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Brenda Trefren is teaching Alaska women the right way to fire and handle guns in a non-threatening environment

Straight shooter

Marc Lester November 14, 2015

On a cool, mostly clear October day at the Rabbit Creek Shooting Park, Brenda Trefren hammered home a message for two dozen women learning about carrying a firearm for personal safety: A gun can't keep you safe if you aren't first safe with a gun.

Long before firing a round, the women-only class went step by step through the motions with fingers off the trigger. Grip. Pull. Rotate. Extend.

The students came for differing reasons. One woman's home had been broken into, Trefren said. Another wanted to feel safer home alone. Others sought additional protection in the event of a bear encounter. That they were all women was no coincidence. Women-only classes are one niche served by Soldotna-based Majority Arms, a firearms training company she runs with her husband, Joseph.

Brenda Trefren is a firearms training instructor for Soldotna-based Majority Arms, a company she runs with her husband, Joe Trefren. Marc Lester / ADN Brenda Trefren is a firearms training instructor for Soldotna-based Majority Arms, a company she runs with her husband, Joe Trefren. Trefren said women-only classes satisfy a demand and serve a double purpose. Women often prefer taking classes with other women and taught by a woman. And while she has the chance, Trefren tries to untangle some bad advice they may gotten from the well-meaning, but misinformed, men in their lives.

In a couple of conversations this fall, shortened and edited for clarity, I spoke with Trefren about her approach, misconceptions she's noticed regarding women and guns, and who she thinks needs a firearm for protection.

Tell me a little bit about your background.

I'm a home-schooled mother of five. I'm a registered nurse, but I've been staying home since I had children. (When) I started firearm training, I took my first course in Anchorage and was overwhelmed. I was the only woman in a class full of men, and modern pistol technique was very overwhelming. One time I had to shoot a target a foot away from me, and I cried the first time I had to do that.

So then my husband sent me to Gunsight Academy, which is a nationally recognized firearm training facility for civilians. And I was the only woman in at least 15 years to receive an expert certification from that academy. And they're like, "Where did you come from?" And I just said I'm a home-school mom from Alaska.

And so I'm just a normal person with a passion. I wanted to learn first how to defend myself. I put a revolver in my purse when I turned 21, and it wasn't until I started training that I learned that I never could've used it in a self-defense circumstance. I wanted that confidence that I could.

Instructing group

Firearm training instructor Brenda Trefren talks about gun safety with her students on Saturday, October 31, 2015 at Rabbit Creek Shooting Park. Marc Lester / ADN Firearm training instructor Brenda Trefren talks about gun safety with her students on Saturday, October 31, 2015 at Rabbit Creek Shooting Park. Going back to that training where you felt overwhelmed, what was it about the environment that you were reacting to?

There was a lot of testosterone, like it's just no big deal to shoot an animal or a person. A lot of toughness. A lot of showing off. I was new, and it's hard for women to get into the men's gun world because we don't understand a lot of stuff -- why this works this way, why that works that way, what makes it go bang. It's more natural for men to know that stuff, and so you feel really out of place.

Why do you think that is? Is it just a gun culture tradition that just historically didn't include women?

Yes, absolutely.

You teach women-only classes and you teach coed classes. Tell me about how the dynamic is different.

As a female instructor, we have actually never had a class were it was full of competitive, kind of chauvinistic-type attitude like the first one that I went in. And I think it's because as a woman instructor, I kind of bring a level of normalcy to the classes, so we don't have to have all that show-off stuff, even with the men that we teach. But the women environment, sometimes it takes us two hours to get our first shot off. We get one shot off, everyone's hooting and hollering ... and my husband's always like, "How do you get anything done with all these women?" But we have a good time. And eventually, after two days, they're getting head shots in two seconds or less out of the holster. It all comes together eventually.

Brenda Trefren instructs a student at Rabbit Creek Shooting Park. Brenda Trefren is a firearms training instructor for Soldotna-based Majority Arms, a company she runs with her husband, Joe Trefren. Marc Lester / ADN Brenda Trefren instructs a student at Rabbit Creek Shooting Park. Brenda Trefren is a firearms training instructor for Soldotna-based Majority Arms, a company she runs with her husband, Joe Trefren. It sounds like there are still some attitudes you want women to guard against, as far as how they're taught to use their weapon. What are those?

