The Women of Dallas Are Armed and Dangerous, Thanks to Mama Jeanie
Her rhinestone-studded sunglasses shading her from the harsh July sun, Jeanie Almond purposefully paces the range, hands clasped behind her back, her short blonde hair tucked behind her ears. She's watching her 16-year-old granddaughter, tall and blonde with purple streaks, shoot International bunker trap — an Olympic game with 15 traps that send clay targets bursting into the sky at about 90 miles per hour. They fly up and out over the property of the Dallas Gun Club, the gun enthusiast's mecca in Lewisville. Grandma does most of her work at a different range, but granddaughter prefers this version to the slower-moving targets of American trap, and Dallas Gun Club is the only place nearby that offers it.
The teenager, McKenna, gracefully raises the gun to her shoulder before squeezing the trigger — bang! — and moves to the next station, where she repeats these movements methodically. When the girl hits a target, Jeanie nods and slightly purses her lips, smiling only on the inside. She's 61 now, and has been coaching McKenna for only about four months, since she started a shotgun team at Marcus High School. But Jeanie used to compete herself, winning state and national championships, so she respects the quiet of the sport as her granddaughter shoots. After several rounds, she crosses her arms in front of her over the embellished design of her shirt — black, with a rhinestone heart framed by two pistols — and nods as the shots continue.
Jeanie's daughter, McKenna's mother, watches from a shade tent nearby. Shellee's also an accomplished shooter, though she prefers handguns to shotguns. Back in the day, Jeanie's now 81-year-old mother was a great shot herself. That's four generations of lady shooters.
This is no time-passing hobby, either. In 2007, Jeanie and Shellee founded Lipstick and Lead, an organization whose mission is to teach women to shoot and protect themselves. The slogan: Educate, empower, reload. Shellee is the lead handgun instructor and handles media and promotions. Jeanie's title is "Mama Jeanie — Mama of Everyone — CEO." This, in other words, is a family business.
And business is booming. Concealed handgun permits are on the rise among Texas women, growing nearly four-fold from 2001 to 2011. Local gun retailers say women across all demographics are buying more guns, both for sport and for protection, if not from the scary world depicted on the local news, then the even scarier one depicted by cable TV's punditry. And when these women show up looking for a gun or trying to shoot one — at Ray's Sporting Goods, Beretta Gallery or any number of similar places in the DFW area — employees often recommend they pay a visit to Mama Jeanie.
The core tenet of Jeanie's instructional philosophy is that women and men learn differently, so she uses a woman's strengths to coach her to accurate shooting, whether it's a stranger looking to blow off steam or, on days like today, her granddaughter following in the family footsteps. She teaches men too, but she calls it her "ministry" to teach women.
"Look at the bird, see the bird, nice and smooth," Jeanie tells McKenna. "Let it move you." McKenna raises her gun for each shot in a swift and fluid motion, all the while thinking of Jeanie's three-step instructions, which she recites easily: "One, raise the barrel, two, straight out, and three straight in, so this part [the butt of the gun] goes right into your shoulder pocket."
McKenna approaches a shot, setting her feet the way her grandmother taught her and leaning forward. Then she does what feels natural. "It's just a really homey feel to me. It's cool; it's really cool," she says. At the state competition this year, the first time her school competed, she finished fourth overall among high-school girls.
She's even considering a shooting career, and a couple weeks after this lesson, her grandma and mom will drive her to Colorado Springs to watch the National Trap Championships to get the lay of the land before next year's competition. It's one in a series of steps that could lead her to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where she can potentially pick up where Grandma should have left off at the 1984 Los Angeles games. Maybe then Grandma can finally retire that half-true excuse she's used for three decades.
Mama Jeanie's kitchen feels like a Food Network set, but with talk-show conversation. She chops cilantro, dragging the knife toward her in the smoothest possible motion, and slices the green onions into perfect diagonals. We're at her home in Denton to trace her family's trigger-squeezing lineage, but the focus, for now, is on her beloved Chinese chicken salad.
"The original recipe is made with pheasant," she says. Pheasant that she shot, naturally.
