At one point in her life, Donna Worthy would have considered an encounter with a knife-wielding carjacker just another day on the job. As a longtime Baltimore City police officer, now retired from law enforcement thanks to severe injuries sustained from a perp while on an undercover assignment, she had become accustomed to confronting the worst in humanity, protecting Baltimore citizens from bad actors every day. But in March 2020 Donna became the actual target of a physical attack, randomly selected by an opportunistic thug who simply chose the wrong person to victimize. Read the full account here.
Had the bad guy even had one iota of a clue into Donna’s world, her background, her training and mostly her tenacity, he would have taken a pass. Having known Donna for eight years, primarily as the owner of Worth-a-Shot Firearms located near Annapolis, Md., it’s not a stretch to imagine her still fighting off bad guys. Sure, she is small in stature, but deceptively mighty and big in attitude, determined to conquer all challenges that come her way—whether it’s an ambush by a armed ne’er-do-well, or an attack on the Second Amendment.
So how did this one-time cop become one of the most successful firearm trainers and gun retailers in the state, outselling her nearest competition: a Bass Pro Shops located about five miles away?
Like many who encounter roadblocks in their career paths, Donna’s earliest hurdle came when she was 21, working an entry-level clerical job at the FBI, a path of stability she felt destined to follow because of her father’s and brother’s tenure with the Bureau. One day, word spread that a hiring freeze was being instituted, along with a position freeze, meaning no advancement opportunities—indefinitely. Donna saw stagnation in her future. As she left the building that day, nervous about the prospect of a career in filing, she noticed a flyer posted by the elevator. Some might call it serendipity, but it was a call for Baltimore City Police Academy recruits. Donna was immediately drawn to it. Without further consideration, she told her family her plans. And the rest, as they say, is history—for the time being.
Unsurprisingly, Donna sailed through the academy. Even though she had never touched a gun before entering the academy, she showed a particular prowess for shooting, which would later land her a stint integral to the academy's firearm training. But that’s not where she wanted to stay. She wanted more action. Thus Donna spent the next 13 years on the force, rotating through all of the opportunities: patrol, S.W.A.T., deep undercover and more.
It was during an undercover assignment that Donna’s dream job would come to a sudden halt. While there was little that Donna couldn’t tackle in any of her assignments, her diminutive size was no match for a perp who significantly outsized her in every way. During a hands-on encounter, the drug-dealer literally tore her shoulder as he bent it behind her body. Multiple surgeries and months of rehabilitation made a marginal difference, but it was not enough for the department to clear her for a return to duty. They gave her no choice but to retire.
No longer a cop, Donna was heartbroken—and on the path to being financially broken, based on her new reduced retirement salary, a percentage of what she earned while on active duty. She had a young daughter to support. What do you do when yesterday you were sure you knew what you were going to do for your entire career, and now you have no idea? No time for pity parties, Donna quickly got down to the business of figuring out her future. It took her all of two months before serendipity intervened again, and she had her next plan.
Oh, No You Didn't ...
“I wanted to get a smaller gun to carry since I was retired and I needed something I could conceal more,” said Donna, whose duty gun was a .40-cal. Glock 22. “So I went into a gun store and the guy looked at me and immediately pointed to the revolver case, implying, ‘here you go, here’s what you can handle.’“ He had no idea of Donna’s training and no idea that she could probably outshoot him every day of the week, and likely had more training than he would ever have. “He just looked at me and put me in box and said that’s where I need to be,” said Donna.
“That day, the lights came on, and I knew I needed to focus my attention on this. It needs to change,” she said. With all of her expertise and experience she had gained on the force, Donna began to train students at shooting ranges, leaving her business cards behind as her advertising tool. “If this is what’s supposed to happen, then I’ll start getting phone calls, I told myself. What else could I do? How else could I get the word out? Social media marketing was not what it is today.”
Then a funny thing happened: The phone just kept ringing. “The more I was there, the more I kept getting phone calls,” said Donna, who by then was developing a regular client base. But other than at the range, she was lacking a place to meet with them. “I was getting my clients very comfortable with me, with my expertise, but I was sending them somewhere else to buy a gun.” Many clients, mostly women, would return to Donna with similar stories of demeaning or condescending gun store experiences. They would ask Donna to go with them to the store for her help in selecting a gun.
