Hunched over in her pink shirt, pink protective glasses, pink whistle and aiming her famous pink gun, Gracie McKee held steady as she prepared to fire some rounds at her favorite pistol range.
The 24-year-old Washougal gun enthusiast, blogger and National Rifle Association certified instructor is on a mission: To go beyond stereotypes and teach women about all aspects of gun ownership and personal protection.
"Every gun is different, and that's why it's so important to know your gun," McKee said before firing several rounds dead on into her target. "I always tell my ladies that shopping for a gun is like shopping for underwear -- only you know what you need. It's a very personal thing."
Gun ownership is on the rise among women. The number of female target shooters grew by 46.5 percent and hunters grew by 36.6 percent in the past decade, according to 2012 statistics by the National Association of Sporting Goods Wholesalers. That trend is also noticeable at the Clatskanie Rifle & Pistol Club, across the river from Longview in Oregon, where McKee is an instructor and board member, said Gregg Smith, range master.
"I've been an instructor for about a decade, and there are definitely more women now," Smith said. "At first it was mostly couples, where one of them gets a handgun and they both want to be trained how to use it. But now we're seeing more women that want them for personal defense and also for target shooting."
McKee, who runs the website http://www.packingpretty.com, became fascinated by guns at a young age. The third of five sisters, she seems to be the only one who caught a bit of the tomboy bug, she said.
"It was probably a dangerous fascination when I was a child," McKee said. "When I was 11, I bought my first pellet, gun and I grew up shooting in my backyard (in Brush Prairie) because we were on some property and I thought I should learn how to defend myself with it."
Her father was a hunter and owned a rifle but didn't show it to McKee until she was about 17. He didn't really encourage or discourage her gun fascination when she was growing up, but now the two like to talk guns together, she said.
When she was 19, she decided she wanted to go for her concealed carry license -- which residents can get at age 21 -- and so she started taking classes and educating herself to get licensed in both Washington, which is not very strict, and Oregon, which has a long list of requirements, she said.
She also got her license for Florida, which allows you to conceal and carry a pistol in about 30 states.
"If you're going to carry a gun, you need a concealed carry license," even if it's not required, McKee said. "If you have your gun out in the open, sometimes that makes people uncomfortable. So in a way it's better to be able to conceal it."
Rules for concealed carry vary widely across the nation. When McKee got her licenses, she also became an NRA-certified instructor, one of only a few in Southwest Washington.
She's taught classes on gun safety and on how to get certified in different locations for about the past three years, and she's very talented at it, said Michael Jones, the NRA training counselor in Oak Grove, Ore., who trains instructors in the region.
"I don't get very many females wanting to be instructors," Jones said. "I've had a few, and Gracie tops the list. In fact, she probably
tops the list of the men, too. She's super enthusiastic, has lots of energy. I can't say enough good things about her."
Even though guns seem to have long been a guy's thing, that doesn't mean that women can't own guns on their own terms, and even make them fashionable, McKee said.
To that end, McKee is hosting the first Women's Concealed Carry Holster Fashion Show in New York City on July 21.
"We've noticed that a lot of women want to conceal carry, but they don't know where to start," McKee said. "Men's holsters, they just don't work for them. Women are shaped differently."
Learning which holsters work best with feminine curves is important for both fashion and safety, she added.
"The majority of the time when people shoot themselves, it's when they holster their gun or when they draw it," she said. "I feel it's so important to get educated about it."
Although she has a bit of the tomboy gene, there's also a lot of her that's pure girl, McKee said.
She loves to spend hours shopping. She loves hanging out with the girls. And her favorite color has always been bright pink, which is why she had her favorite gun custom painted, she said.
"All the guys at the range call it the 'pink gun of shame' because it would be very shameful for them to be shot by it," McKee said with a grin. "We were training some National Guard troops up here not long ago, though, and a bunch of the guys got their picture holding it."
The gun is a Springfield XDM 9 mm with so many customizations that it's worth about twice the $600 she originally paid for it, she said.
"The reason I shoot this gun is because I like the way it fits in my hand, I like not having a thumb safety, I like having the safety on the grip," McKee said. "It's a little bit lighter because it's plastic, and overall I just like the way these babies shoot."
Fortunately, she's never had to fire a gun in self-defense, but one event a few years ago did make her more aware of using one for personal safety, she said.
"I had a meat (sales) man push his way into my house and ask if my husband was home," McKee said. "He was very aggressive. It's stuff like that that opens your eyes. I was so blessed that I was able to get him out of that door without needing my gun."
The man also was aggressive with a few other women who were home alone in her neighborhood, she said.
"I was already on the path with guns then and was getting into shooting, but it made me think," McKee said. "And of course you don't always need a gun to protect yourself. There are martial arts, knives, lots of ways to do that. It really comes down to what you're comfortable with."
Mary Torjusen, one of McKee's students in Clark County, said she really appreciates that McKee customizes her training for women's needs.
"I think Gracie's great," Torjusen said. "I wouldn't have taken additional classes if not for her. She has a great rapport with women -- men, too -- but she can really relate on our level to what we're thinking. She doesn't want to use a gun if she doesn't have to. She teaches you how to keep your head in check."
Torjusen and her husband decided to get a gun for protection while he was out of the house, and she said she was thrilled to find a female instructor.
"For a young gal, I have a lot of respect for her," Torjusen said. "She's got a good head on her shoulders."
McKee doesn't make enough to fully support herself with her blog and the classes, but she said she thinks it's more important to keep costs down for her students so that she can help more women. Beginning classes at the range cost around $75 or $80 for nonmembers and $50 or $60 for members.
Beyond the classes, she also does in-home safety assessments, teaches battered women how to protect themselves and will even go out with her students to help them pick the right gun or accessories, she said.
For now, her husband's income supports both of them, but she does have some big plans for the future.
"Eventually I would like my blog to become the go-to guide for women," McKee said. "I'd also like to eventually start a training academy for women and establish a full training course with Packing Pretty material."