Michelle Camp looked around the crowded range where a group of men was taking turns shooting a rifle, and gunfire echoed loudly off the concrete walls. In lane No. 1, she calmly unrolled a new paper target. It was a Christmas tree with ornaments for bull’s-eyes.

“Leftovers,” she shrugged, pinning it to the rack.

Camp slid the sheet 5 yards out. With a deep breath, she raised her handgun. Her first shot hit a little low, blowing a clean hole through the right leg of a gingerbread man.

She fired again and again until only the gumdrop eyes remained above a gaping stomach.

“You made a bigger bellybutton than I did,” her friend shouted from the next lane. They laughed.

Camp, 49, practices a few times a month at the Gun Vault range in South Jordan, which sees steady business in the largely conservative suburb just outside the state’s capital. Almost always she’s with a group of women like her, women who carry concealed weapons.

“Gun culture has been very male-dominated. It’s been a boys’ club,” she said. “I think that’s finally starting to change.”

Just 22 percent — roughly 1 in 5 — of all the 714,000 valid concealed carry permits ever issued by the Utah Department of Public Safety are held by women. The rate has slowly risen each year from 14 percent of the total in 2013.

But for the 30,000 issued in 2017, women constituted nearly two-thirds of new holders. Never for a single year in the past decade has the female proportion been so high, according to data obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune from the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification.

So who are these women, and why are they taking up arms?

‘I hate going anywhere without it’

In her early 30s, Camp took over as manager of a collection agency in South Salt Lake. Angry debtors often sent her death threats.

When she’d leave work at 8 p.m., walking to her car in the dark and mostly empty parking lot, Camp worried. Would the woman who owed $128 be waiting for her? Would the man who hadn’t paid his medical bills know what time she left the office each night?

She wanted to be able to defend herself. She wanted not to feel scared.

“I couldn’t rely on anybody else to protect me,” Camp said. She got her first concealed-carry gun 18 years ago.

“Now I hate going anywhere without it. I feel naked.”

In 2012, Camp started a local chapter of The Well Armed Woman, a national club for female firearm owners, in Utah. At the first meeting, 35 women showed up. Thirty had never held a gun before.

Six years later, there are nine chapters and 300 members in the state. Most, Camp said, are searching for a sense of security and a shot at self-defense in a 9 mm handgun. Just like she did.

A surge in gun permits for women

In 2017, more than 19,000 female gun owners completed the training and got a Utah concealed-carry permit. That’s 64 percent of what the Utah Department of Public Safety issued (though more than half went to out-of-state residents).

Never before had it crossed 60 percent. It came closest in the years directly after a gunman opened fire at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, and teachers flocked to concealed-carry classes. It comes now after a string of deadly mass shootings: 58 people slaughtered at a Las Vegas concert, 26 at a Texas church, 17 at a Florida high school.

Tiffany Sowder, a teacher in Weber County, believes “it’s not a matter of if but when” a similar attack happens in Utah. She wants to be prepared.

She carries a .380-caliber pistol on her right side, tucked above the back pocket of her pants and covered by long blouses so it won’t show when she lifts her arm to write on the whiteboard. As an educator, Sowder grapples with whether she’ll also need to be a bodyguard to her students. She wants to protect them as she would her own children.

It’s a dual role she never imagined but has willingly embraced.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tiffany Sowder of Morgan shoots a 9mm at The Gun Vault shooting range in South Jordan. Sowder is part of The Well-Armed Woman club that encourages women to conceal carry for safety. Of the concealed carry permits issued by the state, only about 1 in 5 is held by a woman.

She practices at the gun range once a month with Camp when leaders from The Well Armed Woman chapters in Utah get together. Her paper target is plain with a tan bull’s-eye. Sowder shoots with her left hand, then her right.

Both hit nearly spot on in the middle.

‘Taking the power back’

In the lobby of The Gun Vault, club members exchanged stories about what prompted them to get concealed-carry permits — most were distinctly female concerns.

Camp brought up the collection agency. Sowder mentioned when, years ago, she was sitting in her car outside the mall and a man approached her window, trying to get in. Melanie Lewis said it was “the mama bear instinct” to protect her son.

Connie Peterson referred to her divorce.

