Gun ownership by gender is no longer so black and white, as increasing numbers of gun owners are women, leading gun makers to manufacture new products for that market. Image source: Flickr/Andrea Portilla

One data point that isn't provided by the record-breaking number of background checks the FBI conducted in 2015 is the number of women purchasing firearms.

The law enforcement agency reported that January was another one for the books: More than 2.5 million background checks were completed, up 43% year-over-year and the most checks ever conducted for that month since the FBI began keeping records in 1998. In fact, that's the ninth straight month to set a new record and explains why 2015 easily outpaced prior years with its over 23.1 million checks.

Shooting out the lights
It's also why gun makers such as Smith & Wesson (SWBI -0.77%) and Sturm Ruger (RGR -0.87%) are reporting white-hot gun sales. Last month, Smith & Wesson announced that guidance it had provided in December fell woefully short of reality, so it was scrapping those estimates and scaling them up significantly. Sturm Ruger hasn't updated its guidance but reported similarly robust sales numbers in recent quarters.

Since a background check can encompass a single sale of multiple guns and excludes most private party transfers, the FBI warns that its background check numbers don't tie with sales on a one-to-one basis. Gun sales numbers are probably higher, and companies may be doing even better than the rosy outlook they've already offered.

Yet amid all the talk of gun shows, gun culture, and more, the image the general public still holds is that of men lining up to strap on some iron. While that is still largely the case, it may not be much longer. If there's one thing that came out of the SHOT Show last month, the industry's biggest annual trade show, it's that women are a large and growing percentage of gun owners.

A lot more spice than sugar these days
According to a National Shooting Sports Foundation study released last year, women are the fastest growing segment of the shooting sports industry with more than half of those participating in its survey indicating they intended to buy a firearm within the next year. Among its finding was:

  • Between 2001 and 2013, women involved in target shooting grew from 3.3 million to 5.3 million.
  • During the same period, women hunters grew from 1.3 million to 3.3 million.
  • 56% of women reported they owned at least one gun, which was also likely to be a semiautomatic handgun (a shotgun was second).
  • Gun retailers estimate 20% of their sales are to women.
  • 73% of all women gun owners have taken a firearms safety course.

The National Rifle Association has also weighed in, saying it has seen a 77% increase in the number of women who own firearms between 2004 and 2011. With estimates running as high as 15% of all women owning a gun these days, that would put their number at as many as 45 million, but tens of millions more still have access to firearms in their household.

Personal safety is the top priority
Many industry followers have called President Obama "the greatest gun salesman in history," an unintended result of his anti-gun rhetoric. But no significant legislation has come out from his administration, and even the executive orders he issued last month were tame and incremental rather than dramatic and all-encompassing, as had been expected.

This focus on the political climate as the driver of rising gun sales obscures the another major motivation for why people are buying more guns: fear of rising crime rates and growing incidents of domestic terrorism. When sheriffs around the country are calling upon citizens to take up arms to not only protect themselves and their loved ones but to help police stop and deter crime, it's not just men who are responding.

Large swaths of women gun owners aren't leaving their firearms in their nightstand drawer but taking them to the range for additional training. Image source: Flickr/Peter Anderson

Without official numbers behind gun ownership among women, we can turn to mountains of anecdotal evidence and other data that indicate the trend is on an upward trajectory. And the gun industry is responding -- not just with pink guns but with product lines and accessories geared toward practical women: purses for concealed carry, slimline holsters, and athleisure outfits that work in either the gym or at the shooting range.

A hidden truth
This trend is also apparent in the types of guns manufacturers are bringing to market. While it applies just as easily to men as to women, the exploding popularity of concealed carry firearms, which are lighter and more streamlined, were among the biggest sellers last year and are a natural fit for female gun owners looking for an effective means of self-defense.

Smith & Wesson had two big sellers last year, and its new Shield model was an especially popular design due to its CCW-focused feature set. The model has enjoyed such high demand that the gunmaker said it had already produced one million units since it was first introduced in 2012.

Overall, men still dominate the firearms industry, but women are an increasingly large, powerful, and important bloc that could very well set the stage for the next wave of growth in the gun industry.