As American as Mom’s Apple Pie
By Peter Gerstenzang
For many of us, spring means any number of important seasonal purchases: perhaps some seed for the lawn, a lacrosse stick for young Johnny, a snappy new pair of cotton Dockers. Well, I recently did a little shopping myself. But not for anything as mundane as clothes or gardening accessories.
Nope, I went out looking for something a bit more traditional, more American than khaki pants—I went to check out guns: rifles, shotguns, handguns. Nothing, I figured, would spell springtime like, oh, a .357 Smith & Wesson revolver that my grandma Sadie could keep in her support hose. Maybe a Remington 12-gauge shotgun for mom, who’s been complaining that her life has been a bit flat lately, and who would find stalking and killing a few deer a much better antidepressant than any Paxil or Wellbutrin.
All right, maybe I wasn’t really going to buy a gun. But I did want to find out how easy or tough it was to purchase one in Westchester (with a side-trip to neighboring Fairfield County). I wanted to know if the gun-control types were right. Was it as easy to buy a shotgun here as, say, a bottle of Scotch? Were the pro-gun folks right (no pun intended): Were the waiting periods and paperwork involved in a gun purchase too time consuming, much too hard on law-abiding types? And certainly, there was the biggest question of them all: Who sold the coolest and most diverse selection of guns in our area? So, I went out to see what sort of firepower was available in our land of Range Rovers and golden retrievers.
Downstairs from Toys “R” Us, around
the bend from McDonald’s, in that mini-mall on South Broadway in downtown White Plains, is the Sports Authority. This cavernous store was my first stop. As I roamed around, I saw a sign that read, “Give the Gift of Sports.” I saw another that proclaimed, “Buy One, Get Half Off” your second pair of running shoes. I saw no zesty signs also proclaiming another Sports Authority truism: “The Only Chain Store in Downtown White Plains That Sells Guns!” Maybe they’re saving that sentiment for a radio jingle. I asked an employee where the guns were kept, after looking for them unsuccessfully. He seemed so unnerved by the question that he barely answered; instead, he just pointed and pantomimed, like he was acting out a really tough movie title in a game of charades. But I found it, the gun section.
The counter where the guns stood was unmanned for a while, until a young man in his early twenties named Mike appeared and asked if he could assist me. When I told him what I was doing at the store, his face, too, filled with nervous tics, and his body shifted into full charades mode. “Uh, we’ve had a lot of trouble with writers lately,” he said. “Um, just wait here, and I’ll get my boss.”
As Mike took off, faster than a speeding bullet, I got the chance to gaze at a Savage 110 rifle ($330), a Marlin 336CS rifle ($340), a Remington shotgun ($399), and any number of boxes of shotgun shells, all right near the store’s basketballs and velvet jogging suits. I also checked out a sign that most county sporting goods stores do not sport: “Ammunition Is Not Returnable.” Of course, with a box of 12-gauge shells (20 in a box) costing around five bucks (apparently a righteous price), who the heck would want to return it? As I pondered this deep, existential question, Mike returned with his boss, a tall muscular man, who would not tell me his name, even though I was nice enough to tell him mine. This was not the man’s only breach of etiquette.
“We’d really like you to leave,” the Boss said, trying, only somewhat successfully, to keep his anger in check. “As Mike may have told you, we’ve had writers and other folks here lately, and they kicked up quite a fuss. So, we really don’t want to talk to you. No offense, okay?”
I happened to know that the Boss was referring to a reporter from The Journal News and White Plains City Councilman William King, who had recently suggested that the Sports Authority stop selling guns and ammo at what is essentially a family store, in the heart of a busy city. Engaging in some charades of my own, I managed to convince these two men to let me ask a few quick questions regarding the purchasing of firearms at the Sports Authority. Mike answered these questions. The Boss stood there and watched me the entire time.
“What does it take to buy this rifle?”
Mike told me I needed a valid New York State driver’s license, and I had to be at least 18. “You then have to fill out this form,” he said as he took out a sheet of paper, “which asks you to list any prior drug convictions or criminal convictions, and other vital information about where you live and how long you’ve lived there, stuff like that. I then, uh, do a quick background check over the phone, with the state licensing bureau, and that’s pretty much it. It usually takes a few minutes.”
“And that’s it?” I asked, while the Boss smiled at me in a way that I’m sure he thought was neutral.
“Uh, yeah, that’s it,” Mike said.
“And how long does it take to get the gun and bring it home?” As I stood there, I imagined days, weeks, months, a bureaucratically long period, while New York State checked me out, to see if I had a history of mental problems or made threats against government figures.
“Usually,” Mike said, “you can get the gun the same day.”