When she and her husband split in 2010, he bought her a handgun as a parting gift. She was going to be living alone for the first time in a long time. He still wanted her to be safe.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Melanie Lewis, left, and Connie Peterson, members of The Well-Armed Woman club, gather at The Gun Vault shooting range in South Jordan during a monthly training.

For three years, Peterson was too afraid to carry it. It was bulky and awkward and heavy. But after taking a few classes and practicing, she eased into it. Now an instructor, she said women tend to be more hesitant and nervous when they start the concealed-carry course; by the end, they’re just as empowered and capable as men.

Lewis nodded her head in agreement. “We’re taking the power back,” she added.

So why, then, do many fewer women carry? Maybe they’re not as comfortable with violence. Maybe they don’t want to take the permit class alone. Maybe some think they’re too weak. Maybe they’re not interested.

Spencer Rands, who owns the Armed Self Defense Institute and teaches concealed-carry courses across the state, believes it’s because women often have less experience handling firearms.

Men, he said, come into his class after years of hunting. They’ve fired a gun before. They know where the holster is. They can chamber a bullet. Women tend to be a bit less seasoned.

Sometimes that’s to their advantage. They haven’t formed bad habits, Rands said, and leave the course “as good as or better usually” than the men.

“Women, in general, are victimized more. A gun is a great equalizer for a woman to protect herself.”

— State Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield

‘Fine without one’

Last year, the state greenlighted Utahns as young as 18 to get concealed carry permits.

State Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, sponsored the proposal as a first-term legislator. She wanted to equip women who might have to defend themselves against potential rapists or attackers, particularly on college campuses.

“Women, in general, are victimized more,” she said. “A gun is a great equalizer for a woman to protect herself.”

Since the reduced age limit took effect, the Department of Public Safety has issued more than 1,400 provisional permits for 18- to 20-year-olds to carry concealed firearms. Of those, 341 are held by women.

That’s 22 percent, the same ratio as the regular permits.

A gender breakdown of the concealed carry permits issued by Utah

Regular concealed carry permits:
Provisional concealed carry permits (for those 18-20 years old):

Source: Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification

The low turnout doesn’t seem to live up to Lisonbee’s lofty arguments that young women are in dire need of firearm access for safety, suggests Anna Caldwell, a student at Brigham Young University.

Caldwell helped organize the youth-led March for Our Lives rally in Salt Lake City recently, which had a landmark 8,000 participants. The 21-year-old was OK without a gun then, she said, and has “been fine without one” at school, too.

She encourages those worried about safety to call campus police for an escort home at night. “To me,” Caldwell said, “that is a much better defense.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Participants march from West High School to the state Capitol during the March for Our Lives SLC Saturday, March 24, 2018. The student-led March for Our Lives SLC got underway about 11:30 a.m. with what police estimated were 8,000 participants walking from Salt Lake City's West High School to the front steps of the Capitol.

Jean Hill, government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, adds one more caveat: In Utah, there’s already a high rate of sexual assault and firearm ownership is prolific. “Women recognize that the statistics are not in their favor if they carry a gun.”

Certainly, though, Lisonbee’s legislation was predicated almost entirely on women. During the House floor debate, the lawmaker called a handgun “a woman’s best means of resistance,” a way of “enhancing her odds of escaping both rape and injury” and a means of “dramatic reduction of her risk.”

That language includes exclusively feminine nouns and pronouns.

No more

In total, between the provisional and regular licenses, more than 158,300 women have a Utah concealed carry permit (which is valid in more than 30 states).

“We refuse to be a victim,” said Janalee Tobias, who founded Women Against Gun Control in 1993. The 54-year-old Utahn has long framed gun ownership as a women’s rights issue.

She spoke to that at the pro-gun rally in Salt Lake City — a counterprotest to March for Our Lives — wearing camouflage clothes and gold revolver earrings. Still, most of the 1,000 attendees were men.

Most of the students at the Armed Self Defense Institute, one of the biggest concealed carry academies in the state, are, too, said Rands, the owner. And so are most of the people at the range where Camp practices.

She pulled out another Christmas tree target to keep shooting. “It’s like I’m Santa Claus,” she joked.

On a recent Monday, Camp had taught a group of women how to properly handle a firearm. Her suitcase was still full of yellow rubber guns at the range three days later. She set the roll of paper sheets down on top of the pack.

“Societally,” she said, “it’s just always been the role of men to be the protector.”

Not anymore, Camp nodded, pulling the trigger.