If there are any male chauvinist pigs still on the prowl, they'd better steer clear of Linda Hooper, the Annie Oakley of the FBI.
She looks every inch the all-American woman until she opens her glen plaid jacket to reveal a black, .38-caliber Smith & Wesson five-shot revolver tucked demurely in her skirt waist.It would be just the thing for silencing the jeers of hard hats perched in the sky, or quickly cooling the ardor of subway mashers.
But Hooper, who is 39 and married to another FBI special agent, says macho men never bother her. Besides, she says, agents never play around with guns.
"We only shoot when our life or someone else's life is in danger," says the Orange County, Calif., native who grew up plinking tin cans with her grandfather's .22-caliber squirrel rifle.
In her six years with the FBI, Hooper has never fired her gun, even while chasing bank robbers, drug pushers, kidnappers and plane hijackers during her first assignment in Portland, Ore.
"But I've been in situations where I've pulled it and pointed it," she says, "and I will use it if I have to."
A member of an elite club of sharpshooters among the FBI's 982 female agents, Hooper is in charge of the indoor shooting range at FBI headquarters. There she demonstrates her firearm skills for the half-million visitors who tramp through the building annually on the most popular guided tour in Washington.
Crouching with feet wide apart, Hooper shreds the torso of a silhouette target with noisy bursts from such FBI weapons as the Sig Sauer P-226 9mm semiautomatic pistol and the lightweight Heckler & Koch MP-5 fully automatic submachine gun, which can turn a miscreant into mincemeat at 800 rounds per minute.
As a sentimental gesture, she occasionally fires a .45-caliber Thompson submachine gun, the notorious "Tommy gun" favored by gangsters in the 1920s and 1930s which was retired from the FBI arsenal in 1979.
Interviewed next to a glass case containing the straw hat, eyeglasses and cigar found on gangster John Dillinger's body the night he was gunned down in Chicago in 1934, Hooper said her sex has helped rather than hindered her work as an FBI agent.
"I like it the way it is because I consider being a woman as my cover," she said.
Even though male FBI agents outnumber female agents by 10-1, she said, women sometimes can outperform men in dangerous situations.
She mentioned the time she tricked a suspected Portland bank robber into opening his apartment door and submitting to quick, visual surveillance without arousing his suspicion. She doubts that a male agent wearing a business suit could have done the same thing.
"When I go up to your door, you'll think I'm selling Avon or Tupperware. You won't think I'm an FBI agent," she said. "When I asked the bank robber if he knew where `Julie' was, he thought I was some dumb broad."
Even so, being a woman does have its drawbacks.
"I don't like those short women's jackets that are so fashionable these days, because it's hard to carry your gun under them," Hooper said. And the skirts without belt loops have forced her to use a clip-on holster.
Hooper is no trigger-happy TV cop but a proud, no-nonsense professional who hopes the visiting school children who watch her firearms display won't get the wrong idea.
"We're not trying to glamorize guns in any way, but they're part of what our job is all about," she said. "I always tell the kids that if they find a gun at a friend's house or on the street, don't touch it. Guns are very dangerous."