HARRISBURG, Pa. — Abby Ross never spent time around guns until a little more than a decade ago. "I grew up on Staten Island," she said. "Hunting or gun use was not part of our family traditions."
Now she handles guns with ease for hunting, sport and training. And she's one of a growing number of women venturing into the world of guns, either as part of the outdoor experience or for self-defense.
Women increasingly have become a profitable new target customer for gun-shop owners and firearms manufacturers.
"Women should not be afraid to know how to handle a weapon when they use them," said Ross, whose husband, an Army Special Forces soldier, taught her when they met 14 years ago.
Ross, who looks far younger than her 36 years, held 5-month-old Mary, the youngest of her eight children, at the Great American Outdoor Show, held here this month.
Dressed in a black T-shirt and blue jeans, and with her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, Ross had taken a break to feed her daughter, who was in pink from head to toe. Her husband manned the booth for their hands-on firearms training company, Rockwell Tactical.
The Lancaster-based business offers seminars and smartphone apps among its services.
Throughout the 600,000 square feet of the world's largest outdoor show sponsored by the National Rifle Association, there is evidence everywhere that firearms companies, large and small, are catering to the growing ranks of women interested in tactical training, self-defense, or just making shooting a part of the outdoor culture of their lives.
The marketing approach varies. Smith & Wesson, the firearms giant, uses large interactive weapons displays. Much smaller, boutique companies such as The Well Armed Woman have simple booths. But there is no mistaking the market they're targeting with feminine-cut camo and pink pistols.
There is a lesson within a lesson here. As Democrats continue to make gun control a wedge issue in elections, they underestimate the damage they are doing to their own chances among women, who have been flocking to buy guns in the past few years.
These same voters, whom the NRA calls the "shy voters," also flocked to Donald Trump, and they are unlikely to reverse course before next year's midterm elections. So as wedge issues go, this one is becoming more of a loser for the Left.
The shy Trump voters
Tricia Croney, owner of Pretty Hunter, stood at her booth filled with repurposed bullets turned into jewelry. Over the top of her booth is a quote in black cursive lettering on a pink background. It's from Annie Oakley: "I ain't afraid to love a man. I ain't afraid to shoot him either."
Croney, from Commerce, Michigan, says she did what any smart, driven woman does when she feels passionately about her interests: "I opened my own business."
She loves the adventure of shooting, as well as the discipline, focus and pragmatics. Hunting, she said, "has always been a gender-neutral sport, and I think more and more women are realizing they want to be part of the adventure and the advantages of being able to feed your family with your own hands.
"Women have a tendency ... to not only feel but behave much more confidently when they know they are not only able to provide food for the table but also be able to protect ourselves."
Protecting the constitutional right to bear arms has driven women like her to vote for political candidates who are Second Amendment advocates.
"It was the leading reason that I voted for Donald Trump last November," Croney says. "He gave voice to a strong support of Second Amendment rights when he released his picks for the Supreme Court during the campaign [and] he followed that up, true to his word, with his pick of Neil Gorsuch."
She believes public opinion pollsters in the last election "deeply missed suburban women like me, who they thought would vote for Hillary Clinton. They, along with Clinton, ignored us and what was important to our values, which is the ability to protect our home and our children."
But during 2016 Croney did not boast about her choice for president. That may be why pollsters and Democrats did not understand who was turning against Clinton, especially in Michigan, a long-time blue stat that the Democratic candidate made little effort to secure.
In short, Croney is the legendary "shy Trump voter."
In a large survey of people who voted in November's presidential election, conducted for the NRA by On Message, Inc., pollsters found that nearly 20 percent of those who chose Trump never told anyone they intended to do so. They interviewed voters in Florida, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The OnMessage survey of 5,100 battleground voters was fielded in December, and stratified by county to match actual 2016 turnouts, in order to give the most granular view of voter preferences.
Eighteen percent of those interviewed in the battleground states said they were "uncomfortable telling people they supported Donald Trump."
Who were these voters? They were more female than male and twice as likely to live in suburban counties compared to the rest of Trump's vote, according to On Message.
They also were a little more educated than average voters — 24 percent had a post-graduate degree — and, while right-of-center, they're not as conservative as the rest of Trump's voters.
A very important nugget from the poll: Like every woman interviewed at the outdoor show, an overwhelming 80 percent of them support the goals and objectives of the NRA.
So they represent a large chunk of white, suburban, conservative, pro-Second Amendment women who didn't particularly like Trump but couldn't vote for Clinton. They kept their opinions to themselves at dinner parties and pulled the lever for Trump in the voting booth.
Croney said that definitely described her.
"That was also me," said Sarah Cable of Jonestown, Pennsylvania, who tried out a concealed-carry and another holster with her husband, Shawn, at one of the vendor booths.
The 33-year-old Penn State graduate and recent newlywed said she eyed Trump reluctantly at first, "but that didn't last too long. I voted for him. Clinton never once offered anything tangible for me to vote for. He did."
Cable, an office administrator, and her husband, an engineer, both said they are frustrated by the stereotypes and negativity with which Trump and his voters, and gun owners in particular, are viewed on social media.
A losing issue for Democrats
The increase of women buying guns is relatively recent. Women for years could be counted to support gun control. But the gender divide is fading.
It changes the perception of why anyone, male or female, buys a gun, and it has had an impact on local and national politics.
"As the number of women gun-owners rises, so has the number of women conveying doubts over the virtues of gun control," Cable said.
The gender gap on guns has been huge in the past. But a Pew survey showed that between 2008 and 2012, the percentage of women supporting gun rights rose by nine points.
"As more and more women are connecting gun ownership and self-defense with empowerment, their views on gun control have shifted," said Brad Todd, founding partner of OnMessage.
"I think this is an indication of where Democrats have failed to understand the self-defense aspect of the Second Amendment.
"For a party that invests so much time in intellectually driving the gender gap," he said, "this is something they have completely missed, especially when you get outside the densest urban areas."
And it shows, not just in the presidential election's results but in down-ballot races in many states: As women's pro-gun views have increased, local Democratic seats, especially those where office holders or candidates were required to back the national party's line on guns, have evaporated.
All of that suggests Democrats will need to recalibrate their gun-control message for future elections, as the relationship between women and guns continues to strengthen.