Last weekend, employees of the Godiva company gave out chocolate bars at a gun range in Texas.
"They came out and set up a table, and allowed people to preorder chocolate-covered strawberries," said Brandy Liss, the chief executive of the Arms Room, an indoor range outside of Houston. "We wanted to have chocolates in the shape of guns but Godiva doesn't do that, so it didn't go over as well as we hoped."
Valentine's Day 2012 was more successful, said Liss. "We allowed people to bring in stuffed animals or a letter that maybe an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend gave them, and they could use it as a target. It was really popular."
This week, gun ranges around the country are competing with florists and lingerie shops for the opportunity to spice up love lives. In Ohio, Black Wing Center is giving out pink shotgun shells. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, Bill's Gun Shop and Range is offering a free machine-gun shoot. In Las Vegas, the capital of deep, abiding love, the Guns and Ammo Garage is advertising free marriage-vow renewals by a "Pistol Packing Preacher."
Gun ranges hope that these events will appeal to women, a segment of the population that the entire gun industry covets. Over the last few decades, as more and more rural areas have given way to development and interest in hunting has declined, the gun industry has looked for creative ways to market their products year-round. Marketing to women has become a common way to increase gun-range clientele.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a prominent gun-industry trade association and lobbying group that happens to be based in Newtown, Conn., the site of the elementary school shooting massacre in December, offers consulting services to ranges.
"Research in the late eighties underscored that leisure-time pursuits on the upswing in participation were those that could be enjoyed by husbands and wives as well as by girlfriends and boyfriends," Doug Painter, a former NSSF executive, wrote in a history of the organization.
Liss' range in Texas didn't work with the NSSF on its Valentine's Day promotions, but it did team up with the organization on another program partly designed to increase female gun-ownership. Five times a year, the range holds the First Shots event, where instructors trained by the NSSF try to engage lapsed and first-time shooters.
The program helped introduce thousands to shooting at ranges around the country, according to the NSSF website. Ranges that sign up for the program receive a "complete advertising package," targets and ammo, safety literature, consulting services and other resources. Although reliable statistics on the gun industry are hard to come by, Painter said women are among "the fastest growing segments in hunting and the shooting sports."
The NSSF and participating ranges say the First Shots program is hugely popular with women. "We have more women than men, and we have moms getting their kids involved," said Liss. "Those women will come back in and continue shooting and some will continue to take lessons."
Critics of the gun industry point out that the Newtown massacre was committed with guns stolen from a woman -– one who lived just miles from the NSSF headquarters. Liss insists that women have no reason to fear firearms, but she wasn't always so sure. Years ago, when she was living alone with her kids, her father gave her a gun. "I took out all the bullets and put it on the top of my closet," she said. "When my dad came over, he said, 'If somebody breaks in are you going to say, 'Hold on while I get my step stool?'"
Liss says she no longer worries about her son, now 15, or her daughter, 6, finding her firearms. "They're so educated and they have a full understanding of guns and they know exactly what to do with them," she said.
Asked what she'd say to a women who wants to buy a gun but has a child with a mental illness or behavioral problems, she said, "It's the parents' responsibility to keep those firearms locked up."