Buffy Martin Tarbox is a hip, smart public relations professional in San Francisco. She volunteers for the local AIDS Foundation, and on weekends she scoots around the Bay Area in her baby-blue VW bug helping rescue wounded wildlife. She once registered as a Green Party voter, and she has done political consulting work for Planned Parenthood.

She is also armed.

Tarbox, who bought her Smith & Wesson handgun six years ago, at age 34, says it’s just like any other modern accessory in her life, along with her designer heels and handbag. “My personal satisfaction is that I can take care of myself,” she says. “I don’t need to rely on a man to protect me.” She grew up around guns, but they made her nervous; her father had instilled a healthy respect for the damage a gun could do if handled carelessly. Once out on her own, Tarbox was shocked to learn some of her girlfriends had guns. These were her spa buddies—professional women like her who said a gun made them feel safer living alone. Out of curiosity, she enrolled in a gun-safety class. To her surprise, she was an excellent shot.

“It did feel empowering,” she remembers. She’s out of practice these days, but she’s pretty sure that, if threatened, she could shoot to kill. “You hope your instincts of survival would kick in. If it came down to them or me, I hope I would choose me,” she says. “If I’m home alone, it’s peace of mind.”

But is Tarbox, or any woman, truly safer because she has a gun? Pro-gun forces want us to think so: They have aggressively promoted the idea that guns level the playing field against a stronger foe. Manufacturers have made weapons lighter and barrels shorter so they’re easier for smaller hands to shoot—or to tuck into a purse or stylish holster. Sellers have customized handguns and rifles with pastel colors and glittery accents. The women buying all these pink guns might not be who you think they are, says Laura Browder, Ph.D., professor of American studies at the University of Richmond and author of Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America. “American identity is closely tied to guns and gun rights, and it cuts across political lines,” she says.

A confident woman protecting herself—it is a tantalizing image, reinforced by dramatic headlines about women like Sarah McKinley, who last New Year’s Eve leveled a 12-gauge shotgun at an intruder and killed him as he burst through her door. The teenaged mom and widow became an overnight celebrity, invited on national talk shows and lauded as a hero by no less than Sarah Palin, who said, “I love that young woman. I’m all in favor of girls with guns who know their purpose.”

Men own the vast majority of the nation’s nearly 300 million guns. But whether women are catching up to them has become a topic of debate. Women are the fastest-growing demographic of gun buyers, says Stephanie Samford, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association. Enrollment in women-only NRA shooting clinics grew from about 500 participants in 2000 to more than 9,500 in 2011. The number of women target shooting jumped by more than 50 percent during roughly the same period, reports the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms and ammunition trade group in Newtown, Connecticut.