He stands at the front of the small classroom of skinny-jeans-wearing twenty-somethings, cocking a .22-caliber rifle.
“Welcome to Westside Pistol and Rifle Range,” he says. “Long before it became cool, hip and trendy to hate guns, there used to be more of us around the city.”
And thus begins the 7 p.m. rifle class at Westside Range on West 20th Street, taught by Howard Kwok.
Westside Pistol & Rifle Range, where many of the NYPD’s men and women in blue—and other gun enthusiasts—have come to train and practice, is the last of its kind in Manhattan. The range offers shooting classes and memberships, as well as firearms, and they help first-timers get their gun licenses.
Ever since the Newtown school shootings, and more recently, New York State’s new gun control legislation, the phone at Westside Rifle has been ringing off the hook. After Newtown, it was mostly media requests, most of which were refused.
“If you are a responsible gun owner, you are blamed when tragedies like this happen,” says Raymond Lacson, an instructor, who has worked at the Westside Range since 2009. “That’s the downside to being engaged in this type of sport.”
Since New York’s SAFE Act, new customers and regulars alike have been calling to ask how the legislation will affect them.
The new law is the strictest of all 50 states. It requires, among other things, that gun owners keep guns locked away and out of reach from those barred from gun ownership (i.e. felons, mentally unstable people and those who have served time for domestic abuse in the last five years). It also bans all ammunition magazines holding more than seven rounds and requires gun owners to go through a more rigorous mental health check, as well as update their gun permits every five years.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the new gun legislation is unpopular with the Westside Range. Lacson shakes his head and hesitates before offering his opinion on the new law.
“I agree with the mental health checks, but not with the other parts of the law,” he says, taking a magazine of bullets out of his handgun. “Right now, I have eight rounds in this gun. If I take one out, it’s considered safe by the government,” he says. “To me, a bullet is a bullet. One shot is one shot.”
Lacson says that the extensiveness of the law is really unnecessary in New York City, where it is already an extremely daunting and lengthy process to g et a gun license and buy a firearm. The NYPD approves all licenses, and the processing fee for a handgun license is $430, with a waiting period of five or six months. Halfway through that period, he says, the applicant meets with a psych evaluator, and goes through a background check. After approval, the applicant is given one month to choose a gun, and then the serial number of the firearm is stamped on the back of the gun license within three days of approval. Every time the applicant buys a gun, the process takes another two months.
He also says that licenses from out of state, and even gun licenses from upstate New York or Long Island, are not valid in the city.
Asked how the range deals with shady customers, or ones who make them uneasy, he says, “We try not to be judgmental, but we always send away drunk people,” Lacson says. “If there’s something off, the application and evaluation will take care of that.”
So, who does come to the shooting range?
Meet Francisco Castano, or Frank, as he’s known at Westside, a soft-spoken man who comes from Parkchester in the Bronx, and has been shooting for about a year. His attitude toward guns changed, he said, when he was working in the World Trade Center on 9/11, which made him feel that danger was lurking in unexpected places. He now owns a 9mm Glock for protection and security, to help out his family and people around him if they are ever threatened.
“People say gun owners are the ones who kill people, but that’s not true,” he says. “I don’t like the new law. They should really focus on the guns that are out there right now illegally on the street.”
Now, many members of the Westside Range community agree that guns, even legal ones, are a touchy subject. New Yorkers, they say, have an attitude vastly different from residents of other states and cities, where carrying around a concealed weapon is the norm.
Back in the beginner rifle class, Kwok is explaining different types of guns to his seven students.
“Automatic guns, commonly known as machine guns—don’t even ask me about those.” he says.
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