It suddenly dawned on Donna: “This is all wrong.” That’s when she decided to make it so her students didn’t have to go somewhere else to buy a gun. She opened up shop in a small business park where she could offer training classes. She also included one case of guns. Soon she was crowding 50 students in her class, but there were no complaints. The old-fashioned word-of-mouth marketing was working.
To make it even more convenient for her clients, she added a fingerprint setup so they could complete all the legal requirements on-site. With that, Donna had captured the complete customer experience base by not having to send them elsewhere for guns, background checks, paperwork or training.
Expanding the Business
By 2013 Donna was rapidly outgrowing her small retail space. Maryland’s then-governor had signed into law mandatory pre-gun-buying requirements before his departure from office—the Handgun Qualification License—and many Marylanders were rushing to buy guns in order to be grandfathered out of the onerous training requirement. But Donna knew that to stay in business she had to comply with the law, so when space in adjacent buildings in the business park in which she operates became available, she expanded operations, and continues to do so whenever the opportunity arises. Soon she’ll realize another goal by opening a range attached t to her store where customers can try out firearms prior to purchasing.
To date, Donna has run tens of thousands of prospective gun buyers through the HQL, which includes a four-hour handgun training session. Although the course is designed to meet the minimum requirements to prove a buyer can safely operate a firearm, Donna says she always implements more than is required by law.
“We do more than is necessary,” says Donna. “There’s a guideline that you have to go by. We go over and above, always, even in our wear-and-carry course, especially since the Supreme Court ruling. We see more beginners taking our class, and while I’m the biggest supporter of their rights, it’s frankly a little scary because they’ve never touched a gun, and I have one day with them. I have one day of hands-on with someone who’s never touched a gun to get them ready to be able to draw a gun from a concealed holster and defend his or her life.”
Donna says it can be concerning to take people who have never touched a gun before to a timed qualification course the next day. When she senses apprehension, she suggests to prospective CCW licensees that they might want to give it more time or work on more options, different calibers. “Some people just aren’t ready. I’m not a trainer who will try to just push you through; If you definitely can’t do it, we can talk about some other ways to defend yourself, and we just go down those options.”
The need for professional and personal training has become even more critical since the SCOTUS Bruendecision in June of 2022. Maryland was one of six states that were affected by an immediate shift from “may issue” to “shall issue” status. Donna immediately sprang into action to accommodate all those who wanted to take the requisite two-day training class in order to receive a Maryland Wear and Carry Permit—something most Marylanders thought would never happen. Donna worked seven days a week for months after Bruen to accommodate the training, pushing through as many as 1,000 students a month during the initial months of “shall issue” celebrations.
Toward the goal of ensuring that CCW holders—particularly new ones—have access to continual training, Donna has incorporated more than basic pistol courses, including combat tactics, cover and conceal and, one of the best tools for training gun owners who plan to carry, a laser-based simulator. This tool offers the closest adrenaline-surging experience to real life when it comes to “shoot/don’t shoot” scenarios. The simulator is permanently set up in one portion of her training center, and she encourages all to come whenever possible to run through the drills.
But even with all of the modern tools now accessible to gun owners, the biggest fundamental that Donna emphasizes is more training. “Although Maryland is a wear-and-carry state, we think concealed is the best option and thus teach it is the best option. The thing that I stress to all my students is that repetition, muscle memory, and repeated, constant training are the key,” she says.
Selling Guns to Women
Ensuring that each of her customers goes home with the right gun for his or her situation is paramount for Donna, and to that end the sale starts getting to know the goals of each buyer. Whether it’s Donna herself or one of her 26 staff members assisting a customer, they are all trained in the art of how not to turn off any customer, whether first-time gun buyer, man or woman, or longtime gun owner. Donna has sold guns to tens of thousands of Marylanders, but she has never forgotten her condescending gun-store experience. That annoying exchange with an ignorant gun store clerk, however, did her a favor, and helped her to recognize her true calling.
