The Westside Rifle & Pistol Range, not far from the Flatiron Building, looks like some dire conservative prophecy come to life—America’s gun-lovers stripped of all rights, forced to target-shoot in windowless bunkers. To the range’s regulars, that’s sometimes how it feels. While their brethren in Texas or Florida roam free, idly polishing pistols in line at the grocery store, Manhattan’s gun owners are confined to a drop-ceilinged basement, where exposed pipes, peeling rolly chairs, and thrifty fluorescent lighting bring to mind a repurposed boiler room.
If you can’t afford to bribe the NYPD, acquiring a gun license in New York can be a costly and time-consuming exercise, but as long as your record is clean, you can probably get one. Even with one, though, you can’t do much with your gun unless you have the much harder-to-obtain concealed carry license, granted only to the rare few who require a “special need for protection,” such as business owners who transport large sums of cash, or esteemed tropical salsa singer Marc Anthony.
So the majority of New York City’s licensed gun owners can’t hunt, can’t walk around looking for bad guys to frighten, can’t even play guns in the privacy of fellow gun owner’s apartment. Pretty much all they can do is sit at home and wait for a burglar to show up to shoot. Or, if that gets boring, haul their piece over to the Westside, the last range left in Manhattan.
This arrangement works just fine for Darren Leung, the Westside’s owner, who runs the place like a small-town family restaurant—back-slapping, ballbusting, ‘How are the kids,’ ‘Get back to work before I shoot you in the ass,’ etc. He’s been working at the range for 23 years. “We’re a necessary evil,” Leung said. “As long as you continue to give out permits, you need to have people go to a range.”
Glenn Herman, who teaches at the range, hates the city’s restrictive laws, and the “libtards” who enforce them. Herman also runs newyorkcityguns.com, a kind of arms-focused Drudge Report with original headlines (“Turd-Like DeBlasio Circling the Bowl”) and a long-running podcast, NYC Guns Radio, whose opening insists that “If freedom and guns are not your cup of tea, please feel free to eat shit and die.” Herman’s efforts have earned him national recognition, or whatever you’d call an expert slot on John Stossel’s Fox News show, on which Herman railed against his city’s byzantine gun-license application laws.
Herman said he has long despaired over Obama’s “radical homosexual agenda,” but lately has found occasion for hope. Mark his words: “When Donald Trump becomes president, he’s going to do the same thing for guns that Obama did for gays. And if the people of New York think they can escape that somehow, ask all those people in Alabama who don’t want to do the gay weddings how that’s working out for them,” he said.
Leung, on the other hand, is unbothered by the laws. “A guy like Glenn will say that everyone should have a carry permit,” he said. “The person who doesn’t have one is gonna be the most vocal: ‘Why can’t I have one? Why can’t we all have one?’”
I got to talking with one of Leung’s employees, John, a laconic, extensively-tattooed Westside lifer, who was working the desk. Another man, wiry and older, in a U.S. Navy cap, was unhurriedly sweeping the floor; earlier I’d seen him scanning for busywork, strolling the room with a hand on his holster like a vacationing sheriff.
“What’s that guy’s job?” I asked.
“Oh, he doesn’t work here,” John said.
This, it turned out, was Gil, a retired elevator constructor from the Lower East Side. The pro-bono dustwork was just his way of giving back; without the Westside’s shelter from liberals he’d have left New York a long time ago. “I tell ya, if things get any worse around here, I’m gonna pick my ass up and move to Florida,” he said. The range has become, in his retirement, a second home; never has he made so many friends, let alone friends who grasp the raging hypocrisies of New York’s gun laws, which force law-abiding Vietnam vets like himself to walk the streets without even a small gun for protection.
“The Westside is like a clubhouse,” added Vinny, hands clasped across his belly. Vinny’s a big bald dude with a handlebar mustache who lives on Staten Island and sells plumbing supplies in East New York. He was sitting on at one of the lounge’s wooden tables with his wife, Linda, who joins him there every Saturday. His commitment to the Westside might be slightly more intense than Gil’s, at least in the sense that Gil did not visibly have the Westside’s logo tattooed anywhere on his body, whereas Vinny did, right there on his broad left biceps, where it served as just one part of a larger, more complex heraldic motif depicting Stewie from Family Guy brandishing two pistols while standing on top of a rough wooden coffin. The range logo was on the coffin.
But Vinny and Linda are dilettantes and newcomers, compared to Mr. Brown, their tablemate, a supremely cheerful corrections officer on the cusp of retirement (“Not yet—it’s comin’!”) who has been traveling down from the Bronx to the Westside since 1971, back when the city was itself a kind of open-air gun range. It was at the Westside that Travis Bickle practiced shooting his guns in Taxi Driver, and a framed still from the film hangs on the wall, like a Super Size Me poster in a McDonald’s.
I asked Mr. Brown if that made him the most-senior member of the club.
He turned to a very old man in khakis, “Arnie, when’d you start coming here?” he asked.
“When did Lincoln die?” said Gil.
“We should use a sundial,” said Vinny.
Vinny started talking about how a gun license forces you to be a good person, because if you aren’t a good person—if you, let’s say, use your gun to kill someone, or several someones—you might get your license revoked, and the process of getting it back is a huge pain in the ass.
“Why aren’t we carrying on about the manufacturers of knives? Nobody talks about that,” Vinny said.
“Don’t go there. ’Cause next it’ll be forks,” Mr. Brown said.
Gil, paging through a Road & Track on a nearby stool, got up with a start and switched the channel from Fox News to a rerun of Gunsmoke.
“How in the hell do they make jail cells?” Vinny asked.
“Now see, you keep asking all these intricate questions. Why don’t you just watch the show?” Mr. Brown said.
“In those days, you just put a chain around the bars, pulled it with a horse, the whole wall’d come out,” said Arnie, referring either to the conventions of 1950s television or personal experience.
Into this heavily armed retirement community came Alex, a young security guard on his lunch break. His parents moved him to New York from Texas at a young age, and he’s never fully recovered. “In the North, people get concerned about what offends them and what doesn’t,” he said. “The Westside’s the only place I fit in around here.”
Away from the safe space of Westside these guys feel persecuted, oppressed. Alex doesn’t personally give a shit if some college punk laughs at his Make America Great Again hat. But the media’s disdain feels different, at least to Herman. Herman is a hateful troll, and proud of it, but there was real hurt in his voice as he spoke of the mainstream media’s supposed mistreatment of gun owners.
“The bottom line is, we’re the minority. It’s them against us, no matter how you look at it,” Leung said.
“Them,” at the range, often means “him,” i.e. Michael Bloomberg, who, despite having left the mayor’s office almost three years ago, remains the subject of countless tirades and conspiracy theories. Herman contends that his whole anti-gun vendetta springs from the raw shame of having once simultaneously shat and pissed himself in front of all his colleagues at the sound of nearby gunfire. (The incident hasn’t been documented or attested to anywhere, but Herman believes in it truly and fervently.) But what really gets Gil is the hypocrisy. “He’s so anti-gun, but he surrounds himself with armed personnel!” he said. “Matter of fact, one of the members saw him just the other day—he’s going to some event, and he’s surrounded by cops.”
That sort of irony goes both ways. Vitally important as guns are to the people in this windowless underground clubhouse, nobody seems particularly interested in using one. “Look behind you,” Vinny said, more than once, pointing to the shooting range proper. “Who do you see? Anybody in there? Where is everybody?” He paused. “They’re all out here, socializing.”
Top image: Jim Cooke; photos: Daniel Kolitz, Shutterstock.