When Harriett Ruth started selling firearms in the mid-1990s at the Diamond Exchange, she had no experience whatsoever with them.
“Never touched one; never owned a gun,” she said in a recent visit to the pawn store on Victory Drive in Columbus.
But the Smiths Station, Ala., resident would steadily pick up knowledge about pistols and rifles, much of it from customers with which she did business. Her expertise and salesmanship led to her being dubbed, “The Gun Lady,” by a customer a few years ago. It’s a moniker that many buyers and sellers now use when asking for the weapons department.
Ruth, 56, is not a hunter. But she does believe in protecting herself with a Glock 19 pistol at home and while traveling to and from work. And, naturally, she thinks it’s a good idea for others to do so, particularly women.
A December 2012 Time magazine article on “America’s Gun Economy” cited federal government statistics showing there were roughly 310 million firearms in the United States — a mix of pistols, rifles and shotguns.
The industry certainly has its flash points, from gun-control advocates spurred on by tragic and senseless mass shootings like that at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut to legislation passed recently by the Georgia General Assembly loosening firearm restrictions.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Ruth recently about her job, her learning curve on guns, and the need for carrying a firearm. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
What were your thoughts when you were first asked to market and sell guns?
That I didn’t know anything about them and it was a challenge. We started out with very low-grade guns, very inexpensive guns, and I would just sit there and play with them and figure them out and listen to people talking about them. Then I finally decided we needed to step up and get some more expensive guns.
Describe the process of learning more about them?
I would read up on it, and I would have customers come in and, if I had questions, I would ask them and they would show me different things. I have three customers that will actually help me out a lot, who I can call with questions. ... (Also) I took them and cocked them and studied them and looked to see what all they do, where all their safeties are located. All of the Glocks have different numbers, and I kept trying to figure out which ones are which, and which ones shoot easier. They all say light is better, but it’s not. You want something with some weight to it.
Did you shoot them?
Yes. I went with my brother to a shooting range in Phenix City. I had a little body guard .38-caliber. It bruised the crap out of my hand.
The first time you shot a pistol, describe the experience.
I took my gun out there (to the range) and gave it to my brother and said, here, shoot it so I can watch it and can hear it fire. And once I saw how it kicked and how loud it was, I was OK. Then I could shoot it. You should always have somebody shoot it first (while you watch).
Do you shoot regularly now?
I try to. We go out in my back yard sometimes. I have gone to Shooters a couple of times. It’s a lot of fun.
Pistols versus rifles?
I don’t care for the rifles too much. I once shot the SKS (Soviet semi-automatic carbine rifle). It was a lot of fun, too, but I would rather do pistols.
It sounds like you’ve grown fond of firearms?
I have. I have a blast with them ... I didn’t realize how many different ones there were. I didn’t realize how many different calibers there were. And then there are the price ranges. It’s just very interesting to talk with people about their old guns, their new guns, and then actually shooting them myself.
What is the price range on guns?
They can range from about $150 up to $1,200, or sometimes $2,000 or more. They can be up there.
You own multiple guns yourself and use them for protection?
Yeah, for protection and just to shoot. I’ve got one at my house and one in my purse.
Are there a lot of gun shops in the area?
Last I heard a lot of them quit doing the guns. That’s mainly because the (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) got so tight with the things you have to do (for compliance). If you don’t do everything just right with the ATF, they’ll write you up and fine you. They come in and do an inspection. It takes about three days. They look at every gun that we have in the store. And they have you go through a year’s worth of (Form) 4473s to make sure we’ve got all the correct stuff on them and to make sure we haven’t sold it to somebody we weren’t supposed to, or missed some information.
When did they start calling you ‘The Gun Lady’?
A customer started it about four years ago.
Do you like it?
It’s kind of cool. (laughs) The guys will call and they’ll want to talk with somebody in the gun department and they’ll transfer it to me and I’ll ask them: Can I help you? They’ll say: I’m waiting to talk to someone in the gun department, and I’ll say: That’s me. And they’ll go, hmmm, OK.
How do you let them know you’re knowledgeable about guns?
They’ll spit out something like: Do you have this Glock 45, blah, blah, blah. And I’ll say: What model do you want? Do you want the 26 or the 20 or whatever? And they’ll say: Oh, and calm down because they know that I know what I’m talking about.
Do you get a lot of females coming in for guns?
I get a lot of women, of all ages. They’ll come in and want to buy something in particular, and I’ll tell them, no, that’s not for you ... They come in and want to get a little .380 (caliber pistol) or something like that. They want something that’s light, but they want something they don’t know anything about. So I’ll show it to them and say: You have to do this and this, and charge it back. Are you going to be able to do that? And they’ll look at me and say they didn’t know you had to do all of that. So I find something that’s more suitable and simpler, which is usually a revolver.
If you had to recommend a gun to a woman, is there a classic to which you would steer them?
The people that have never shot before, I recommend a revolver becomes there’s nothing to them. The ones who have shot before, it depends on what they’re going to use it for — if they’re going to go to the range, or use if for home protection, or if they’re going to carry it. If it’s something lightweight, I’ll let them know it hurts when you shoot it. I shot a pistol one time and it bruised my whole hand because there’s a lot of recoil to it. A lot of times, we’ll tell them to just go out to Shooters (indoor firing range in Columbus) and rent a gun, test it, and then come buy it from me.
On average, how many weapons do you sell in a week or a month?
It’s like this (her hand does a roller-coaster motion). Like at tax time, I sell two or three a day or more. When the (Sandy Hook Elementary School) shooting happened, it was nonstop. I couldn’t even keep them in the store because everybody was so afraid that they were going to lose their gun rights.
Georgia House Bill 60 just passed and is ready for Gov. Deal’s signature. Your thoughts?
You can’t carry them around the churches and schools unless they allow it, and you have to let them know. Even at work, if you have a permit and you want to take your gun in on that (businesses’) property, you can lose your job. You have to make sure it’s OK.
Have you gotten any feedback from customers concerning the legislation?
Not yet. Most people are going to carry anyway. One of my customers told me he had an ankle (gun and holster) on, and he made it into the government building and out. He said when he was getting in (the car), he saw it and thought, oh crap. But they didn’t find it.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Trying to find ammunition and guns to sell once I get real low. That’s the hardest part, trying to find the stuff. Ammunition, you can’t hardly find it. People want to get a certain kind. And some of the guns you can’t locate. But it’s gotten better ... I have one customer who I had been looking for one gun for six years. I found it finally and was able to get it for him on his birthday. It was a Kel-Tec 22 (handgun). It was one of the hardest guns to locate. They only made so many.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Making them happy by hunting for stuff that nobody else can get and finding it. Like I said, it took me six years to get that one.
Would you recommend this profession to other females?
Sure. Just don’t be scared about (guns). After all, I didn’t know anything about ’em at first.
In this society, do most people need a gun?
Need protection? Yes. I think so. I don’t necessarily say carry them, but to have something at your house or while you travel. Some of the hot-headed folks, they carry and that’s when you end up in trouble.
What’s your favorite gun and why do you like it?
My Glock 19. It shoots real smooth. I can actually control it and it fits my hand well. It doesn’t jam and doesn’t have a lot of recoil to it, so it doesn’t hurt. I try to sell of lot of them to the ladies. You can get them around $499. We’ve got them for $479. They’ve got three different generations, so you can go up to the Gen 4 and maybe add about $75 more to it, and get a little extra.