It's kind of a know-it-all type of attitude. I did a course very recently here in Anchorage. I taught women self-defense principles with modern pistol technique. You know, very few men have ever had formal training, so what they know is what their dads taught them 40 years ago.

I had taught (my students) all these things ... and (a student) goes to a gun counter to buy a gun for the course, and the man behind the counter told her everything the opposite of what I got done telling her. It's just an example: They get behind the counter (and) they know everything. Do this. Do that. ...

What are the mistakes that you feel are common to women when they're first getting acquainted with shooting?

Well, they're afraid of the firearm, so they try to work it too far away from their body where they are weak. They use fine motor skills, instead of gross motor capabilities. And they just haven't spent a lot of time with a gun, and so they go try to buy one and they're already uncomfortable by it, and nothing works. They can't run the slide. They can't run the trigger. And it's just because they're uncomfortable. They just need a little time.

We don't do anything magical in our courses. We just make them shoot 350 rounds in a weekend and it makes you comfortable with your firearm. And you're a different person after our courses.

What are some of things you tell women looking to buy a personal-protection gun?

I discourage really micro guns for beginner shooters. People want a really small firearm that they can just throw in their purse. Small firearms are very difficult to learn on. It is far better to learn on a larger full-size-frame gun, and then graduate to a small gun. It's very frustrating when everything you need to do is just tiny and micro. So I discourage people from really going super, super, super small gun and super small caliber. You need a caliber that's capable of stopping a threat.

A brass casing ejects from a handgun after Paula Griffin fires during a women-only handgun training course taught by Brenda Trefren. Brenda Trefren is a firearms training instructor for Soldotna-based Majority Arms, a company she runs with her husband, Joe Trefren. Marc Lester / ADN A brass casing ejects from a handgun after Paula Griffin fires during a women-only handgun training course taught by Brenda Trefren. Brenda Trefren is a firearms training instructor for Soldotna-based Majority Arms, a company she runs with her husband, Joe Trefren. You said in the class you want the user to be comfortable with the gun, but you don't want the gun to be comfortable. What does that mean?

I tell people that carrying a firearm is comforting, and not necessarily comfortable. But the firearm that's on your person is a lot better than the firearm that's home in your safe. There needs to be an element of comfort when carrying a firearm, and there are tons of different options especially for women in concealing firearms. Sometimes you go through five, 10, 15 holsters to find something that's truly comfortable for you.

In your opinion, who needs to carry a personal-protection firearm?

I think that we have a God-given right to defend ourselves and that everyone should be carrying a firearm if they can be safe with it. Now there are some people -- and we've met them out on our range -- that just can't keep their fingers off the trigger. And if you can't be safe with a firearm, then I do not believe that you should be carrying a firearm ...

What I've learned ... is that the people who pay for firearm training are the cream of the crop of American citizens, and it's the same thing up in Alaska ... but every once in a while you'll find somebody that just can't be safe with it. If they can't keep their finger off the trigger, we kick them off of our range, and they can't continue our courses.

Students in Brenda Trefren's women-only handgun training for self-defense course aim their weapons on Saturday, October 31, 2015, at Rabbit Creek Shooting Park. Marc Lester / ADN Students in Brenda Trefren's women-only handgun training for self-defense course aim their weapons on Saturday, October 31, 2015, at Rabbit Creek Shooting Park. You talked a little bit about how to carry a gun. What do you tell them?

I discourage women from carrying in the purse, just because it's very difficult to get your firearm out of the purse, even when it's in a concealed-carry purse. It would take me five minutes to get my firearm out of my purse. In a self-defense circumstance, you don't have five minutes, so I discourage that. And oftentimes what the perpetrator wants is the purse, and you don't want to hand your purse over when it has a firearm in it. And also, when you have a firearm in your purse, you are now married to that purse ... I'm responsible for that gun, and I must not make sure it gets in the hands of people who are unauthorized to have it, which would include criminals and children. So, I discourage purse carrying.

