A horned cattle skull draped with a lasso hangs on a pillar in the lounge of the West Side Pistol Range. Below the skull is a framed black-and-white photo of three cowboys surrounding a trussed cow, flat on its side. “Roping was the most dangerous job of the roundup,” reads a caption to the photo. Lest anyone mistake this pistol range—even with its linoleum floors, fluorescent lighting, and pipe-cluttered ceilings—for the Wild West, a Hagstrom 75-mile radius map from Columbus Circle, New York City, (affixed to another pillar) situates the establishment in the city that’s home to some of the strictest gun control laws in the country. Located in the basement of 20 W. 20th Street since 1965, West Side advertises itself as the “friendliest range in town.” It’s also the only range in town.
To ensure that an outing to West Side Pistol Range is much safer than a roundup, the management has posted rules on the door to the firing line and on printed leaflets scattered on the counter. Rule #16 sums up the gun safety message: “All firearms are to be considered loaded (always!) and should be given its due respect. Safety always!!!! Never point the muzzle at anything you do not wish to destroy.” Speak to any shooter, and this assumption is indeed his catechism.
Rule #7 and rule #15 are less strictly enforced. Rule #7: “Shooting at other than range targets is strictly prohibited.” (Unless one wishes to take aim at a photocopy of a personage with un-American politics, like al Qaeda operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Dixie Chicks, or Michael Moore.) Rule #15: "Spectators are not permitted on the firing line." (Unless, like me, you’re a young-ish female journalist who doesn’t seem to have a gun-control ax to grind.)
For two months this spring, I spent most Wednesday and Friday evenings with a core group of shooters, inhaling their second-hand cigar smoke and the acrid fumes from their Hoppe’s gun-cleaning solvent, absorbing their history lessons, appraising their firearms, and admiring their bullet-riddled target posters.
After all, where else is a woman supposed to go when the man she loves buys a .45 Kimber Gold Combat pistol and a .308 Remington 700 Varmint Synthetic rifle? Sean, my boyfriend at the time, wasn’t waging war, and he wasn’t deer hunting. Nor does the sport have any connection to the culture of his suburban childhood or urban adult life. While our relationship was on extended hiatus (before we got back together and then broke up again) Sean applied for rifle and pistol licenses, waiting the 6 – 8 months typical of the process in New York, and bought firearms simply to assert his 2nd Amendment rights. How backwards, I thought, to take up a hobby on principle, rather than for the fun of it. I’m no Lysistrata, so going on strike wasn’t how I chose to object when we got back together. Instead I set out to discover if gun ownership and shooting make any sense at all, if one can be a shooter without being a neoconservative ideologue, like Sean. What does shooting mean to the experienced professional or avid, longtime hobbyist? Is there joy in the sport? What’s behind the preoccupation with this constitutional right?
“Didn’t every Chinese kid want to be a cowboy?” answers Darren Leung, co-owner and Vice President of the range, when on my first visit, I ask him how he ended up in his line of work. Darren, who grew up on the Lower East Side and has worked at West Side since 1989, carries a Glock 19 pistol in a holster at his hip. Because he’s also a peace officer for the state of New York—he used to enforce child abuse cases—his Glock contains a high capacity magazine. Instead of the ten rounds to which civilians are limited, the magazine holds 12 9mm bullets.
Darren leans over the glass cabinet, his arms spread wide across the counter outside the range office, one elbow resting on a small TV and the other hand dangling over a photo ID machine. Inside the cabinet below is a cardboard box of magazines. “Law enforcement only magazines / sorry no civilian sales,” reads a magic-markered sign on the box. Darren is a pudgy, youthful 37-years-old. Behind his wire-rimmed glasses, his eyes turn alternately smiling or serious.
“You grow up watching TV, you want to be that hero who saves the entire Western town—all done with his firearm,” Darren says, pitching his voice low with self-mocking melodrama for the last phrase.
But the adult reality of actually carrying a gun weighs heavily on Darren. “It means I must have more responsibility in life. You have life and death in your hands. Anybody who has ever carried a gun for a living probably has one of the calmest temperaments.” The intermittent crack of gunshots occasionally drowns out his words, and I ask him to repeat himself.
“Too many people feel a gun is the great equalizer. You pull out your gun, and it solves all your problems. You can’t say that the gun will solve all problems. It does not,” Darren says.
“There’s a saying in the Old West: God made man. Colonel Colt made them equal,” remarks West Side patron Kevin M— before he takes aim at a small photocopied human silhouette with his Colt Python .357 magnum. He has found me plastic safety glasses and ear protection—formally called sound-attenuators, or colloquially referred to as ears, short for earmuffs—and kindly escorted me inside to the firing line to watch him shoot.
“This is the Cadillac of revolvers,” he told me earlier in the lounge, the minuscule stub of a hand-rolled Dominican cigar pinched delicately between his thumb and forefinger. Eyeing the steel gray barrel and carved wooden stock, I innocently asked to pick up the gun. But without a license, it is illegal in New York City to handle a pistol, Kevin reminded me gently.
