The Newport Rifle Club’s all-women’s pistol class was supposed to begin at 9 a.m., but even before the start time, many of the women had already taken their seats. They flipped through the pistol shooting handbooks placed at each chair and looked curiously at a table full of unloaded guns. The front wall was peppered with little holes from airgun pellets.

Dave Balasco, Newport Rifle Club’s chief instructor, kicked off the day with the basics of pistol safety.

“When I was trained, it was just embedded, pounded into my head pick up the gun with your finger off the trigger,” he said. “To this day, I pick up a Windex bottle [and] my finger comes off the trigger.”

He gestured to a worn poster board and read aloud two other rules. Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. And always keep it unloaded until you're ready to fire. Some of the women started taking notes while others nodded along.

Cheryl who like most of the women, asked to be identified only by her first name was sitting at the front of the class. She said she was excited but frightened to handle a gun, and she still couldn’t believe she signed up.

“God forbid something happens, I hope I’d never have to use it. But I just want to protect myself,” she told me.

Balasco said it’s common for beginners to feel nervous, but he warned that soon enough, they’d be hooked. Once you own one gun, you’ll eventually want to buy another, he said.

Newport Rifle Club has offered so-called “all-ladies” pistol courses for years, but Balasco told me they’re especially relevant now. More women are buying guns in 2020 than ever before. I wanted to hear directly from some of them about what changed why they became interested in owning a gun so Balasco agreed I could join as his twelfth student.

The other women in my class were all beginners of sorts. Some had practiced shooting before with male relatives, but never trained seriously. Others were afraid even to have a gun in their house until recently, when the political discord in 2020 changed their minds.

One classmate, Lori, said her father was a policeman and her husband was in the military. Her own lingering questions around safety pushed her to sign up.

“I hemmed and hawed about it, and thought You know what? No. You need to be responsible and go to the class and learn the right way. And that’s why I’m here,” she said.

Two of Newport Rifle Club’s women instructors joined for the morning lessons. They walked through the anatomy of a pistol, then discussed all the different forms of ammunition that can go inside. Balasco took over again for a session on safe shooting skills.

At one point, he showed a video clip from another gun range an example of what not to do. The grainy footage begins with a man loading a pistol. Just before aiming, he tries to hoist his pants up and shoots himself in the leg. When Balasco asked what the man did wrong, a few women responded “Besides not wearing a belt?”

Halfway through the day, Balasco had the women line up and practice dry firing a pistol. The stakes were low. The pistol only shot a laser toward a paper target taped to the wall. Yet the women were still methodical. One by one, they carefully held their breath and deliberately, gradually pulled the trigger.

As another student, Felicia, waited, she told me some of her friends are scared of guns. She doesn’t feel the same way.

“They don’t frighten me at all,” she said. “I’m getting older now so I thought [training] was important. I can’t just pick a gun up at this point without not really knowing can I really aim this at a target and execute properly?”

Gun sales first spiked when COVID-19 hit the United States. Shoppers began to hoard supplies and left many grocery stores looking apocalyptic. In March, Rhode Island saw the greatest percent increase of any state in background checks for people trying to buy firearms. 

Even as initial panic around COVID-19 has subsided, monthly firearm sales in Rhode Island have remained at an unprecedented high. Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting, an independent research group, found over 35,000 guns were sold by the end of August roughly 30 percent more than the total from all of 2019.

Balasco told me there’s a reason gun ownership is still on the rise. At some point this summer, people’s worries shifted from the pandemic to the ongoing civil and political unrest around the country.

“Whenever there’s a question about whether or not the Second Amendment is going to be restricted, or there's going to be restrictions on being able to own or purchase firearms, there typically is a run on gun sales,” Balasco said. “The pandemic, the political unrest, calls for defunding the police that’s just driven that demand that much more.”

In the afternoon, one of the other instructors, Chris, gave a short presentation on how to select a firearm. He advised the women to consider the intended purpose of the pistol before buying anything.

“Once you own a gun, it’s a lifestyle. You have to accept I own a gun, and I need to be safe with the gun,” he said. “It’s not a fashion accessory, not that anybody here thinks it is. But I have worked with people that kind of had that mindset.”

Even in this year when people are scooping up firearms, Chris asked the women to reflect again on why they’d be buying a gun.

One participant gave a reason unrelated to panic or politics. She asked we not use her name, but said she recently retired and began looking for a new hobby. Social distancing complicates most activities, but she likes that she could practice target shooting on her own.

“I feel that I could come here and safely pursue a hobby, and spend as much time as I want here practicing and getting better at it, and be exposed to very few people,” she said.

By the end of the day, each student had a chance to fire a revolver and semi-automatic pistol at a 50 foot target. Instructors were around to review the safety protocol one on one. They offered last-minute pointers too, like not to grip the gun too low or lean away from it.

Then, once everyone put on eye and ear protection, the class braced for the first shot.


Antonia Ayres-Brown is the Newport reporter for The Public’s Radio. She can be reached at antonia@thepublicsradio.org