WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : The Range Wars : Owners of new firing range in Inglewood say it teaches safety and self-defense. But critics fear that the facility will promote gun violence.
Mark Sinaguglia planted his feet firmly on the floor, squared his shoulders and raised a Glock 9-millimeter pistol, zeroing in on his target. The crack of the gunshots made even a bystander wearing protective headgear flinch.
“That’s five rounds, slow-fire,” Sinaguglia said, peering at a punctured target hanging on a wire 21 feet away. Light shined through four holes in the orange-colored thorax of a human silhouette. “Four were dead-center, and one was off a little bit.”
As the acrid smell of gunpowder wafted past, Sinaguglia resumed practicing his marksmanship one recent Saturday at the LAX Firing Range in Inglewood--where guns have lately become a target of fierce debate.
Since opening in January, the firing range near the Inglewood-Westchester border has become a local flash point in the impassioned debate over gun control. The business sells ammunition and rents guns and range time.
Sinaguglia, the range’s manager, and Sam Kash, its owner, envision their fledgling business as a family-oriented establishment where Dad--and Mom--can teach Junior how to safely load and fire a .38. They argue that their range, one of only a handful open to the public in the Westside area, actually curbs violence by teaching law-abiding citizens how to defend themselves. Novices can sign up for popular classes in firearms safety and instruction.
“We’ve had all kinds of (customers), from liquor store clerks to medical doctors to engineers from aircraft companies,” Sinaguglia said. “Nurses, housewives, people from all walks of life. Our oldest shooter so far was in his mid-70s.”
Sinaguglia said that weekends are busiest, with an average of 35 to 50 shooters per day. The majority are experienced shooters, he added.
But as a number of crime-weary Southern California cities weigh measures connected to the sale and possession of handguns and ammunition, some community leaders have protested that the new range encourages the use of handguns and could serve as a boot camp for gang members.
The debate takes on special urgency in Inglewood, which has been plagued by a series of highly publicized gang shootings in recent years, and in 1993 recorded the 14th highest murder rate in the nation among cities with populations over 100,000.
“Why do we have so many innocent people shot down on the streets?” said Albert Harris, an associate pastor at the New Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in Inglewood. The reason, he argues, is that casual attitudes about guns have bred violence.
Believing that a new gun range sends the wrong message to Inglewood teen-agers, Harris is a staunch opponent of the LAX Firing Range. Last year, in fact, he paid a $300 fee out of his own pocket to bring the matter before a public hearing at a City Council meeting.
But the council, maintaining a business-friendly attitude and mindful that gun ownership is legal, approved the range on a 3-2 vote.
The council’s decision, however, has not changed Harris’ mind. Criminals, he said, use such ranges to “sharpen their skills and then go back on the streets so they don’t miss.”
Police--who, according to range owners, often practice at gun ranges--do not necessarily agree with Harris.
“I don’t have a problem with” the new gun range, said Inglewood Police Chief Oliver Thompson. “Anyone can say that criminals learn to shoot this way, but that’s not a concern of mine.” He added that the LAX range’s safety procedures--which include security doors and range officers trained in first aid--are “outstanding.”
The Inglewood range is the latest--but by no means the only--local outlet for gun users.
There’s the Sharpshooter indoor shooting range in Torrance--one of the few gun ranges that also sells firearms. The Beverly Hills Gun Club, actually located in West Los Angeles, has been renting guns and range time for 13 years. Its range officer, William Lee, said the club’s clientele includes police officers, families and even a few celebrities.
The popularity of these clubs reflects a growing local interest in firearms in recent years as public concern about crime has mushroomed.
Dozens of Los Angeles-area gun dealers advertise in the Yellow Pages, and experts agree that many more sell and trade guns illegally out of their homes or on the streets.
The Sacramento-based Department of Justice, which records all firearms sales statewide, said that last year 382,085 handguns were sold by authorized dealers, a 12% decrease from an all-time high of 433,822 in 1993.
Department of Justice analyst Ann Norman said the drop was partly due to stiffer controls on the purchase of handguns. Purchasers are now required to get a Basic Firearm Safety Certificate, either by passing a written test or watching a two-hour video, Norman said.
“One of the big spikes (in the number of gun sales) came in 1992, after the Los Angeles riots,” Norman said.
As state gun sales increased over the past decade, so, too, did concern about the proliferation of firearms.
Disturbed by the easy availability of guns, the city of Pasadena has launched an unprecedented effort to fight violent crime by restricting the legal sale of ammunition--and other cities may soon follow suit. The highly controversial law will require dealers to record the name, address and driver’s license number of any customer who buys ammunition. Failure to do so is a misdemeanor offense.