“Shooting is my avocation,” Kevin says. “My vocation, I work on computer mainframes for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.” A laminated ID card hangs from a ribbon around his neck, resting against his round stomach. He wears a quilted blue vest over a baggy gray sweatshirt. His eyes are large behind glasses, and his straight gray hair lies flat against his skull.
Kevin first learned to shoot when he was 12 or 13 years old, in the early 60s, when his older brother took him to a shooting range on Murray Street. I wonder if he fought in Vietnam, and he tells me he was ineligible for the draft because he suffers from cerebral palsy. I notice his slightly withered left arm. If not for his condition, he says, he probably would have enlisted in the armed forces.
Kevin has 11 guns on his license and is especially fond of early 20th century designs by John Moses Browning. In addition to his Colt Python .357 revolver, Kevin owns a 1903 model Colt automatic pistol. “At the end of Key Largo, Humphrey Bogart kills Edward G. Robinson, the vicious gangster, with this firearm,” Kevin says. He also owns a 1911 Colt .45 automatic pistol, which he explains was the mainstay of the U.S. armed forces for 75 years, until 1986, before they switched to a Beretta. “When danger threatens, I don’t dial 911, I dial 1-9-1-1,” Kevin intones, citing Col. Jeffrey Cooper, United States Marine Corp, WWII and Korean War veteran. Kevin’s favorite firearm, though, is his Colt Single Action Army Revolver. “You see it in every Western movie—the venerable six shooter. In my opinion, it’s the most aesthetically pleasing firearm ever created.” Kevin enjoys old movies and likes to identify the pistols he sees on the screen.
Kevin espouses the ideology to match the hobby. “The constitution isn’t a Chinese menu. You don’t pick and choose. You respect it in its entirety,” he says, explaining the implications of the constitutional use of the words “states” and “people” for individual and collective rights. “Gun control is a euphemism for gun confiscation.”
I raise my eyebrows.
“A classic example is Nazi Germany. When Adolf Hitler was appointed, one of the first orders of business was to eliminate private ownership of firearms. We all know the result. Once guns are eliminated, there’s no problem rounding up the enemies.”
The fourteen-lane firing line at West Side Pistol Range is a low-tech operation. Fifty feet away from the firing booths, red rubber padding covers a steel-plated wall. (Bullets penetrate the padding and simply fall down the wall.) Forty-five, twenty-five, and twenty-one foot lines—standard distances for security guard training—are marked off as well. With a metal wheel on the side of each booth, the target can be reeled in and out on ropes running the length of the room. Shooters attach the target sheets, classic bullseyes or human silhouettes (and the occasional Axis of Evil figurehead), to a frame with binder clips.
“My other interest is reading poetry,” Kevin tells me on the firing line. “My favorite poet is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” His eyes widen, and he leans in close to recite the “Village Blacksmith,” which he still recalls from Catholic grammar school.
Under a spreading chestnut tree The village smithy stands: The smith, a mighty man is he, With large and sinewy hands: And the muscles of his brawny arms Are strong as iron bands.
I smile nervously, spurring Kevin to recite from Henry V: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers….” A shooter eavesdropping nearby grins at us.
Kevin finally reels his target out to a distance of twenty-one feet, explaining that he is tired at the end of a long week and unlikely to hit it at fifty feet. He says he will aim for the upper right hand corner of the target and takes four successful shots, narrating the results for my benefit. Then, with a smile, holding out the gun in both palms, he says he has saved two rounds for me.
I’m confused for a moment. “Is that legal?” I ask Kevin, and he claims that because Darren authorized him to take me to the firing line, I can shoot his firearm under his supervision. I look to Rich, the ponytailed patron in the booth to the left. He shakes his head no. “Is it legal?” I ask Sam, the retired New York City police officer in the booth to the right.
“It’s whatever you’re comfortable with,” Sam answers.
I thank Kevin for his gracious offer and decline with a smile. Some may dream of taking the law into their own hands, of answering to no one at the wild, wild West Side, but I’m sure this last outpost is not beyond the sheriff’s jurisdiction.
The week after Kevin first offered me his pistol on the firing line, Rich pulls up a chair at the table in the lounge. “I was going to catch up with you and thank you for not taking advantage of what that guy was offering,” Rich says, his voice low and expression serious. “I think he likes going against the system.”
Rich is very tall and always dressed in black: black cowboy boots, black t-shirt, black leather vest. He sports a moustache and goatee, and his ponytail hangs halfway down his back. Tattoos peek out of his sleeves and above his collar. He wears thick silver chains around his wrist, and his ear is pierced with a mini sword, plunging through the earlobe to the hilt. A carpenter and an artist, Rich usually has one or more fingertips or knuckles wrapped in duct tape.
Despite his sympathy for my almost-compromised position with Kevin’s pistol and his respect—if not appreciation—for New York City gun-control laws, Rich doesn’t trust the system, either. The first night I meet Rich, his buddy Vito, a heavyset guy with a penchant for sports jerseys, rails against gun fingerprinting laws, claiming they’ve never solved a single crime.
