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Gun ranges equal big business, especially in trigger-happy Pennsylvania

There's a dopamine rush, every time I pull the trigger. Scary.

Ron Flowers of Citizens Defense Training, conducts a small gun firearm training session assisting Jeanine Barnes on handling the weapon Saturday Aug. 4, 2018 in Coopersburg, Pa. (Bradley C Bower for the Inquirer)
Ron Flowers of Citizens Defense Training, conducts a small gun firearm training session assisting Jeanine Barnes on handling the weapon Saturday Aug. 4, 2018 in Coopersburg, Pa. (Bradley C Bower for the Inquirer)Read moreBradley Bower

Pennsylvania is one of America's most populous when it comes to gun owners. Almost one in three Pennsylvanians owns a firearm, or 31 percent. So where do they learn how to shoot? (Legally, that is.) I'm under-educated on the gun-owner side of our national debate. So, I persuaded my editors to let me take a gun class, learn gun safety, and understand more about gun culture.

On Aug. 4, I took a group class with Ron Flowers, a retired Allentown police officer and professional weapons handling trainer based in Broomall. He and his wife, Kathleen, operate Citizens Defense Training, teaching classes all year long at ranges around the state, including "Intro to Pistol and Revolver" (my class), for absolute beginners like myself, at the Ridge and Valley Gun Club in Coopersburg, Pa.

First, the thrill. It's for real. I'm holding a firearm in my hands. It's horrifying and exhilarating at the same time. Later, I'll shoot "dry-fire" — essentially, blanks — and then real bullets.

"That's the dopamine blast, every time you pull the trigger," said Jose Morales, who operates Philly Firearms Academy in Willow Grove and holds gun safety courses.

Second, cost.

Gun ranges make money only when you shoot – so they encourage shooting right away, even if you're a novice. Most ranges in the greater Philadelphia area charge $50 to $175 an hour to show up, rent a firearm, and shoot a box of ammunition. If you have no firearms safety training at all, you will likely be required to take some instruction beforehand.

What does a box of ammo cost?  A retail box of 9-mm bullets, for example, runs $16 to $22 for a box of 50 rounds.

"Buy American or Czech," Flowers suggests. "The Russian ammo, while cheaper, isn't as reliable and can eventually cause issues with your pistol."

Can customers bring their own ammunition to ranges or are they generally required to buy there?

The Philadelphia area tends toward indoor ranges. The requirements vary. Some will let you bring your own ammunition, "but often prohibit steel or aluminum case rounds, while others require you buy ammo from them at retail prices," Flowers said.

He prefers to buy in bulk, 1,000-round cases to save money. Civilian Defense Training sells ammo to a student, "but we always let them know that with our markup they will save at Walmart," he added.

What's the biggest cost of shooting besides buying a gun?

A set of hearing protection can cost $120 to $170, eye protection $100 for high-quality lenses that protect and help with contrasting the sights.

Third, we go over safety. No shorts, open-toed shoes or low-cut shirts.

Why? Hot brass bullet casings eject from your weapon. (Yeah, I felt that).

Eyes and ears: safety goggles and ear plugs or complete ear covering. I forgot those, too. Luckily, Flowers had plenty of extra gear and I was able to borrow.

Our first three hours consisted of class instruction and took place in a Coopersburg gun club, which looks like a V.F.W. hall from my grandpa's era, but with a gun rack, a spit-shined restroom and Dunkin' Donuts coffee. And a newspaper clipping on the wall about Oliver North, newly elected president of the N.R.A.

After some paperwork, we covered safety and etiquette, including dismantling and assembly of a handgun, in my case, a Sig Sauer. We practiced not pointing the muzzle except forward of a firing line – never behind or toward the body. Posture training include practice of grip, stance, aligning the sights on a pistol, loading and unloading safely.

For complete novices, Morales, owner of the Philly Firing Academy, also hosts a class called "Gun Owners Workshop" for $150 and over four hours.  He doesn't operate a range – for a reason.

"It's a non-shooting class first," said Morales, an Army veteran, master firearms instructor and NRA Appointed Training Counselor. "Like learning to drive, you learn the rules, how to spot bad drivers, and what's the best car for you."

He doesn't encourage going to a range first to learn how to shoot, because many have only cursory safety instructions.

"Then you sign a waiver saying, if you shoot yourself, it's not our fault."

"Over the years, we've coached literally thousands of people through buying their first personal defense firearm, and we've seen it all — guns that don't properly fit the hand, making them inaccurate and dangerous, the wrong type, the wrong caliber, that are total pieces of junk the dealer wanted to unload on some poor novice shooter," Morales explained.

