Gretchen Lager's fondest childhood memories involved shooting bullets at tin cans and balloons along the Slippery Rock Creek in western Pennsylvania - but one day in 1995, guns became a far more menacing presence in her life.

Her brother-in-law killed his wife of 30 years - Lager's sister - with a deer hunting rifle. He then turned the gun on himself in a murder-suicide that orphaned their 15-year-old daughter. For years afterwards, Lager was stridently anti-gun.

"I have been hating guns with everything I believe until lately," she said.

But earlier this year, Lager recalled those more pleasant childhood memories, "and I thought, `there's something about guns that I really know and love. There's a mechanical beauty. There's something fun about it."'

Lager, 64, who now lives in Hershey, purchased a .22-caliber pistol more than two months ago to rekindle her target shooting hobby and enrolled in a gun safety class at the Palmyra Sportsmen's Association.

Still, she's far from the stereotype of a gun owner, decked out in camouflage and stockpiling weapons while waiting for the apocalypse. Lager hates the National Rifle Association - "I think they are opportunists" - believes in mandatory training for people purchasing guns, and would never want to use her firearm to hurt an animal, much less a person. Instead, she considers herself part of a "silent majority" between two political extremes on guns.

Lebanon County residents are buying guns and obtaining permits to carry firearms with increasing frequency, according to data kept by the Pennsylvania State Police. Local gun stores said many of their first-time firearms owners are, like Lager, outside of the stereotypical gun-owning demographics: women, older couples, even 80-plus-year-old women and the disabled.

Why people buy weapons

Steve Wier holds one-on-one firearm safety courses for first-time gun buyers at Enck's Gun Barn in Myerstown, and always asks his students why they wanted the training.

One man had agreed to learn to shoot as a bonding activity with his son. After his son passed away, he decided to become trained in firearms anyway in his son's memory. Couples have told Wier they are looking for a sport they can do together when one of them has a physical problem that prevents other activities.

The most frequent reason is a desire to get involved in competitive shooting, and it's not uncommon to meet people who want to dress up as cowboys and cowgirls for Western-style weapon competitions. Personal defense is often a secondary reason, but it's on most students' lists, he said. Some people consider firearm safety to be like knowing how to swim - good general knowledge even if you don't plan to carry a gun.

While Lebanon County still has a strong hunting and sport shooting community, the most commonly growing reason people are seeking firearms is personal protection, local gun sellers said.
Shyda's Outdoor Center caters primarily to hunters, but Vice President Brad Shyda said interest in hunting rifles is down and purchases of semi-automatic weapons for self-defense purposes are up even at his store.

"You can tell all their lives they've been against guns, but now they want to feel safe," he said. "They come in and say, `I want a 9mm' - they don't even know what a 9mm looks like, but they want a 9mm."

Politics probably plays a role. Fears of a possible president Hillary Clinton banning firearms is likely motivating people to purchase guns in the same way President Barack Obama's two elections led to spikes in gun sales, Shyda said.

"We're seeing that deep mistrust everywhere, in every corner of society, whether it be guns, Black Lives Matter, the trans(gender) community," said Craig Good, an Annville resident and salesman for Elizabethtown-based Lanco Tactical. "Just because (government leaders) say one thing, nobody really believes it because our politicians don't stand behind it."

Improvements in the types of tactical semi-automatic weapons available to civilians may also be making such weapons more attractive, said Art Kalbach, a gun salesman for Lanco Tactical.

"When I bought my first AR-15, there were two choices: a long one or a short one," Kalbach said, but there are many more styles and types of semi-automatic guns available now.

"Tactic-cool"

If world emergencies magnified by media hype can fuel the fear of guns, gun store owners admitted they can also boost their sales. The world "tactical" has become such a buzzword that Lanco Tactical Owner Nathan Lamb jokes about being "tactic-cool," although he opened his store years before the fad started, he said.

The word has more to do with a mindset of being "prepared for the unknown" than a type of weapon, Lamb said. That demographic is often also interested in other products Lanco Tactical offers, such as non-perishable food and survival gear.

