A patron of West Side Pistol and Rifle practices self-defense firing
Movies and TV shows depict the streets of New York riddled with gunfire and violence—but on a normal day in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, most of the shooting happens under the street and inside.
Above ground, “another round” means someone has just ordered drinks, but at the Westside Pistol and Rifle Range, another round means “reload”: Westside Pistol and Rifle is the safe underground where gun owners can escape the scrutiny of New York’s anti-gun attitudes.
“It’s like a little oasis in New York City,” said Martin Vezzuto, a young pro-hunting New Yorker, upon an Oct. 19 visit to the range.
Westside is the only gun range in Manhattan, said Darren C. Leung, the range’s Chinese-American owner. He said the range is more than a business; it is his calling.
“I cannot afford to let this business go down,” he said. “That would be more or less killing off the chances of the next generation of gun owners.”
There should be more gun ranges like West Side in New York City, said Shauna O’Garro, a self-described super liberal, NRA-mocking, born and bred city girl, who contributed to the online publication Natural Selections run by Rockefeller University students.
O’Garro originally felt uncomfortable about the range and feared her visit would strand her in the company of fanatics, she wrote in Natural Selections.
She discovered instead a diverse group of students, mostly women, and came to the conclusion that everyone should try shooting a gun, she wrote.
“The class was fine, it was mostly women, they were like girls for girls night out, there were couples—the whole thing was fun overall,” she said in an Oct. 19 interview.
Even though she enjoyed the range, O’Garro’s political philosophy has not changed, she said. “I still think guns should be regulated.”
In New York, without a gun license residents can only use a .22, and O’Garro feels comfortable with that rule, she said.
Vezzuto’s Second Amendment rights are not adequately protected in New York City, he said. “New York is not too Second Amendment friendly. They kind of infringe our rights a lot, especially against the law-abiding citizens.”
“You know, not everyone can or should have a gun, but if you’re a law-abiding citizen, you know, and you don’t break the law, there’s no reason why they should be so strict on us,” he said.
Vezzuto experienced heckling because of his lifestyle as a hunter and a gun owner, he said. At one time anti-gun anti-hunters chased him and his friends into the woods.
“They saw our cars, and they came in and started making all kinds of noise, then they started throwing things, and they had dogs, they let dogs loose, they started running around us,” said Vezzuto. “New York’s not so gun-friendly.”
Leung said that in New York, authorities do not want to grant licenses or issue permits, so places like his own are going extinct like the dinosaurs.
“I am the one standing up to the police, to the mayor’s office, to the ATF, to anyone who is looking to close my business down, I am going to stand and say, ‘Well you can’t, because we do things correct, we do things right,’” said Leung.
A Westside patron fills out documentation
Leung’s business will continue to thrive by standing on his commitment to precision in filing paperwork and selling only legal guns, he said.
The gun community at Westside has grown in the past few years as gun ownership has risen, he said.
“We’ve actually seen an up-rise in gun-ownership because of the fact that a lot of people do live by themselves, and I think a lot of single women live by themselves, and they feel that a lot of apartments won’t let them have dogs, so it’s a viable situation for their protection to be a firearm,” said Leung.
O’Garro said she would use a gun to defend herself, and she believes women should learn to handle a gun, if they feel comfortable doing so, because the experience can empower them.
“If there is ever the possibility that you would need to use one, it would be something that’s good to know,” she said.
However, O’Garro said she does not feel comfortable with women carrying concealed weapons for self-defense around New York. “I mean, in a perfect world, if people were going to use them correctly, that would be fine, but there’s too many crazy people so I’m not really comfortable with that.”
Her friends and news articles have told her that rapists usually attack a woman from behind, she said, so guns would not protect women anyway. “They wouldn’t be able to just reach into their bag.”
Leung has much more confidence in a woman’s ability to defend herself, he said.
“I think a lot of women are very self-reliant,” he said. “And they feel that you know, ‘So I’m not going to rely on a dog, I’m not going to rely on a man, I will rely on myself!’”
He has seen a spike in firearm use for women, he said, because gun rights and women’s independence move along hand-in-hand.
In addition to gender diversity, the range fosters all-around respect for lifestyle diversity, said Leung.
“I mean, you’re gonna laugh at this, because we have so many different–I have doctors, lawyers, housewives, students, civil servants, I mean, everyone walks through that door and they are equal,” he said.
“Nobody ever says to anybody, ‘well I’m a doctor, and you’re just like, you know, a plumber, whatever’—no. No, they share a common love of the sport, and there’s mutual respect when everybody comes down, and you know, more or less everyone’s more or less helping out each other,” he said.
Leung said his range especially services those who cannot afford to go shoot elsewhere. “Not everyone has a car, not everyone can go out to the outer boroughs to go shoot.”
Leung said so far only one other person had tried to start up a gun range in Manhattan.
“There’s other ranges out in the outer boroughs, but you know, all business pretty much takes place in Manhattan, so–luckily for us, you know?” he said.
Leung said he would welcome competition.
Westside received a rating of four and a half out of five stars from 69 reviews on yelp.com.
“Dudes with no first date ideas, this is a great spot to relax and have fun with a new girl,” said one review by Michael L. from Brooklyn. “There were couples in our group and everyone had a great time.”
Most of Westside’s patrons come to the shop for the sport, and the sense of comradery, said Leung. “It’s very small, minority community.”
Leung said he originally met the previous owner of the Range at the gun shop.
The owner hired him, and when the owner sold out Leung and two others became joint owners of the Range, said Leung.
“At the end, pretty much everyone sold out and I’m the last one standing.”