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NRA courts women: Pink rifles, concealed carry purses on display at convention

After expanded background checks failed in the Senate, gun control advocates are refocusing their efforts, while the NRA is thanking the support of one key Senator, New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte. NBC's Kasie Hunt reports.

HOUSTON -- At this weekend's National Rifle Association Convention, Carrie Bradshaw met Annie Oakley.

On display in the 9-acre firearms expo alongside Civil War-era antique guns, black AR-15 rifles and camouflage-patterned hunting gear? Pink rifles and hand guns, "Concealed Carrie" purses with hidden handgun pockets, and "Flashbang" holsters that attach to the front or side of a bra.

"We kinda started this because we didn't want women to have to dress like a man to be able to carry a gun," said Taylor Johnston, a Flashbang Holsters sales representative. "We want them to look feminine, look good, and still feel safe.

Leslie Deets modeled her concealed carry purses on high-end designers.

"It looks like a Coach bag," she said, adding that she named her "Concealed Carrie" company after the leading character in HBO’s "Sex and the City" because "Leslie just didn't have the same ring to it."

Retail options aside, the NRA is stepping up its outreach to women after facing criticism in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings that killed 20 elementary school children and 6 adults in December. At the convention, they offered a luncheon, cocktail hour and pistol shooting course just for women.

In February, they hired Natalie Foster -- who founded the blog "Girls Guide to Guns" -- to assist with NRAWomen.tv, a website promoting ways to “explore, connect, celebrate and unite with the women of the NRA.” Sections include “Armed & Fabulous,” and “Refuse to be a Victim.”

"The NRA is definitely making an effort to really let our voices be heard," Foster said.

Adrees Latif / Reuters

A pink assault rifle hangs among others at an exhibit booth at the George R. Brown convention center, the site for the NRA annual meeting in Houston on May 5, 2013.

There's a political motive: The GOP is concerned about wooing female voters, and women overwhelmingly favor stricter gun laws. An April NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 65 percent of women favor more restrictions, compared to just 44 percent of men. Among women with children living at home, support runs even higher.

That's an overwhelming gender gap that could cause a problem for the NRA. The group claims 5 million members, but just a fraction of them are women. Foster said the NRA has a goal of reaching 500,000 women members by 2014 -- so right now, women make up less than 10 percent of the organization. More than half of the electorate, of course, are women.

The gun lobby helped defeat a Senate gun bill that would have expanded background checks to cover all commercial gun sales -- a less aggressive measure than banning assault weapons and a policy that polls show most Americans support.

NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre drove the convention with aggressive rhetoric on that issue -- he said that President Barack Obama's background check bill "ordered the law-abiding to participate in a maze of regulation that could criminalize lawful firearms transactions and potentially create a massive government list of every gun-owning citizen in the country."

But Foster took a notably softer tone in her interview with NBC News.

"When it comes to expanding background checks, we all want people to be safer. These laws that have been proposed recently have not been effective to that end, unfortunately," Foster said. "We all want people to be safer, we all want to protect our children. That is absolutely critical in our society."

From the beginning of the post-Newtown focus on gun control, Republicans -- with behind-the-scenes advice from groups like the NRA -- have put women front and center in their fight against new restrictions. At the first major hearing on gun control after Newtown, Republicans invited Gayle Trotter of the Independent Women's Forum to testify -- and she told the committee stories about women who used guns to protect themselves.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., underscored the point, arguing that women need high capacity magazines to appropriately defend themselves.

"My basic premise is that one bullet in the hand of a mentally unstable person or a convicted felon is one too many. Six bullets in the hands of a mother protecting her twin 9-year-olds may not be enough," he said.

That, in turn, drew a response from Vice President Joe Biden, who told a Google hangout he would advise his wife to use a shotgun, instead.

"You don't need an AR-15," he said. "Buy a shotgun. Buy a shotgun."

Biden is continuing to push for new gun control laws. Supporting him are groups like Moms Demand Action, which had members protesting the NRA Convention. They argue that women want more restrictions, and are planning a week of activism surrounding the upcoming Mother's Day holiday.

"I think every mother knows where she was when she heard about Newtown," said Michelle Green, who heads the Houston chapter. "It resonated so much and mothers want to take care of their children."

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