Article and photos by James Campagna
Beyond the lobby of 20 West 20th Street, through a heavy, metal door, down two winding flights of stairs and along a narrow hallway decorated with NRA logos and aged patriotic posters comes the frequent popping sounds of the Westside Rifle & Pistol Range.
The shooting range has been in operation since 1965 and is the only one of its kind left in Manhattan (another half-dozen are scattered through the other boroughs). Darren Leung, the 52-year-old owner says, “When people ask me what I do, I tell ’em I sell insurance. I sell street insurance.”
The business opened with an investment of $5,000 each from Morty Michaels and Jerry Prizer, and very little has changed since then. The same chipped, tan lockers line the wall of the lounge, and targets are still hand-cranked into position on a clothesline. Leung was hired as an instructor in the late 1980s as the partners were nearing retirement, and with three friends, and by 1989 he raised enough money to purchase the range in 1989; after buying out his three partners in 2011 Leung became the sole owner.
For members of the Westside Rifle & Pistol Range who see themselves as a beleaguered minority in a city often associated with liberal values and the anti-gun movement championed by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the club is as much a sanctuary as a place to shoot. (Bloomberg is the founder and a chief funder of Everytown for Gun Safety.)
The range is always busy on Saturdays, when many members make their weekly pilgrimage to be with other gun owners. Enthusiasts, current and former law enforcement officers and those learning how to shoot are drawn largely by word of mouth. Some have been coming for years to spend time around the well-worn tables, dotted with Styrofoam coffee cups, dis-assembled pistols and a menagerie of gun accessories.
Vinny and Linda, who wished only to be identified as a couple in their 50s from Staten Island, come together every weekend. “This is a safe haven,” says Vinny.
Then, too “there are more obligations at other ranges,” he explains. “That’s why we come here instead of one of the ones on the island” Where he lives. Unlike the Manhattan range, with its $575 unlimited yearly membership, the Colonial Rifle & Pistol Club, one of the two ranges on Staten Island, functions more like a country club, charging $300 in annual dues in addition to a $500 application fee and requiring prospective members to be approved by the club’s board. Requests for membership details at the Richmond Boro Gun Club on Staten Island were not answered. The Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn also have two ranges each for public use.
Leung offers a variety of membership options for pistol owners ranging from $375 a year for morning members (Monday to Friday, 9 a.m.-to-3 p.m.) up to $575 yearly for an unlimited membership. With some 2,000 members, the Westside Rifle & Pistol Range brings in about $1 million a year in business for the last three years, according to publicly available business records compiled by ReferenceUSA.
Concerns about national politics has helped fuel the range’s business. During the Obama administration, sales of firearms soared in America, as many gun owners feared the federal government would interfere with their right to bear arms. This fear only grew after the government purchased ammunition in great quantities for various law enforcement agencies, leading to a surge in ammunition sales in the retail market.
The potential for continued scrutiny under a Hillary Clinton presidency fed the buying frenzy of firearms. According to FBI NICS Firearms Checks, from 2008 through 2016 background checks for firearms purchases increased from 12 million applications to 27 million. In contrast, under the Bush administration, FBI background checks increased by only four million over his eight years.
The 2016 presidential elections also increased business. “There was a lot of anxiety that she would take our rights away,” says Leung of Hillary Clinton. “A lot of people were preparing for that because everyone was so sure she was going to win.”
A portion of the range’s business comes from local gun clubs that use the range as a meeting place. Chelsea Gun Club meets twice a week and holds its annual Christmas party there. The NYC Women’s Shooting Sports League holds monthly events at the range “More women are living alone and they want to feel safe too,” Leung says.
On a recent Saturday, a group of four older couples were readying their own pistols, as well as two women who came to have ID photos taken for their gun-license applications.
The range offers instruction on proper cleaning, assembly and disassembly techniques, as well as license and permit classes, which walk you through the lengthy NYPD process to legally own a firearm. Newcomer Steve Cisternas, a 38-year-old dentist, went through the process on his own when purchasing his used 9mm Beretta pistol, which he now regrets. “It’s such a difficult process to go through. You don’t want to jeopardize it with making a mistake,” says Cisternas.
Also a resident of Staten Island, Cisternas has been a member for just two months. He, too, skips the ranges closer to his home to come into Manhattan every Saturday. “I couldn’t get anyone on the phone at some of the other ranges,” he recalls. “Here, they taught me how to clean my weapon, assemble and disassemble my weapon,” Cisternas says. “Darren is a comedian and he makes everyone feel like family.”
Some of those family members currently or formerly worked in law enforcement. An FBI-certified law enforcement firearms instructor, Leung teaches members of the NYPD, U.S. Marshals, State Correction and the U.S. Mission techniques and procedures required for their certification. Some members of the NYPD find an advantage with additional training from a certified instructor at a public range.
The desk officer at NYPD’s Rodman’s Neck gun range, speaking anonymously due to departmental regulations, explains the range’s value to law enforcement. Some 35,000 NYPD officers need to be recertified twice each year; but there are only have 115 firearms instructors and they’re spread out across four NYPD ranges, as well as the new Police Academy at College Point. “With so many officers and so few instructors, a place like Westside is really important,” explains the desk officer. “There an officer or cadet can train without the pressure of being at the police range.”
The only pressure at Leung’s pistol range comes from within, not from the employees, members or other customers. “The feel of family is important to us,” Leung says, looking over his crowd of regulars. “We serve this community. We’ll stay open here for the next generation.”
Wearing an oversized, bright blue windbreaker, sneakers and tan pants, 84-year-old Harvey, who also didn’t want to provide his surname, slowly pushes in through the door, using his cane to steady himself. He is from the first generation of customers to frequent the Westside Rifle & Pistol Range
“I’ve been coming here for 50 years,” he says, tufts of silver and white hair peeking out from beneath his white baseball cap. “I used to come at least once a week, every Tuesday. Now, I come in when I can make it. I just bought a new gun two days ago. Can’t wait. Can’t wait.”