Plates of fresh vegetables line the counter, awaiting her attention. Her daughter, Shellee; her 81-year-old mother, Connie; and a Lipstick and Lead instructor, Tiffani, stand around the kitchen island, keeping her company. These are the women who have dedicated themselves to Elm Fork Shooting Sports, the northwest Dallas gun range owned by Jeanie's son, Scott Robertson, himself a world-champion shooter. Jeanie is the pretty, peppy face of the range's events and education program, where she's recognized by her pink camouflage pickup truck, matching golf cart and rhinestone belts, always rhinestone belts. But anyone who knows her understands that the pink and sparkles are decorative, not defining, a candy-coated shell to her tough guts.
Amid the recipe talk, Jeanie shifts the conversation to her love of Paula Deen, an admiration that goes well beyond the butter. "I understand her; we came from the same place. She's a Southern woman, and Southern women, I believe, are bred with low expectations," she says. She puts on her best eyelash-batting exaggerated Southern accent. "It is not in our best interest as Southern ladies to be more intelligent than our husbands."
Jeanie's father, a Marine from Tennessee, encouraged her mother to learn to shoot. He filled the bottom of a milk jug with sand, and she would carry it around the house to strengthen her shooting arm. After a week or so, he'd add another inch of sand.
"I could hold a .357 Magnum out and shoot it," says Connie, a welcoming great-grandmother with dyed strawberry-colored hair. "It will shoot through a car motor."
In 1954, when Jeanie was just a baby, Connie went to a shooting competition with the Marine Corps pistol team. One of the Marines invited her to shoot.
"And she did," Jeanie says. "She outshot everyone."
"Now wait a minute," Connie interrupts, "this was not an official shoot."
"Oh, c'mon, Mother, it was the national matches!" Jeanie says. "See? That's where I got it."
Connie beat the Marines in the competition, and it was around then — when Connie could outshoot her husband — that his encouragement gave way to disdain. He didn't speak to her for three nights.
"That's not the worst part, darlin'," Jeanie says, talking about her mom but hinting at her own love triangle with shooting and a man. "The worst part is she put her guns up, and she never competed again."
There's a big, tangled thread here, one that runs through Connie's life and through Jeanie's and into the lives of the women she teaches, but it slips away when she's sidetracked by her preparations, assembling a salad bursting with color, a Bon Appetit photo shoot waiting to happen. "I hope you're hungry for this Chinese chicken salad," she says.
"Little hole going in, big hole going out," Jeanie said the first time we met. Her voice was sweet and high, but what she was describing, the fatal path of a .38-caliber bullet, was gruesome.
When a woman approaches Jeanie for a lesson, either for sport or for protection, the first thing she does is sit down and talk. She needs to know the woman's motivation for coming — does she want to shoot for fun with her husband? Is she seeking an extra layer of safety after experiencing a rape or an attack? She meets hundreds of women in both camps every year.
When the latter is true, she works independently with that woman, talking her through and teaching her to handle the gun before they even approach the paper targets. With shotgun training, she's more upbeat, imparting a love of the sport for its own sake.
She started teaching as a teenager, and even then she was driven by purpose. "I do it because I'm needed out there. I do it because I care about other women."
I walked into the clubhouse on a July afternoon. Jeanie, in her chunky rhinestone bracelet and silver hoop earrings, led an introductory shotgun lesson for a small group of us.
She was cheery like always, imbuing the proceedings with levity that, to some anyway, may not fit the weight of her work. In the weeks after this lesson, the misuse of guns would both dominate the news cycle and rock her family — first with the mass shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin and College Station, then with her own grandson, the oldest of her 23 grandchildren, who committed suicide in early August, shooting himself in his apartment. Devin was 24. Jeanie's daughter had cared for him since he was 13, officially adopting him at 18, and over the years, he became an excellent gunsmith in the Army Reserves and a patient shooting instructor at Elm Fork, where he worked until last year.
Jeanie's first reaction to news of shooting rampages is an impossible wish that she could have trained the victims to protect themselves. "Maybe that .38 [pistol] in the purse would have been just the thing to stop a terrible situation," she says, her voice grave and unwavering.
Processing her grandson's suicide is obviously more challenging.
"This — I'm struggling," she says. "Unfortunately, it was his gun. It's the one he had wanted. It's the one he worked on." Jeanie believes the gun was merely a tool to carry out what seemed inevitable. She did everything she could imagine to help him, but through love and profound grief has come to conclude a single certainty. "I couldn't fix it."
