The Shootists

The city of St. Louis' only public gun range draws firearms enthusiasts, the self-defense-minded and those for whom being a good shot is just part of a day's work

Jim Lang is there, in the small room adjoining the glassed-in range where you pay and get your safety glasses and earplugs. "I'm not a gun person," Lang, an engineer, stresses, "but where I'm working, it's not the best part of town. There are some rough dudes, I've been burglarized, and I rarely see any cops around so ... I just feel like I'm out there." After some thought, he purchased a snub-nosed .38; this was his fifth visit to Bull's Eye. "I can stay on the silhouette at 10 yards," he says. "I feel like I can competently shoot, and now it's an exercise in trying to stay competent. I don't expect that coming here is going to be a guarantee in times of crisis; I just want to better my odds a little." Lang pauses with his hand on the door to the antechamber leading to the range proper and reflects: "I realize that if I ever would have to use it, the situation would be a lot different. Here, you're shooting under ideal conditions -- well-lit surroundings, time to aim and fire, no pressure, no panic. After a few times, when you get comfortable with it, it's not that different than going out to Tower Tee and hitting golf balls."

If Lang shoots to "better his chances" in a holdup situation (or whatever), John Brown shoots to unwind. "Most of my clients would be shocked to know that I did this," says Brown, a certified massage therapist, "but that's on them. I spend a lot of time with people, and sometimes you just like to get away and do something comfortable and relaxing for yourself, and I've found shooting very relaxing for me." But, again, the Second Amendment is invoked. "I'm not a hunter or a militia person," he adds, the yin-yang symbol on his ball cap seeming to bear this out, "but I believe that self-defense is everybody's individual responsibility and people have to make choices (about) who will be responsible for their self-defense. I've chosen to make myself responsible."

Brown likely speaks for many Bull's Eye customers who elect to buy, borrow or rent a handgun and become proficient in its use. The tacit notion that "you'd rather have it and not have to use it than suddenly need it and not have it" is never far below the attitudinal surface. "This isn't Chesterfield," says Sperber. "Being in the city, we do get a lot of people (coming in) for defense purposes."

In fact, firearms training is the main business of the target range. Bull's Eye offers courses for all levels of proficiency. The beginner firearms class (four hours, $40) teaches safety procedures, nomenclature and the fundamentals of shooting, along with actual range practice. The class has likely saved several first-time gun owners from shooting themselves in the foot. As for the "command society," the larger police departments have their own ranges, but some of the smaller municipalities -- 30 or 40, all told -- have to use either the city or the county range (where scheduling can be problematic) or a place such as Bull's Eye, where walk-ins are no problem. Some 100-150 credentialed process servers -- who, in order to be armed, must take the initial class and qualify every two years thereafter -- add to the customer base. And there are security guards, lots of security guards.

Sgt. Mel Griffin walks in, looking sharp in his pressed uniform. Griffin, a former St. Louis police officer and, for the last 17 years, a "corporate security advisor" with Anheuser-Busch (a bodyguard, perhaps), has come to shoot for record, a quarterly event. In addition to fulfilling the range qualification, Griffin will spend time in the classroom. "Some companies pay for their security personnel to qualify twice a year; some like to do it four times a year," Sperber explains. "The more training you have on paper, the better off you are liability-wise in the event of a shooting. It shows more proficiency."

Griffin, when asked, replies that, no, he's never pulled his .38 Smith & Wesson, not once in all the years on the job.

But if the need ever arises, he'll be good and ready.

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