On Instagram, @charissa_littlejohn posts a sweet montage of candid selfies with her firstborn son, Caidan. “These years go by so fast,” she writes in the caption. “Enjoy every second.” The next day, she takes to Instagram again, this time posting an airbrushed shot of herself holding a gun magazine. She captions it, “Anyone who follows me never shot a gun before? Do you want to learn?”
Littlejohn is a veteran, a mother, and a wife, who, with her husband, owns a gun-holster company in California. With more than 350,000 Instagram followers and a little blue check next to her name, Charissa is also a lifestyle influencer, and her lifestyle centers around two things: kids and guns. And she’s not alone.
The thing about influencers is that they get followers, fame, and money only if their content is relatable. So the fact that Charissa is just one of a growing number of “Glocker moms” (“like soccer moms but with guns,” as The Guardian put it in 2014), who are making it big promoting their guns-’n’-babies life on Instagram, says a lot.
Take Amanda Hapeman, for example. Her Instagram bio reads, “Jesus, Jedi Wife & Mom, Firearms.” On her account, she posts advice about how to concealed-carry while rocking a #mombod, often posting her blue floral holster strapped over her stomach. Hapeman, who lives in Concord, North Carolina, admits that for a mom, sometimes the only option is to “purse carry,” which, Hapeman writes in one caption, is “NOT ideal. Nor is it a first choice for me. But now that I have a child, I love (and NEED) various options.”
Hapeman opts for the “contemporary” concealed-carry brand Tactica Defense Fashion for all of her gun accessories, from clothing to holders to purses. Tactica’s own Instagram page is full of possibilities: Mother’s Day gift ideas, or how to protect little ones on Halloween (that includes bringing a gun out trick-or-treating). And the line between mothers and their children holding guns is quickly blurring, with the gun industry marketing guns to children as young as five.
In the days following the tragic school shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, the Glocker moms remained largely silent on Instagram. But their silence shouldn’t be mistaken for a change of heart. Their stance on guns varies, but all continue to agree that schools need more guns—armed guards and, in some cases, armed teachers—not fewer.
Athena Means, the Houston-based owner of Gun Goddess, a brand of “feminine and functional concealed carry” products, says she knows teachers who “bravely” break the law and bring their guns into the classroom.
The phrase “It’s not about the gun; it’s about the person” gets thrown around a lot in my conversations with the Glocker moms—that, and “mass shootings are rare.” When confronted with the U.S.’s terrifying statistics of school massacres—24 so far this year—Athena goes back to square one: School shootings “don’t point back to the gun,” she says. “They point back to the individual, the person.”
As of Sunday, a new bipartisan gun deal in the Senate includes enhanced background checks, allowing authorities to review juvenile and mental-health records for any gun buyer under the age of 21, and a new provision that would prohibit domestic abusers from having guns. The legislation would also afford states funding for mental-health resources, enhanced safety and mental-health services at schools, and the ability to enact “red-flag laws,” which would authorize the temporary confiscation of guns of owners who are determined to be dangerous.
When I ask Athena about the regulations, she says, “We don’t need new gun laws, nor should the rights of 100 million-plus law-abiding gun owners be shaped by the actions of a criminal few.” She adds, “I feel like … we’re focusing overly on the gun.”
Like Soccer Moms, but with Guns
Glocker moms are proud parents and protectors of their family, but they hold on to more conservative understandings of womanhood. Owning and operating a gun, they say, should not mean compromising on femininity.
Fashion is important to the Glocker mom. Chante Grant, a mother of three who has 16,000 followers on Instagram, writes, “u can dress cute and still stay safe💕” in the caption to a video of herself opening her neon-pink blazer to expose a skintight, cutout black dress with a teal handgun tucked into the waist. Chante, who lives in Wisconsin, owns her own clothing label, Northwestern Belle Boutique.
“In the past, fashion was a barrier of entry to the self-defense space,” says Amy Robbins, who is a mother, a gun advocate, a co-host of the Not Your Average Gun Girls podcast, and the Texas-based founder of Alexo Athletica, a workout-apparel company focused on concealed carry. “That isn’t the case anymore,” she says, noting that companies such as her own have made carrying a weapon “simple, comfortable, [and] stylish.”
The Alexo Athletica Instagram page, which has more than 60,000 followers, flaunts young, fit, diverse models with handguns tucked into their leggings. In the gun industry’s language, these women are “Defense Debbies,” who own guns for self-protection and the protection of their families. Guns are being marketed like Mace was in the 80s—only a whole lot more deadly.
Amy says her business idea came to her after she was followed and harassed by seven men in a van while she was on a run training for a marathon. Athena, the owner of Gun Goddess, says that many of her clients, too, have bought guns following traumatic experiences.
This is a version of guns that is uniquely feminine—a physical equalizer for self-protection and for the protection of the family. “Empowering, self-reliance, independence, confidence”: these are words Athena uses. “Feminism?,” I ask. She squirms at the term.
“Anyone who follows me never shot a gun before? Do you want to learn?”
That mothers now want to own guns wasn’t a natural development, much less the outcome of feminism. It’s the result of a serious marketing push by the National Rifle Association and the gun industry to reach a whole new market. “There’s a much bigger picture here,” says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control-advocacy nonprofit. “The gun industry and the National Rifle Association are working to create an environment where women are becoming salesmen for their products,” he says. Instagram is a key platform.
In the late 1970s, the gun industry was struggling. Gun ownership as a proportion of the overall population had begun to decrease—the pool was too old, too white, and too male. The N.R.A. came up with two solutions: marketing new, military-grade weapons to their white-male base, and promoting a concealed-carry approach for smaller handguns to new members, especially women.