The day of our lesson, Jeanie started by noting the key differences between men and women shooters: Women have a lower center of gravity, she said; our strength is in our lower body. While a man's biggest hurdle is his ego, a woman's is muscle fatigue.
"If you want to hit the clay target you have to focus simply on the clay target," she said, and followed up with a question: "How often are you thinking about one thing at a time?"
"Never," we answered, with a collective eye-roll and chuckle.
On the range, I stood toe-to-toe with her to learn the proper stance — left foot forward, right foot back. She and I held the gun at my hip to fire it once and feel the recoil. She positioned my hands and shoulders, making adjustments along the way like a yoga teacher.
"I got this, I promise I won't let go," she said, sensing my tense shoulders and vice grip on the gun. I expected it to feel like a sucker punch to the shoulder, but it didn't. It wasn't so bad.
"Now you're gonna bend your left knee only and stick your butt straight out behind you," she said. "Finger on the trigger, eyes in the sky, head down, eyes up, let's go!"
She kept her hands on the gun as I shot. It was guiding more than confining, a comfort, not a hindrance. She later described herself as a "pseudo-shooter," aiming the gun at the target with me, improving my chances at nailing a disk. "I'm creating a situation whereby you can be successful," she said.
I pulled the trigger and missed. But it was more effortless than I'd imagined.
I missed again with the second shot, probably no closer. Jeanie told me to relax. Now that I knew what to expect, I consciously lowered my shoulders, which had been up to my ears. I let myself go. And I nailed the next two.
"Yeah, all right, good job," Jeanie said, and high-fived me. I laughed loudly, feeling prouder than the occasion warranted. Later, I told her that my excitement seemed to outweigh my success.
"It was your moment," she said calmly. "You are so entitled to that moment."
Mama Jeanie is everything cable television-watchers think Texan women are, but she's not originally a Texan. She was born in North Carolina on a military base and moved often, depending where her father was stationed. She spent the most time in San Antonio, where she went to high school and met her first husband, Ken Robertson.
He was on the Air Force shotgun team at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio; Jeanie's father was a gunsmith for the pistol team. They met in church. He was from Southern California, so they began their life together there.
"Bless your heart, you did not expect this today, I'm sure," she says over lunch, pausing at the question of why she married her first husband. "Um, I had no place else to go. Mother was, at that time in her life, very powerless. I was an only child, no aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no extended family whatsoever, and I couldn't stay with my dad."
She'd been abused by her father.
"He ruined my childhood," she says.
So there she was, in California, starting her own family as part of a convenient and beautiful escape. Her husband made his name as a competitive shotgun shooter, technical adviser on Hollywood sets and instructor, filming instructional videos that remain popular today. Once, on the set of Dynasty, Joan Collins could not hold the gun properly, so there's a brief scene where it's her husband's hands latched around a gun that's peeking from behind a tree.
Jeanie was mostly a mother and wife in those days, but she kept shooting and kept racking up state and national titles. She'd often pack her four children into a motor home to travel wherever her husband was competing. Once, in Northern California, she decided to shoot too. She broke 94 of 100 targets in the first round of American trap shooting, beating out the other women.
Then it was time for the Calcutta, where people place bets on shooters, like horses at a race. Jeanie's friend bet on her. Her husband broke 91 of 100 clay targets. She broke 97. Her husband posed with her in every photo, she says, explaining to people how much he taught her.
"She always kind of took the backseat and let everybody else have the glory," her son, Scott, says. "She was a mom first, so she was very good about putting herself at the end of the line and everybody else at the front of the line."
In those days, Jeanie's expertise was in American trap, not the Olympic version her granddaughter prefers. Nevertheless, in 1982 she got a call from her friend Glenda Stark, an International trap World Champion silver medalist. There was a spot for her on the Olympic team — or maybe just a tryout. Neither woman remembers exactly. But there was an opportunity, and Jeanie wanted to pursue it.
Jeanie's husband had failed to qualify for an international training team that same month. When Jeanie broke the news, it was met with silence, followed by a devastating ultimatum.