Well, what if the laws did solve a crime? I ask.
“The good in me, says yes. The bad in me…they would misuse it. I don’t trust the DA, lawyers, the government,” Vito answers.
Rich considers my question thoughtfully, conceding that if the law was effective, it might be justified. “I do get worried with the more ways government has to track us,” he adds. “It makes me feel guilty when I’m not guilty.”
I wonder about the roots of Rich’s mistrust of government, and he tells me his parents are from Poland, where they were interned in concentration camps during WWII. His mother was arrested when she missed curfew by five minutes, and his father when he tried to escape forced labor for BMW.
“What my mother said over and over again was, ‘believe nothing you hear and only half what you see,’” Rich says. When discussing whether something like the Nazi occupation or Poland’s subsequent communist regime could ever happen in America, Rich remembers, he’d claim, “That will never happen here. This is America. She’d lean in and whisper, ‘You never know. Just you watch.’”
Samuel LoDolce, the retired cop, is the best shot at the range and the least worried about government confiscation of his weapons and the threat of totalitarianism. He’s also, in many ways, a perfect foil to Sean. Sam is a working class retiree, while Sean is a contrarian financial analyst who made good when the recession hit. Sam is a pragmatist, and Sean is a right-wing purist. Sam carried a gun for a living and today for a hobby. Sean bought guns for ideological reasons. And, interestingly, Sam is a cynical, non-practicing Catholic, while Sean is a devout Catholic who adheres strictly to Church dogma—except regarding pre-marital sex and birth control.
“I’m not very religious, but I was an altar boy because I had no choice. The nuns were brutal. They would be in jail today,” Sam says. Nor is he particularly religious in his political views—he never pontificates about his 2nd Amendment rights, and he was against the war with Iraq. He advocates most passionately for the legalization of drugs. “You want to eat yourself to death, it’s legal. You want to drink yourself to death, it’s legal. You want to smoke yourself to death, it’s legal. Why not with drugs?” he says. “If I was in charge, everything would be legal. You’d need about 50 cops to cover the whole city.”
Sam is a man of moderation and thrift. He drinks temperately, doesn’t like espresso (even though he’s a second-generation Italian Brooklynite), and doesn’t smoke. “I don’t even know the taste of it,” he says. He buys a couple lottery tickets a week and would rather spend his money on a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera than on an extensive collection of firearms. He owns a Colt .38 Detective Special revolver, which he’s carried on his person for 5 years, and a Colt Buntline Special .45 single action revolver, which he bought 20 years ago. He reloads his own cartridges with a machine at home, reusing the brass casings at least 20 times, buying separate primers, and melting the lead himself.
Sam retired from the NYPD in 1983, having worked in the 77th Precinct (Bedford Stuyvesant) since 1964. He’s still in excellent shape. Slight but of athletic build, Sam moves with compact grace. He has thick gray wavy hair, white on the sides, and large light brown eyes. He wears fitted slacks and richly hued shirts, always with a laminated West Side “executive club” pass and (since 9/11) an American flag pin clipped to his collar.
Sam hadn’t fired a gun until he joined the force, a profession he chose for the benefits and the pension. The first time he shot a gun was at the police department range on City Island, off the coast of the Bronx. “This is fun and you get paid!” he thought. Sam never shot anyone in the line of duty. In his retirement, he has shown a talent for and dedication to the sport of target practice.
Sam strikes an elegant pose with his Colt Buntline Special on the firing line. With his body angled perpendicular to the target, 50 feet away, his left hand in the pocket of his snug gray slacks, his right foot back, and the gun extended in his right hand, he takes aim. Because breathing makes you unsteady when you shoot, Sam holds his breath from the moment he lifts the gun until he squeezes the trigger. A flash, a cloud of smoke, and the bullet falls down the red rubber padding that covers the steel-plated wall at the end of the firing line. Sam places the gun on the counter of the booth, and lifts his opera glasses with his left hand, stepping forward with his left foot. He puts the glasses down, picks up the gun, and rests the tip of the barrel on the far edge of the counter while he cocks it. With the economy of movement that comes with from over two decades of target practice with the Buntline, Sam repeats this slow, precise dance for another ten rounds.
Sam’s wife is a former ballroom dance teacher, and he says he can “get by” when I ask if he keeps up with her. It’s easy to imagine him in a tuxedo—American flag pinned to the lapel—gliding effortlessly across the dance floor.
“Sam’s our gee-whiz shooter,” says Father David Kossey, the evening Sam lets me watch him shoot the Buntline. Father Dave is an Orthodox Christian priest and Wednesday night West Side regular whom Sam has been eager for me to meet, presumably to illustrate that shooters make up a diverse crowd.
