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Inside the Secret Lives of Massachusetts Gun Owners

Gun ownership in Massachusetts is steadily—albeit perhaps stealthily—on the rise.
Daphne McManus

Daphne McManus fires a round at the Weston Shooters Club. / Photograph by Toan Trinh

A hint of cigar smoke lingers in the air as I walk past a bank of sleek leather armchairs in the main clubhouse. Beneath a pair of high-end TVs lies a gleaming new shuffleboard table, while down the hall well-coiffed men and women often swap stock tips and the latest gossip inside a burnished-wood locker room. Where am I? It could be any private club in Boston—with one notable exception: Everyone here is packing heat.

If golfers have The Country Club in Brookline and C-suite tycoons have the Algonquin in the Back Bay, then gun enthusiasts have the Weston Shooters Club—the undeniable Ritz-Carlton of New England gun ranges. On the back wall, a few feet from the shuffleboard table, is a custom vending machine stocked with ammunition. Near that is a wall-mounted display case full of firearms for sale (the Beretta CX4 Storm 9mm tactical carbine for only $749 is a real steal!). And down a short hallway and through a heavy door is the crown jewel: a posh, state-of-the-art, eight-lane shooting range, open to members 24/7. “I really wanted the place for myself,” says Victor Grillo, the club’s founder. “A place to have a cigar, have a drink, and shoot a gun.”

Across the country, in cities such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Miami, high-end ranges that emphasize socializing and the good life as much as target practice have been popping up like mushrooms. Some include restaurants, spas, and VIP lounges. An outing at Dallas’s luxurious Frisco Gun Club, for instance, might entail a private shooting lesson followed by a dinner, capped off with a fine brandy by the fire. Yet when Grillo, of Framingham, who made a small fortune in marketing and commercial real estate, looked around, he quickly realized no such place existed in Massachusetts—let alone within earshot of Boston. To remedy that, he and a few like-minded friends plunked down a total of $1 million in 2014 and opened the club just off I-95.

So what does a Weston Shooters Club member look like? Just like our state can’t be reduced to a handful of stereotypes about progressive moonbats (sorry, Howie Carr), neither can Bay State gun owners all be painted as Tea Partiers or partridge-hunting patricians. Sure, these people exist—there are plenty of Romney conservatives with pricey shotguns and Trumplicans with a hand cannon on each hip—but spend enough time looking and you just might find that the woman who sits next to you at work and the potbellied neighbor whose Subaru Outback is spackled with Hillary Clinton stickers are bearing arms.

Massachusetts gun laws, Grillo likes to point out, are notoriously strict—and conversations around them are equally polarizing. In the past two years alone, a group of gun associations sued Attorney General Maura Healey over her ban on so-called copycat assault rifles; all nine of the state’s U.S. representatives received failing grades from the Gun Owners’ Action League; and the city’s largest newspaper, the Globe, made national waves by tweeting the names of 388 mass-shooting victims along with the hashtag #MakeItStop. Taken as a whole, it’s easy to get the impression that Bostonians share a unified belief that guns are not pieces of sporting equipment or tools for self-defense—they’re a public health crisis.

Despite the apparent gun-control fervor, though, the reality is that gun ownership in Massachusetts is steadily—albeit perhaps stealthily—on the rise. Since 2010, the number of people with active License to Carry Class A permits in the city of Boston alone has grown by more than 132 percent, to nearly 8,000. Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington, Belmont, Weston, Newton, Wellesley, Hingham, and almost every other surrounding suburb have also seen upticks. “It’s almost a dirty little secret,” says Chris Kielty, owner of Precision Point Firearms, a gun shop in Woburn. Some of Kielty’s most loyal customers include progressive social workers and academics who would be mortified if their colleagues knew of their hobby. Or as one lesbian gun owner recently told me, it’s often much easier to come out as gay in Boston than it is to admit to owning a firearm.

To date, the success of Grillo’s shooting club has far surpassed his expectations. Originally, he’d hoped to draw 100 members over the first five years. Now, three years in, the so-called guntry club has nearly 1,000 people happily willing to pay the $500 annual dues. As Grillo says, it turned out there are throngs of gun owners around Boston, all looking for what he calls a “safe haven.” The Weston Shooters Club is a testament to the recent renaissance of gun ownership in Massachusetts: All walks of life stroll through its private, biometrically secured doors.

 

Ed Gardner, a 47-year-old father of two, is as liberal as the day is long. He supported Bernie Sanders, is mortified by Donald Trump, and follows the party line on nearly every issue. Yet when it comes to the Second Amendment, he veers dramatically off course. At his home, after all, is a well-secured arsenal.

