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19 Pictures From Inside New York City’s Underground Gun Club

Located in the heart of Manhattan, this underground gun club sees New Yorkers from all walks of life hone their skills with firearms.

Posted on September 4, 2019, at 3:57 p.m. ET

OK McCausland for BuzzFeed News

A rack of rifles owned by and registered to the gun range. Nonmembers may use a rifle in the range after a background check and a mandatory instruction and safety class.

This summer was marked by a horrific wave of mass shootings that have reignited the ongoing gun control debate among US lawmakers.

In New York City, gun laws are among the tightest in the nation, and gun-related deaths remain relatively low compared to other US cities, such as New Orleans, where the gun murder rate is 11 times greater than the rest of the country. The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence ranks New York sixth in the nation for the strength of its gun laws.

For New Yorkers who wish to own a firearm, state law requires a handgun license or rifle/shotgun permit. Thorough background checks are enforced on all firearm purchases, both commercial and private, and unlike states with more liberal gun laws, it is illegal to openly carry a firearm anywhere in the state of New York. It is also illegal to purchase an assault rifle, such as the AR-15, in both the city and state. For those who do acquire the proper licenses to own a firearm in New York City, the New York Police Department will not allow the license to be used outside of the city, nor will it acknowledge permits from outside its jurisdiction.

At the Westside Rifle & Pistol Range these laws are upheld with the highest regard. Located in the heart of Manhattan’s Flatiron District, Westside opened in 1964 and today heralds itself as Manhattan’s sole public gun range. It’s clientele cross gender and creed, from hobbyist to active-duty military and law enforcement.

Photographer OK McCausland visited the Westside Rifle & Pistol Range this summer to document the culture surrounding firearms in the city. Here, she shares with BuzzFeed News her impression of the people who frequent the club and her striking pictures from within Manhattan’s last public gun range.

I went into this project looking to explore the withstanding subculture at the range. I’m fascinated in a community that engages in a hobby fastidiously, in stark contrast to the conversation that exists outside the range.

OK McCausland for BuzzFeed News

Left: A retired crime scene photographer and US Marshal shows off his shoulder holster. Right: A trainee loads a magazine before stepping into the range.

OK McCausland for BuzzFeed News

Banner flags in Westside’s classroom.

One thing I felt strongly about is to not misrepresent or demonize the people who are coming here. These people are taking extraneous steps to safely exercise a legal hobby in a very regulated environment.

Owner Darren Leung describes Westside as a “real melting pot” of New York. In my two months of visiting and photographing at the range, I met an extremely wide variety of people. Doctors, nurses, dentists, day traders, school administrators, teachers, law enforcement, security and armored truck drivers, salespeople, and business and finance workers. I met people living in all five boroughs who were members. Some of them have been members for decades — others are very new. The vast majority of the people I spent time with were born and raised New Yorkers.

OK McCausland for BuzzFeed News

Left: Rifle overflow in the back room of Westside. Right: Inert rifles used for safety instruction in Westside’s classroom.

OK McCausland for BuzzFeed News

“V” reps the Westside logo and Family Guy character Stewie.

To me, this place was more fascinating as somewhere that people congregate, rather than the activity on which it is built upon. Gun culture is the catalyst that brings these people together, but the range acts as a social club. There are many people who come here just to hang out. The open hours are long, and the coffee and treats are bottomless.

This place feels more like a family than a gun range.

Westside is emphatic that it is not only a range, but also an education center. New York City gun laws are some of the most strict in the country, so extensive training is required to carry a gun on or off the job in the city.

OK McCausland for BuzzFeed News

Respirators and masks are common at Westside to prevent lead exposure, as many bullets contain lead.

OK McCausland for BuzzFeed News

“K” practices in the gun range. Another member, who is not pictured, explained, “It’s really something you need to practice if you want to stay sharp. If I don’t come here for a few weeks, my marks get sloppy.”

One of the most common training courses Westside provides is for an armed security guard license, in which trainees must complete a New York state–approved 47-hour firearms course. In order to qualify for this course, trainees must have a valid New York state security guard license, as well as an active NYC pistol permit. To own a gun in New York City, one must possess an NYC handgun license issued by the NYPD License Division. To become a member, you must have an NYC handgun license and a carry permit, as well as your own firearm, and pay monthly dues. To shoot a rifle as a guest, you must pass a background check and pay a fee.

My first impression was very warm; they invited me in right away. John Aaron, the manager, offered to show me around, introduced me to the owner, and offered me coffee and snacks. They told me the history of the range and showed me candid photos from filming Law & Order and Taxi Driver. I haven’t been exposed to guns a lot, so John showed me how to safely load a clip and took me through the process of shooting at the range.

OK McCausland for BuzzFeed News

Manager John Aaron inside of one of Westside’s two adjacent firing ranges.

OK McCausland for BuzzFeed News

Left: A student has target practice with his instructor, a common sight at Westside. Right: The range has tried many methods of bullet absorption over the years, including solid blocks of rubber. “The big rubber blocks would get shot to hell and fall down. They are very heavy and I’d be goddamned if I’m gonna pick those up myself,” said manager John Aaron.

Most of the regulars remember the “old New York” and recount countless stories of getting jumped and mugged after dark. For them, the gun range is important for community and sport, but it’s also important to stay sharp.

John is the most prominent in my photos. He takes a lot of pride in his work — he works at Westside six days a week. John is good with words also; when he was showing me inside the range, he would say things like, “bullets act like water, they will find any and every avenue of egress.”

Another man who is in several of my photos is a retired armored truck driver, “J” from Staten Island. He’s big and reserved, but very sweet and one of the first people to engage with me. He told me wild stories about nightclubs and clandestine disco parties in the ’70s, getting tattoos in the city before tattoo parlors were legal, and seeing drug deals go sour.

OK McCausland for BuzzFeed News

Left: “S,” a retired construction worker, described his plans to get a large Jesus tattoo on his back. “So when I get up to the pearly gates, they’ll know I really wanna come in.” Right: “V,” a night shift loading dock worker, shows his “Nobody Fuckin Listens” tattoo.

I met a gregarious retired cop and retired US marshal who was an NYPD photographer for many years. He had fascinating stories about photographing John Lennon’s body at the morgue, lifeless mobsters after a hit, and violent scenes from rougher times in Times Square.

To an outsider, a non–permit holder, and a New York transplant, I see this community has a breadth of information of the city I learned about from watching movies and TV that celebrate old New York. As new businesses slowly encroach on these small but thriving subcultures, the Westside Rifle & Pistol Range holds steady.

OK McCausland for BuzzFeed News

A former student and instructor compare bull’s-eyes inside the range.

OK McCausland for BuzzFeed News

Shooters are responsible for sweeping up their own casings at the range.

OK McCausland for BuzzFeed News

Left: Splintered wood from a destroyed frame inside the range. Right: Manager John Aaron cleans one of the range’s firearms. The smell of the cleaner is “like french perfume for shooters,” he said.

OK McCausland for BuzzFeed News

A look inside one of the two ranges. Ejected bullet casings chip the paint on the ceiling and walls of the range.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.