On the firing line prior to shooting, Sam explains what he’ll do with the Buntline: “I’ll fire two rounds of five, and I’ll put it down after each shot to rest.” He used to fire 50 rounds, but now he finds it too tiring. Before picking up the gun, he demonstrates his shooting stance. “This position comes from the dueling position,” Sam says, crouching and lunging with one arm extended as if to thrust a rapier, the other arm curled up to his shoulder. “I was on the fencing team in high school.”
Showing me the etching of a colt on the barrel, Sam tells me the revolver was designed to be fired one-handed from a horse, and that the trigger is off-center, made for a right-handed person. Sam’s Buntline Special was manufactured in the late 50s, when the revolver was mass-produced and popularized by the TV show “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.” The gun takes its name from dime-novelist Ned Buntline, née Edward Zane Carroll Judson, who supposedly gave the original model to Marshal Wyatt Earp and four other Dodge City peace officers in 1876 as thanks for inspiring his frontier tales. Whether or not Wyatt Earp won the West with a Buntline Special is contested mythology, but Sam, who was a fan of the TV show, propounds this version of the gun’s background as true history. “It’s not practical for defensive use because you have to pull the hammer back to cock it,” he says. “But in Wyatt Earp’s time, no one had the advantage over anyone else of a double action or semiautomatic weapon.”
Father Dave, who’s loading his pistol in the next booth on the firing line, applauds Sam’s talent with the Buntline. “The sights on that gun are very hard to see. It requires much concentration.”
When Sam completes his ten rounds, he replaces his revolver and a box of spent brass casings, along with the opera glasses, in a small, worn gray duffel bag. He reels back the NRA Official 50 Feet Slow Fire Pistol Target, and turns it over to the blank side for us to inspect. “It looks better from this side,” he jokes, remarking that he’s done better. In a spidery hand, he adds up the score on the bullseye side of the target sheet: 74 points. “You need 90 or better to do well,” he tells me. I ask if I can keep the poster, and Sam insists on retrieving one of his better targets from his locker in the lounge. He finds a sheet with a score of 90, the ten shots clustered so consistently in the 3-inch black bullseye that they nearly make a single big hole. “Father Dave put his blessing on this one.”
The real sharpshooter, with his disciplined, patient approach, is no cowboy, and today’s urban cowboy doesn’t necessarily make the sharpest shooter. When I see Kevin several weeks after our first encounter, he has two new front teeth. Seated at the table in the lounge, a small Dominican cigar resting at a precise 90-degree angle on the table’s edge in front of him, he recounts his tall tale.
“Last week I had an accident with a shotgun. The gun struck me in the face and knocked a semi-circle piece out of my two front teeth. I’m 53 years old, I’ve played sports, I’ve had a few bouts of fisticuffs, and I’ve always retained my teeth.”
I think back to an outing to the Long Island Shooting Range of Brookhaven with Sean and a buddy of his over the winter. When Sean took the first shot with his .308 rifle, he put his face too close to the scope, and the gun recoiled into his forehead. Blood beaded up between his eyes like a bindi. I gave him a tissue to wipe it away. Blood beaded up again and congealed. Unscrewing the cap off his water bottle, I wet another tissue and tenderly dabbed at his forehead.
“But there was no danger as far as gun safety,” Kevin continues. “It was just not anticipated—the massive recoil from the shotgun. Fortunately, I went to the dentist on Saturday morning, and he bonded my teeth for the nominal sum of $250. When I first got home from the range my wife was laughing at me. I said, look what I did to my teeth. She said, you look like a vampire.”
Kevin explains the recoil resulted from a rifled slug, a shotgun shell containing one ounce of lead and a great deal of gunpowder. “It’s normally used for deer hunting in densely populated areas,” he says. “It’s considered a short-distance cartridge.”
Why were you firing a rifled slug at an indoor range? I ask.
“We were just trying out a new gun. My friend had a mixed bag of shells. I just didn’t anticipate the recoil, and being an experienced shooter, I should have.”
Kevin’s accident has not dampened his spirits, though, and later, while he and Sam reminisce about old movies, he quotes to me from the 1939 production of The Four Feathers. Kevin sets the scene: the British forces are fighting in the Sudan in the late 19th century, and the retired British General Burroughs meets Faversham, a veteran of the Crimean War. Kevin draws himself erect military-style, leans toward me in his seat, and declares in a deep voice, “The Favershams. A fine family. The grandfather—killed with Nelson at Trafalgar. The father—blown to bits at the head of his men, as a good soldier should be. Magnificent!”
“I grew up shooting since I was 9 years old,” Rich tells me another evening while loading a .22 caliber magazine at the table in the lounge. “My father would send me up to friends in the country. He didn’t want me on the streets when school let out. I spent the whole time in the woods. They handed me a gun and ammo and said, don’t shoot yourself. We came really close many times,” he chuckles. He finishes loading the magazine and lights a cigarette.
Rich was raised in Hell’s Kitchen, the youngest of a large family. His parents didn’t speak directly to him about the war, but because he understood Polish, he caught what his parents and their friends said to each other about the camps and the Soviet Gulag.
