I started shooting guns when I was sixteen, competitively since I was nineteen. The first time I ever worked at a shooting range, I was a college sophomore. I applied for the job while I was on summer vacation. The interview process isn’t particularly intense or grueling. It’s pretty much done on the spot. I came in with a working knowledge of weapons and ammunition, basically.

An $8 million dollar inventory

People have a lot of misconceptions about what really goes on inside of a shooting range. To be honest, it's a whole lot of nothing.

Most ranges operate as both a shooting facility and a retail operation.
On top of that, they'll usually offer some kind of classes or training. Both of the shooting ranges I worked at were indoor. A large part of the day is opening up and shutting down. You spend a lot of your morning just killing time and most of the afternoon working and talking with customers. The traffic starts to pick up when everyone gets off work.

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Andrey Smirny

Illustrator

 

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There are days where you can spend in excess of two or three hours without seeing a single customer. The biggest downside of the job is that you're spending six or seven hours on your feet. The biggest perk is the amount of time you spend around guns. You knowledge really goes through the roof.

At the last range I worked, we were in charge of $6 to $8 million worth of weapons inventory. We had something like 3,200 unique SKUs in stock at any given time. We carried everything, from handguns to assault rifles to stuff used by the armed forces. You name it. The thing about the gun industry is that it’s a lot like the car industry. There’s an ass for every seat.

No ID, no problem

The state of Florida doesn’t require you to have an ID to shoot. We go by what you call “range rules,” meaning each range is responsible for setting its own safety code and level of compliance with local and federal laws. To operate a shooting range, you have to be approved by the ATF. It’s essentially a private company licensed through a government agency.

The way it works is that you rent a gun, then buy the ammunition, then pay a fee to use the shooting facilities. For amateurs, a session typically lasts anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.

The cost of the gun rental really depends, but it can run anywhere from $20 to $1000. The ATF has different tiers of classification for different types of weapons. The more restricted the category—for example, something that’s fully automatic or military grade—the more you’re going to spend.

We carried everything, from handguns to assault rifles to stuff used by the armed forces. The thing about the gun industry is that it’s a lot like the car industry. There’s an ass for every seat.

 

It's a dick-swinging competition

There’s a variety of reasons that people go to the range. At the end of the day, it really depends on the customer. A lot of them are just tire-kickers. They come in with no purpose other than browsing. The cool thing about ranges is that you get every type of individual under the sun, from the Denny's waitress who wants to do it casually to let off some steam to the decorated SWAT member who has to stay sharp as part of the job.

Down in South Florida, where I was, the ratio of male to female customers was 70 to 30 at any given time. So, women were a minority but a significant one. It’s a sector that’s growing at an exponential rate.

Men and women come in for different reasons. It’s an interesting paradigm. Excluding the professionals, who are actually looking to brush up on their skills, the men are mostly there make noise and show off to their buddies—to be the baddest guy on the block with the biggest gun. I hate to say it, but it’s kind of a dick-swinging competition.

On the other hand, the women are single or looking for a new hobby, and what they want is to take their defense into their own hands. They’re so focused and so detail-oriented that they really take their time. They actually want to be critiqued. They’ll pull you aside and ask questions. “Am I loading it wrong?” “How can I improve my aim?” Whereas if you were to approach a man and say, “Hey, you might consider changing up your grip,” it would basically be like telling him, “I think your Ferrari is a piece of shit.”

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People bring their kids
all the time

 

People come in groups and they come solo. When there’s a group, it’s often a bunch of people who only came because some guy said, “Hey, I have a gun, wanna to shoot it?” which usually translates to, “Hey, I have a gun, wanna watch me shoot it?”

To be honest, there’s really no such thing as an average customer. Of course, there are the stereotypical gun range guys. It’s kind of an inside joke within the industry. We call them “tacticool,” as a riff on “tactical.” He’s the dude who shows up wearing his camouflage hat, a range bag and a plate carrier with magazines strapped to the front.

The range is open to all ages. I’d say the most representative age range is late teens to late forties. People bring their kids all the time. There aren’t any rules or regulations prohibiting it, so it really comes down to the level of safety that the parents are comfortable with.

Of course, there are the stereotypical gun range guys. We call them “tacticool,” as a riff on “tactical.” He’s the dude who shows up wearing his camouflage hat, a range bag and a plate carrier with magazines strapped to the front.

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Red flags

One thing the ATF is very good at is reminding range employees that at any given point you are fully authorized to just walk up to somebody and tell them to get the fuck out. They remind you because it’s not something that’s exercised infrequently—you’re going to be doing it a lot.

The ATF issues an informational booklet of things to look out for in terms of people who are potentially dangerous. You learn pretty early on how to identify suspicious behavior, like tweaking out or sweating profusely or exhibiting a nervous tic.

Once, a customer at one of our ranges in another city asked an employee whether the glass partition was actually bulletproof. The guy was like, “Of course it is, why would it be anything else?” Later, they found out the reason he was asking is because he turned the gun on himself and shot it straight through his head into the glass. 

