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

Ten tons of lead. That's what John Sperber thinks is in that back wall right now, a major heap of spent .45s, 9 mm's, 10 mm's, .357s, .380s, .22s, .32s, .38s, your .44 Magnums -- the Goliath of shells -- along with every other race and creed of bullet fired from a pistol at a paper target. And that backstop at the far end of the range can take a slug like nobody's business. The cantilevered slate-gray surface doesn't actually catch a whizzing bullet but glances it upward into a series of chambers until it loses steam and slides harmlessly into a trap. After a month or two, the lead really piles up. Ten tons is a guess: The figure could be a little more, a little less. Either way, the slugs -- along with a sizable cache of spent brass cartridges -- equal cash, and Sperber, manager of the place, says it's time to call the recyclers to come haul it away.

Bull's Eye Indoor Pistol Range (781-GUNS) has been a stop for shooting enthusiasts for 20 years now -- nine years in its current location at 5100 Manchester, just west of Kingshighway, and, before that, 11 years in the old armory on Market Street. There are other indoor target ranges -- the Cop Shop in Belleville, Catfish Guns in Arnold -- but Bull's Eye is it for St. Louis, the only location in the city where one may legally fire a pistol. Obviously, some people aren't hip to that.

Enter the chalk-white building and the first thing you see is a conspicuous security camera. A buzzer announces you as you head down a short corridor, bare except for some framed pictures of posed groups of cowboys, Mexican banditos, U.S. cavalry -- looking too perfect to be authentic, probably modern guys into re-enacting -- all armed to the teeth. All the while you hear the report of gunfire, getting louder, picking up tempo -- thwack ... thwack ... thwack, thwack, thwack! Not the sort of place you'd care to go with a hangover. Walk into the main room, a retail store with a modest selection of new and used handguns for sale. The older ones with the wooden grips, a bit nicked up, make you wonder what history they have, whose palms they were in.

Within glass cases, revolvers and semiautomatics beckon: Hey, check me out! Glocks, Lugers, Colt .45s, Smith & Wesson .38s (the detective model), a handsomely crafted Sig Sauer and -- look at that -- a Walther PPK. Isn't that James Bond's piece? On shelves, behind the glass cases and below the mounted deer heads, there's enough ammo to fend off the Burmese army, for an hour or two, anyway. And not just guns and ammo for sale but sundry supplies such as trigger locks, targets, cases, eye and ear protection. Off to one side, a classroom. Off to the side and up a few steps, the target range, 25 yards long, competition-length, 10 positions, guys in separate lanes squeezing off rounds at paper targets -- blam! blam! -- contained explosions in their hands every few seconds.

One of the figures depicted on the targets, a guy crouching down, pointing a pistol at something straight ahead, looks like Ronald Reagan. It's an official Municipal Police Training Council combat target; the likeness must be accidental, but it's pretty funny anyway. As if you, the shooter, might like to make believe you're John Hinckley trying to impress Jodie Foster. Another target shows a hard-edged chick with shades, definitely a tough cookie -- Patty Hearst as Tania? Also available are the classic bull's-eye configuration and the head-and-thorax silhouette, both targets scored for training and qualification purposes. The targets are clipped to an automatic runner that, at the press of a button, takes your target to the desired distance and, with another press, retrieves it. A lot of people like 10 yards, because that's how far away most of your bad guys will be if the Dreaded Encounter ever happens. You see, the range draws civilians, hunters and nonhunters, some with a permit to carry and some without; process servers; security guards in both the public and private sectors; maybe a few militia types; law-enforcement officers of all stripe -- and no one is fooling himself. Ostensibly you're there for target practice -- bull's-eye, all right! -- but what's the underlying reason? To hone your skills to better protect yourself.

Nothing wrong with that.
A one-hour session at Bull's Eye runs about the same as dinner at a modestly priced restaurant -- plus you get to keep your blasted targets. With your own handgun, time and a box of shells cost about $20, depending on the sort of ammo you require (.22 shells: cheap; .44 Magnums: dear). Both revolvers and semiautomatics may be rented for in-house use; someone on staff will give you a lesson. Targets are 15 cents and up.

The bumper stickers -- "Vote Yes on Prop B" -- are free for the taking. If Prop B passes, citizens wanting to try out the new concealed-carry law will have to take three days of weapons training, 24 hours, total. Bull's Eye, as an established range offering firearms training, stands to profit and so, yeah, the management is definitely in favor of the controversial bill. Hey, take a yard sign too, if you like.

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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