CHADDS FORD, Pa. — Slowly and with a hitch in his step, Sal Foti made his way to the handicapped shooting lane at Targetmaster Indoor Firearm Range & Gun Shop.
The lane is closest to the door, wide enough for a wheelchair or other equipment and marked with a handicapped sign.
Foti, 57, a retired public relations executive, has suffered since childhood from rheumatoid arthritis, which stiffens his joints, making it difficult for him to walk or stand for long.
“To put up even the target is hard for me,” he said, “It’s nice to see that ranges are starting to understand and accommodate handicapped shooters. Given the aging population and the fact that we’ve got more of these military folks coming back disabled, I think there’s going to be more of a need for it.”
The group Disabled Americans for Firearms Rights, formed before the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., saw its membership quadruple to 19,000 after the event, energizing its lobbying on behalf of gun owners. Many disabled citizens have difficulty wielding traditional pistols and rifles, which has prompted some to become vociferous allies in the campaign to block new restrictions on assault-style weapons.
“They’re banning these weapons for arbitrary reasons — because it has a certain grip or stock — when in reality those are the features that someone with a disability like me needs to operate a firearm,” said Scott Ennis, a hemophiliac who started the Connecticut-based disabled firearm-owners group and serves as its president. Like Foti, Ennis suffered joint damage that makes it difficult for him to grip and shoot.
Reports earlier this year that Iowa was licensing blind gun owners to carry concealed firearms stirred controversy, with some critics saying it wasn’t safe, including the disabled executive director of Iowans for Gun Safety. By law, blind gun owners could already hunt with restrictions in Iowa and several other states, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Texas.
Ennis and others insist that all citizens have the right to bear arms, and disabled citizens often have an even greater need for weapons for self-defense. “If an individual who has a disability, any disability, can pass the firearms safety class and they don’t have any felonies or anything that keeps them from owning a firearm due to background check issues, I think that person should be able to exercise their 2nd Amendment rights,” he said.
Foti agrees. He wrote an article for Guns.com earlier this year advising disabled shooters on how to modify their firearms to accommodate special needs. He received dozens of encouraging responses.
Disabled people “have to stick together,” wrote Randy Miller of Helena, Mont., who suffers from muscular dystrophy and lupus. “It’s even more important for those with disabilities to own a gun for self and family defense as far as I’m concerned.”
Foti was raised to fear guns. His mother worked at Timex, the watchmaker, while his father ran the family’s Italian grocery in Waterbury, Conn. They taught him that guns belonged in the hands of the police. He had two uncles who were police officers, and when they visited, his mother made them leave their guns locked in their cars or in the basement.
He grew up to become a liberal Democrat who supported gun control. But six years ago, reports of a horrific family murder dominated the local news where he lives with his wife and children in Pennsylvania: A Connecticut mother and two daughters were murdered during a home invasion. Only the father escaped. Foti noticed that the man was about a foot taller and 50 pounds heavier than he was.
“I’m watching television and seeing this man, 6 foot 2 and probably 250 pounds, and thinking if that ever happened to my family, what would I do?” he said.
Foti, by then retired, decided to take a firearms safety class. “I was feeling very vulnerable,” he recalled.
He thought he was prepared for the class. Before he arrived, he rented a 9-millimeter handgun. But when the instructor told him to assume a military stance — feet apart, arms lifted — Foti had trouble holding the gun and the pose.
“He said to me, ‘Sal, stand like this,’ and I said, ‘I can’t,’” Foti recalled. “I felt very out of place.”
He returned the next day, taking the instructor aside to explain his problems. “The arthritis didn’t just affect my hips and knees — it’s my hands and neck and shoulders. When I’m shooting at the range, I can’t hold up my gun to sight and aim at the target,” he said. The instructor had Foti sit on a stool as he fired. He advised using laser sights and a lighter-weight gun.
Foti bought five pistols — four semiautomatics and a .357 revolver. He bought a range membership, taught his two children — Laura, 23, and Parker, 20 — to shoot, and he researched devices to modify guns, such as laser sights, improved grips and trigger-finger braces.
He rented an AR-15-style rifle and marveled at how lightweight it was, how easy to modify.
“For someone who’s handicapped, an AR-15 is probably the easiest type of weapon to shoot at the range,” Foti said.
That’s why Foti, a supporter of President Obama, opposes gun control measures that limit access to automatic-style rifles and modifications. He’s licensed to carry his handguns concealed, which he often does when he and his wife go out to dinner.
Federal statistics show that people with disabilities are more likely to be victims of crime. Women with disabilities are targeted three times as often as others, while the rate for disabled men was nearly double that of others as of 2011, the most recent year available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Hate crimes against the disabled increased last year by 67%, with 102 reported, according to the FBI.
“When I was growing up, there seemed to be an unwritten rule that even thugs would leave handicapped people alone,” Foti said, “Today, I’m sorry to say, that’s gone, and people who are disabled are considered easy prey.… I don’t want to be a victim.”
Shooting is a matter of personal safety to Foti, but target practice has also become a sport for him, one of the few in which he’s still fit to compete.
“You can see I’m sweating,” he said, exhausted after 45 minutes of shooting. “It’s tough. It was only 50 rounds of ammunition and I had a seat. But still, because of my disability, it tires me out pretty quickly.... But that’s the price you pay.”