PAINESVILLE, Ohio -- Mary Ann Froebe stood, feet apart and knees slightly bent, and aimed the .22 caliber Ruger semiautomatic.
"You've got some adrenaline running through you right now," said Esther Beris, coordinator of the northeastern Ohio chapter of a Girl and a Gun Women's Shooting League. "It's O.K., just relax."
Ms. Froebe, 42, a small-business owner who described herself as a "virgin gun shooter," concentrated and pulled the trigger.
"It was awesome," she said, her face flushed, after emptying the 10-round clip. "The sense of control, of being in charge of me."
In the national debate over firearms regulation, the voices of gun owners have largely been those of men. But at firing ranges across the country, a growing number of women are learning to use firearms or honing their existing skills.
Women's participation in shooting sports has surged over the last decade, increasing 51.5 percent for target shooting from 2001 to 2011 -- to just over 5 million women from 3.3 million women -- and by 41.8 percent for hunting, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
Gun sales to women have risen in concert. In a 2012 survey by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, 73 percent of gun dealers said the number of their female customers had gone up in 2011, as did a majority of retailers surveyed in the two previous years. And manufacturers have increasingly geared advertising toward women, marketing special firearms models with smaller frames, custom colors -- pink is a favorite -- and accessories like the "salmon kiss" leather "concealed carry" handbag offered by Cobra Firearms, or the leopard shooting gloves and Bullet Rosette jewelry sold by Sweet Shot ("Look cute while you shoot!" is the company's motto).
Women's shooting clubs have also proliferated -- not just in small towns like here in Painesville, but in Houston, Atlanta, even Manhattan, where a women's gun club meets regularly at a firing range in Chelsea, a neighborhood better known for art galleries. On a recent Friday, Ms. Froebe and eight other women attended the Painesville shooting league's inaugural Breakfast With Bullets, gathering at Perkins Family Restaurant for brunch and then moving on to Atwell's Shooting Range, where Ms. Beris taught them how to safely hold and load a handgun and then coached them on the range.
Though they may share a fierce belief in the Second Amendment with their male counterparts, female gun owners often learn to shoot for different reasons, their interest in and proficiency with firearms not just a hobby or a means for self-defense, but a statement of independence and personal power.
Tina Wilson-Cohen, a former Secret Service agent who founded She Can Shoot, another women's league with 10 chapters and 3,000 members across the country, said that 90 percent of the women who join do so because "they've been a victim at one point of their life, of stalking or date rape or domestic violence, or they have just felt so vulnerable, and they want to feel competent and like they can protect themselves."
Firearms also often carry a different meaning for women than for men, who grow up with Hollywood images of guns that tell them "this is what a real man looks like and that's how a real man acts, and it's kind of delusional really," Ms. Wilson-Cohen said.
"We don't see women acting like this," she said, adding, "It doesn't have that bad-ass mentality attached to it."
Yet women who shoot recreationally often find themselves confronting the misconceptions of the non-gun-owning public, said Mary Stange, a professor of women's studies and religion at Skidmore College and a co-author of "Gun Women: Firearms and Feminism in Contemporary America."
She noted that when Nancy Lanza was identified as the owner of the guns her son Adam used to kill 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December, some people seemed to blame her. Ms. Lanza, who owned at least five firearms, including a Bushmaster AR-15 style rifle that was used in the shooting, was labeled by one headline writer as a "gun-crazed mother" and described in some news accounts as "stockpiling an arsenal."
"What strikes me is the way that, rather than really trying to understand what may have been going on, there is this tendency to want to latch onto conventional arguments and stereotypical images," Professor Stange said. "There's this idea that women are more affiliative, more peace loving, more pacifistic, which should then make women as a group gun averse."
It is difficult to pinpoint how many gun owners in the United States are women -- the federal government does not break down background checks by demographic, and most manufacturers do not release information on sales. But Peggy Tartaro, editor of Women and Guns magazine, a nonprofit publication of the Second Amendment Foundation, said that she has found estimates varying from 12 million to 17 million.
Those owners cross the political spectrum -- Professor Stange, for example, who hunts regularly and owns several rifles and shotguns, describes herself as a liberal Democrat. Terri Herbert, 57, a retired special education teacher who said the nephew of a close friend was killed in a school shooting, is a registered Democrat. She favors background checks on private sales but opposes a ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles or high-capacity magazines. "I'm not sure gun control is the answer," she said. Tamara Wysocki, 52, a caterer, said that she wanted a handgun for protection at her business, but would not keep a gun at home. "If you have a gun and they have a gun, somebody's bound to get shot," she said.
Ms. Tartaro, the magazine editor, said that women's interest in guns began increasing in the 1980s, when women began moving into previously male-dominated professions like law enforcement and the military and taking charge of their own finances and living arrangements.
"It makes sense that as you think about your financial security and your kids' security, the whole idea of personal protection and home defense comes in," she said.
Smith & Wesson, which in 1989 introduced a LadySmith line of smaller-frame revolvers, was the first manufacturer to recognize the potential of the women's market, Ms. Tartaro said, but other gun makers soon followed suit. And the attitudes of men at shooting competitions and National Rifle Association meetings gradually changed, she said.
"Maybe 25 years ago, if you put on your power suit with your floppy bow and marched yourself into a gun club and said, 'Where do I sign up, boys?' you might have gotten a couple of funny looks," Ms. Tartaro said. "But now they might say, 'Hey, sit down, what are you interested in? I'll show you mine if you show me yours.' "
Advocates of tighter firearms regulation have argued in the past that advertising by gun manufacturers manipulates women into buying guns for protection. An advertisement by Colt in the 1990s that showed a mother tucking a child into bed -- "Self-protection is more than your right ... it's your responsibility," the ad said -- drew criticism from academics, who argued in 1991 in the Whittier Law Review that such ads were intended to trick women.
But Ms. Tartaro bridles at the idea that women are not smart enough to decide for themselves whether to buy a gun. After the article appeared, her publication went on the counterattack, running a cover line that said, "Are You Too Stupid to Read This Magazine?"
Yet even some of the most ardent female gun enthusiasts said that the industry had made a misstep in concluding that all women shooters like pink.
Professor Stange called gun makers' obsession with the color "infantalizing." Ms. Wilson-Cohen said "a large majority of females sort of feel like it's a slap in the face" for manufacturers to assume that a pink gun will draw them in.
For her part, Ms. Tartaro said, "I don't personally care for it."
But she added that she knew a woman who had a different take, saying, "It's not my favorite color, but I bought it because now my husband never touches it,"
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.