- 15 Sep 08, 06:24 AM GMT
Carol Ruh cried the first time that she held a gun. Visiting a shooting range in Arizona while on holiday with her husband, her anti-firearms views made the trip an upsetting experience.
But after she told the staff of her discomfort, she underwent an epiphany.
"It was one of those life-defining moments," she recalled. "The gentleman behind the counter said: 'It's not the gun that kills, it's the person behind it.' And that made a lot of sense to me.
"If your heart is that set on doing damage, you can use a chair, a baseball bat, a pen..."
Since that day, Carol's attitudes have changed completely. Having moved to Phoenix permanently, she now runs classes teaching other female shooters how to hone their skills and heads a group called the Arizona Women's Shooting Association. Every time she leaves the house she reaches for her handbag, her keys and her gun.
I'm sure you've guessed why I wanted to come to their range. As soon as Sarah Palin's place on the Republican White House ticket was announced, pundits around the world picked over the apparent disparity between the Alaska governor's femininity and her handiness with a rifle.
And here, too, the lady shooters didn't conform to the stereotype of gun enthusiasts as rabid, wild-eyed survivalists. They'd laid on sandwiches and soda for me and chatted away about their children and careers. They were nice people.
But I admit that I'm uneasy around guns. I mentioned in my initial post how I've lived through the import of many American phenomena to my homeland - some of them good, some of them bad. The senseless killing of schoolchildren with firearms fell squarely into the latter category.
Of course, none of the women I met at the range liked violence any more than I did. I could see that they came here for the pleasure of firing at paper targets. All the same, it seemed that guns symbolised something more to them.
"Darling, you're in the west," laughed Carol. "This was the way of life out here. The whole genre of America was built on the west. It's part of out culture."
I think she was right about this. Europeans have no second amendment, no folk memory of living in a frontier society.
And the same applies to other parts of the US, too. Carol said she wouldn't vote for Barack Obama because he and running mate Joe Biden, both supporters of gun control, didn't understand why she loved shooting.
I wanted to find out what made this culture appealing to women, though, especially after Carol's husband Pete, also a convert, told me that he believes they are better at hitting a target than men.
"Their hand-eye co-ordination is better," he said. "They're more patient. You don't get any of the macho stuff."
So I got talking to Andrea Barringer, 27, who was sporting a chunky Glock 9mm on her hip. She'd grown up around guns, firing her first shot at the age of five.
"I think it's a fun pastime," she told me. "I go out shooting in the desert.
"Plus, I'm a single woman. If I was ever in that situation..." She left the sentence hanging.
Andrea hadn't decided to vote yet, but liked the look of Sarah Palin - a "typical American woman" to whom she could relate.
So too could 56-year-old flight attendant Lorra Moore. She'd only been shooting for a year under Carol's instruction, but hoped that the Alaska governor's prominence would encourage more females to take up the sport.
"I think it will really help to deflect the fears of women who don't understand guns," she said. "They don't understand that they can use them as easily as a man."
There was still one thing I wanted to know, though. What did she have to say to those - both American and foreign - who saw massacres like Dunblane and Columbine as a priori arguments for gun control?
"Those incidents were horrific," she said. "But the bad guys are always going to get the guns.
"I want to preserve the right of the good guys to protect themselves."
I nodded. This very American debate would continue long after I'd gone. I got back on the bus with the sound of pistol-fire ringing in my ears.
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