Photos by Jessica Bal

Home on the Range

Even in America’s least gun-friendly city, a small but steadfast group of New Yorkers insist on staying locked and loaded.

by Daniel Krieger

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—

“NO Magnums,”
“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.

The front desk of the Westside Rifle & Pistol Range.

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?”

Signs at the top of the stairs that lead to the range.

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).

Rifles for a Saturday morning class at 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 Galleryon 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.”

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