Gun enthusiasts defend their hobby, pursue it in controlled environment of club

Guns — and the debate over stricter rules over gun ownership — have been national topics since a der

Five men braced rifles to shoulders and took aim at paper targets about 50 feet away.

The guys, all wearing bulky ear protectors and protective eyewear, began firing. The small room in the basement of the Woodlawn Sportsmen’s Club in Guilderland became noisy, filled with gunshots that resembled staccato strikes on a drum.

Each man fired 30 rounds, and brass casings from the ammunition spilled onto the gray cement floor in front and back of the shooting booths. As each finished the drill, he placed his rifle on the counter before him and walked to the back of the room.

The weapons were inspected by a range officer, who made sure no live rounds remained. The guns were then returned to protective cases. After that, the men could check the black circular targets on squares of white paper and count their scores.

Michael Bolton, 40, of Rotterdam, was in the group. He was happy to be shooting, and happy to be shooting well.

“Most of them are in the black, so that’s good,” he said, examining holes in his target.

Bolton is one of the faces of responsible gun ownership, says Mike Sheedy, president of the longtime sportmen’s club on East Lydius Street. Sheedy is proud of the 22-acre club that incorporated in 1948, and equally proud to be a veteran hunter and gun owner.

New rules

Guns — and the debate over stricter rules over gun ownership — have been national topics since a deranged 20-year-old man shot and killed 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last Dec. 14.

This past Monday, New York’s new gun regulations went into effect. Owners of firearms now reclassified as assault weapons are required to register the weapons. There are also new limits on the number of bullets allowed in magazines.

According to the law, the assault weapon definition includes shotguns that are semi-automatic or self-loading, and have another feature — such as a folding stock, a second handgrip held by the nonshooting hand or the ability to accept a detachable magazine. Semiautomatic pistols that can use detachable magazines and have another component, such as a folding or thumbhole stock, a second handgrip and a threaded barrel that can accept a silencer, are also in the assault category.

Talk about banning or limiting ownership of firearms bothers Sheedy. The reaction could be a rush to buy.

“If you told everybody tomorrow they weren’t going to be able to buy any more Chevrolet Corvettes — the line would be out the door to buy a Chevrolet Corvette,” he said, sitting in the Woodlawn lounge section during a recent interview. “I think the same thing is happening with firearms.”

Bad rap

When people who are against guns think about gun owners, Sheedy said, they may be linking them to criminals. He said that link is not correct.

“They think everything except the true sportsman,” Sheedy said, “the guy who wants to go out and shoot, the guy who hunts, the guy who’s an archer who also likes guns, guys who just want to participate in target shooting. I don’t think they see that.”

Sheedy believes people who condemn guns and gun rights are not considering law-abiding gun owners. Sportsmen’s clubs, he said, are places for target shooting, places hunters can train with their guns.

“We’re basically interested in promoting conservation issues,” Sheedy said of the club, which has about 200 dues-paying members. “We’ve got a lot of hunters, we’ve got guys who just come to shoot trap — a sport with shotguns and large discs, basically it’s a practice for pheasant hunting. We run the gamut here.”

When a person murders others with a gun, responsible gun owners brace for bad publicity.

“We’ve said it before, everything that happens with a firearm reflects on the whole firearms community,” Sheedy said. “I think it’s because they don’t know us. If this was 50, 60 years ago, we all knew firearms, everybody had firearms. There wasn’t the problem with crazies with firearms, and all of a sudden, this became a problem. I think we’re taking the blame for a lot of what we shouldn’t be — taking the blame for continuing an American tradition.”

Society has changed, Sheedy believes. Not gun owners.

“If you had a time capsule, we look just like the firearms owner of 50 years ago,” he said. “We haven’t changed. Society has changed around us.”

Ken Morris, the club’s former treasurer and current lead instructor for hunter education, said generations of shooting enthusiasts have come through the club — sons, fathers and grandfathers. “You saw my son and my grandson here tonight,” Morris said. “If my father was alive, he would be here right now. That would be four generations.”

Morris also said some people appreciate guns for their antique value.

“They’re prized possessions, some firearms,” he said. “Some of the old Colt firearms, they’re just magnificent pieces of workmanship. These people don’t hunt, some of them don’t even shoot, but they just love these machines. And that’s all they are is machines.”

Sheedy said law enforcement agencies will rent the club for training drills.

“We have a gentleman who rents the club and provides pistol permit training classes,” Sheedy said. “Beyond that, it’s just a good place to come and have a good time. The club is open to members 24 hours a day, seven days a week and it’s not uncommon for me to come in and find out that someone came over just to shoot pool, watch a little bit of television and get away.”

No alcohol is allowed on the premises.

Hunter education

Sheedy said the club runs four to six hunter education classes for firearms or archery every year. That’s important, he believes, for sportsmen’s clubs to remain viable.

“This is about the future,” he said. “We need to promote hunting and the shooting sports, otherwise they will die off. It died off for a while, we’ve seen a resurgence of children coming in and taking hunter education courses, more parents taking an interest in it.”

Sheedy maintains hunting is a safe sport. And a good way for parents to connect with their children.

“Hunting, fishing, trapping and shooting sports are different from other sporting activities because families can share the experience together,” he said.

Sheedy also said sportsmen’s clubs are places where people can become more proficient with their firearms. But he stressed the ranges and lounges are also places where people with similar interests can spend time.

“In the wintertime, it is basically like your average bowling league,” he said. “You’ve got 40-plus gentlemen who will get together on a Monday night or Monday morning and discuss the week’s activities. We enjoy getting together and we enjoy the camaraderie. We all share the same sports, the shooting sports. We don’t all shoot the same scores but we all enjoy the camaraderie.”

It’s a friendly place — “It might be the fact that everybody has a gun,” Sheedy joked — but competitive spirit is not mandatory.

“We’re not looking to see who shoots the highest score,” Sheedy said. “We know who the best shooters are. I have myself picked up the rifle and it’s 1-2-3, I’m giving myself the same time on target that I would have on a deer, I would have approximately the three seconds with the deer. If I couldn’t get the shot off in three, I would have to let that deer walk.”

House rules

Rules are enforced. Like the rule that says that nobody walks to range targets while guns — even though they’ve been checked by the range officer for ammunition — are on the counter. They must be placed inside carrying cases first.

“We don’t allow anyone to walk in front of that barrel,” Sheedy said. “Any time you can see the hole in the barrel, I tell everyone they’re in danger, whether it’s loaded or unloaded. I have a saying around here and it makes the guys laugh all the time. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but I’ve been told that it hurts just as much to get shot by a bad guy as it does by a good guy. And I don’t want either to happen to anyone around here.”

As for assault-style weapons, Morris said many soldiers returning from active duty and want to own firearms are more comfortable with the guns they’ve used and trained with.

“They’re 19 and 20 years old, they didn’t grow up with our firearms, the old-style firearms, your straight wooden stock and the whole bit,” he said. “They feel more comfortable with what they’ve handled. To deny them that, I think, is really stupid.”

Right now, Woodlawn club enrollment is at capacity. Sheedy and Morris say they cannot accept any new members. But they are happy to show people wondering about guns and sportsmen’s clubs around their premises. If these people have questions about guns, they say they want to answer them.

“Get to know a firearms owner and see what they’re like,” Sheedy said. “We know there are some firearms owners out there who don’t follow good safety rules. We wish we could get to them and say, ‘Listen, you’re reflecting on all of us. You need to follow the rules to make things more safe.’ Every time there’s a tragedy, a child grabs a firearm, gets ammunition, that reflects on all of us. . . . we have children, we have grandchildren, we want them to be safe.”

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