Suicide is a huge problem for shooting ranges. It’s one of the reasons that we had to stop renting guns at our range in South Florida.

Later, they found out the reason he was asking is because he turned the gun on himself and shot it straight through his head into the glass.

It’s always a red flag when someone goes through the process of renting a gun but only buys a single box of ammo. Someone who has no intention of harming themselves or anyone else is typically someone who has a lot of gear on them. They’re pretty easy to spot. It looks like they put time, energy and effort into preparation. Whereas someone who looks underprepared or out of place might be a cause for concern.

Accidents and threats

I’ve worked at gun stores and shooting ranges for almost ten years at this point. The number of times I’ve had to turn someone away or pull a weapon on someone or call the police is innumerable at this point.

Rule number one at any store or range is: do not bring a loaded weapon onto the premises. It’s a matter of safety. You have to clear the gun to check it, and you don’t want to put the person checking it at risk of accidentally firing the weapon.

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A lot of the time, customers will refuse to give up the gun for clearing because they want to do it themselves. They don’t trust us with it or just want to show off their skills. There have been quite a few instances where we’ve had an accidental discharge and it never, ever ends well.

Once, a guy shot himself straight through the palm. There was blood everywhere and he didn’t know what had happened because he’d gone into shock. So, there he is, with a chunk missing from the back of his hand, while we’re calling the paramedics and attempting to administer first aid.

The last time I had to call the cops on a customer, it was over a transaction gone bad. A lot of times, we’ll have customers who bring in guns they want to sell or trade. Buying a gun is a lot like buying a car. The minute you buy it, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve discharged it or not, it has already depreciated in value. For a large company like ours to buy it back, you’re only going to see like 50% of the retail price.

The customer had brought in a gun, a nice one. He wanted something like $1,100 for it but we were only offering something in the ballpark of $600-$650, and he literally lost his shit right there on the sales floor. He was threatening one of our managers. He said he was going to come back and shoot the place up. He said he had a stockpile of weapons back at the house. For us, we interpret that as a threat. When you say that you’re going to kill somebody, that’s technically grounds for me to pull a gun on you and ask you to leave. Rather than do that, though, I pulled the manager into my office and asked another manager, a friend of mine—a real New Jersey-type asshole—to handle the situation. I called 911 in the meantime. I told them, this guy is threatening to blow people’s heads off and stuff like that.

When they showed up, it was with six or seven cop cars, a SWAT team pretty much. They all had their weapons drawn so as soon as he exited the guy basically got tackled to the ground. The dogs were out there and everything. They didn’t take it lightly.

The number of times I’ve had to turn someone away or pull a weapon on someone or call the police is innumerable at this point.

Are you gonna shoot me?

The first time I had to pull a gun on somebody, I was in my second year of the first range I worked at. I was still what you’d consider wet behind the ears. There is this classic scam that a people pull where they'd hand you a $100 bill and ask for change. You’d give them back ten tens and they’d hand you a dollar bill and say, “Look, you only gave me $91 instead of $100,” so you’d be tricked into giving them another ten. The manager I was working with saw exactly what had happened but I missed it completely. The manager had walked away into the back office and the customer had turned around and went outside. So, I’m sitting by myself at the counter just minding my own business, looking at bullshit on the computer. And before I knew it, he comes back with a baseball bat and starts smashing up all the displays. He began walking toward me, swinging the bat, so the only thing I could think to do was pull a gun on the dude.

He said, “Are you gonna shoot me?” And I said, “Yeah, I will.” I was trying to protect myself. Then my manager, who was another one of my really good friends—he’s a former marine, 6’4 with a mohawk and tattoos all the way up his arms—comes storming out of the back toting an assault rifle with a silencer. The guy basically shit his pants. From that point, he just sort of backed up to the door. The door is equipped with a special lock. The only way to open it is to press a button, but he didn’t know that so he spent like 30 minutes desperately throwing himself against it. I think he was more humiliated than anything.

A perpetual state of paranoia

The customers that walk into these places are the weirdest people. I mean, you get everyone from the ultimate NRA second-amendment supporter who is in there going on about how Obama is trying to take away your rights to the backwoods conspiracy theorist who wants you to know that there’s fluoride in the water and the UFOs are coming and there’s a ninth planet with wings that’s going to drop aliens off in your backyard. 

Not to put a negative spin on it, because there are some really good people, but some of the characters you meet, I can’t even begin to imagine how they actually function in the world with that kind of mindset. They’re in a perpetual state of paranoia. I have anxiety as a human being. I worry about things. But a lot of those people are consumed with the idea that either (a) the government is out to get them or (b) something apocalyptic is about to happen. You’re sitting there discussing it with them for hours, and the whole time you’re thinking: “How do you go outside? How do you hold a job?”

The guy basically shit his pants. From that point, he just sort of backed up to the door.