Sticking to their guns Whether for safety, skill or sport, pistol packin' mamas are everywhere BY LEE NESSEL DASZUTA FLORIDA TODAY You see them every day, shopping or dining with children, stopped at traffic lights next to you or walking alone at night through store parking lots. Chances are, a woman you saw today was carrying a gun. In fact, nearly 50,000 women in Florida are licensed to carry a weapon concealed on their person or in their vehicle. Whether for personal protection, sport or hobby, women around Brevard County are considering options for pursuing firearm ownership and shooting proficiency. "I was at a point in my life where I was trying to conquer some fears, and guns were one of them," says Jackie Speed-Isom, a 48-year-old mother of three and grandmother of four. Speed-Isom took a certification course at a recent Melbourne gun show, where participants were allowed to send off for their carry permit after sitting through a few hours of instruction, and after firing one bullet. While Speed-Isom of Cocoa waits for her carry permit to arrive in the mail, she practices shooting her Beretta 9 mm once a week with the shooting league at the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum in Titusville. "I wasn't really hitting the target," she says about the early experiences that earned her the nickname, "Ricochet Rabbit." "I have learned to respect the gun, and I would not be afraid to use it now, whereas before I was," adds Speed-Isom, who has since been designated "Most Improved Shooter" by her league companions. Class in session Women generally make better students, according to Andy Stanford, founder and director of Options for Personal Security, a private training company in Indialantic. "They don't bring a lot of macho baggage," says Stanford. And they often are better shots than men. "Ninety-nine percent of women turn out to be better shooters because they take direction better," says Elizabeth Beckley, an Air Force firearm instructor for 13 years and part-time range master at the shooting range where Speed-Isom practices. Beckley, with her perfectly French-manicured nails, does not appear to be the typical firearm instructor. "I get the stares, I get the looks," Beckley says. "You have to stand your ground." But she says as an instructor at a public range, where anyone can walk in off the street with no firearm experience, women see her presence as positive. "It gives them confidence when they see a woman here who can do it." The Police Hall of Fame range will certify you to carry a concealed weapon in a three-hour Saturday morning course taught by a National Rifle Association-certified instructor. No gun? No problem. The range will provide one at no additional charge. "This gets anybody comfortable to the point where they can clean (the gun), load it, shoot it safely and shoot what they're aiming at," says Jerry Riley, instructor and range master in Titusville. "There is ample firearms training in all areas of the state," says Marion Hammer, director of Unified Sportsmen of Florida. Hammer, the first female president and current board member of the NRA, has been lobbying for firearms rights and freedom issues in Florida for more than 30 years. She was inducted into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame on March 15 and carries concealed weapons license No. 0000001. "I fought for seven years to pass the concealed weapons licensing reform law," Hammer says. "We passed it overwhelmingly in 1986, but Gov. Bob Graham vetoed it. That year, we elected a new governor and passed it again." "The only reason in Florida for a complete application to be denied is a criminal history," says Buddy Bevis, assistant director of the Florida Division of licensing. Advanced training isn't a requirement to get a concealed weapons license in Florida. As of March 31, more than 1 million concealed weapon/firearm licenses had been issued in Florida since the program started in 1987. There are 341,974 current licenses in the state. About 15 percent of those are carried by women. Hammer is among 15,693 women ages 51 to 65 with carry permits in Florida. "(I carry) sometimes on my person, sometimes in my purse, but always somewhere. It depends on what I'm wearing and where I'm going," says the 65-year-old grandmother who chooses between a .38 caliber Colt Detective Special and a Ruger .357. Training days Carrying a weapon is one thing, but being prepared to shoot it is another. Once a woman obtains a license to carry a firearm, it is her responsibility to continue training and stay comfortable with her weapon. It also is important to think about and practice real-life scenarios. Options for Personal Security is a corporate sponsor of the American Women's Self Defense Association. In addition to a women's self-defense class, all their hand-to-hand combat, defensive knife, handgun, shotgun and rifle courses are open to women. Chuck Helmke, OPS director of operations, who recently taught the OPS Defensive Handgun 101 at the Titusville range, says the defensive handgun class is a great class for women. The full-day course covers the staple skills needed to effectively employ a semiautomatic pistol or revolver in real-life scenarios, including firearm safety, mindset, the four primary handgun fighting positions and use of force considerations. The OPS motto is to "avoid, deter and de-escalate." Basically, avoid using your weapon if at all possible. As an instructor of men and women, OPS' Stanford says there is no beating around the bush about the brutality of using a weapon. "The reality of using a gun is every bit as brutal and violent as using a knife. There is no nice way to shoot holes in people." Tactical practice is key in gaining comfort with the weapon, but preparing for the mental aspects of using it are most important. "It's a matter of life and death," Stanford says. "People don't take this seriously enough. Shooting skills are perishable and they must be a reflex in order to be effective." Stanford and Helmke say new gun owners should not stop after the initial one-day certification class. Monthly practice keeps shooting skills sharp. --- Thought about posting this in Gun Control Issues but felt it was more germane here.