The concealed-carry strategy proved so effective that in 1996 Tonya Metaksa, the chief lobbyist for the N.R.A., said, “The gun industry should send me a fruit basket. Our efforts have created a new market.” Just as planned, women became a key part of that new market. (Today, concealed carry is legal in all 50 states; some states don’t require a permit, while others do, which can sometimes be hard to secure.)
In 2005, Florida passed a stand-your-ground law, which gave people the right to refuse to retreat in situations where they feel threatened, as well as the right to use deadly force to defend themselves. Florida’s law became famous when it was used by the defense in the Trayvon Martin case, and similar laws were enacted by 37 other states, which helped boost the new market.
Now, 64 percent of of the 19 percent of women who own a gun say they own it for self-defense or the defense of their families, according to Claire Boine, a gun-violence expert with the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium.
“Women are the holy grail of [the gun industry’s and the N.R.A.’s] marketing efforts,” says Sugarmann. Today, more American women than ever own guns, according to a 2021 Harvard study, and in the period from 2019 to 2021, women made half of all gun purchases, with new owners more likely to be female than male. Influenced in part by civil-rights protests and the pandemic, gun-purchase rates have increased in the last two years, for the first time since 1973. Deaths from guns are also up, hitting an all-time high of 45,000 in 2020.
An F.B.I. report states that, in 2019 (the most recent data available), there were only 367 justifiable homicides committed by private citizens. Of these, only 40 involved women killing men. And, of those 40, 29 involved firearms. So, while there is a handful of cases where firearms were used to kill criminals, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the most common scenarios of lethal gun use in America in 2019 were suicide (23,941), homicide (14,414), or fatal unintentional injury (486).
Gun ownership actually increases the risk of suicide. Women living with handgun owners are nearly 50 percent more likely to die by suicide compared to women living in gun-free homes, according to new research led by scientists at Northeastern and Stanford Universities.
A 2020 study published by Stanford found that men who own handguns are eight times more likely to die of suicide by gun shot than men who don’t own handguns, and women who own handguns are 35 times more likely than women who don’t. An earlier study by the same research team found that women who own handguns were seven times more likely to die by suicide than women who don’t own handguns.
Influenced in part by civil-rights protests and the pandemic, gun-purchase rates have increased in the last two years, for the first time since 1973.
Brooke Cheney, a stay-at-home mom turned N.R.A. firearm instructor, argues that taking away guns doesn’t take away violence. Brooke belongs to that 26 percent of gun owners who possess firearms for reasons other than protection. She grew up with guns around, and when she had kids, she decided to take lessons to make sure her kids were safe from the guns in the house. I ask her why she didn’t just get rid of the guns. “Why would I?” she answers. They are a part of life for her.
The only woman I spoke to whose decision to keep guns in her house was not based on self-defense, Brooke is also the only woman who doesn’t practice concealed carry.
Boine states, “Concealed carry drives up homicide and accidents,” explaining that “people are more and more storing their firearms unsafely because they want them to be ready.” This leads to the stories we hear on the news—the child who goes to a friend’s house and dies after mistakenly assuming a gun is fake.
Many new female gun owners “are tried-and-true believers that guns don’t kill—people do,” says Sugarmann. “So having your baby in one hand, your gun in the other makes sense.”
But then there are the haunting stories. For instance, this past January, a woman in Detroit shot her four-year-old daughter in the chest. She told police that a man had tried to steal her purse and she took her gun out in self-defense, but later admitted the truth—that she had been cleaning her gun in the house and accidentally shot her own child.
The full number of children who die from accidental gun deaths is not known. Boine says that 40 percent of those deaths are classified as murders in the C.D.C.’s database, and that the data itself is ultimately incomplete.
Guns are being marketed like Mace was in the 80s—only a whole lot more deadly.
The Glocker moms have gun-friendly answers to everything, and their answer to this is to actually expose their children to guns. Athena says, “Many gun-owning families will go to the range.... Kids are taught to respect guns and handle guns.” She mentions Eddie Eagle, the N.R.A.’s program to teach children, starting at the pre-K level, how to handle guns.
In 2018, N.R.A. executive Melanie Pepper was recorded saying, “If you get the woman, you get the whole family.” That doesn’t just mean the father—it includes the children as well. In conjunction with its marketing to women, the N.R.A. and the gun industry are going to extreme lengths to market guns to children.
One Illinois-based gun manufacturer is marketing AR-15 assault rifles—the weapon used in the Sandy Hook massacre—specifically to children, with the slogan “Looks, feels, and operates just like Mom and Dad’s gun.” (Though the legal age to purchase a gun in the U.S. is 18, there are no restrictions on how old someone has to be to use a rifle, or in some states a handgun. So, if the kid’s mother buys the gun for a child, it’s perfectly legal.)
Following in their mothers’ footsteps, the children of the Glocker moms are also on Instagram. At nine years old, @autumns_armory, from Pensacola, Florida, has nearly 50,000 Instagram followers watching her review guns. She’s been growing her page since she was six, and today her Youtube channel (200,000 followers) has 15 million views.
Technically, you need to be 13 to be on Instagram, but with parental consent or a parent running the account, the age limit disappears. So now there are six-year-olds marketing guns to America’s youngest.
“It’s not about the Second Amendment,” says Sugarmann. “It’s not about personal freedom or empowerment. It’s about an industry that’s doing everything it can to sell the last gun and make the last dollar.” And women—and their babies—are buying in.
Clara Molot is an Associate Editor for Air Mail