Real estate agent Sheila Shipley carries a .38 special in her tiny, bright pink purse. In fact, the gun is the only thing in her purse.
"You don't want anything in the way, so you can get to it fast," Mrs. Shipley said.
She is among a growing number of agents who count on guns as a safety measure, though a representative of the Chattanooga Police Department reports that attacks on them aren't common locally.
Debate about guns and safety has surged in recent weeks as the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation allowing guns in bars and parks. Some municipal governments subsequently banned guns in parks.
Mrs. Shipley, however, credits a gun with saving her life after she was attacked while showing a house in 1986. She says it's best to be alert.
"Don't ever let your guard down thinking that it can't happen to you," she said.
Mrs. Shipley said she had always carried a gun, but until the attack, she had never taken a class in how to use one. She had gone to show a house in Middle Valley to a man, who was supposed to be waiting outside. Instead, the man had gone inside without her, and the red flags went up. When she got to the door, he pulled her inside the house. She pulled out the gun she carried in her coat pocket and pointed it at the man.
"When I pulled it out, he backed up a little bit, and I said, 'I'll give you a chance to leave or I'm going to use it,'" she said.
After the incident, she signed up for a class on how to use her gun, and she has carried one ever since.
Open House safety tips for real estate agents
Check your cell phone's strength and signal prior to the open house.
Determine several "escape" routes that you can use in case of an emergency.
Turn on the lights and open the curtains.
Make sure that if you were to escape by the back door, you could escape from the backyard.
When prospective buyers begin to arrive, jot down their car descriptions, license numbers and physical descriptions.
When showing the house, always walk behind the prospect.
Notify a friend or a relative that you will be calling in every hour on the hour.
Inform a neighbor that you will be showing the house and ask if he or she would keep an eye and ear open for anything out of the ordinary.
Source: National Association of Realtors
Mrs. Shipley is now broker/owner of ReMax Properties North in Hixson and several of her agents - both male and female - have handgun carry permits.
Safety is a big issue for real estate agents that is seldom talked about, said Nickie Schwartzkopf, president of the Chattanooga Association of Realtors.
"Unfortunately in this time of the world, I am not against agents carrying guns," she said.
A few years ago, Ms. Schwartzkopf said she was stalked by a man who would call her from a pay phone in the middle of the night. The incident scared her because at the time, she had just put up a billboard with her face on it. She'd also placed a big full-page advertisement with her picture and phone numbers in a magazine. It was a harsh reminder that putting herself out there for potential clients also was putting her at risk.
In recent years a number of violent attacks have been made on real estate agents across the country. Recently, a woman in Florida was attacked with a hammer while showing a home.
The National Association of Realtors does not track crimes against real estate agents, said Iverson Moore, a spokesman for NAR. The group is aware there have been a number of shocking crimes against agents in recent years and conducts safety training and has designated September of each year as Realtor Safety Month.
"Agents are especially vulnerable because there are often alone," Mr. Moore said. "They have to be very careful to be vigilant."
Mr. Moore said agents can be most vulnerable during open houses, where they are often alone in undeveloped areas. Agents also are encourages to drive nice cars to carry clients around and female agents often wear jewelry, Ms. Schwartzkopf said.
"People think agents make a lot of money," she said.
These days agents have more tools at their disposal to be safer. They now all carry cell phones - something that was not as widely available when Mrs. Shipley started selling homes. Today, firms use codes that agents can call when they are in distress. Many real estate agencies require agents to make copies of new clients' driver's licenses before they go out, and agents rarely sit at open houses alone. The Tennessee Association of Realtors holds periodic training for agents with members of the Chattanooga Police Department.
A lot of the training real estate agents receive from Chattanooga Police is what Assistant Chief Mike Williams calls "free and flee," where they are taught how to get an attacker's hands off of them so they can get away.
"Not everybody is suited for defending themselves or is mentally prepared to use a firearm," he said. "The weapon is a liability and not an asset if they'e not prepared to use it."
Chief Williams said he is not aware of attacks on real estate agents being a big problem in the Chattanooga area.
But for the agents who work selling real estate every day, there are enough stories in the national news to keep them alert, Ms. Schwartzkopf said.
"I think it's a national problem," she said.
But when agents encounter someone who poses a threat to their safety, all agents are alerted through the Multiple Listing Service Web site, Ms. Schwartzkopf said.