My favorite mode of carrying is outside the waist and just put a vest over because I'm very fast at that. I'm very comfortable with my firearm. If I want deep concealment, I do carry a corset holster on the small of my back, which I find very, very comfortable and have really enjoyed carrying it. It's more for a smaller type of firearm.

In all of these scenarios, the gun is holstered?

Yes. A holstered gun is a safe gun. If you're going to carry a firearm, a handgun for self-defense, it must be holstered.

At the Alaska Women's Show on September 25, 2015, Brenda Trefren gives advice to women about buying a gun. Marc Lester / ADN At the Alaska Women's Show on September 25, 2015, Brenda Trefren gives advice to women about buying a gun. It sounds like when you talk about personal protection with women in your courses, guns are just one aspect of it.

Oh, yes. And it's always the tool of last resort. There's so much that can be avoided from just keeping your head. We talk about using a command presence. We have women yell at their targets to start using a command presence.

When I first started training, I didn't make eye contact with people. I wasn't shy, but ... I'd be the type of woman that would think someone was behind me, but I don't want to turn around and look at them. I had to start practicing that ...

Last year, after I've had this training, I came out of (a store) in Kenai. I try to never be surprised in my life, but this man came out from behind a dumpster and he surprised me. And I had my firearm, but I didn't need it. My hand went up in a fraction of a second, and I used a command presence and I said, "Get back! You're making me uncomfortable," in an assertive voice. And his hands went up and he was swearing at me, and he was angry, but he didn't take one step closer to me ... and I never needed my firearm, and probably wouldn't have with that command presence.

Do you carry any concern that (when) a student of any kind is trained to use a firearm, that it will be top of mind and they'll be too quick to react (with a gun)?

I don't feel like, with the tools that we're giving people, that people are going to be too fast on their triggers. Because you never want risk ending a human life, if you don't have to. There's so much involved emotionally, financially, civilly, criminally, that you always want to avoid that. However, I also tell people, if you truly are in fear of your life, don't think about that kind of stuff. And you need to do what you need to do to go home to your family. Whatever that takes.

Brenda Trefren talks with student Karen Miller during her women-only course called "Introduction to Handgun for Self-defense." Trefren is a firearms training instructor for Soldotna-based Majority Arms, a company she runs with her husband, Joe Trefren. Marc Lester / ADN Brenda Trefren talks with student Karen Miller during her women-only course called "Introduction to Handgun for Self-defense." Trefren is a firearms training instructor for Soldotna-based Majority Arms, a company she runs with her husband, Joe Trefren. Do you feel that prospective gun owners should be required to take a safety class like the ones that you offer before being permitted to carry a handgun? (Alaska Law does not require a permit for someone legally possessing a handgun from concealing it, though permits are available here that are recognized in 37 states and provide other benefits, Trefren said.)

That's a tough one, just because I do believe it's a constitutional right that does come with some responsibilities. I wouldn't want to say that I would vote yes or no if that were a requirement by law, just because I would have to think about whether that would be infringing on our constitutional right. But I definitely think it's a very good idea. Very few people actually come to our class knowing how to be safe with a firearm before taking our course.

It sounds like you feel a little conflicted. In general, you're not in favor of more laws regarding guns, but at the same time there's a responsibility for the purchaser to know what he/she is doing.

Yes. And we do talk about that in our class -- that it's a right to have firearms, but there's a responsibility that you store your firearms so they're not accessible to unauthorized people, that you know your firearms are safe to use, that you abide by the laws, and that guns are neither safe nor unsafe by themselves ...

Yes, I am conflicted. Prior to being a firearm instructor, I would say no, I don't think people need to get their concealed-carry permits, and they don't need to go through training. It's our right to have it. And now, after I've trained hundreds of adults who have been around firearms their whole life who aren't necessarily as safe as they should be with them, it is conflicting to me.

Click here to see Brenda's 6 tips for women buying guns for self-defense.

Marc Lester is an Alaska Dispatch News visual journalist and the author of the occasional Conversations column.

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