"I didn't get to go, so you're sure as hell not gonna go," she remembers him saying. "And if you do try and go, by the time you come back, I'll have filed for divorce. I'll take the children ... so those are your choices. Go or stay."
"So I put the Olympics, in my mind and my heart, in a box," she says. "And put it away."
She quit shooting competitively that day. Ever since, she's told people the reason was because she had young children to take care of at home and left it at that. Only her closest friends and family heard the truth, and not until years after the fact.
"She was and is a terrific shot," Stark says, "and I just hate her not to get to use those abilities."
Three weeks before those Olympics, her husband came down with a bad cold that bloodwork revealed was actually leukemia. Despite her heart being "broken in 5,000 pieces," she says, she cared for him until the end. She remembers well her dual life, doing her best to keep him alive while feeling relief that it was almost over. He died two years later.
Jeanie bought a home just outside of Dallas, packed her belongings into the biggest U-Haul available, put her .38 revolver in her purse and drove away with her children. Her son picked up his shooting career in Texas, going on to win several shooting titles. And about a decade ago, he bought the gun range that would become Elm Fork after attending college at University of North Texas and working as a stockbroker. He told his mom she could play whatever role she wanted.
"That," her son says, "was kind of the beginning of the modern-day Mama Jeanie."
Like several of Lipstick and Lead's instructors, Susan Cranford started as one of Jeanie's customers. An oil and gas geologist who rides Harley-Davidsons, she first called Jeanie when she was invited to an oil company's sporting clay match. She'd shot guns since childhood, but she didn't know the first thing about sporting clay.
"I wasn't about to go over there and have the least idea of what I was doing," Cranford says. "I've watched a lot of girls shoot; I've watched how a lot of the guys treat the girls."
She told this to Jeanie. Jeanie was in.
Cranford was instantly comfortable. "When she's teaching that first lesson, you see Jeanie in the raw. You see that total passion underneath come up and it's transferred to you and it's given to you as an open gift."
Cranford had been through a terrible marriage, a bad divorce and a battle with kidney cancer that had collectively turned something off deep inside her. After meeting Jeanie for the first time, Cranford says, "It was like something popped off the cork of my giddy button. ... She opened up the key to the missing chunk in my life that I didn't even know was missing at the time."
It's the way Jeanie operates. These women, or any woman, walk in for a shooting lesson and walk out with something else entirely. She doesn't ask customers what emotional baggage they're carrying through the door or act as a therapist; it just happens. It could be the sport — it's a form of protection and a massive emotional release — but it's more than that, too.
"There's a link, there's a hook that gets in your soul ... a very deep empathy for each other," Cranford says of the Lipstick and Lead ladies. "I think we're all survivors in one way or another. Whether it was physical, emotional, medical ... Several of us have been through some stuff, and we're not gonna take no more," Cranford says, laughing at her brashness. "That's the other way of saying I'm not going to take any more."
Jeanie splits her time between instruction and hosting corporate shooting events at Elm Fork. On a recent July afternoon, she charmed, taught and mothered 40 prospects for the Dallas Stars, part of the NHL team's Development Camp, a week-long orientation of sorts. She paced the clubhouse floor in a pink button-down with a Lipstick and Lead logo and her rhinestone belt, holding a shotgun like a walking stick, casually and with flair.
Her bounciness pairs well with her love of the color pink: She has a pink truck, a pink handgun, pink shooting glasses and, somewhere in her bra, a tube of pink lip gloss. Offsetting her peppiness, her resting face is one of concern; her lips are tight, her blue eyes more thoughtful than sharp. There's an underlying seriousness that makes it impossible to shrug her off as some sort of Barbie-doll grandma caricature. She demands attention for reasons deeper than being entertaining as hell; it's the sort of attention people reserve for their own mothers.
And she reciprocates: With the hockey players, it was "Everybody's got drinks?" and "Everybody's got water?" as she buzzed station to station with water, soda and sunscreen in the back of her cart. "That's Texas service, boys!" she called out on one of her rounds.
Until recently, she was the general manager of the range, taking care of everything from managing the facility to replacing toilet paper, while handling the 400 or so corporate events a year and the lessons. But mother and son recently agreed that she would step down from management and handle events while focusing on Lipstick and Lead. Her organization of instructors is contracted with Elm Fork, but it is run independently of the range, which means it is set up to expand elsewhere, as Jeanie plans to do. She's also recorded two Lipstick and Lead instructional videos, and a major network recently bought a reality show starring her.
