The two professionals and colleagues, still in work attire, were part of the afternoon rush at the South Shore Shooting Range.
Muffled rapid-fire gunshots could be heard in the parking lot outside Thursday on a quiet street shrouded by giant oaks and dotted with houses with backyard pools in suburban Islip.
Jenn and Shelby, friends who did not want their last names used, settled into two indoor shooting lanes – donning noise-canceling headphones and protective goggles as they took aim with lever-action rifles and pistols at targets meant to represent the human body.
“I’m not quite a novice. Just starting out. Looking to buy a gun,” said Jenn, who has a gun permit but is still undecided on what her first handgun will be.
“I’m trying to get some practice at the ranges. I wouldn’t say I’m an enthusiast but trying to learn.”
Jenn and Shelby are part of a growing number of Americans, particularly women and people of color, on an extended national gun shopping splurge – many for the first time.
The heightened interest in guns comes amid a horrific spate of mass shootings and – according to the CDC’s most recent figures – firearm fatalities that outnumbered motor vehicle traffic deaths 48,830 to 45,404. Over the last two weeks, four people were shot – one fatally – in upstate New York, Kansas City and Texas after accidentally going to the wrong address or opening the wrong door.
The number of both state and national instant criminal background checks – required before one can purchase a gun and a rough indicator of how many people are either purchasing or possibly being issued a gun permit – surged during the pandemic from under 30 million to nearly 40 million, according to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
“The fear of the unknown and the chaos of the pandemic was the motivating factor,” Shelby, a resident of Suffolk County on Long Island, said of her reason for buying a gun.
“I’m not sure I felt uncomfortable where I lived. It was more so like a what’s-going-to-happen-next type of thing because everything just kept getting crazier and crazier.”
‘The face of gun ownership is changing’
The uncertainty of the pandemic and the national protests after the 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police have helped stimulate the country’s appetite for guns.
One in five US households bought a gun from March 2020 to March 2022, according to NORC at the University of Chicago, a nonpartisan research institution. One in 20 Americans purchased a gun for the first time during that period.
“I’m not sure the chaos is over, and I feel that a lot of people have guns and that it would be good to have,” said Shelby, echoing many Americans anxious about the uncertain state of the country. “I’m a single female. I live on my own. Why not protect myself?”
In fact, gun ownership rates among women and African Americans were rising before the health crisis, said Dr. Matt Miller, a professor of health sciences and epidemiology at Northeastern University who conducted a study with Harvard researcher Deborah Azrael.
“Sometime between 2016 and 2019, the new gun owners were more likely to be female and Black than prior to that and, whether it’s in response to feeling as though things are going out of control, the country is really divided, that’s a tempting speculation to make,” said Miller, referring to changing demographics among gun owners.
The Northeastern and Harvard study found that nearly 3% of US adults, or 7.5 million people, bought guns for the first time from January 2019 to April 2021. About half of the new gun owners were female, 20% were Black, and 20% were Hispanic. Overall, gun owners were 63% male and 73% White.
“The face of gun ownership is changing somewhat and the people who are becoming new gun owners today are less likely to be male and more likely to be non-White, more likely to be somewhat younger than existing and long-standing gun owners,” Miller said.
Miller said America’s run on guns is concerning. His study noted that the risk of death from suicide, homicide, and unintentional injury increases substantially with gun ownership.
“It would be good if those considerations were part of what went into the decision to become a gun owner,” he said.
Handguns and shotguns moving at a brisk pace
Mike Marinello, who owns the South Shore Shooting Range as well as South Shore Sportsman gun store in the hamlet of Merrick, said 40% of his clients come from New York City.
And even in a state like New York, where gun ownership is heavily regulated, business at his two gun shops and the range is booming. Handguns and shotguns are moving at a brisk pace.
“Most people are coming in as new gun owners looking for something for personal defense or we spend a lot of time with inquisitive people. Asking about the process. How do you go about it,” said Marinello, a former housing cop in the Bronx.
“A rather large slice of our current clientele is female. We sponsor a shooting group for women… Right now there is no clear (line) – Republican or Democrat or Independent – buying guns.”
Marinello said gun sales always rise sharply after major shootings, amid concerns politicians will pass stricter gun control legislation.
“In the immediate aftermath in most states, it would lead to an increase in sales because everybody looks at the news and even though it’s a terrible event, they all say the same thing, ‘There’s going to be a new law,’ ” he said.
In states like New York, there’s a backlog of gun-permit applications, Marinello noted.
“There’s a rush to get in and get what they think they are going to lose.”
Dirty Harry-style revolvers and pink camo shotguns
On Thursday, Marinello was showing William Chen, 65, a 9 mm handgun the New York City resident is in the process of purchasing. Marinello placed the unloaded Smith & Wesson in Chen’s right hand.
“You do understand that this gun will not fire unless you cock the hammer back first,” Marinello told his customer.
“Take your thumb. Cock the hammer back. That’s the first time that this will be able to fire. Then you’ll engage the safety when you’re not shooting. When you’re ready to shoot, drop the safety down, then you will pull the trigger.”
Chen used to own a self-service laundry and is now retired. He said he already owns a couple of rifles and another handgun. A gun owner for about two years, Chen initially said he bought the weapons for personal protection but later stressed that he enjoyed target practice at a shooting range in Queens.
“I’m so happy,” he said of his biweekly visits to the range. “Now I’m enjoying my life.”
Marinello prides himself on the inventory of his two gun shops, which sell everything from Dirty Harry-worthy Magnum revolvers capable of taking down a bear to pink camouflage pump shotguns designed for smaller framed shooters.
“Forget the color for a minute,” said Marinello, pointing at the pink shotgun. “This would be something that we would show to youth or small people in stature as opposed to a stock that’s two inches longer.”
‘I’ve been wanting to buy one for years’
At Marinello’s gun shop and shooting range in Islip, Shelby and Jenn wrapped up their afternoon target practice. A friend and gun enthusiast served as their instructor.
“I have a Ruger and a Rossi – both rifles,” Shelby said. She bought her rifles during the pandemic at the recommendation of a family member.
Shelby said she’s filling out the paperwork for her handgun permit. She said the entire process could take from a year and a half to two years before she’s able to purchase a handgun.
“All of my friends now have licenses,” said Shelby, bursts of muffled gunfire in the background. “I’d like to hone my skills. I enjoy shooting. I’m a good shot.”
Her friend Jenn said she lives alone, so she wants a gun “probably for safety mostly, but I do enjoy coming to the range and shooting. I’ve been wanting to buy one for years.”
Jenn said she has sampled a number of handguns at the range. She liked a Smith & Wesson 9 mm but is still undecided.
“I just shot a few just now,” she said. “So trying to find a good feel, to figure out which one I do want to buy.”
She added, “I’m trying to be responsible… It’s actually good to be uncomfortable with a gun. If you’re ever comfortable with a gun, that’s not good.”