It was 9 a.m. during an April workweek and the gunfire hadn’t yet begun. Dressed in light camouflage pants, a five-shot revolver on his side, Darren Leung flipped on the lights and took care of priority number one — starting a pot of coffee.
His gun range in the Manhattan basement of an office building on West 20 Street would soon be crowded, and good coffee was essential. There would be law enforcement types arriving for target practice, New Yorkers seeking help to apply for handgun licenses, and newbies enrolling in classes to learn to fire a .22-caliber rifle.
First to enter was Leung’s cadre of regulars who come to shoot the breeze and sometimes the targets. They add constancy to what the 51-year-old says is the only remaining public gun range in Manhattan, a space where Robert De Niro’s character in the 1976 film “Taxi Driver” once came to practice.
But Leung, a second-generation Chinese American born and raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is quick to point out what his 52-year-old Westside Rifle & Pistol Range is not.
“The guys who are down there are just regular people,” Leung told NBC News. “They’re not the purported NRA (National Rifle Association) guy sitting on his porch, drinking a beer, shooting a squirrel off a tree or something like that. We’re all good people, family people, and just like-minded individuals.”
“We realize that we’re the minorities in this city. We’re the gun owners. We’re the licensees. We’re but a handful of people that have this."
Westside was opened in 1965, according to Leung, by two men with $5,000 apiece. Leung entered the picture around 1989, he said, when the old owner walked into a nearby Army and Navy store where Leung was employed.
Having remembered Leung from a gun store where he used to work, the owner offered him a job after an interview, according to Leung.
Some 15 years later, Leung became Westside’s co-owner and then sole owner in 2011, he said. While working at the gun range, Leung said he also did a 13-to-15 year stint as a New York state peace officer for a child abuse unit, which he declined to name.
Leung’s wife, two kids, relatives, and mother (Leung’s dad died when he was a kid) all were supportive of him taking over the range.
“It’s a good thing when you get your own business in life,” he said.
Guns and firearms mechanics have been a love of Leung’s for as long as he can remember. It was an interest shaped by his uncles — one who was a gangster, another in law enforcement — as well as from television, he said.
Leung’s mother never dissuaded her son from doing what he wanted.
“But she always kind of wondered why we didn’t study a little bit harder in school and why didn’t she get the lawyer and doctor she wanted,” he said.
Unlike many who hate their jobs, Leung loves coming to work. The space has all the feel of a backroom in a police precinct or firehouse. A pot of fresh coffee simmers alongside cookies and cakes. Fire and police decals cover the glass window to the wood-paneled front office where visitors sign in.
“If you qualify to carry a gun, why should you not, as long as you’re a person of responsibility. As long as you undergo training, I can’t see why you should deny somebody that right.”
On most days, the half-dozen or so usuals, guns often holstered to their belts, settle into swivel chairs around tables near a bulletproof glass partition separating them from those taking target practice. They sip styrofoam cups of joe, trade stories about guns, and break one another’s chops.
Sometimes a good shot from the firing line steals their attention. Other times it’s news footage from a wall-mounted TV that plays in the background.
On the morning NBC News visited, members declined to be interviewed. Leung explained that some of the guys felt burned by a previously published article they thought misportrayed them. Others didn’t speak because they serve in law enforcement.
There were also those who came to fill out paperwork to apply for New York City gun permits. It’s a service that Westside provides for a fee in preparation of submitting the forms to the NYPD, the agency that grants the licenses.
Those applicants, too, politely declined to talk.
Leung speculated that all the reticence might be an outgrowth of how gun ownership is stigmatized in a city that isn’t so gun friendly.
“You don’t want to be the guy who’s the odd ball out, who gets picked out,” Leung said. “One of the biggest fears too is that if people know you have a gun, they’re going to target your house first.”
For those without permits, Westside provides a chance for them to satisfy their curiosity about guns. At the range, U.S. citizens or permanent residents 21 and older who pass a background check are allowed to fire .22-caliber rifles under the supervision of an instructor, Leung said.
As part of the course, NRA certified instructors teach students how to safely handle the weapons, which are chained down in each stall on the firing line. They also learn how to load the bullets themselves into five-round magazines that they pop into the gun.