Guns have always been part of Gardner’s life. He grew up on a farm in southern Ohio with a rifle by his side. Then he lived in Texas. In the ’90s, Gardner took a job in the educational services industry and moved to Newton, where he was surprised to learn that there are unwritten rules to being a gun owner. Posting a picture on Facebook from a leisurely day at the Weston shooting range, for instance, let alone bragging about a new Bushmaster at the company Christmas party, could be a social disaster. “It’s sort of like, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’” he says.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. The Second Amendment originated in Massachusetts—home to the Revolutionary War, the shot heard ’round the world, and Smith & Wesson, which began selling one of the country’s first mass-produced revolvers during the mid-1800s (and still operates to this day, with as much as $400 million in annual revenue). It wasn’t until 1906 that legislators enacted the state’s first regulations on handguns. Then another revolution started: the 1960s.

In the wake of high-profile assassinations, political upheaval, and peace protests, state gun laws began to tighten. In 1968, lawmakers made it mandatory for Massachusetts residents to obtain a license in order to possess a rifle, shotgun, or handgun in their home or business. Several years later, voters were asked to approve a ballot measure that banned all private ownership of handguns. Not only would sales cease across the state, but existing owners would also have to turn in their handguns. “We must disarm society,” then-Governor Michael Dukakis said in support of the proposed law. “Only when we ban handguns will we reduce violence.” Ultimately the bill failed miserably, but it cemented Massachusetts as a national leader in the fight against guns.

While Second Amendment tug-of-wars played out in the federal courts, Massachusetts continued pushing the envelope. In 1998, there were close to 1.5 million active gun licenses in Massachusetts. That same year, Republican Governor Paul Cellucci signed what was hailed as one of the toughest gun bills in the country, barring anyone with a violent crime or drug conviction from getting a license; creating regulations for storing and transporting firearms; and giving local police more discretion when deciding whether to reject applicants. After the law went into effect, the number of active gun licenses in Massachusetts plummeted by more than 1 million. “We’ve proven the NRA’s worst nightmare,” says John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence, an advocacy group that pushes for tighter gun control. “That gun laws work.”

For years, Rosenthal’s organization sponsored a giant billboard that screamed out the dangers of handguns to anyone driving along the Mass. Pike. Tallying the number of gun deaths in real time, its ominous counter sent a stark message to Red Sox fans streaming over the bridge to nearby Fenway Park: Guns are not welcome here. Yet the truth, it seems, is far subtler: Rosenthal himself is a gun owner—dubbed by the NRA as a “gun-grabber in camouflage.” Still, he’s not exactly sympathetic to his fellow license holders. “Nobody is stigmatizing gun owners in this state other than GOAL and the NRA,” he says, scowling. “They want to create a civil war so that there is this divide between gun owners and non–gun owners. It’s ridiculous.”

Gardner, too, regularly feels that fault line of hyper-partisanship. Even trying to have a conversation about the Second Amendment seems to derail into a political shouting match that paints him either as Charlton Heston mowing down Bambi with an Uzi, or Jane Fonda kicking down farmers’ doors and hurling their shotguns onto a pyre made of burning flags. Sensible debate around gun ownership? Not so much. Gardner, for instance, suspects that some Newton parents stopped letting their children come over to play with his kids once they learned he keeps guns in the home. “You get a lot of sideways looks,” he tells me. Following Donald Trump’s election, he regularly gets into arguments with friends who believe there’s no way a progressive can also be in favor of the Second Amendment. “It just shuts down the conversation,” he says.

Still, there are signs that this is starting to change in Massachusetts—and in ways that may surprise you.

 

People take up guns for many reasons. Aaron Grossman is a 33-year-old mechanical engineer who lives in Medford. He stands 6-foot-4 with a firm handshake and a ponytail of wavy blond hair thrown behind a pair of broad shoulders. An NRA-certified firearm instructor, Grossman is also the head of the Boston Pink Pistols, an LGBTQ gun club whose slogans include “Armed Gays Don’t Get Bashed” and “Pick on Someone Your Own Caliber.” As we sip tea at J.P. Licks in Brookline and chat about firearms, a woman with purple hair blatantly eavesdrops on our conversation, shaking her head in frustration as Grossman explains why he wishes more of his gay and queer friends would pick up a gun and attend a shooting class.

Like many trailblazing LGBTQ groups, the Pink Pistols started in Boston. Douglas Krick, a libertarian activist, founded the first chapter in 2000, and others quickly sprouted across the country. A few years later, though, the Boston club fizzled out when Krick moved to Illinois. For years, Grossman had known about the group and liked the idea, though he never thought it was terribly important. Then, in June 2016, Omar Mateen walked into a gay nightclub in Orlando and opened fire, killing 49 people and wounding more than 50 others. “I was like, This is bullshit,” Grossman recalls. In no time, he says, he decided to focus his outrage on resurrecting the Pink Pistols’ Boston chapter because, “somebody who is openly gay and regularly going to gay clubs might be worried about being attacked.”

Grossman was hardly the only person who felt this way. Following the Orlando shooting, the number of Pink Pistols Facebook members across the country reportedly tripled, from 1,500 to nearly 4,500, in a week. Within two weeks, 7,000 people belonged to all 36 chapters. The group saw another uptick after Trump’s election, reaching almost 9,000 total members. Grossman keeps Boston’s Pink Pistols club fairly informal; there are no dues or membership fees. The group’s Facebook page boasts several hundred followers and a handful of active members who get together once a month for brunch in Somerville followed by a day of shooting at the Harvard Sportsmen’s Club. “We live in a place where people might attack you,” Grossman says, pointing to an emboldened populace of neo-Nazis that has surfaced since Trump took the White House, and “not for anything you did. You should be allowed to defend yourself.”

