Even in America’s least gun-friendly city, a small but steadfast group of New Yorkers insist on staying locked and loaded.
The only public shooting range in Manhattan is tucked away in the basement of a commercial building at 20 West 20th Street. After passing through the lobby and descending a winding staircase, I came to a long corridor whose green walls are adorned with framed newspaper clippings, photos and painted-on golden bullets pointing the way. The muffled blasts of gunfire grew louder as I got closer.
Inside, the long rectangular room had a utilitarian array of chairs, tables, sofas, TVs, lockers and notices on the walls—
“Wear Eye and Ear Protection,”
“NRA Gun Safety Rules.”
The firing range’s fourteen shooting stalls run the length of the room, sealed off by a wall with large windows.
I visited the Westside Rifle & Pistol Range because I was intrigued that such a place could exist in one of the least gun-friendly cities in the country. I was curious about the rare breed of New Yorker who is licensed to own a gun.
When I sat down with Darren Leung, the owner, on the morning of December 14, 2012, neither of us was yet aware of the hell that had just been unleashed at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Wearing glasses and sporting a crew cut, Leung, who is forty-seven, looked youthful in jeans, sneakers and a gray hoodie with the range’s name on it. I asked this fourth generation Chinese-American who grew up in Manhattan’s Chinatown what had drawn him to firearms.
“Didn’t every Chinese kid want to be a cowboy?” he said with a laugh. He went on to explain that as a child he was “mesmerized” by guns and wanted to be the good guy he saw saving the day on TV and in movies. He ended up volunteering as a New York peace officer for a decade in Brooklyn, investigating domestic conflicts that involved minors for a state-run agency. As a detective sergeant, he carried a gun and sometimes worked alongside the NYPD.
And after working at the range for twenty years, he became sole owner in 2010. The clientele is heavy on cops, but includes a wide variety of locals who share a passion for target shooting, with members numbering around 3,500 in total. (Travis Bickle, Robert DeNiro’s character in Taxi Driver, also practiced there in the film.)
The range, which opened in 1964, is necessary, said Leung, because licensed gun owners need a convenient place to shoot in the city. But still, the police run the show, and can take back anyone’s firearm for any reason.
“In the city of New York, you don’t have a right to own a gun,” he said as a barrage of gunshots rang out behind the double-pane glass that looked out on the firing line. “It’s a privilege.”
Or, as one member of the range put it, “When it comes to gun laws, there’s the whole country, and then there’s New York.” While that may be a slight exaggeration, New York is indeed the polar opposite of lax states like Utah, Alaska and Arizona, and is arguably the toughest in the country to own a gun. Here, no one is actually entitled to possess a firearm, at least not until the police give the go-ahead.
“Your right can never be taken away from you,” continued Leung, “but your privilege can be revoked at any given time. The NYPD is the licensing entity. They can add any kinds of stipulations they want. And they don’t have to explain why.”
It makes sense to keep guns on a short leash, Leung acknowledges, because “you want people to realize this is not a toy. If you make a mistake with a firearm, there is no coming back from that.” He also said he doesn’t have much problem with the six-to-eight-month waiting period for a gun permit, though the $340 fee for a three-year license is quite steep compared to other places. Without such a permit, issued by the NYPD, which declined to say how many New Yorkers have gun permits despite repeated attempts, it’s illegal to even touch a handgun. And those who get a license are required to purchase a firearm as well, so it’s not possible to simply have a license to shoot pistols without having your own.
After the wait, and shelling out upwards of $1,500 for fingerprints, licensing, membership at a club, a firearm and ammunition, target shooting isn’t a cheap hobby. Some prospective buyers are put off by all the red tape, which is surely in place to discourage all but the most highly motivated. “You can’t even sell a hotdog in the city of New York without a license,” said Leung. “You think they’re going to give you a gun?”
As we were talking, a middle-aged man in a grey suit who was carrying a black plastic case sat down at the table next to us. He unlocked it, removed a 9mm Beretta and nonchalantly placed the pistol on the table. Then he took out a box of bullets and started loading them into a magazine, one by one. Hearing us discussing the challenge of getting a gun permit in the city, he chimed in (though didn’t give his name), saying that despite being diligent, it was an arduous process. He thought it would be cool to try, anyway.