“The thing I got out of what my parents lived through was how life can be absolutely severe for some people. I was acutely aware, in ways my childhood buddies weren’t, of how lucky we were to be in America. I became a proud American at a very young age. Especially as a teenager and in my 20s, it was not a cool thing to be. For years, as long I have been riding motorcycles, I went riding with an American flag kerchief on my motorcycle.”
What Rich absorbed as a child also shaped a romantic view of violence that he has long since outgrown. “I was kind of embarrassed in a way by all my peers when I was a little kid. It seemed like my parents understood life in a way these kids didn’t. That’s why I got involved in gang warfare, got violent. I wanted to be able to justify myself to my father by going through violence, the severity of it.” So from age 11 until he was 16 years old, when he fell in love with his high school sweetheart and discovered his passion for art as well, Rich “hung out as an associate” with Hispanic gangs including The Latin Tops and The Brotherhood.
“Americans are raised to feel indestructible, and my parents saw that people do die. And gangs were the only way I could get close to that, which is exactly the opposite of what my father wanted.”
Did you ever get hurt? I ask.
“Yeah, I got cut. Stabbed twice. A bunch of facial damage. Broken bones,” Rich answers.
What did your parents think?
“They never knew nothing about that. I had a whole hidden world. If my father knew what I was really like he probably would have shot me.”
The evening Rich grants my request to accompany him on the firing line, the gunshots feel louder than usual, stinging my ears even through the bulky plastic earmuffs. “I was told in the early days police didn’t wear hearing protection to be macho,” Rich comments. West Side management gave me earplugs to wear under the earmuffs, when I complain of the deafening noise, but I don’t insert them for fear I won’t be able to hear Rich talk while we’re on the firing line.
On the counter of his booth, Rich has placed a sheaf of NRA Official 50 Feet Slow Fire Pistol Targets that he earlier ripped in half, several sheets of red dot stickers he bought at Staples, two boxes of Federal 45 auto total metal jacket American Eagle cartridges, and a 1911 model .45 Kimber semi-automatic pistol. Instead of the enormous plastic safety goggles I’m wearing, Rich sports small glasses with yellow lenses and black plastic frames.
He sticks a red dot on the blank side of a half target sheet, which he clips to metal frame and reels out to 25 feet. He loads the magazine with 7 cartridges and snaps it into the pistol. Holding the gun with two hands, his right foot slightly back, Rich rapidly shoots a string of 7 rounds. The brass casings pop in the air, hit the side of the booth, and bounce to the floor. With each round, I blink and flinch, clutching my earmuffs closer to my head.
“It definitely makes a difference when you’re tired,” Rich says, dissatisfied with the scattered results on the target.
Earlier that evening, while Rich was fixing the pistol’s extractor (a small rod that pulls the bullet out of the chamber), I told him he met my boyfriend at the range that Sunday. Sean went shooting with a friend of his and mentioned he met a guy named Rich with a sword through his ear. Rich was fuzzy on the encounter, but then recalled it when I mention Sean lent him his pistol. “Oh, yeah, he had a beautiful Kimber.”
Reeling his target in on the firing line, Rich asks, “Why’d your boyfriend get into shooting?”
“I think because he’s a believer in the 2nd Amendment. But I haven’t asked him point blank.”
“No pun intended.” Rich reels another target out. “Does he enjoy shooting?”
“Yeah…” I say, unsure of my answer.
“If he’s a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment, maybe he should donate money to the cause,” Rich says. When I later relay this suggestion to Sean, he remarks that the NRA doesn’t need his money.
Rich shoots 7 more rounds, reels the target back and another out, then shoots 7 more. This time, he perforates the target with a good, consistent grouping. “That makes me a lot happier. If I sat with one gun and shot it all the time I’d be a lot better.” Lately, Rich explains, he’s been shooting a variety of guns—including a .22 caliber rifle, a 9mm carbine rifle, and the .45—deciding which one to buy.
I save Rich’s target sheet as a memento.
Rich pulls a pointy, 3-inch long .308 Winchester cartridge out of his pocket. “It’s a hunting bullet, probably one of the most common deer hunting rounds. But for military and law enforcement, this is their choice for snipers. I grew up shooting these, and I’m going to have it tattooed right here,” he says, holding the cartridge lengthwise to the underside of his wrist.
I look at him in disbelief.
“I have a lot of ink,” he says, referring to his tattoos. “I’m also going to do a sparkplug. I have a complete love for the internal combustion engine—I.C.E. The sparkplug is the source of life for that. I build high performance Harley Davidson engines.”
Rich bought his first motorcycle when he was 11 (he was tall for his age), and now drives a 1985 Harley with a suicide shift. “You shift gears with your hand, which means you’re steering with one hand,” he explains. “When you go into a turn at 80 mph holding on with one foot and one hand, it’s kind of insane. It’s got a modified race engine with ape hangers,” he says, raising his hands parallel to his head to indicate the height of the bars.
Rich fires another 7 rounds.