Buying your first firearm is a "life-altering decision," he noted.

The second half of my firearms class day with Citizens Defense included practice on an outdoor range, with drills to ground students in marksmanship. We shoot at numbers, then at human outlines.  Kathleen Flowers takes video to show your form and reaction to the "bang!" afterward.

"You get a physiological response, a pleasure response. That's why ranges are so popular!" Morales said with a laugh.

Growth business

The firearms industry tends to grow under administrations that are perceived to be hostile to the American right to bear arms.  As for weapons training, it's hard to track the growth of gun ranges; many are run as upscale clubs or as down-market mom-and-pop operations.

In 2017, the number of concealed carry permit holders grew by a record 1.83 million, up from the prior record of 1.73 million, set in 2016. Despite expectations that permits were primarily driven by fears of Democratic presidencies, the growth in permits has continued at a similar pace since Donald Trump's win in 2016.

Headlines drive the business, too, Flowers said.

"People are reactionary, and headlines about school shootings, active shooters at businesses or churches, or sensational local stories of violent crime shake the complacency most Americans have about personal safety."

There are plenty of weapons training programs and firing ranges around the Philadelphia area, and it makes financial sense to pay for a "membership," usually $200 to $500 a year, said Maj Toure, a Philadelphia activist for gun owners rights and founder of Black Guns Matter.

"A membership to a range is more cost-effective, say, at a place like Firing Line on Front Street or Philly Gun Range" at 542 N. Percy St., Toure said. That last one is run by Yuri Zalzman in North Philadelphia's West Poplar area, and rents guns to practicing marksmen. Zalzman also tried to sell firearms at his range but failed after a neighborhood outcry.

Toure wants the African American community and others to make "responsible gun ownership an issue. To tackle the cost, we get ranges to donate" the time, ammunition and gun rentals. He also has raised money through a GoFundMe campaign for Black Guns Matter, which pays for safety classes around the country.

Toure also practices at Philly Firearms Academy in Willow Grove.

Some ranges discourage customers from bringing their own ammunition, which Toure likens to restaurants asking customers not to bring their own food.

"Yes, they need to make money on that. I wouldn't get upset about that," he said.

Other ranges cost more, such as Gun For Hire in Woodland Park, N.J., which "is top notch. He's got Warhols on the walls, classrooms, holiday baskets. It's super nice and for that I would pay more," he said. Memberships there range from $299 to several thousand dollars annually, according to the website.

The biggest drawback at some ranges? The lack of patience for beginners.

"As a beginner, I pay according to location. If it's somewhere and there's a hell of an instructor, not the newest stuff or the best, aesthetically pleasing, I'd still go because of the customer service," Toure said. He advises novices to sample at least three ranges.

"It's like sampling and smoking cigars. Ask yourself, how were the trainers? How was customer service? Prices? Good lighting? Neo-Nazi skinheads? Did I feel welcome? Do I feel safe? I'm from North Philly, so it's more for me about the way they deal with new clients. At Philly Gun Range, they're inclusive. I go there on Mondays, with all the Korean guys. [The owner] Yuri is an Israeli Jew and fought in Vietnam. He knows about people picking on other people. That translates to me."

Gareth Glaser, CEO of LodeStar Firearms, a Main Line start-up that is funding a prototype for a "smart gun," has gone to French Creek Outfitters in Phoenixville.

"They were very nice, with an upstairs area for training and bow-and-arrow practice," Glaser said. "They're very safety conscious. There's no loading except in your booth, no waving the gun around, no leaving the booth with your ammo."

Shooting at a range "is fun, no doubt. It makes a big loud bang and you feel good hitting the target," he added. Dopamine strikes again.

"There's a lot of people like me, who aren't full-time shooters, interested in trying out guns for purchase," Glaser said. Other places he has tried are Double Action and Target Master.

Learning to shoot safely, without developing bad habits, ultimately comes down to money, enthusiasts say.

"Ranges are almost becoming like golf clubs or country clubs. People want to hang out for the day, sit in the lounge and watch a game. Then they shoot for a bit," said Michael Farrell, founder of Smart Firearms Training Devices.

"The high-end ranges are beating out the low-end ranges. One thing they've figured out is that some of the low-end ranges make a point of going after the people with no money.  The problem with people with no money is they have no money. But the people paying $5,000 a year for a membership? That's a sustainable business."