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 14 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 47, 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 20 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.
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