Four Girl Scouts greeted me in the foyer of Gun For Hire, a suburban New Jersey institution that bills itself as “The Only Family Destination Gun Range in the World!” The Girl Scouts are there every weekend during cookie season, hawking Tagalongs and Thin Mints a few yards away from an arsenal of about 1,500 rifles, pistols, and AR-15s. It’s good for the kids and good for business, says Gun for Hire founder and CEO Anthony Colandro, who signs his emails “Capitalist Marksman” and was, on the Saturday of The March for Our Lives, making uneasy jokes about giving a speech at the wrong rally.
He laughed with one of the girls’ fathers about what would happen if he mixed up his scheduling and, instead of appearing as planned at an upcoming pro-gun rally, showed up to an anti-gun protest talking about teaching 8-year-olds to shoot, one of his specialties. The NRA recommends kids wait to shoot until they turn eight because, prior to that, their ears aren’t fully developed. Colandro follows this guidance and provides a helping hand to his range’s youngest visitors.
“It’s just like the Boy Scouts,” he said, apparently unaware that guns are banned from any event officially linked to Boy Scouts of America. (They do have a rifle merit badge program that has more to do with hunting than handing kids AR-15s)
As 150,000 people, inspired by the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that left 17 dead, marched through the streets of New York demanding gun control legislation, Gun for Hire was doing brisk business. Some 30 minutes from the city, families in Woodland Park were marching across the tarmac toward target practice.
As the only gun range in the U.S. affiliated with the International Association of Amusement Parks, Colandro’s business operates more or less like a bowling alley. But it isn’t a bowling alley. It’s the fastest expanding commercial shooting range in the country, with 66 ports total and over 3,000 firearms, including plenty of child-size rifles known as chipmunks. Roughly 500 people and 30 families visit Gun for Hire on an average Saturday. It’s a family activity. But on March 24, 2018, it also feels like an upbeat counter-protest.
“Every time there’s talk of gun control my business has an uptick” Colandro explained. “It’s not positive because it plays off of fear-mongering, and it makes people buy more guns because they’re scared of them being taken away.”
Prior to opening Gun for Hire, Colandro was a shooting instructor who ran programs for several ranges and demonstrated a special talent for teaching people who were not mainstream gun owners, which is his polite way of saying not old, fat, white men. During this time, he was also raising two young stepsons, who he took shooting regularly. He liked taking them out and teaching them but hated having them hang out in poorly maintained ranges. He says he didn’t want them in the bathrooms. “Wait until the diner on the way home,” he’d tell the cross-legged pre-teens.
If safety is first at Gun for Hire — and it is — hospitality is a close second. The place is immaculate and truly family friendly, stocked with special D-Lead soap to wash off gunpowder residue before buying lunch at the connected Rifle Camp Cafe. There are even facilities in place that allow individuals with disabilities like cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis to shoot. There’s a 13-year-old corgi who makes occasional appearances from the office. And then there’s Colandro, who goes out of his way to defy the gun nut range owner stereotype by being friendly and self-effacing. He makes jokes and talks about the Warhol prints on the wall (“Most people don’t know that Warhol did guns. They think he only did Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s Soup cans.”)
The overall effect is that Gun for Hire doesn’t have a militia feel at all and doesn’t seem to attract a homogeneous group of hardliners.
“They need to realize the reality and the damage they can do,” said Joshua Martinez, a father taking his 13-year-old shooting for the first time. “If it’s more hands-on, they can realize how dangerous it is and not to mess with them.”
Martinez hadn’t come to encourage his kid to love guns. He had come to help him understand that guns are dangerous. His agenda is different than the agenda of Claudia and Bob Capshaw, who are shooting with their teenagers nearby, but not at odds. The Capshaws are very into gun training, specifically for their 13-year-old daughter.
“I don’t think people protesting know what they want and if they had a chance to try it really think about it, I think a lot of people afraid of guns might not be so afraid,” Claudia says. “It’s a fun thing to do.”
Colandro works hard to make it fun and knows that hardware is ultimately what makes a difference. He lets beginners over the age of 13 use Bushmaster AR-15 rifles, the guns that were used by 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and 2017 Las Vegas shooting, and at the 2016 Orlando Nightclub shooting, and Glock 19s. The guns make big noises and have strong recoils. Instructors, standing nearby, urge shooters not to be nervous.
It’s not totally clear whether Colandro‘s dream is to have Gun for Hire to operate as an amusement park, a scared straight program, or a community space for family-minded gun lovers. For now, he seems content to let it be a bit of each. For Colandro, who argues that gun control efforts just encourage the wrong people to buy guns, this is not contradictory because he doesn’t see the potential for real legislative or cultural change. It’s not that he’s hard-hearted or dismissive of the fact that America has seen 1,624 mass shootings in the last 1,870 days. It’s that he thinks that training kids to use guns will keep them from using guns to murder each other.
“The AR is not going away and unfortunately neither are mass shootings,” Colandro said. “My hope is that this takes kids out of the fantasy and that they walk away with an appreciation for how lethal guns can be. Maybe we have prevented tragedies … I know we have.”
Photographs by Lauren Vinopal for Fatherly