DES PLAINES, Ill. | On a Saturday night in Des Plaines, about 20 women are hanging out, chatting about their families and snacking on a veggie platter and lemonade.
Amid the talk and laughter, something metal clinks as it hits the floor.
"Oops, here, you dropped this," one woman says, bending down to pick up the bullet her friend dropped.
Bullets and guns are part of the party during the monthly ladies nights at Maxon, a Des Plaines gun range and retail store that's seen a steady growth in the number of women showing up to shoot.
"We had such a flux of women coming in, we had to change our business dynamics," said Maxon co-owner Claudia Levin, who started the ladies night events two years ago based on demand. "It was a male-dominated sport, but now that's changing. There is no stereotypical shooter."
What's happening at Maxon mirrors a nationwide trend. In recent years, there's been a surge in the number of young, urban women buying guns and doing target shooting, according to a new National Shooting Sports Foundation survey.
This year, the Illinois State Rifle Association has more than 4,000 female members — a record-high number — in its 30,000-member organization, Executive Director Richard Pearson said.
At Maxon, Levin says more women are showing up for safety classes, range shooting and competitive shooting programs, and at their monthly ladies night get-togethers. On those nights, they restrict the bright, new 16,000-square-foot business to women only.
Maxon even hosts bachelorette parties (liquor is not allowed) and other women-only events, including a breast cancer fundraiser and a Halloween costume party with 3-D zombie targets that ooze fake blood.
"Those are fun," said smiling Operations Manager Ania Cienkowski, a 30-year-old who wears stilettos and has a Sig Sauer P226 9 mm semi-automatic pistol strapped to her thigh. Her nickname is "gungirl."
"Guns can be very intimidating ... so we've taken that element out of it. We're very welcoming and comfortable for women," Cienkowski said. "They think it's empowering and a lot of fun. It's loud ... but they realize it's not as scary as they thought."
Many different theories exist as to why women are becoming more attracted to guns. Some believe it's a desire for self-protection. Others speculate that women crave the feeling of empowerment, or that they like the stress relief it provides. Some say the stigma of women and guns is lifting, and women now feel less intimidated about joining their husbands or fathers at the shooting range.
The self-protection issue has been at the heart of the gun debate, and gun control advocates argue that having guns doesn't make you safer. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health says the claim that people use guns for self-defense is "invalid."
Yet, Levin estimates 75 percent of her female customers are interested in learning how to shoot for self-defense. The other 25 percent come for fun, she says.
Another factor that makes Maxon popular with women is its largely female staff. The business employs a half-dozen women, including its co-owner, two managers, two instructors and sales staff.
"(Women) like the fact that there are women in the environment. It makes them feel more comfortable," said Levin, who has run the business with her husband, Barry, a master gunsmith, for more than 30 years.
Stefanie Orabutt, 50, of Kildeer, and Natalie Wozniak, 38, of Glenview, say not having men around helps them feel less judged as they're learning to shoot. The two became friends after meeting at Maxon's ladies nights.
"There's definitely a social aspect to this," Orabutt said.
The business even attracts senior citizens — one 84-year-old woman recently took up shooting — and a few moms have brought their teenage or young adult children to the range and safety classes, Levin said. (You must be 21 and have a firearm owner identification card to shoot, but younger people can shoot with a certified instructor during a safety class, Levin said).
Nancy Koran, 63, of Mount Prospect, an innocent-faced, sweet-voiced, 4-foot, 10-inch woman, is among the ladies night regulars. Two years ago, she saw an ad for a Maxon's ladies night and thought she'd try something new. After completing the safety training and obtaining a FOID card, she started coming to the monthly girl get-togethers.
"Some of my friends are down on it. They say, 'Why are you getting involved with guns? You can hurt someone, or hurt yourself,'" Koran said. "I really like it, though. It's fun, and it's for my own safety. The first time I did it, I came home really excited, and I felt like I had learned a lot."
A recent ladies night featured a "firearm speed dating" theme, where women could try a rifle, shotgun, semi-automatic pistol and revolver. The sign at the door encouraged them to find their "steel soul mate."
Newcomers can't just show up at a ladies night and shoot. Safety is a priority at Maxon, and before shooting, people must complete five hours of instructional safety classes from a licensed instructor and obtain FOID cards, which require a background check. When the FOID cards are checked at ladies' night, the employees verify that the card matches the person.
"Training has always been our main goal," said Levin. "The firearm is the last part of a safety plan. You don't just grab for a gun."