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HOUSTON, May 4 (Reuters) - The National Rifle Association is showcasing women members and emphasizing that increasingly it's not just men who own firearms and oppose gun-control efforts.
Female membership is up, the nation's leading advocate for gun ownership says, and its revamped website features profiles of "armed and fabulous" women and describes how women are bringing "new energy" to the NRA.
"This is the National Rifle Association catering to demand," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said. "We've seen in the last few years an increase in women buying guns, joining the National Rifle Association, enrolling in personal safety classes and going out and organizing women's-only hunts."
A number of the 550 vendors at the 142nd NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits this weekend in Houston also have women in mind. Some are selling pink NRA T-shirts, and companies such as Concealed Carrie and Urban Moxy are offering handbags designed for concealed handguns.
Saleswomen for Urban Moxy - which describes itself as "loaded with style" - demonstrate how a gun can slide into a purse's lockable, neoprene-lined pocket.
The meeting of some 70,000 members comes less than a month after the NRA scored a major victory in Congress when it beat back a proposal to expand background checks for gun buyers.
The proposal, which supporters have vowed to revive, is a key part of President Barack Obama's gun-control effort sparked by the December school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were killed.
An online Reuters/Ipsos poll released in January showed that 86 percent of Americans surveyed favored expanded background checks of all gun buyers.
A CBS News/New York Times poll released on Wednesday showed that 88 percent of Americans support background checks for all gun buyers and that 59 percent are disappointed or angry about the recent Senate vote on gun legislation.
The NRA works assiduously to defend the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that sets out the right to bear arms. NRA member Cindy Chambers of Houston said the background-check proposal targets law-abiding gun owners, not criminals.
"We take our freedoms seriously," said Chambers, who owns a travel company. "I'm just right of center, but when the government decides to take away freedoms given to us by law, we are re-energized to defend those rights."
Chambers attended the 7th Annual NRA Women's Leadership Forum Luncheon & Auction on Friday at River Oaks Country Club.
"It was so empowering today to walk into a room full of an array of women with the same mindset," said another lunch attendee, Houston culinary instructor Molly Fowler.
There was also an NRA Women New Energy Reception on Friday evening, and the NRA this weekend was offering a three-day pistol instructor training course for women.
The NRA will not say how many of its 5 million members are women. But Arulanandam said the NRA's women's-only hunts had grown from only two or three sparsely attended events each year to dozens across the world.
Men typically buy guns for recreational purposes, while women tend to get them for self-protection, then later use them for other purposes, Arulanandam said.
For Fowler, it was an intruder on her property that prompted her to get a concealed handgun license, she said.
"Owning guns is made into such a heinous, horrible thing, and it's not," Fowler said. "My dad had a gun case that wasn't locked, but we were educated from an early age. We knew they were dangerous, we knew right from wrong, we knew they weren't toys."
Kellye Bowman, co-leader of the Houston chapter of Moms Demand Action, a group formed after the Connecticut school shooting to push for gun control, said the NRA was "trying to terrify women with misinformation about crime."
"They create fear and paranoia," Bowman said.
This week the NRA Women's Network announced a new and improved NRA Women website, sponsored by the gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson Corp..
"Our mission is to expose the public to the female face of the NRA," the group said in a Facebook posting.
In a video on the NRA Women site, champion pistol shooter Julie Golob says she has been sending letters and emails to elected officials to tell them gun owners come from all walks of life.
The video also features advocate Natalie Foster, who says authorities do not understand what it is like to be a woman who needs protection from an abusive ex-spouse.
"I don't think you can overstate how critical it is for women to get engaged with what's going on right now," says Foster, founder of the website Girl's Guide to Guns.