“It’s really fun shooting a gun,” he said. “It’s totally relaxing, kind of like golf.”
I asked about his ten-bullet magazine, knowing that the limit to this number is a sore spot among some gun enthusiasts. “It’d be nice if they were bigger,” he said as he continued loading. “It’s kind of a pain in the ass loading magazines. But on the other hand, I don’t know what you’d need to blow off more than ten rounds for as a recreational user.”
He described what it’s like to walk the streets of New York with his Beretta. Even though it’s unloaded and in a locked case as the law dictates, it made him feel like “a bit of a tough guy,” he said. “You’re like, ‘Oh, I’m not sure I’m going to take two steps out of the way for that guy on the sidewalk because he’s not going to fuck with me. I’ve got a gun.’”
When I emerged back into the daylight around noon, I checked my phone to see if anything interesting had happened while I’d been out of signal range. That’s when the second Sandy of the year became part of my vocabulary. We had just crossed the threshold into the post-Sandy Hook era.
* * *
After waiting for things to settle down, I went back on a cold Saturday morning in early February and found a dozen members of the Chelsea Gun Club—one of two clubs that gather there—shooting the breeze as they do every week. The mood felt different from my first, pre-Sandy Hook visit. It could have been their discomfort with me visiting at a tense moment, or perhaps it was mine. After all, the gun debate had returned with a vengeance, and the media didn’t seem particularly gun-friendly.
The Journal News had recently published the names and addresses of handgun permit owners in Westchester and Rockland counties, and then Gawker ran a list of the 22,300 licensed gun owners in New York City. Both publications received death threats. Meanwhile, ‘Newtown truthers’ spread the word that the massacre was really a hoax staged by the Obama administration to advance the second-term gun clampdown that the president had supposedly been planning all along, while Slate began keeping a tally of gun deaths since Newtown, which, though certainly incomplete, had reached 5,057 as of the six-month anniversary of the massacre last week.
I sheepishly approached three grey-haired men who were standing around chatting and drinking coffee and told them what I was doing there. One looked me in the eye and said in a tone of warning: “The last journalist who came here wound up dead.” (I assumed he was joking, but it turned out to be true, though her death had nothing to do with the range).
Another agreed to talk but asked that I only use his first name—Barry. A sixty-six-year-old retired consumer research consultant who is a gun instructor, he sat on a sofa, dressed in a black cap, tucked in flannel shirt, jeans and boots. Barry, who first learned to shoot when he was twelve years old, had come by for fifty rounds of informal target practice.
When he was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and ’60s, things were different. He joined the Brooklyn Boy Scout Marksmanship Program, run at an armory in the borough. Four other men who were there that day had been part of the same group. “It was one of the formative experiences of our lives,” said Barry, who spoke in a calm, deliberate manner throughout our chat. “What you learn about responsibility and character stays with you for the rest of your life.”
In an era when mass shootings were unheard of, most schools had a rifle team; Barry was a member of one at Stuyvesant High School and then at Brooklyn College. “You could put your rifle in the case and take a subway or bus and nobody seemed to notice or care,” he said. In those days, according to one old timer, there may have been as many as thirty gun retailers around the city, with the fanciest ones on Fifth Avenue. (One remnant of that is the Beretta New York Gallery on Madison Avenue, where you can get a high-end handgun, shotgun or rifle.)
In Barry’s view, the public’s attitude toward guns started to shift after the assassinations in the 1960s (the Sandy Hook, Aurora and Virginia Tech of that decade). In New York City, the restrictions have grown tighter in recent decades—from the administrations of Ed Koch to David Dinkins to Rudy Giuliani—until Mayor Bloomberg kicked the battle against gun violence into high gear and founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns. On January 15, in response to the Newtown massacre, Governor Cuomo hastily pushed through the NY SAFE Act, which expanded the reach of the law even further.
I asked Barry about one of its more contentious points—limiting the number of bullets in a magazine to seven rather than ten (which Cuomo has since backed down on because seven-bullet magazines are rare). I was curious to know if seven, ten or fifteen made a difference to him. He conceded that in some forms of target shooting, it’s not an issue, but if you’re using a handgun for self-defense, he said, “you want more rounds rather than less. You want them there as insurance.”