"She's kind of starting a movement," son Scott says. And the novelty of lady instructors has been good for his business: His male customers see the female instructors and think, "She smells better and she's a lot cuter than a male instructor."
Two hours after the hockey players left, the Lipstick and Lead ladies dragged the tables in the clubhouse to one side of the room, clearing a space for self-defense class. Along with her shooting glasses, Jeanie is working on a curriculum of physical and tactical training. For several weeks, about seven or eight instructors on any given night show up to learn conflict-avoidance and self-defense tactics, which they will eventually teach to other women. The group includes a geologist, an IRS executive and a motorcycle store manager; the women couldn't be more different, but somehow they're as close as sisters.
Jeanie has a straightforward ethos on women and safety: "You can be pink and fluffy and frilly, or you can be the outdoor girl. You can be whoever you want to. I just want you safe. ... If you have to fight, you have to fight, but if you don't have to fight, get the heck out of there."
Jim Balthazar, a Department of Justice Special Agent, starts the day's class with pointers on how to prevent oneself from becoming a victim. (Three of the Lipstick and Lead instructors have been attacked, Jeanie says, including two rape victims.) When the day's Powerpoint lesson wraps up, Balthazar and the two other trainers take out pads to practice punches, blocks, elbow-strikes and kicks. The women whale on the trainers, taking the situation seriously but periodically breaking out in laughter.
At another lesson days later, Balthazar instructs, "... when you strike, I want you to say the word 'no.'"
Shellee jokes that if she were actually being attacked, she would have stronger words to offer than "no."
"You're not going to be able to speak in long sentences," Balthazar explains, "'StopdoingthisIdon'tlikewhatyou'redoingtome!' wouldn't work. 'No' is short, concise, and to the point."
Shellee punches the pads he holds over his hands, expressing the simple word in strong and forceful bursts. Jeanie does the same, punching in quick succession, her "no" as forceful as Shellee's.
Some of the others are more like pronounced screams, while a few are a bit quieter but still assertive. None are demure or shy, especially not when it comes to this.
Afterward, they all go for Mexican food. Jeanie sits across from Lipstick and Lead instructor A.J. O'Neal, a tiny blonde who runs a Kawasaki dealership. O'Neal's father worked in law enforcement, and she's always been comfortable with firearms. At 16, she had a handgun, but a series of fluke near-tragedies would lead her to teach.
When she was a teenager, she went to a July 4 party at Lake Texoma. A drunken show-off was making smoke with the tires of his truck and she asked him to stop. At that point, he pointed a gun at her face at close range.
"I just looked at him and I said, 'You're not gonna shoot a pretty little girl like me, are you?'" He backed down.
A year or two later, a boyfriend snapped and began acting violent. She moved to a new town, but he showed up one day and beat her up. When she talks about this story, all lightness drains from her voice, and the details remain vague.
"I know that God puts things in your path for a reason, and that reason shaped me to be a stronger woman," O'Neal says. "It really changed who I am, and how I think, and how vulnerable I can be."
About seven years ago, she had another incident. She was running along a path in Plano in broad daylight when she passed a stocky man who was dressed as though on his way to work at a restaurant. Moments later, she says, "He came up behind me and literally grabbed me in my private areas, and said something in Spanish that I didn't understand."
She fought like hell.
"He was probably going to drag me off in the woods," she says. She punched, kicked and screamed until he relented, finally running off.
O'Neal took each of these experiences as a sign that she needed to help women protect themselves. She was raised with confidence and an instinct to fight, but she knew others needed that instilled in them.
"It's not that I'm a gun nut," she says. "I'm a protection person."
So last year, she became a handgun instructor and independently gave private lessons. Around that time, she heard about Jeanie.
"I left her a message, and I said, 'I just really feel like you and I need to know each other,'" O'Neal says.
Jeanie returned the call asking her to meet, and they met, and now here they are.
"It was like an instant, 'We are gonna be great,'" O'Neal says. "I can say that teaching women basic pistol ... it's a bonding experience for women," all anchored by Mama Jeanie and her mantra: If you're not prepared, you're a victim.
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