“We’ve come so far in the industry as far as women go,” says Donna. “But even back then [when I was at the police academy], every class I took, anytime there were firearms involved, the instructor stood behind the women, because they expect them to struggle the most, to need the most help. They expect they’re going to be needed.” Donna, one of six women in her firearms class at the academy, quickly changed their minds, scoring first in all places. “I just generally loved shooting as soon as I touched the gun, and because I had no bad habits going in, I was able to completely absorb everything that they gave me. I just excelled at it.”
But Donna knows all women are not like her—nor are all men—and that many inexperienced women require extra attention at the gun store or at the range. The difference is in how they are approached and treated through the process. When a woman enters the store with her husband or boyfriend, for example, she’ll listen to their conversation to determine their dynamic. If it appears that the husband is leading his wife toward a revolver or a particular firearm that he believes would be best for her, Donna gently separates them, asking the male accompanying her to shop around while she chats with his wife. That way, Donna can get a true sense of where the woman stands on a variety of issues, whether it be a confidence issue, a lack of understanding about firearms in general, or something else altogether. It all goes to ensuring they get the most out of their gun-buying experience. Otherwise, the woman will go home with a gun that her spouse likes, but she may leave it in her nightstand, never bringing it out to shoot or train with, rendering it useless.
The teaching dynamic is not always easy, says Donna, but it’s critical they get a realistic view of the seriousness of what they are doing. “I’m very firm in my teaching. I don’t baby anyone and I’m very firm about my techniques,” she says. “I’m also not a drill instructor. So they feel comfortable with me and our techniques, but I also tell them real stories about why this is important. What if no one else is home, are you going to be able to do this?” You have to keep practicing. If you don’t keep doing it, you’re back to zero the next week, she says. “My staff and I go through training every three months. You have to stay in tip-top shape or there’s no point in carrying. You’re buying the gun, you’re buying the ammo, you’re taking these classes—that’s all great, but it’s just a “have” unless you’re going to do your training.
And as with the gun-buying process, “If I see a husband trying to help his spouse during a training class, I separate them and explain to them why I did that. And then I take them to the simulator. And even though it’s a laser-based system, I put them in a scenario in which someone is attacking them. I say, well, that person just killed you, or you shot but didn’t see that person behind them and you just shot an innocent person. They might get upset as you start to make them understand and admit there’s no point in doing any of this if they’re not going to be able to do this by themselves.
Worth-A-Shot and NRA Women
Donna believes the firearm industry is finally responding to women’s increased participation as gun owners. “Where I see things really changing for the better is previously when we would ask for things that would better suit a woman it would be just “paint it pink” and hand it to her. That’s not what we’re looking for. What we’re looking for are things that make women feel more comfortable until their confidence gets up … maybe a lighter spring so that it’s easier to rack; maybe a shorter grip so that they don’t have to reach so far with their thumb,” she says.
“Our hands are normally smaller, so being able to reach the controls, like being able to lock open the slide, is the biggest point for women We teach different techniques so you can move your hand around. We always teach that you shouldn’t put yourself in a box. You don’t need a “women’s gun” per se, but there’s very real thing that our hands are smaller,” she says. “There are women who have dexterity issues or arthritis, more so than men I think, so being able to work with guns like the M&P380 EZ has been a game changer.”
Now that Covid is fading, says Donna, they can once again make women feel more comfortable, especially if they do at a women-only event. “Ladies Pistol Project is awesome. It brings people in, where they might have been timid to shoot before. Women’s gun clubs are great if they have somewhere to go every month where they can feel less judged by her peers if she can’t accomplish a task with a firearm.”
Girl gun groups, says Donna, are all working toward same goal. “The more the better. Covid stopped everything at Worth-a-Shot in terms of our women’s group, and it’s slow starting again. We had such momentum before Covid and now everything is not in person, but you can’t learn guns that way.”