“I went hunting once in my life. In the middle of doing it, I stopped.”
He takes 7 more shots. The casings roll around my feet.
“I saw a deer and I couldn’t kill it. It didn’t seem to make any sense. It reminded me of a dog,” he says.
Back out in the lounge, his yellow glasses pushed up on his head and a box of American Spirits on the table in front of him, Rich articulates the pleasure of the sport. “You go inside yourself when you shoot.” He pauses. “It’s funny, I couldn’t do that when you were out there—I was just feeling observed.”
“Oh no, I’m sorry,” I say sincerely. “I didn’t mean to ruin your shooting.”
“No, it’s okay,” Rich reassures me. “You strive to get to that same place when you paint, as when you shoot a bow, like Zen archers. With a rifle and pistol, it’s the same thing. But because of who tends to shoot, they don’t talk that way. But when Sam’s out there concentrating on his shots, it’s like that.”
If Sam’s performance with the Buntline is a tango, he brings equal athleticism and grace to his fox trot with the Colt .38.
“He’s the fastest shot down here. He puts all 5 of those shots in thoracic area of the target in .86 seconds,” Vito says the evening I first meet Sam.
“Vito is one of my biggest fans,” Sam says.
Standing by the wall of beige lockers, Sam holds up the large human target poster before he escorts me on to the firing line to watch him shoot the .38. The squinty-eyed man is realistically drawn, down to the creases in his shirt and the hair on the backs of his hands. He crouches, pistol extended in one hand, the other hand over his heart. “Marvin knows this guy,” Sam says, referring to Marvin Roth, the WWII veteran and president of the Lawyers’ Gun Club usually at the range on Wednesday nights. (A few weeks later, Marvin identifies the target poster model as Jesse Olshein, a retired New York City police lieutenant, a “big, burly Swede” who once worked for Marvin as an insurance claims prep man.)
Sam explains what I’ll see on the firing line. “I’m going to take a step to the left—there’s a possibility it will put me out of the line of fire—and I’m going to crouch to make myself smaller. I’m not that big, but I’m not a midget. I’m 5’9”. I’m going to fire with two hands on the gun. I’m going to fire at 15 feet, because that’s how far away most confrontations occur—at 15 feet or less, in 2 seconds or less. This is strong-arm supported—I fire with my right hand, support with my left. When I fire with the Buntline, it’s strong-arm unsupported.”
On the counter of his booth, Sam neatly lines up his calculator digital watch, a pen and a scrap of paper, a timer, and an orange box of homemade cartridges. Sam will fire when the timer buzzes, and the device will record the elapsed time between the buzz and the last shot, as well as the elapsed time of each string of shots.
In the next booth, a shooter takes aim at two photocopied Yasir Arafats, the faces pierced with bullet holes.
Sam reels his target out to 15 feet. “I’m going to aim for the center of the target because it reduces my margin of error,” he says, touching his chest. “The object of a gunfight is to get the first few shots off as quickly and as accurately as possible, because I’m not going to stand still and neither is he.” The buzzer goes off, Sam steps, crouches, and takes two rapid shots: bang, bang. A black cloud of smoke wafts away from the revolver. The event lasts 1.32 seconds, .27 second for just the two shots. Sam leaves one bullet hole in the target’s shoulder and the other in his crotch. “Someone that far away and my height and with a knife could be here in 2 seconds,” Sam says.
He takes another two shots, this time in .26 second. “The fastest I’ve ever done two shots was 19 hundredths of a second. That doesn’t mean I’m going to do it tonight. Babe Ruth didn’t hit home runs every night.”
Sam places the next two shots in .25 second. “I’m getting warmed up, but you can’t warm up in a gunfight.” Six rounds spent, Sam opens the revolver’s cylinder and flicks the brass out. He inspects the casings, methodically rolling them 360 degrees between thumb and forefinger before replacing them in the orange box.
A few strings later, Sam fires two shots in .20 second (1.22 seconds from the buzzer to the last shot.) “I’m a bit of a show-off.”
He progresses to strings of 5 shots in a row, with an elapsed time .97 second. “If I can keep it under a second, I’m content.”
Sam reels the target poster back, and we inspect it from the blank side. He’s satisfied with the groupings. “If you get involved in a confrontation—which I don’t intend to be because I’m not paid for it—you’re mainly concerned with the first two shots.” I am reassured Sam is no vigilante.
Finished with his workout for the evening, Sam holds out the revolver with the cylinder open for me to touch. “It got a workout,” Sam says. The cylinder is warm.
When we emerge from the firing line, Kevin grabs my arm. “I have another poem for you,” he says, eyes gleaming, bent on demonstrating his appreciation of culture—or perhaps just his keen recall of grade school lessons. He recites “October’s Party,” by George Cooper:
October gave a party, The leaves by hundreds came. The chestnut oaks, and maples And leaves of every name. The sunshine spread a carpet, Miss Weather led the dancing Professor Wind the band.
I compliment Kevin on his memory.
