The lobby of the Flatiron-district office building, where three desk-jockey dudes stand waiting for the elevator, is all polished brass and marble.
"Excuse me," I say, brushing past them on my way to the stairwell, where staccato shots reverberate with Jiffy-Pop exuberance.
"You going downstairs?" one asks eagerly. "To the gun club?"
"Mmm-hmm," I murmur.
"My kind of woman!" he hoots.
Well, not exactly. I didn't grow up with guns, and like anyone raised in the comfortable, liberal, well-educated suburbs of the East Coast, I knew what to think: Only rednecks and thugs owned them (and my cop uncle, who came strapped to Passover). My mother wouldn't buy toy guns for me, but my dad made me a faux pistol with a piece of thick bamboo and a plywood handle so I could play cowgirl. If I had seen a real bullet lying in a yard or in the street, I would have run in the other direction -- it might go off if you touched it. But at the same time, I dreamed of being Annie Oakley, emptying the wallets of unsuspecting fools in trick-shooting competitions. I read and reread the passage in This Boy's Life where Tobias Wolff's mother coolly wins a riflery tournament from her sputtering, sulking husband. But even these idle fantasies felt profoundly uncool -- the kind of thing it seemed wisest to keep to myself.
Then, five years ago, I was burglarized, my apartment door crowbarred open while I was at the gym and the boyfriend I lived with at the time was out of town. "They're gonna come back," friends told me, "to get the rest of your stuff." The door couldn't be closed properly, and that night I slept with a kitchen knife next to me, feeling sure it wouldn't be enough if someone wanted to hurt me. The next year, when I lived alone in another apartment, I was stalked by a stranger who followed me and sent creepy poems and tapes to my house. I slept with that same kitchen knife in a drawer by my bed -- what if he found his way to my fire escape? -- but again I felt sure it wouldn't be enough if he got in. Two summers ago, my apartment was burglarized again. What if I had been home? "This is why I want to get a gun," I told the sergeant who came to investigate. Could I shoot someone who was trying to hurt me? I asked myself. Hell, yeah, I could! "You don't want a gun," the officer told me. "Yes, I do," I insisted. "If someone is coming in my window, do I want to, like, perform some judo kicks?" "Hit 'im with a frying pan," the sergeant suggested. I gaped at him. "The whole point," I said, "is that I don't want to get that close!"
That's how I find myself riding the subway down to the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall stop and walking through a brick municipal moonscape to 1 Police Plaza. I feel like I'm impersonating someone -- Clarice Starling, La Femme Nikita, or, more mundanely, a Republican -- as I breeze through the security checkpoint and am directed to the handgun-licensing division, Room 110A. "Last time I came in," says a young Latino dude from Brooklyn who is waiting alongside me, "Sylvester Stallone was here!"
I figure I am probably the only person in New York going from the office to yoga to the gun range and then to a black-tie event.
New York City has some of the most stringent handgun regulations in the country, and the license application is intentionally byzantine. I pay nearly $300 to the Police Department and New York State for the privilege of filing a stack of papers, revealing mishaps as minor as a ten-year-old speeding ticket, and getting fingerprinted. But at least the process is democratic, and there is some small comfort in knowing who else has gone through it. Handgun licenses are a matter of public record: Andrew Cuomo got one, and so have Robert De Niro, Raoul Felder, Abner Louima, Howard Stern, and Chazz Palminteri.
It takes several months for applications to clear -- supposedly because it takes that long for fingerprints to be checked on the city, state, and federal levels. You cannot touch a handgun in New York City before you have a license, and then, once you get your license, it expires if you don't buy a gun within 30 days. What if you don't want to buy a gun but want to take lessons? Too bad. New York City essentially forces every license-holder to buy a gun, and you must keep that gun in your house. There is no requirement that you take any instruction to learn how to operate the gun.
If you do want to learn how to shoot, however, you must join a range. Most gun owners in New York have target licenses, which require you to belong to a range and keep your gun unloaded and locked at home when you're not transporting it to the range. (Premises licenses let you keep a gun loaded in your house for self-defense. Only carry licenses let you pack heat on the street; these are very difficult to get and mostly go to owners of high-risk businesses, like jewelers.)
Since West Side Rifle & Pistol Range is currently the only range open in Manhattan -- its sole competitor, Downtown Rifle & Pistol Club, closed last year -- it does a tidy business, with more than 1,000 members. It costs me $400 to join for two years. When I arrive for my first lesson on a Friday evening, a few men are sitting around smoking cigars and cleaning guns at a table under fluorescent lights in a rec-room-like setting. I have put myself in the hands of West Side vice-president Darren Leung, a stocky 35-year-old hard-ass from the Chinatown projects. I instantly like Darren. He's a geek about guns. He likes to speak of himself and his crew as "gunfighters," even though none of them has ever been in a gunfight. "We're like dinosaurs," he says. "The last of a dying breed."
Darren looks at me intently from behind his wire-rimmed glasses, and he does not patronize me. I was worried I'd get the "little lady" treatment and end up with a dainty Derringer decorated with scrimshawed ivory for my purse. But Darren, who speaks in my grandfather's Coney Island cadences -- "the bunch of yous," "he don't wanna" -- doesn't smirk when I tell him that the closest I've ever come to a firearm is an amusement-park shooting gallery. He lays two guns before me, saying, "This is a revolver, and this is a pistol." I didn't even know the difference.
Behind a span of bulletproof glass lies "the line," fourteen stalls facing a wall of red mats 50 feet away. Each stall is equipped with a metal rig on which you clip your paper target -- a classic bull's-eye or a more provocative photo-realist illustration, like one of an armed villain who's taken a little girl hostage -- and then crank it out like a shirt on a laundry line.
Darren hands me a Smith & Wesson revolver. I drop the bullets into the cylinder's six chambers, breathing light and fast and feeling almost faint, though perhaps that's simply the muffling effect of my ear protectors. Darren's instructions sound as if they're being burbled underwater. I stand with my feet apart and my arms extended, the gun braced in my left hand -- since I'm a lefty -- which is cradled in my right. The first shot, which makes the barrel buck like a pony, is a cartoon blam! that seems to suck the oxygen out of the room. It's accompanied by a corona of flame and, in the aftermath of the explosion, a thin wisp of smoke.