In 2016, Donna and her daughter, Casey, collaborated on a seminar at the NRA Annual Meetings in which we analyzed the survey results of the Second Annual NRA Ladies Pistol Project, designed to help them figure out which gun was “right for them.” By 2018 when we started planning for Ladies Pistol Project 3, Donna and Casey were all in, helping NRA Women pull of one its best events yet. Without a doubt, LPP3 outshined the first two, as 68 women gathered over the course of two weekends in the August heat and humidity to test fire 26 handguns and complete a survey for each pistol. Firearm manufacturers donated pistols to be raffled, and the women clamored to purchase the actual guns that were used during the weekend. The event was incredibly well-received, and even became an American Rifleman TV show later that year. The Covid pandemic interrupted plans for a 2020 LPP, but in fall of 2021, we completed Ladies Pistol Project 4 in Houston, Texas. And of course, Donna was up front and willing to leave her shop in the hands of her capable staff in order that she could assist as the lead instructor and range officer. Plans are currently in the works for Ladies Pistol Project 5 later in the year.
“We’ve done so much work with women and the Ladies Pistol Project; that’s where my heart is,” says Donna. “You see people when they come in here are so scared and they don’t think they can manipulate a handgun, and then you watch them succeed in things they never thought they could do.”
Donna says that some people minimize what they have learned; big deal, they shot a gun. “But my thought is, I might have just saved her life because she has the confidence now to defend herself. They don’t need their husband or boyfriend to load their gun for them. They don’t need them to help clear the gun if something happens, and they can feel confident they can defend themselves if they have to. That confidence to get out of bad situations—it can help them stay alive in the worst situations.”
Donna shares that one of her students returned with news that her training may have saved her life. Someone had broken into her sliding glass door while she was sleeping. Fortunately, she fought him off and was able to retrieve her gun to defend herself. She had owned a gun prior to the break-in, but without training, she said she wouldn’t have been able to pull the trigger, per say.
“That’s why I’m in this,” says Donna. “Sure, I want you to be able to exercise your rights, sure I want you to buy a gun, sure I want you to be able to get a permit, those are all great things, and I fight for those rights. But for me, why I’m in this is if it came down to it, can you defend yourself? Not just can you legally do it, can you mentally do it? Do you have the skills to do it? All of these things are part of it, and that’s where my passion is.”
As if her round-the-clock attention she gives to her store, staff and training weren’t enough, Donna is deeply involved with Second Amendment advocacy in Maryland. “I have become very passionate about going down to Annapolis to lobby for our gun rights. I spent a good portion, basically from January to April dealing with those things,” she says, having testified at least 10 times at the State House on Maryland’s designated 2A day each February.
Because of her dynamic, outspoken passion, Donna was encouraged to assume the presidency of the Maryland Gun Dealers’ Association, which has opened up channels to state politicians whereby she can communicate to state senators about impending gun legislation, and the repercussions it will have on gun owners and dealers. She and her vice president successfully lobbied against a “gun store security” bill in 2022 that would have effectively shut down most gun stores in Maryland, as the requirements were financially prohibitive to most small businesses.
Donna has created a vibrant community for her loyal customers at Worth-a-Shot, hosting special customer appreciation days, which brings in hundreds of her regular customers to gather in a festive environment, replete with food, gun raffles, contests, sales on guns and, of course, a chance to interact with her fur-baby, a goldendoodle named Remi. (She even had HD Defense create custom ARs with Remi’s likeness engraved alongside custom serial numbers.)
Aside from all of this, Donna’s passions include her Jeeps (she owns three); country line dancing—she has traveled to Nashville, the Fort Worth Stockades and other destinations to put her new skills into action.
Donna’s actions during that Armed Citizen encounter merits recognition all by itself. But that she was able to draw her pistol to frighten off an attacker who was holding a knife her neck—after he had broken her hand by slamming it into her car door—is nothing short of heroic. And it is a true testament to the fact that proper firearm training—constant, consistent and repetitive—can save your life.
For all that Donna Worthy does to keep her customers, clients and women in particular better prepared to defend themselves in or outside of the home, we congratulate her for being awarded the 2023 NRA Golden Bullseye for Industry Woman of the Year.