I repressed the urge to say, “Stop kidding.” I knew Mike wasn’t kidding. You could buy a rifle with a scope here and in most gun stores in the county, and bring it home the very same day, depending on the results of the background check.
The phone next to us rang. The Boss answered it. From his hushed tones and quick glances my way, I knew he was talking about me. I was about to ask Mike about the waiting period, about kids using shotguns at school to settle arguments and, like, what he thought about the Washington D.C. snipers, when the Boss returned to the conversation. Smiling brightly, he informed me that he was sorry, but “this interview is going to have to be terminated—now.” I started to reply, “But…,” but the Boss’s eyes seemed to flare. I figured it was better that the interview be terminated than me, so I thanked both men and headed upstairs.
Some checking with the county clerk’s
Pistol Permit Office proved Mike’s information to be extremely correct. I was informed (over the phone) by Sgt. Thomas O’Connor that all one needs to purchase a rifle or shotgun in our parts is a valid driver’s license, a clean criminal background and an abiding respect for all human and animal life. Okay, just the first two. After you fill out the purchase form at the store (with your stats, criminal history, address, etc.), the store employee does indeed do a quick background check with the F.B.I. to see, mostly, if you’re in the middle of a tri-state killing spree or something. Once the F.B.I. has cleared you—which usually takes a matter of hours—you can in some cases walk out of the store with your scoped rifle, even if you are muttering to yourself about those pesky voices in your head. But store clerks do have veto power and can turn down a customer.
You cannot, however, get a handgun right away. Not in Westchester, not in Fairfield County. You first have to apply for a permit at the County Clerk’s office. Here, you are fingerprinted and then subjected (via those fingerprints) to a more extensive criminal check with the F.B.I. You also need to present a certificate indicating you have completed the required pistol safety course at a certified county shooting range. “In most cases, it takes about three to six months to get your permit,” Sgt. O’Connor told me. Once you have your permit, you can legally take home that handgun.
my next stop WAS a funky little store on
an industrial street in Pelham, called Tri-State Archery and Sports Supplies Inc. I guess because the place doesn’t sell jogging togs and kids’ tennis rackets, and the press hasn’t been there, the owner, Thomas Scarano, a small, pleasant man in his 50s, welcomed me and didn’t call the bouncer over to glare at me as I asked him questions. I asked Scarano, for instance, about his range in prices; his answer was straightforward. “For the cost conscious,” he told me, “we sell the Single Shot H&R rifle. That’ll cost you ’bout a hundred and fifty bucks. It’s a pretty good gun, but you have to be a good shot to use it. You know, you have to reload after each shot. So, if you don’t take that varmint down with the first one, man, he’s gone!” Scarano also showed me a Weatherby rifle, which runs about $1,200.
But something else caught my eye. It was a rifle slightly larger than the other two, black, with a huge scope on top. Why did it look familiar? Then it came to me. It closely resembled the gun the D.C. snipers had used. I mentioned this. “Well, yeah,” Scarano said, “it’s a bit like that one. I think it’s even made by the same manufacturer, the New England Arms Company. But this one can only shoot about two hundred yards. But, believe me, my customers are only interested in killing deer and other, smaller varmints.”
I asked Scarano if he ever worried about guns like these getting into the wrong hands. He told me, quite rightly, that all he can do is “follow the law. You know, what someone intends to do with a scoped rifle is not the business of the storeowner.” And basically, I agreed with him. But I wondered, to myself, why lawmakers won’t look more deeply into this business’s quick background checks. One brief phone call, and conceivably out the customer goes with his rifle. Not to mention that there are no government regulations that prohibit or inhibit the resale of deadly guns with scopes on the top. As I stood there thinking, a burly hunter came in to have his bow fixed. “Man,” he said to Scarano, “I got me a nice shot at a five-point this weekend, Bob.” I smiled pleasantly at him, as if to stress the fact that I was not a five-point deer. Then, I left.
My next stop was supposed to be in Hartsdale, a place called Westchester Arms, which despite its name, is not a swinging singles apartment. It is actually a private residence, where one Gene Guzzi announces on his outgoing phone message, “We’re back in business!” Guzzi, who sells all sorts of rifles and handguns, had originally invited me over to view his merchandise that afternoon. But not more than an hour before our appointment, he called me and said, rather nervously, “Uh, we should probably forget the whole thing.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, I got too many customers as it is, I can hardly take care of ’em. And if you wrote about me, I wouldn’t be able to handle the volume. Plus, the wife is already giving me hell about all the people coming over to the house to buy guns. So, just forget it, okay pal?”