Leung said the reactions vary.
“But at the end they’re going, wow, it wasn’t so bad,” he said. “So you kind of know that they had some preconceived notion in their mind, either it was that they were very scared of the gun, or they found out, hey, listen, there’s nothing to it.”
Over the years there have been accidents, Leung said. One time a guy put a bullet in his leg, which Leung said was “of his own doing.”
“You don’t want to be the guy who’s the odd ball out, who gets picked out. One of the biggest fears too is that if people know you have a gun, they’re going to target your house first.”
Then there was a suicide back in 2008, what Leung called the black mark in their history.
The New York Post reported that the son of a United Nations staffer shot himself in the head with a rifle on June 3 of that year.
“We never shut down,” Leung said. “But we were sanctioned by the police department for a couple of weeks. When it was kind of found out that we really had no part in this thing...that’s when everything kind of calmed down and everything went back to normal again.”
In case something bad does happen, Leung said he has an insurance policy worth a lot of money, though he asked not to publish the amount.
The father of two has also made sure his son, 11, and daughter, 12, are familiar with gun safety, he said. Both have learned to fire single-shot .22-caliber rifles, Leung said.
“I started them off when they were probably both about maybe seven or eight, just to make sure they knew what was going on, to understand what was in our house, and to never touch it unless their father was around,” Leung said.
In New York City, a license is required to shoot handguns, Leung said. The NYPD offers a variety of firearms licenses, from concealed carry to premises use only, as well as permits for shotguns and rifles, according to the department’s website.
Anyone under the age of 18 can use a shotgun or rifle in New York City as long as the permit holder is present, according to the NYPD.
The application process, which Leung called lengthy and involves an interview, received renewed attention in late April after three retired NYPD officers and a former Brooklyn prosecutor were arrested on federal charges of approving gun licenses in exchange for bribes.
According to the NYPD, there are 41,360 handgun licenses and 20,449 rifle/shotfun permits registered in New York City.
As a point of comparison, some 8.5 million people live in the Big Apple.
“If you qualify to carry a gun, why should you not, as long as you’re a person of responsibility,” Leung said. “As long as you undergo training, I can’t see why you should deny somebody that right.”
With strict gun laws, New York state received high marks from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit, for its relatively low gun death rate. Among the things the state does right, according to the organization’s fact sheet, is requiring that people who buy or possess handguns get a license and pass a background check.
New York City, for its part, has seen a roughly 87 percent drop in shooting incidents over the last 24 years, according to figures from the NYPD. It also has the lowest incidence of gun violence compared to other major cities in the United States, according to the mayor’s office.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Leung said there was a surge in the number of people who came to shoot at the range. “I think it was just a matter of them wanting to do something to feel a little bit better about things,” he said.
Mass shootings, Leung added, have also spurred visits.
Asked about the presidential election in November, Leung said the biggest fear among gun owners was what might happen to their rights.
“I think a lot of us worried about what would happen if she’d become our president,” he said, referring to Hillary Clinton. “But again with Mr. Trump becoming the president — you know something? Everything was pretty good.”
While gun control advocates across the country have long rallied to strengthen background checks, ban assault weapons, and prohibit high-capacity bullet magazines, gun rights groups have viewed these measures as an assault on the Second Amendment.
“The guys who are down there are just regular people. They’re not the purported NRA guy sitting on his porch, drinking a beer, shooting a squirrel off a tree or something like that."
Leung said he’s a staunch supporter of the right to bear arms.
“If you’re gonna get rid of the Second Amendment, get rid of everything then,” he said. “You just can’t pick and choose.”
As for Leung and his 1,500-or-so members, Westside is all about educating gun owners and hobbyists, he said.
“If I ever close, I might be killing off a whole couple of generations of shooters ahead of us,” Leung said. “So it’s always in the back of my mind that it’s important to maintain the range, and to maintain it correctly.”
It’s also about being part of a family, he added.
“We realize that we’re the minorities in this city,” Leung said. “We’re the gun owners. We’re the licensees. We’re but a handful of people that have this."
“You know, the old saying is that a house united will stand strongly, a house divided will fall apart.”