ATLANTA - Sydni Lee has lots of hobbies. She knits. She quilts. She raises money for three-day breast-cancer walks. And she shoots guns.
At least once a week, the Dahlonega, Ga., woman, 29, visits the Bulls Eye Marksman Gun Club in Cumming. And every other Thursday, she meets with a group called Sisters in Arms for a ladies' night at the range. There they try out each other's pieces, hold target practice and afterward head to a nearby restaurant for margaritas.
For Lee, owning and shooting guns isn't a political stance. She's not one to talk about gun policy. Shooting is a sport and, more important for her, a social outlet.
"When you're not from an area, you're always looking for a way to meet people," explains Lee, who moved to Georgia seven years ago. "I'm from Texas, where (guns) are a way of life."
Numbers are sketchy
How many women practice that way of life, owning or regularly shooting guns, is a subject of endless debate. Despite recurring news stories and reports indicating that more women have taken up arms for sport or protection, the evidence is sketchy and in some instances contradictory.
Gun advocates point to surveys that show an increase in the number of women participating in hunting and shooting sports. Anti-gun activists present research suggesting the opposite - that gun ownership has remained flat, if not on the decline, for 30 years.
Definitive numbers simply don't exist. Federal laws prohibit the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from keeping registries of gun owners. Shop owners don't know whether a buyer is purchasing a firearm for herself or as a gift. And though Georgians who apply for weapons-carry permits indicate on the application whether they are male or female, neither county nor state officials compile gender statistics.
Overall, the number of U.S. households that own guns has declined in the past few decades. In 1977, more than half reported owning a gun; today it's less than one-third, said Josh Sugarmann, founder and director of the Violence Policy Center. On the other hand, the people who do own guns tend to have more of them.
Tom Smith, who directs a center dedicated to social science research at the University of Chicago, has studied household gun ownership for decades. He's found that the number of women who report owning a gun hasn't changed much since 1980. The latest data, from 2010, show that 10 percent of women report owning a firearm.
In general, women are one-fifth as likely to own a gun as men, he said.
Use "hard to gauge"
Another study, by researchers at the University of California-Davis, found roughly similar numbers. Based on multiple national surveys, they estimated that 7 to 8 percent of women and 26 to 30 percent of men own a handgun.
Such numbers tell only part of the story, because so many women have access to guns through other members of their household, said Mary Zeiss Stange, a women's studies professor at Skidmore College. Even though a woman may not see the weapon as her possession, she may use it, said Stange, who has written books on women and firearms.
"The precise rate of women's gun use, exclusively by women, is hard to gauge," said Stange, an avid hunter.
Anecdotal evidence does suggest that more women are arming themselves. The number of women participating in target shooting increased from 3.3 million to 5.1 million between 2001 and 2011, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. The association also found an increase in women who hunt. And several gun-shop owners interviewed for this story reported seeing more female customers and women enrolled in gun-safety courses than in previous years.
Paxton Quigley, author of "Armed & Female: Taking Control," said long-term demographic and social trends impel many women toward guns.
"A lot of that has to do with changes in women's position in society," said Quigley, who says she has taught more than 7,000 women to shoot. She took up arms in the late 1980s after a close friend was sexually assaulted.
With the decline in the marriage rate, more women are living alone; more are raising children alone, and more are working, she said. The net result: "More and more women are learning how to shoot for self-defense," she said.
Chloe Morris was staunchly anti-gun until 2008, when her aunt was beaten, tied up and held hostage for ransom with her children in her DeKalb County home.
After that, Morris' aunt and mother began building an arsenal.
But it wasn't until Morris' mother bought her a firearm and she attended a gun-safety course that she felt comfortable with guns.
"The class changed my life," said Morris, who soon became a regular at the range and eventually a pistol instructor. She's now a recruiter for the NRA.
She teaches for free, she said, focusing on helping women become comfortable with guns.