“The nuns were experts at behavioral modification,” he replies.
“The nuns, I wouldn’t wish them on anybody,” Sam says, and goes to wash his hands.
Sam only shoots one gun an evening so that he doesn’t have to clean two. When he returns from the restroom, he opens a green metal box with “Hoppe’s” printed on the lid in yellow block letters. On a table in the lounge outside the firing line, he removes brushes, cloths, shiny black rubber gloves, and a bottle of that strong-smelling solvent from the box. While he meticulously cleans his .38, in gloves up to his elbows, I ask him about his years on the force.
“I delivered a baby and had people die in my arms,” Sam says, scrubbing out each chamber of the cylinder with a small round brush.
He never had to shoot anyone, but he did witness another cop fire in self-defense.
“There was a violent family dispute. A three-car dispatch. When we arrived at the house, a group of women were screaming incoherently and running away. A person was standing approximately 15 feet away, at the top of the stairs. Behind him, there was a wall of flames— a roaring fire—and he made a torch and moved towards us. The officer stepped to the left, crouched, and shot him twice. The man turned around and ran right through the wall of flames. The officer thought he had missed him, but he had shot him in the chest two times. Later, the firemen and another cop found him unconscious in the back yard. He lived.”
Was he high? I wonder, getting a headache from inhaling the Hoppe’s.
“He hadda be high.”
Sam scrubs the surface of the gun, cylinder out, with a toothbrush.
“The closest I ever came to shooting anyone was a woman. I was a desk officer one night. A man, her boyfriend, comes in screaming and ran behind me. She comes after him with a hammer. I said, you come any closer, I’m gonna shoot. She didn’t put down the hammer. So I took a step to the left, crouched, and she put the hammer down. She wasn’t a bad person, she was just enraged.”
Sam wipes the gun with a piece of felt, and then rubs it with a silicon cloth, which adds a protective coating. He squeezes a drop of oil on the ejector rod, and tells me he’ll go back on the firing line to reload the revolver before he replaces it in his holster and leaves for the evening.
Did your job change your view of life?
“I realized life is cheap.”
For $50—and no permit needed—anyone can take a lesson on a .22 caliber rifle at West Side Pistol Range. I manage to hang around the range for weeks without actually shooting a gun, though the guys repeatedly suggest that I give it a try. Upon first acquaintance with almost any shooter, one of the first questions he would ask was if I’d ever shot before. Yes, I would tell the curious shooter, I’ve taken one shot with my boyfriend’s .308 rifle, and I hit the bullseye at 100 yards.
After weeks of my putting off a lesson, Vito finally takes matters into his own hands and announces he’ll bring me on the firing line to shoot his Ruger 10/22, a .22 caliber semiautomatic carbine rifle.
“All right, young lady, let us have a shooting experience,” he says with mock formality and genuine evangelical zeal. Eyeing his spiky black hair and unlined face, I estimate that Vito is at the most, 10 years older than I am.
We start by loading a 10-round spring coil factory magazine. As I push the tiny cartridges in the square receptacle, Paul, a boyish-looking biomedical engineer shooting a 10mm pistol in the next booth over, offers me encouragement. “The best thing about a .22, you’re able to train without getting the bad habits—no recoil, no flinching.”
“A baby farting in your hands has more recoil than a .22,” Vito says.
I recall one of my first conversations with Sam, when he told me that more people are killed nationwide by .22 caliber rifles than by any other gun. “People get very relaxed when they see the size of the cartridge, but once it goes in your body, it goes crazy.” He recounted a case he handled. “The bullet went in a guy’s neck, lodging in his wrist,” Sam said, pointing to the side of his neck and tracing the path of the bullet down his arm to his wrist.
“Rule #1: point the gun down that way, always, always, always,” Vito says, nodding down the firing line. “Rule #2: finger off the trigger.”
“All guns are considered loaded,” Paul adds. “If you treat a gun as if it’s loaded, you’ll never have an accident.”
Vito introduces me to the anatomy of the gun. “Vacuuming is harder work than shooting a .22,” he reassures me. I practice working the bolt and the bolt release. I press the safety button: extended on the right, the safety is on, extended on the left with the red visible, it’s off. With my elbows resting on the counter, I learn where to nestle the rifle’s black polymer butt in my shoulder, where to rest my cheek on the butt, and where to put my eye relative to the high-powered Weaver Rimfire scope. “Get comfortable, like you’re sitting on a couch,” Vito says. Squinting into the scope, with my right forefinger extended along the length of the rifle—not curved near the trigger—I rehearse lining up the target in the crosshairs so that I can see it clearly, with no shadows.
Vito snaps the magazine into the rifle. “Don’t pull the trigger; squeeze it. You shoot with the pad of your finger, like you’re dialing a push-button telephone.” Baby, vacuum, couch, telephone—thus Vito demystifies shooting for the young lady by likening the sport to housewifery.
