Hours into a surveillance, two private investigators sat in the front seat of a car when the man working alongside Paula Summers asked if the paper Starbucks sack between them held cookies.
“No,” Summers said. “That’s my gun.”
Afterward, Summers realized there had to be a better way to carry her Walther PPK.
“I didn’t know there were concealed weapons handbags,” the Lakewood PI said. “I’d worked almost entirely with men on the job, and they certainly didn’t know about them.”
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As it turns out, there are dozens of women’s purses on the market that have pouches for carrying a gun. Summers flew to a Dallas trade show, where she introduced herself to the few companies making those purses.
A few weeks ago, Summers fired up a new website, gun-packers.com (“For women who pack heat”), and began selling concealed-weapon handbags online. She also has a small retail booth at South Tacoma Antique Mall, 8219 South Tacoma Way.
She has a lot of potential customers in her home state. Washington’s rate of people with concealed-carry permits is higher than at least 30 other states, The Seattle Times reported this year, and the growth rate for women obtaining permits is double that of men.
Some 451,000 Washington residents are allowed to carry a hidden handgun almost anywhere they go, and more than 100,000 of them are women, the Times reported.
In nearly five years as a private investigator, Summers has often carried but never pulled a gun.
“The day before my concealed weapons permit test, I went to a gun range. I’d never fired my gun, didn’t even know how to load it,” she said. “I asked for help, and this guy with hair down to his belt line, who I thought looked a bit like a meth dealer, took the time to work with me.
“I probably spent five hours there learning the gun and how to shoot. I passed the test.”
Should all women carry a gun? No, Summers says. But she wouldn’t mind selling every woman a gun handbag.
“If you haven’t taken a class, put something else in the pouch — maybe ninja throwing stars,” said Summers, 62.
“If you’re not prepared to deal with the consequences of using a gun, don’t carry one. If you go out alone late at night, you should be packing.”
“If you’re going to carry, take a class, get your permit — and practice. Practice loading and unloading, practice handling the gun, and practice firing it,” Summers said.
“Some target ranges offer Ladies Nights.”
Her handbags go for anywhere from $45 to $999. Some have locking pouches. Most can conceal anything up to the size of a .45.
Selling them is a sideline for Summers, a Washington native who came late to the PI business.
“I grew up in Mount Vernon reading Nancy Drew, watching Honey West,” Summers said. “I spent my first 40 years there, got into real estate flipping, then had a midlife crisis.
“I wanted to wake up somewhere where the sun was almost always shining. I found a home in Palm Springs and moved there.”
She bought and ran a high-end furniture store until someone made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. She sold out, retired.
“I wanted to live near water and found this house on Lake Steilacoom that was built in 1929,” Summers said from her living room. “I spent a couple of years fixing it, furnishing it, landscaping it.”
Once finished, she realized she needed something to do.
“I requested the state packet, studied for the state exam to get my PI license,” Summers said. “Then I did the same thing and passed my exam and got an agency license.”
She attended seminars and still takes online courses, keeping abreast of specialties from computer hacking to undercover retail work. Her business is called Maxwell-Jade Inc.
“We specialize in background checks. That’s our happy place,” she said. “If you’re using a dating site, you should know who you’re interacting with. We offer a flat rate, $60, for a background check.
“There are fun cases. Not long ago, I tracked down a family heir, who then inherited $200,000.”
Summers lives in that big Lakewood house, using the upstairs as an office, the basement as a supply room for handbags. She shares it all with a boxer, Ms. Magoo, with whom she walks each day at 6 a.m.
Recently, she added a blog to her handbag website.
This week’s topic: How to find insurance that covers your expenses if you ever shoot a home intruder.
After all, if you’re going to carry a gun in your purse, learning who will pay to replace that blown-out window is probably good information to have.