I reminded Guzzi that his gun store is listed in the Yellow Pages, so it’s not as if he’s anonymous. “Yeah, I know,” Guzzi said, more emphatically this time. “I’m in the gun business, but not for people like you. So, no offense, pal, just forget you ever saw my ad, okay?” Sure, Mr. Guzzi, I’ve forgotten the whole thing.
I took a little side trip to fairfield county to see if the gun dealers there were a bit more fun. I visited Bob’s Gun Exchange, on
the Post Road in Darien, which is undoubtedly one of the nuttiest weapons stores I visited on my shopping spree. In the front of Bob’s, they sell unpainted furniture and blinds. In the back room are enough handguns, rifles and ammo to equip an entire armored division.
If the aesthetic aspects of handguns turn you on, you might go a little crazy here. I spied a Colt Detective Special for $350, a beautiful Sig Sauer (a semi-automatic handgun that looks kind of like a water pistol) for $429, Rugers (low-end $350, high-end $900), and fancy Italian shotguns. For educational purposes, I asked Bob’s bookkeeper, Sherrie, a very pretty and very sweet brunette in her 50s, “What’s a popular handgun these days if you’re looking to protect your family from home invasion?” She reached into a glass counter, and pulled out the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum Revolver. This beautiful silver gun with a black plastic grip was going for $651. But the price was less important than Sherrie’s explanation as to why this was a good household gun.
“I’ve found,” she told me, “that automatics can jam on you, especially in vital situations, and that’s no good. If someone was breaking into my home, I’d always want the revolver. See, even if one chamber is empty, or jams on you, you always have five bullets left in your cylinder. Five more chances to get your man.” I began to chuckle a little after this explanation, but I thought Sherrie was glaring at me, so I decided to cool it. I didn’t want to be the man with whom she tried out her revolvers-versus-automatics theory.
As I held the gun and aimed it at no one in particular, I started to understand the appeal of guns, especially this one. It was light, comely, easy-to-handle, and as I held it, I felt suddenly and unmistakably safer. And this was without the bullets. Of course, if I had a Smith & Wesson and accidentally shot the Con Ed meter reader because I thought he was engaging in home invasion, I might feel differently.
Sherrie told me that the store had been there for 50 years. They started out selling mostly furniture and “a few guns.” But eventually, “the gun sales really picked up and we had to expand.” We talked a bit about gun laws in Connecticut. For instance, a handgun permit in this state usually takes about two months to obtain, after the State Licensing Board checks out your application and criminal history, versus three to six months just over the border in Westchester. I told Sherrie (and, inadvertently, the other gun shoppers) that I was from Westchester. Since I suddenly detected a bit of hostility in the air, a sense of xenophobia, I thought I’d better quash it quickly. And I said, “Three to six months to get a handgun where I live! Can you believe that? What a bunch of sissies we have over the border.” I received smiles and nods all around. Thinking now I would not have to watch my back, I decided it was a good time to take my leave.
Once I was back in Sissyland, I mean Westchester, I made my last shopping stop, in Hawthorne, at the quaintly named Gun Factory. If you’ve got a revolver with a faulty cylinder, or a Ruger with a bent barrel, or any other problems, this would be your place. A man named Richard, who appeared to be in his late 50s, took me around this small store, which is open on Thursday nights and Saturday mornings. This store is a little like a flea market for gun owners. You can rustle through drawers, or ask the help if they have a barrel for, say, a certain Colt, and they might just have it. VoilÃ , your old gun is new again and ready to fire, especially at those Iraqi terrorists, who Richard and several other shoppers I spoke to seemed convinced would be at their door by Easter Sunday. And not for some ham, either. Richard told me the night I was there that in our new “uncertain environment, business has picked up considerably.” Richard also mentioned that the Gun Factory also carries “odd caliber bullets for older guns.” However, he added, “We’re not just living in the past, here. We can also order pretty much any gun you want. Anything new.” When I told him about the Smith & Wesson revolver I tried in Darien and that it cost $650, Richard said, with certainty, “we can probably beat that price. Why, do you want to order one?”
It is a beautiful gun—and at a discount. I told Richard that I needed to think about it and that I might get back to him. And you never know. If there seems to be, say, a bit more suspicious activity on my block in the next few months, or an unusual number of substitute mailmen, or a lot of meter readers I’ve never seen before, I might be back for that Smith & Wesson. Of course, with so many nervous people in Westchester these days, let’s just hope that the meter reader isn’t packing a Smith & Wesson himself and, in a panic, pulling it on me. Well, that shouldn’t really be a problem though, not as long as I get him first.
Peter Gerstenzang likes gun owners. He just wouldn’t want one moving next door to him.