“What about the idea that that insurance also gives mass shooters the ability to do a lot of damage quickly?” I asked.
“Laws are for the law-abiding,” he said. “The dedicated criminal will get what he wants. You’re restricting the people who are the least likely to do any harm and the criminal looks at the situation and laughs.”
It’s not hard to understand why gun owners who follow the rules feel it’s unfair to punish them for the crimes of others. There was one particular provision of the new legislation—tracking ammunition purchases—that Barry found especially insulting. As he sees it, he’s already gone through a background check for a permit, so why should his ammunition be tracked too, as if he were suspect? “I’m the guy who’s been investigated and found to be purer than Caesar’s wife,” he said, adding that criminals can shop on the black market anyway. Though considering how easy it is to buy guns online, no questions asked at sites like Armslist.com, they don’t even need to bother with that. And thanks to the Senate’s vote in April against closing such loopholes, these free-for-all marketplaces will continue to provide unregistered guns for basically anyone who wants them.
I asked why he took issue with laws that would not limit him personally, like universal background checks or flagging mentally ill people who might pose a threat. He acknowledged that these seem sensible, but cautioned that there’s a fine line between “safety and giving up your rights.”
He agreed that the mentally ill should not be allowed to possess firearms, but pointed out that trying to judge who is potentially dangerous can put mental health care professionals in “an unfair, tricky spot.” And though he doesn’t buy into the idea that universal background checks will lead to a national gun registry that would enable a future tyrannical government to confiscate everyone’s guns, he said he “wouldn’t be completely surprised if it were to happen in some limited way, involving so-called ‘assault rifles,’ for example.”
When asked if he thought New York’s new legislation could possibly make it more difficult for at least certain dangerous individuals to acquire a gun, he said, “It could, it might. Let’s see what happens.”
After our chat, he donned ear protection and a pair of safety glasses, and with target and gun box in hand, stepped through the double doors into the range.
At the shooting stall, Barry clipped his bull’s-eye target onto a pulley and turned a crank that carried it about fifteen feet into a spacious area that had a wet concrete floor and dingy white walls that went about fifty feet deep. He took out his black CZ Kadet pistol, undid the gun lock and placed it on a wooden counter next to an extra magazine and a box of standard velocity ammunition.
He stood in what he told me was an “isosceles stance”—facing front, arms extended straight, with his right hand gripping the gun and the left applying pressure on the opposite side to steady it, as you might with a camera. He fired five shots in succession, all striking in the vicinity of the target’s center. Five more, and then he wheeled it in for a look, moving briskly. My ear protection dampened the outrageously loud blasts, which resonated in my chest. At the moment of discharge, a small flame, a “muzzle blast,” flared out of the pistol’s tip as a golden cartridge case popped up and fell to the floor with a clink.
He fired about ten more rounds quickly, brought the target in, and shook his head, looking dissatisfied. He sent it back out, loaded up another magazine, fired more shots, and checked again. “That was better,” he said. Later, he wheeled the target out further, to about twenty-five feet away, and after his last ten rounds, examined all the holes in the central black area, saying, “All right, could be worse.” (It looked quite good to me.)
Then he wiped his gun off with a rag, put the lock back on, and returned it to the box. “It’s good range etiquette to always sweep up after yourself,” he told me as he brushed the cartridge cases into a dustpan and tossed them in a bucket.
Most members I approached offered some variation of I don’t talk to reporters. A photographer who was there told me of an interaction he’d had with a man who likened a reporter at a shooting range to “a Nazi at a bar mitzvah.” The truth is, I wanted only to understand guns and the New Yorkers who love them, not further a Third Reich agenda.
Stephen Michel, a sixty-five-year-old accountant who emerged from the range with a pistol on each hip, was sympathetic to my endeavor. He said he’d learned to shoot a rifle as a Boy Scout and then shot in the Army, but didn’t pick it up again till after his kids were out of the house. Now he shoots every week.
Like everyone else I’d spoken to, he questioned the SAFE Act. “At the end of the day, it just makes people who are afraid of guns comfortable because we’ve done something,” he said, adding that the problem is that “you’re chipping away at the rights of people who want to follow the rules.” He did say that a few things could be improved, “like background checks at gun shows,” but in a refrain I heard many times, didn’t think the new laws would accomplish much.