Still, the recent uptick in gun ownership is concerning to some who believe more weapons do not equate to a safer society. “I think it is fair to say we have a gun epidemic,” says Sandro Galea, dean of BU’s School of Public Health. “We have had 40,000 incidents of gun violence so far this year. This is a direct result of the fact that we have a disproportionate number of guns in civilians’ hands compared to any other peer country.”

Becoming a proper gun owner here today is complicated, but it’s not rocket science—depending on where you live, the process can take a few weeks or much, much longer. All requests go through local police departments, and there are fees, background checks, interviews, classes, and shooting tests one must tend to in order to get a license. Police can reject any application at will. “Mine took 15 months,” says Grossman—and it’s restricted to target shooting and hunting, meaning Grossman can’t walk around the city or go to a nightclub with a pistol. “Doesn’t that defeat the point of the Pink Pistols?” I ask. Grossman admits that his friends sometimes joke about moving to New Hampshire, which has looser restrictions. “But I am very much the stay-and-fight type,” he says. As for the future of gun owners in Massachusetts, he says, one day “it’ll get better.”

 

The surest sign that local gun culture is flourishing, however, is back at the Weston Shooters Club. The day I show up, a Porsche SUV, a Mercedes sports car, and an Audi S4 sit in the parking lot. A handful of members greet me inside, including Jamie and Daphne McManus, a married couple from Weston. Jamie is dressed in a preppy peach-colored collared shirt and navy shorts. Daphne is wearing a floral-pattern dress and marble-size pearl earrings that match her necklace. When I awkwardly comment on her jewelry, she jokes that she could go home and put on some camouflage fatigues if it’d make me more comfortable.

Daphne regularly hosts a women’s night at the club that’s open to both members and nonmembers. At first, she says, fewer than a dozen women showed up. Today, the event attracts nearly 50. Attendees include everyone from police officers to stay-at-home moms to businesswomen. The format of the night is straightforward: Instructors offer a simple lesson on how to safely handle and operate a gun, and then newbies and experienced shooters spend time together at the range. Part of the draw is learning about self-defense, Daphne says, but there are definitely social and networking elements. Women bring along friends; daughters bring mothers. “It’s empowering,” Daphne says.

Jamie and Daphne are both Republicans and in favor of strict gun laws—as well as of challenging people to educate themselves about firearms. When they meet people appalled by guns and aghast that there’s a range in Weston, Jamie says, he’ll dare them to take a single class before making up their minds. “I’m not trying to push you,” he says. “Don’t join a club. Don’t buy a firearm. But I challenge you to get educated.”

This is a common refrain at the Weston club: On the range, members say, fellow gun owners don’t really care about politics, but outside of it, it’s a whole different story. The NRA and the political left are both interested in maintaining the mindset that gun control is binary—you either support the Second Amendment or you don’t, Gardner explains. But as the number of Massachusetts firearm licenses continue to grow and as more people continue to gravitate toward the Weston Shooter’s Women’s Nights, the Liberal Gun Club, and the Pink Pistols, the tendency to view gun owners as a conservative monolith can be dangerously shortsighted. Gardner, who canceled his membership with the NRA years ago, insists that there’s room in the gun debate for compromise, but if the left insists on framing it as a matter of identity politics, they’re only going to alienate more people. “It would be nice if some on the left would be inclusive of many different views and the entirety of the Bill of Rights,” he says. “We make a big deal around the Fourth Amendment, and the First Amendment, and the Fifth Amendment. It’d be nice if we applied the same lens to all of them, not the least of which is the Second Amendment.”

After an hour or so of chatting with the Weston Shooters coterie, I’m a little embarrassed to admit to that I’ve never fired a handgun. So club president Matt McLaughlin takes me into the range and walks me through a basic safety lesson and shooting tutorial. It’s not unlike having someone teach you how to properly swing a golf club. Over the course of 15 minutes, I fire three 10-round clips. Each squeeze of the trigger seems to activate a primal pleasure center in my brain. McLaughlin stands behind me, correcting my stance as needed and calling off where my shots are hitting the target. It feels like a high-stakes game of darts that demands every ounce of attention. My shot-grouping isn’t half bad, and when I’m finished, McLaughlin gives me the two targets to take home as mementos. Before leaving, he encourages me to apply for a gun license and a membership, offering to help in any way he can.

On the drive home, I look down at the targets and feel a sense of achievement. Truth is, I don’t have the time for a new hobby. Plus, I’ve certainly never thought of myself as a gun owner. Yet I must confess, it was fun. Maybe it’ll just be our little secret.


Chris Sweeney Chris Sweeney, Senior Editor at Boston Magazine csweeney@bostonmagazine.com