"I think people are finally starting to realize that just because it could happen to anybody, that doesn't mean it couldn't happen to you," Good said.

Good said gun owners who want to be able to defend themselves from an increasingly scary world find themselves stereotyped by people who don't own weapons. He's heard gun control advocates go as far as wishing someone be shot with their own gun in an attempt to make a point on social media.

"They say unfair things like, `all gun owners are crazy.' I think that's unfair because they don't know me. They don't know that I'm a school teacher, they don't know my friends, they don't know the people I associate with," he said.

But wait - Is there really a trend?

Statistical information about firearm owners is limited due to concerns by gun rights supporters that gun registration would lead to confiscation, so it is difficult to get a handle on the amount of first-time firearm purchasers.

Lebanon County Sheriff Bruce Klingler said in November that he had seen a spike in permit applications after terrorist attacks in Paris, but said more recently that the trend has leveled off.

Statewide, the number of monthly background checks recorded by the Federal Bureau of Investigations for gun permits and purchases spiked in December 2015 and have remained higher than the previous year for each month since then.

Margot Bennett, executive director of Women Against Gun Violence, said claims that more people are becoming first-time firearm owners should be treated with caution due to the lack of available data.

"Although gun purchases are on the rise, they are being purchased by fewer households and by people who already own a gun(s)," Bennett said in an e-mail.

However, several people involved in Lebanon County's gun industry said there is steady demand for new gun owner training classes, and that middle-aged and retired women are one of the most interested demographics.

Does owning a firearm keep you safer?

Andrew Patrick, spokesman for the Coalition to End Gun Violence, also said it is difficult to tell whether first-time gun purchases are really rising - and if they aren't, he thinks that's a good thing.

"The studies we've seen over and over against indicate that buying a gun is more likely to be harmful to members of the family and the person than to harm an intruder," Patrick said.

People living in homes with guns are 90 percent more likely to die of homicides than people in other homes, according to a 2004 story in the American Journal of Epidemiology, and they are also more likely to die of suicide.

Gun ownership may also not make people safer. A comparison study of 27 developed countries published in the October 2013 edition of the American Journal of Medicine found that countries with more guns per capita had more firearm-related deaths, but did not have reduced overall crime rates.

Kalbach, however, said the idea of banning all semi-automatic pistols and rifles would make the possibility of using your weapon for self-defense far more difficult. One of the most likely alternatives would be a revolver, which is limited to six bullets.

"If you've got three people who are breaking into your house, and they're high on PCP, you'd better be accurate with those 5-6 bullets," he said.

Gun advocates also said those people who accidentally shoot themselves or others are simply not using their weapon safely. If proper techniques like always checking if a gun is loaded when first holding it and keeping the muzzle pointed in a safe location are followed, such accidents shouldn't happen, said Vic Buus Jr., a certified National Rifle Association pistol instructor who teaches classes with the Palmyra Sportsmen's Association.

Experience and training

Still, several gun sellers agreed that the possibility of accidental shootings or being ineffective with the weapon in a defensive emergency are good arguments for getting safety training. A person who buys a gun without training is no more likely to be able to defend themselves than they are to buy a guitar and become Jimmy Page, Wier said.

"Instead of buying a super-expensive handgun, buy a good, reliable handgun for less money and spend the rest of your budget on training, because the experience and the training is what helps you defend yourself," Kalbach said.

Both Wier and Shyda said people sometimes come into the gun stores looking to buy a semi-automatic weapon they don't even know how to operate. While people often take offense at being asked why they are purchasing a gun, there are more subtle ways to encourage them to take a safety class, Wier said.

Like driving a car, the more experience you have, the more likely you are to operate a firearm properly in an emergency, Good said.

"Now, who knows what I will do in that moment," he said. "I hope that in that moment I make the right decision, my muscle memory kicks in, and I'm able to either take that shot or, more importantly, not take that shot if I don't have to - because that is an absolute last resort."