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Ladies of Lead 

Profiling the women who choose to carry a gun.

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More than 4,200 people applied for a concealed gun permit in Deschutes County last year—many of them women. One local woman is on a mission to ensure they're properly prepared.

"I support a woman's right to choose.
Revolver or semi-automatic.
Come train with me."

That's the opening statement on the website run by Sharon Preston, a local woman who says she's trained about 4,000 women in how to handle a firearm. About 75 percent of her focus is introducing them to the sport of shooting. The other 25 percent is focused on self-defense. Many women seek her training to qualify for a concealed carry permit.

Preston's company, "Ladies of Lead," has been in operation in Redmond for five years and she sees no decline in interest among women to learn how to shoot and protect themselves. Preston says crime continues to rise in Deschutes County and Central Oregon—particularly the number of rape cases, drug-related crimes and even sex trafficking.

click to enlarge Sharon Preston wants women to use guns safely - through training. Photo courtesy of Sharon Preston.
  • Sharon Preston wants women to use guns safelythrough training. Photo courtesy of Sharon Preston.

Before opening her company, Preston spent 20 years caring for and training horses for law enforcement and search and rescue efforts. She also trained horses so riders could shoot from them. Her husband was frequently away working and her son was in the military. Worried that caring for the herd of about 25 horses was becoming too much for someone alone much of the time, her son urged her to seek other opportunities. She did.

Preston began her company with a Facebook post, asking female friends if they would like to learn to shoot. She was overwhelmed with positive response, and Ladies of Lead was soon in business. "It was an amazing outpouring of women wanting education and comradery. We train mostly women, and a few good men," she says.

At first she relied on other instructors to help train her clients, but soon she began training them on her own. Her goal is to help establish a culture of education and training for the safe use of firearms—actions she strongly believes will help reduce crime and save lives.

Advocating for Gun Safety

Bend physician Megan Ellingsen, a gun owner and Central Oregon's lead for the national group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, supports gun safety education programs such as Preston's. "Any program that focuses on safety is very welcome," says Ellingsen. "We're not an anti-gun organization and we support the 2nd Amendment." Key to the organization is a program called Be Smart for Kids, which stresses the safe use and storage of guns around kids. "We have no problem with lawful citizens owning guns, but there is a lack of education in our community," Ellingsen says.

Meanwhile, Deschutes County Sheriff's Sgt. Nathan Garibay says there's no question that safety training helps save lives. "With the right to own and carry a gun comes the responsibility to do it safely while complying with the law," he told me. Garibay says most accidents involving firearms could be avoided with proper training.

Bend area resident Karl Findling is a longtime hunter and advocate for gun safety education. Noting that guns are a reality, he says educational safety training is critical to reducing risk and saving lives. The father of two young daughters, Findling says it's important to empower girls who are interested in shooting at a young age. "I'm going through hunter safety class with one of my daughters soon and teaching them the proper use of firearms is important to their safety," he says.

A Countywide Increase in Concealed Licenses

Preston says owning a handgun and having a concealed carry permit is a "huge burden," but one that saves lives. "For the women I train who have been the victims of violent crime, the brutality of violence is no longer academic for them. It's real."

The Deschutes County Sheriff's Office acknowledges a steady increase in concealed handgun license applications – many from female applicants. Last year, Deschutes County residents filed 4,252 applications or renewals. There are 11,763 licensed concealed gun carriers in Deschutes County. The Sheriff's office offers a half-day Saturday qualifying class and permitting process. A license is mailed to the successful applicants within a week.

Meanwhile, at Ladies of Lead women are instructed on how firearms work, their safe use, and how they must be respected for the safety of all who may encounter them, including children.

Noting that it's easy to obtain a concealed carry permit in Oregon, Preston says her course can take about a year for anyone to feel completely comfortable in using a handgun. She describes the sport of shooting as "perishable" and a skill that needs routine practice.

Women Seeking Training

Why are more women seeking firearms training? "Unfortunately, it's crime and its fear-based. I hate to see that. I try to calm their fears," says Preston. Many of the women in her program are older, Preston says. Some are widowed and alone for the first time in their lives. "We try to give them a plan and build their confidence so they can live their lives large again."

Students learn how to be aware of potential danger and, importantly, how to avoid it. For instance, Preston cautions women against using parking lots with several kids in tow, which creates vulnerable situations. "Just changing their MO and raising their awareness levels when out in public, improves personal safety," she says.

Preston has also turned away people who are seeking training for various reasons. "There's a huge responsibility to the public when you carry a gun outside of your home," says Preston. She continued, "You can't get involved in social or anti-social violence. You've got to avoid those situations."

Handling Tough Situations

Preston calls dangerous encounters "critical dynamic incidents" when someone is threatening or inflicting harm on others. How one reacts to a threat of bodily harm is not an easy decision, but split-second action can save the lives of the innocent.

Her virtual laser training system takes clients through different scenarios where they must determine whether or when to shoot the assailant. Showing your firearm is not illegal in certain situations in Oregon, according to Preston. She says it's legal for a person fearing violence against them to show their firearm to the would-be perpetrator without pointing it at them in order to defuse a critical encounter. However, pointing the firearm at the person can be considered menacing, she says.

"You have to be in reasonable fear of bodily harm happening to you. Ask yourself, am I in immediate jeopardy?" She says such factors as body size, frailty and age all come into play in the quick decision-making process of self-defense. Disparity of force, she says, is a critical determining factor.

Preston says the best fight anyone can have is the one you never get into. "If you can get out of it, do it. Using a firearm—pressing the trigger on that gun—is your last resort. That is the absolute last thing you want to do."

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In-Home Encounters

For in-home burglaries, Preston offers this advice. "You are not obligated to say you have a gun or to show it if someone is threatening to harm you in your home," she says. "You don't have to, but I recommend you have 911 on the phone. They hear everything. All of this is on tape with 911 and that will bode well for you," she advises.

Preston acknowledges that many people have an inherent fear of guns. She contends a firearm is only a tool and with a culture of education about them and their proper use, people will become less afraid.

In answer to gun critics, she tells a story of an encounter with a woman in downtown Bend who approached her and said, "Live by the gun, die by the gun. Guns only bring evil unto themselves." Preston responded, asking the woman, "What did the Sandy Hook school shooting bring unto itself?" Preston said the woman had no response and contends gun-free zones such as schools are soft targets for crime.

"Another thing I tell critics is to talk to a woman who has been brutalized. Tell that to my friend who was raped 15 feet from the guard shack over at a college in the Valley where the guard should have been but was on a smoke break. Say that to her," says Preston.


Editor's Note: The online version of this story has been edited from the print edition. Preston's statement about knives killing more people than firearms has been found to be untrue, according to FBI statistics, and was thus removed.

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