As the gun control debate continues after the shooting in Las Vegas, Anthony Colandro at Gun for Hire in Woodland Park is looking for new customers.
Yana Kolubelova had a choice to make.
She had a day off from her nurse’s job at a New York hospital. So did three fellow nurses — two women and a man. What to do?
Kolubelova, 23, of Brooklyn, considered driving with her friends to a winery on Long Island. But then, she embraced another destination: a single-story brick building just off Route 46 in Woodland Park, flanked by a car wash and an auto body shop, and across McBride Avenue from a gas station and a bank.
A shooting range.
Kolubelova and her friends spent several hours on a recent afternoon trying their hand — and trigger fingers — at firing a variety of guns, including an AR-15, the military-style rifle used by numerous mass shooters, among them Stephen Paddock, who killed nearly 60 people at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas last Sunday.
“Today, it was either a vineyard or this,” Kolubelova said. “We picked this.”
As the nation grapples with the thorny question of how, or whether, to effectively control the spread of firearms in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, proponents of gun rights have been pressing forward with a subtle but meticulous campaign to make guns as much a part of everyday life as cars and cellphones.
This campaign is plainly visible in state legislatures, where advocates are pushing for laws to allow private citizens to carry guns in malls and day care centers, on college campuses and in churches. But it is also playing out in towns and cities across America — even in the blue state of New Jersey, home to some of the nation’s most restrictive gun laws.
Guns can be made more appealing, the thinking goes, if they are made more accessible.
This is the marketing concept behind Gun For Hire, the shooting range in Woodland Park where Yana Kolubelova recently paid a visit. With Andy Warhol prints dotting the walls and a flat-screen TV tuned to the Food Channel, the range touts itself as “the world’s only family destination gun range.”
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You don’t need to own a gun. Nor do you need any experience. For a price that can easily rise to more than $100 per hour with an instructor, customers as young as 8 can pick from an arsenal of more than five dozen guns to “test drive.” The choices range from the kinds of semi-automatic pistols that police carry to cowboy-style revolvers and even a selection of semi-automatic assault rifles similar in appearance to those carried on the battlefield by U.S. soldiers. There is even a pink gun with a smaller grip that is designed to appeal to women.
This mix of lethality and recreation, while disturbing to many gun control advocates, is immensely popular. On many weekends, customers at Gun for Hire wait up to two hours for a chance to rent a gun and fire it. During visits on two recent weekday afternoons, between 30 and 40 customers were there, a mix of experienced gun enthusiasts who regularly practice with a variety of rifles and pistols, and rookies like Yana Kolubelova, who just came to try.
“I never fired a gun before,” Kolubelova said during a brief break from shooting. “It was cool. It was also loud.”
The man behind this concept is Anthony Colandro, 56, a competitive shooter and firearms trainer, and the former owner of a marketing business that sold key chains and other trinkets.
Colandro’s plan, he said, is to “mainstream gun culture.” It’s also a prime reason the range is expanding from just 19 shooting ports in a single-story building once occupied by a mattress factory to a two-story facility now under construction next door that will feature 60 shooting ports, classrooms and a café when it opens next spring.
“I’m like a pool hall. I’m like Sea World,” Colandro said, relaxing in a lounge at his range on a recent afternoon. “The only difference is that we’re shooting real guns and we’re not water-sliding. It’s more dangerous, what I do.”
That Colandro is expanding his business while the nation is once again mired in a contentious debate over gun control is not lost on him. Already this year, more than 200 mass shootings — which police define as any in which at least four people are shot — have taken place in America.
Colandro sees his Woodland Park range as a way of helping people to understand guns. He believes that firearms are not solely to blame for mass killings, and that mental health and other issues are the underlying causes in most cases. Colandro tightened the rules at his range after two people committed suicide there in the span of two months last year. Customers who do not have a state-issued firearms identification card now must bring a “shooting buddy” and be willing to allow an instructor to oversee their time at the range.
“I feel I’m doing my part in preventing those events from happening,” Colandro said. “If Gun For Hire wasn’t open, these mass shootings would have happened. If we focus on the proper training with guns, we’d be OK. The problem is too many people want to deny that.”
Appealing to women and children
The place of guns in American culture — and whether they should be controlled by stringent laws — has long been a volatile topic, a staple of books, films and lengthy research studies, not to mention political debates.
While America is home to roughly 300 million guns, gun ownership is confined to only about 40 percent of households. But in recent years, views of guns appear to have changed significantly.