Inspired by the Pasadena law, which gun-control advocates say is the first of its kind in the nation, officials in Los Angeles and Azusa have expressed their support for similar measures in their cities.
The tension between these two trends--the proliferation of firearms on one hand and community attempts to control them on the other--has made ranges such as the one in Inglewood controversial.
To some, the opening of the LAX range may seem at odds with Inglewood’s efforts to persuade outsiders that its violent reputation is undeserved.
Some residents are still outraged about a scene in the 1991 movie “Grand Canyon” in which black gang members threatened a white motorist on the streets of Inglewood.
But police say that Inglewood remains the site of numerous gang-related crimes. Late last month, three men who authorities said may have been involved with gangs were shot to death in an alley behind an Inglewood apartment complex.
Sinaguglia and others suggest that such incidents indicate why gun ranges can be an asset to law-abiding residents.
A bearded, heavyset man who carries a Sig Sauer 9-millimeter pistol in his hip holster during working hours, Sinaguglia insists that the new range has strict controls that will weed out criminals as well as reduce the risk of accidents.
“The safe use of firearms is our No. 1 concern,” he said one afternoon, standing behind a double-paned, bulletproof window as several customers took target practice on the range.
Entrepreneur Kash said he hit upon the idea of the LAX Firing Range after hearing customers at his Jet Car Wash--adjacent to the range on Manchester Boulevard--complain that they had nowhere nearby to practice their shooting. Converting a one-time tropical fish warehouse into a firing range cost about $800,000, Kash said.
The management offers something close to one-stop shopping for firearm enthusiasts. Although it does not sell guns, the shop offers ammunition, targets, holsters and cleaning kits. For the book-loving marksman, such titles as “How to Own a Gun and Stay Out of Jail” are displayed near the cash register.
There are 14 shooting stalls on the 25-yard-long range. Customers, who may rent or bring their own pistol or small-gauge rifle, are required to present a driver’s license or other valid identification upon entry; minors are not allowed except with a parent or supervising adult. Visitors entering the shop or the range must wait to be buzzed in by employees.
To bolster its mainstream, safety-first image, the range is sponsoring occasional classes, such as a recent seminar led by Beverly Hills author Paxton Quigley.
A frequent talk show guest, Quigley is a one-time gun-control activist who began advocating the use of firearms for self-defense after a friend was raped. She now teaches gun classes to women all over the country.
“People have this realization that the police can’t protect them anymore,” Quigley said. Restricting gun or ammunition sales might work in a perfect world, she added, but “there’s a huge black market out there. Criminals don’t go to a gun store. They rob or get guns off the street.”
A dozen women paid $150 apiece for Quigley’s “Women’s Empowerment in the ‘90s,” a one-day seminar held at the Inglewood range that emphasized self-defense through safe and proper shooting techniques. By the end of the day, some students said they had found shooting a gun to be a transcendent--and, yes, even empowering--experience.
“I was afraid I was going to shoot somebody in the leg, and it would be terribly embarrassing,” Patricia Pearson, a 30-year-old writer visiting from Toronto, told her classmates. But she was surprised by how quickly her anxiety melted into a sense of competitiveness.
“It’s almost scary how fast you get over the scariness of a gun,” she said after class.
That is precisely what worries many gun-control activists.
“The very presence of a gun club is a statement that the community is sanctioning” gun use, said Gayle Wilson-Nathanson, executive director of the Inglewood-based Southern California Youth and Family Center, a nonprofit organization that provides programs for at-risk youths. “This is not a message that kids need.” Wilson-Nathanson argues that young people need to be taught nonviolent means of resolving conflicts.
Inglewood City Councilman Curren Price, another foe of the LAX Firing Range, agrees.
“Personally, I am opposed to even the safe use” of firearms, Price said. “By having a firing range, we’re just encouraging the use of (guns), and I think that’s the wrong thing to do.”
Price has proposed a measure, similar to that in Pasadena, that would restrict ammunition sales in the city.
Yet he harbors no illusions about his ultimate goal: a complete ban on handguns.
“The fact is, handguns are legal,” Price said. “People think they should be legal. That seems to be the current consensus. As evidence continues to mount about this problem, perhaps public opinion will change.”
In the meantime, the LAX Firing Range will likely remain a symbol of the handgun debate in Inglewood and beyond.
Another of Quigley’s students, a 35-year-old West Los Angeles woman who asked to be identified only as Alice, said that she decided to learn how to use a gun not because she enjoyed shooting but because of a deep fear of crime.
“Internally, I don’t like guns,” Alice admitted to her classmates. “But I look at them as a necessary evil.”