It was still hard for me to understand why those who didn’t seem to be affected by the SAFE Act were so against it, and I tried to be open to the idea that I was missing something. But as someone who fears the lethal power that firearms bestow upon those who bear them, that was a challenge.
Nevertheless, Michel’s description of the Zen-like art of shooting really did make it sound appealing. He compared it to yoga, saying, “You need to clear your mind, you have to focus, you have to breathe, you have to be in the moment.” I considered taking a rifle lesson, as everyone urged me to, but decided it just wasn’t for me.
When I went outside, I checked my phone as I had on that December day, this time to see if a catastrophe had struck. It turned out there had been a double murder in Texas—at a shooting range. One of the victims was a Navy SEAL who had been among the best snipers in the military. Afterwards, David Carr, a New York Times reporter, Tweeted: “Always struck by amount of trust people place in each other at a shooting range.”
* * *
My next visit was on a rainy Monday evening in March. I went to see the Women’s Shooting Sports League, which was founded thirteen years ago. (According to a Gallup Poll, the number of female gun owners in the United States has been rising in recent years.)
When I arrived, I encountered Alexis Russ, a forty-two-year-old financial services rep from Stuyvesant Heights, Brooklyn, sitting at a table filling out the paperwork required of a first-timer, who is put through a criminal background check. She told me she was considering getting a gun for protection. “This is the first step in my education and a fun thing, I hope,” she said. “And then I’ll see how I feel about having a pistol in my home.”
I sat in on a safety class for the five women who were new, while the others hit the firing line. We sat at small desks in a drab back room where six black rifles were lined up on a table.
“These are designed to make holes in things,” said Barry, the instructor, as he held up one of the Ruger 10/22 semiautomatic rifles that the women would be using when they fired fifty rounds each. He proceeded to break down the “anatomy” of the firearm, showing in minute detail how it worked and how to handle it safely.
Afterwards, while the newbies were getting set up, I spoke to Helen, forty-three, the most experienced shooter in the group, who declined to give her surname. She had just finished her session and was helping the beginners get oriented. Though she has been shooting since 1986, like all the other women in attendance that day she does not own a gun. “I’d be interested in having a gun to protect myself, but I’d probably get hurt,” she said. “It’s probably more dangerous to have a gun.”
When Russ returned from the firing line with her targets in hand, we were surprised to see that most of the holes were near the center. “I’m pretty good,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know what that’s about.” Having only shot once, Russ felt far from ready to make a decision, though being a good shot, at least with a rifle, was encouraging. Asked if she would feel safer with a gun in her home, she said, “If I knew how to shoot and I knew all the safety features, I would definitely feel safer.”
Considering all the guns and psychopaths out there, a most volatile brew, it doesn’t take great mental gymnastics to get why some Americans want to take their protection into their own hands. After all, the police can’t always be there for you.
* * *
On a beautiful spring day in mid April, I stopped by the range once more to check the post-Sandy Hook temperature with Darren Leung, the affable owner, who always called me “my friend” and gladly gave me full access to the place. While waiting for him, I looked up at the TV and found out about the Boston Marathon bombing, which had just happened.
Leung told me that after Newtown, he offered free firearms training to faculty members at his children’s elementary school in Queens. No one took him up on the offer. Actually, what would put him at ease, he said, would be to station an armed, retired police officer at the school whose sole job would be to keep unwelcome people out, rather than arm teachers as a school in Missouri recently did. Even pre-Sandy Hook, Leung was worried about what could happen to his kids, who are six and eight years old, at school.
“The world is changing,” he said. “We had best adapt to the changes. The kids aren’t protected. They have a school safety officer, but the officer is not armed. So what are we really doing?”
He sighed and said he wished the Department of Education would come up with a better plan of action.
“They just bombed a sporting event,” he said. “The world hasn’t changed? Why are we willing to stick our heads in the sand and say, ‘I hope for the best’? Wouldn’t you want the odds to be on your side? Wouldn’t you want to have the means to win the fight?”
* * *
Daniel Krieger, a contributing editor at Narratively, is a freelance journalist based in New York. He is a regular New York Times contributor, and his work has appeared in many other publications, including Fast Company, Wired, Slate and New York Magazine.
Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph, and film stories that she’s curious about.