More Seniors, Fearing Crime, Flock to Shooting Ranges
Gun dealers say personal safety is a priority for older people who want firearms training
By James R. Hagerty
AUSTINTOWN, Ohio—On a recent Monday at the Austintown Senior Center, activities included painting, bingo and shooting guns.
Around 9:45 a.m., a dozen people in their 60s and 70s bundled into a van and several cars and headed to the nearby American Range shooting gallery, whose lobby features a portrait of Clint Eastwood over the legend “Go ahead make your day.” Soon, they were blasting away at paper targets dangling in a dim, damp room with cinder-block walls.
Afterward, Phyllis Engler, a recently retired physical education teacher, was pleased with her debut. “I have arthritis in my shoulder so it was hard holding [the pistol] out, but I think with practice I’ll be fine,” said the 63-year-old. She planned to buy a pistol and apply for a concealed-carry permit. She had a message for criminals: “They better not mess with the women of Austintown.”
The National Rifle Association says 22,739 people over 65 took basic firearm training courses from NRA-certified instructors in 2015, four times the number five years earlier. An NRA spokesman said the growth in that age category was much faster than the overall rate but didn’t provide additional data.
Gun dealers around the country agreed that more seniors, worried about crime and terrorism, are showing up for lessons.
In Bay City, Mich., Glenn Duncan, owner of Duncan’s Outdoor Shop, estimated that at least a third of his students are senior citizens, compared with 10% five years ago. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group, estimates that the average age of people involved in target shooting with handguns rose to 42.4 in 2014 from 39.1 five years earlier.
Many dealers and older people around the country said personal safety was the priority. Knowing how to shoot gives older people “a sense of security and safety,” said Rex Gore, owner of Black Wing Shooting Center in Delaware, Ohio, who has had students as old as 95. “It’s a great equalizer in this crazy world we live in.”
Stephen Eyler, 71, who owns a printing shop in Oklahoma City, began thinking about buying a pistol after two incidents in which he and his wife, Shirley, felt threatened by strangers. The Eylers worried about random shootings, people with mental problems and “radicals,” Mr. Eyler said: “You see it on the news almost every day.”
In early March, after researching guns on the Internet, he bought two Glock semiautomatic pistols, one for himself and a smaller model for his wife, at H&H Shooting Sports in Oklahoma City. The couple signed up for lessons at H&H and plan to get concealed-carry permits so they can stow the pistols in their car’s glove compartment.
“Today’s buyers are scared,” said Miles Hall, who owns H&H Shooting.
Some say those buyers may also be misguided. David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard University, said “the evidence is pretty strong that [owning a gun] isn’t going to help you.” Having a gun at home increases the risks for suicide and accidental shootings, he said, and it is hard to shoot an intruder or assailant: “Your heart starts beating like crazy,” he said. “If they’re running at you, you have half a second or something.”
So what can worried seniors do? “Get a dog, get a good lock, get good neighbors, get a cellphone,” Prof. Hemenway said.
(Demand for Guns stats: https://si.wsj.net/
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Demand from seniors is one reason the U.S. gun business is booming. In the three months through February, criminal background checks related to gun purchases were up 29% from a year earlier, according to the shooting sports foundation. Aside from concerns about crime and terrorism, fear of an eventual regulatory crackdown on gun ownership is driving some of the demand, gun dealers say. Sales at Smith & Wesson Holding Corp. , one of the biggest U.S. gun makers, jumped 62% in the quarter ended Jan. 31, and its stock price has more than doubled in the past 12 months.
Dave Campbell, 62, who was an editor for an NRA publication before retiring to a rural home near Powell, Wyo., said he got started teaching the elderly about guns because an older woman at his church asked him for lessons. The stress is on safety, Mr. Campbell said, and he keeps expectations in check: “You’re not going to turn these people into SEAL team operators.”
Rising demand from seniors shows that “life has changed. Law enforcement agencies can’t protect everyone,” said Mr. Duncan of Duncan’s Outdoor Shop. He said seniors also show up because they’re looking for hobbies; target shooting doesn’t require as much mobility as golf or tennis.
In Austintown, a suburb of Youngstown, monthly shooting lessons began a few months ago, after some women who attend the senior center’s activities expressed interest. Before letting the seniors try shooting one recent morning, Samuel Swoger III, a volunteer instructor with a grizzled beard and a black baseball cap, offered safety tips and explained gun terminology.
One of the seniors, Susan McFarland, told him: “My grandson was shocked that old people were allowed to have guns.”
Another, Judy Reed, said: “I don’t know if I could kill somebody.”
If you pull out a gun, Mr. Swoger told her, “you better be ready to use it.”
Mary Hanick, 69, a widow who gets around in a wheelchair because of spina bifida, said she nearly canceled out of the lesson: “I was scared to death.” Nonetheless, she rolled herself into the range and managed to put four bullets through the heart of a paper target bearing the outline of a man.
“Once I started, I calmed down a bit,” said Ms. Hanick, a former radio dispatcher for the Ohio transportation department. She planned to take her tattered paper target home as a souvenir. “I’ll probably frame it,” she said.
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