DERBY, Vt. — A torrential downpour wasn’t enough to keep these women away from their monthly gathering at the Derby Fish and Game Club shooting range.
They met, as they have for a year now, to learn about handguns, practice firearm safety and shooting, and share some laughs as part of the year-old Well Armed Woman Shooting Chapter of the Northeast Kingdom.
It’s a welcoming place for women, many of whom needed to learn to shoot for personal safety or to overcome a lifetime of discomfort around guns — in a setting with others who understand.
Chapter Co-president Sirena Zahn of Morgan says she’s typical of most of the 25 members in this Well Armed Woman chapter.
She grew up in a hunting family, but she never handled guns herself.
“We always had guns in my home and I never had an interest,” Zahn said. “I have no desire to shoot critters.”
And the guns themselves were “intimidating, a little scary,” she said.
And then she needed to learn, and quickly.
Like many people who work in public service of different kinds — from law enforcement and first responders to the medical profession — she was threatened regularly on the job. She wasn’t perturbed — it happens — but then she discovered that someone had approached her home.
She thought her dogs were a deterrent, but this person got to her front door.
“Do you believe me now? You should be carrying,” her husband Paul told her.
Her husband is a gun collector and very knowledgeable, Zahn said. But taking lessons with a husband or significant other isn’t always fun.
“I love him dearly,” Zahn said while inside the warm clubhouse, as he set up an awning in driving cold rain for the club’s members to practice shooting.
“I think you’ll find this true with most couples. . .. Him teaching me wasn’t working. We would bicker and I would go home.”
Her need for training on handguns led her to hunt online for gun training specifically for women. Early last year she discovered the Morrisville chapter of Well Armed Woman, the first in Vermont, and joined right away.
At first Zahn said she was a little embarrassed to admit to others that she wasn’t a fan of guns, in Vermont with its many families with generations of hunters that is a conceal and open carry state.
Zahn said she thought she was admitting to a little secret. But she discovered that she isn’t the only one.
It turns out there are a lot of people like her, starting from scratch around guns.
Kristen Walters of Irasburg, co-president of the chapter, joined to practice with other women. Her husband, an area law enforcement officer, “told me about Sirena.”
Her husband taught her how to shoot. But she wanted to join “more so to brush up on my skills and techniques.”
“I think it’s good to have an all-women club. Most women feel more comfortable shooting around other women, less intimidated by men,” Walters said. “This is an extra women-empowerment movement.”
“We’re not turning out marksmen,” Zahn said.
Age is no barrier. Walters is the youngest member at 27. Linda Atherton, at 68, is the oldest.
Most members live in Orleans County, although several occasionally drive to Derby from St. Johnsbury.
The club has a three-hour reservation each month during the shooting season at the Derby range. The session features indoor safety and technique lessons, range practice and other conversations.
The shooting range is closed from November or December, depending on conditions, to May, due to mud season.
During the winter the group meets at Don’s Auto once a month for information sessions. Recently, Orleans County State’s Attorney Jennifer Barrett spoke about the rights and responsibilities of gun owners.
Members also bring in their own guns to show others, because each type of handgun is different.
Newcomers don’t need to buy a gun to join, Zahn said. She said she always brings several guns for members to try, especially one called “Old Trusty,” a handgun that uses 22 ammunition which doesn’t kick and isn’t very noisy.
Almost all members buy guns and equipment once they’ve learned the basics, she said.
Women will want to buy their own guns, Zahn said, and not rely on a family member picking something out for them.
“People have different-sized hands, weaknesses, strengths, needs,” Zahn said.
“Their husband or boyfriend can’t just go to the store and buy them a gun, any more than they can go to a store and buy you a bra,” she said.
“They’re so individual, and guns are the same way.”
Women often buy two guns, one for protection and one for fun, she said.
And there are as many kinds of holsters, for the torso, armpit, back, legs and wherever is an easy reach. There are also purses that contain holsters, Zahn said.
Zahn said she now can teach others about handguns. They have invited guest instructors in the use of rifles and other weapons.
Some of the information helps clear up public misconceptions about types of guns, including those used by mass shooters, Zahn and others said.
Knowledge and experience ease the fears of some members.
At the recent gathering at the range, the newest member, Marie Pavelchak, 47, of Holland, said she used to be terrified of guns, even though she was from a hunting family.
In her profession, she said she encountered threats on a regular basis, but she still didn’t feel comfortable with guns in the home.
Then she had an accidental encounter with a man who had threatened her at work. She was standing in her kitchen when a knock came at the door. Expecting a friend of the family, she said “Come in.”
In walked a person she had feared, and there she was, with a baby in one arm and holding a growling dog by the collar in the other hand — and she didn’t know if the dog was going to attack or run away.
“We were both startled,” she said. The man was as scared as she was, she believes, and turned and left.
But that prompted her to take hunter safety courses and learn to hunt.
Pavelchak had to walk around with an empty rifle in her arms, practicing safety rules with her husband to ease her fears, long before she first shot the rifle.
Now she hunts. She said she joined the Well Armed Woman chapter to get the same experience with handguns.