and that if you are going to be protected you'd better learn how to do defend yourself.'

The NRA ads highlight statistics suggesting that three out of four women in America will be victims of crime during their lives, a third of whom will be raped, violently assaulted or robbed. But women who think taking up arms is the only solution might equally well be directed to a report in last month's New Journal of Medicine, claiming that keeping a handgun in the home almost trebles the chance that someone will be killed there, principally because of accidents and domestic disputes. Of all the domestic shootings covered in the study, 85 per cent showed there had been no forced entry.

Tanya Metaksa, chairwoman of the NRA's women's policies committee, says the Refuse to be a Victim campaign 'has nothing to do with guns'. The courses, she insists, are an attempt to help women to learn to defend themselves. And she rejects the notion that the programme is encouraging America to become a nation of Dirty Harriets. The market is there because violent crime is there.

'Gun ownership will increase among women because more and more women will feel that they want to protect themselves, just as washing machine ownership will go up because more women feel that they want the convenience of owning one. It is not us who are causing the fear: they only have to look at the headlines.'

(Photograph omitted)