In 2000, a study by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank, found that only 29 percent of Americans favored a loosening of gun regulations and that 67 percent supported more stringent gun controls. By 2016, another Pew survey found that only 46 percent favored toughening gun measures while 52 percent favored an expansion of gun rights to allow for more access to firearms.
Whether this change is related to the increase in mass shootings in recent years is unclear. But Colandro says he has seen first-hand a surge in customers wanting to try shooting as a possible first step toward buying a gun, in part because they feel they may need to protect themselves.
“I wanted to open a range that was female and family friendly,” Colandro said. “Other gun ranges tended to be male dominated. They looked like hunting lodges. You would have the head of a deer mounted on the wall. And the guys working behind the counter would be in flannel shirts with beards and suspenders.”
At Gun for Hire, customers are greeted by a female receptionist and a stack of brochures with a photo of a man posing with his granddaughters, who are wearing pink ear protectors to muffle the boom of gunshots. Another features a group of teenagers and adults at a graduation party. A poster shows a group of physicians — including one in a T-shirt promoting President Barack Obama — posing with pistols at a bachelorette party.
“Start your party off with a BANG!” a brochure reads.
Colandro says he is currently promoting “diversity nights” in which he tries to invite customers of different races. He is also considering a special shooting event for gay customers.
He said some of his drop-in customers are foreign tourists visiting New York City. “They come here to shoot because the gun laws in their own countries don’t allow them to shoot,” he said.
The range also attracts its share of celebrities. Jon Bon Jovi has dropped by, he said. So has Queen Latifah, Metallica guitarist James Hetfield and Queen’s drummer, Roger Taylor.
A threat to public safety?
Not surprisingly, gun control advocates are aghast at this blend of firearms and fun.
“What we saw in Las Vegas is the inevitable result of an industry that has embraced heightened lethality as a selling point,” said Josh Sugarman, the executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun control think tank in Washington, D.C.
Sugarman sees businesses like Colandro’s shooting range as an extension of a long-term effort by gun manufacturers to expand their customer base with little apparent awareness that it is glorifying gun violence. “It’s a marketing effort,” Sugarman said. “The gun industry figures it has to get women. It has to get minorities. The jury is still out on whether you can turn a gun range into a combination of cigar lounge and yoga club.”
Bryan Miller of Haddonfield, the president of the gun control group “Heeding God’s Call to End Violence,” views recreational ranges like Gun For Hire as more than just a marketing gimmick. He said they represent a potential danger to public safety.
“We cannot depend on business people, retailers to do the rational thing that works for safety,” said Miller, who joined the gun control movement after his brother, an FBI agent, was killed in the line of duty with an illegal handgun. “In this industry, they are going to push out there anything they can sell.”
But Clayton Cramer, a gun rights advocate and the author of several books on the place of firearms in American culture, said recreational gun ranges like Gun For Hire are already popular in California.
“They cater mainly to tourists,” Cramer said in a phone interview from his home in Idaho.
“I think it’s a good thing,” Cramer added. “It gives people a more realistic expectation of what guns are capable of. People also discover that it’s fun to target shoot.”
On a recent afternoon, Cem Algan, 36, a real estate broker and a Turkish immigrant, left his Edgewater home and drove almost 20 miles to Gun For Hire.
Algan is a “platinum member” of Gun for Hire, meaning that he pays $2,500 a year for unlimited access to the range’s shooting ports. When Algan arrived, he was carrying two heavy canvas cases that held three pistols and two rifles, including an AR-15. He visits the range at least twice a week, he said, adding that he fires 10,000 rounds over the course of a year.
“For me it’s stress relief,” said Algan, who is married and the father of four daughters under 6 years old.
Down the hall, Ken Fearon, 31, a pool technician from Hackensack, was finishing up a session in which he fired his .9mm Glock pistol.
“We had a short day at work today,” said Fearon, who brought a colleague, Omar Miller, 30, of Paterson, who had never fired a gun before.
“To me, this is recreation,” Fearon said. “It’s like a sport. It’s just for fun.”
“It was pretty amazing,” Miller said, holding a folded target that he had shot full of holes. “It was a different experience. Like, wow.”
Anthony Colandro says he is no longer surprised by such comments. He says he hears them almost every day when first-time shooters come to his range to test fire a gun.
“It’s a bucket-list item,” Colandro said. “Today they’re shooting a gun. Next week they may be parasailing or riding a zip line.”