I inhale deeply, exhale, and hold my breath, feeling blindly for the trigger while keeping the target, 50 feet away, in my crosshairs. When I squeeze the trigger, it requires more pressure than I expect, probably because the only other .22 I’ve handled was Paul’s Olympic target single shot, or free pistol, whose trigger is designed to snap at the lightest touch. Weeks earlier Paul showed me the $1500 free pistol (unloaded) as well as a pair of futuristic target goggles with an adjustable pupil that works like a camera. He demonstrated how to line up the target with the tip of the gun in its external sight. The rifle’s stock, crafted from dyed layers of green, red, and orange wood, was carved into a handle, so you can slip your hand in and shoot using just one arm. With its baroque butt and a chamber built to hold only one cartridge at a time, the free pistol is a highly stylized machine, stripped down to its design essentials and nearly divorced from purposes of self-defense and killing. But when I tried to line up the target in its sights, my arm shook and I couldn’t hold the gun steady. At 105 pounds and 5’3”—even with weekly upper body strength training at the gym—I’m not strong enough to hold the gun strong-arm unsupported.
I have more success with Vito’s Ruger 10/22, hitting the “10” at the center of the bullseye on my first shot. Vito reels the target back for me to save. “You keep that for bragging rights,” Paul says. Vito reels another target out, and I shoot 10 more rounds, placing all of them in the black. The fluorescent green layer behind the black “Shoot-N-C” target sticker explodes through where the bullets perforate the paper, making the results easily visible at 50 feet. With my controlled breathing and all noise muffled by ear protection, the concentrated moments between shots feel calm and quiet like yoga. I proudly display my target posters to much acclaim from Vito, Paul, Rich, and Sam.
“All I did was line the target up in the crosshairs and shoot. Seems anyone could do that,” I say to Rich the Friday following the rifle lesson, wondering about my success with the .22.
Rich is fixing the extractor rod on a .45 Kimber. “You may have a natural disposition towards shooting well,” he says, “But if you were to stand and shoot, instead of leaning on the bench, you’d find it three times harder. Plus, a .22 gives very little recoil, and 50 feet is virtually no distance to shoot a rifle at.”
“You hear about this one—Annie Oakley?” Vito says to Kevin when the firearm and poetry aficionado arrives at the range.
I tell Kevin about the bullseye and the 10 other shots in the black, expressing my misgivings about how easy the target practice was.
“Don’t get a big head. It’s a high-powered scope for 50 feet,” Vito says, reneging on his Annie Oakley compliment.
I assure Vito I’m in no danger of a big head.
When Kevin unpacks a small, silver pistol out of his bag, I wonder about its make and caliber.
“I have with me a 9mm automatic, made by Smith & Wesson. The gun once belonged to my wife. It was designed for ladies, hence the name,” he says, showing me the words Lady Smith etched in cursive on the slide of the gun. “I have slender hands, so it’s fine with me. For someone with beefy hands, it might be a little uncomfortable.”
“At the time you get your license, you are welcome to shoot this gun,” Kevin offers generously, tacitly acknowledging my earlier reluctance to break New York City law by shooting a pistol without a permit.
I smile and thank him for his conciliatory gesture.
The Lady Smith may be just my size, but I am not eager to apply for a license and spend my money on firearms rather than shoes. Though unarmed, I do have a collection of gun-related souvenirs at home in Brooklyn. Lined up on my bookshelf in ascending height is a row of bullets bequeathed to me by the guys at the range: .22, a .38 Special, and a homemade .45 from Sam. I’ve also accumulated a sheaf of target posters: Sam’s 74-point and 90-point NRA Official 50 Feet Slow Fire Pistol Targets, Rich’s sheet with the close grouping of 7 bullet holes around a red dot sticker, and my own handiwork. Rolled up on top of my CD case is the large target poster—with my single shot at the center of the red bullseye—that I saved from the outing to the range on Long Island with Sean and his friend. The day after that February afternoon in Brookhaven, I flippantly taped the poster up on my door only to take it down soon after, unnerved and embarrassed by the display of a bullet hole that for an animal or human rather than paper target, means violent death.
It is around the time of the rifle lesson that my relationship with Sean begins to deteriorate—though hardly over gun-control issues—and my dream life becomes anxious. Now my brain has a whole new lexicon of guns and ammo imagery with which to compose dreams. The morning following the lesson, I dream of a strange target practice. A woman and I lie at opposite ends of a firing line, rifles in hand, playing a game like a duel. First I shoot at her, and it’s fun, just like the lesson. But when it’s her turn to shoot at me, I realize that it’ll really hurt if I get hit, so while obeying the rules of the game by not running away, I twist and roll on the floor of the booth to avoid her bullets.
Is the gun a great equalizer? Not when it can be turned on me.
Another night, I dream a criminal shoots me in the head, but I don’t die. Instead I wait and wait in the emergency room, ignored by the hospital staff and unsure how much brain damage I’ve suffered. A different morning I dream I must assassinate an anonymous enemy, only I can’t load my revolver. The casings aren’t made of brass but of paper, which crumbles to dust in my fingers.