BY CADY KUZMICH
CLIFTON PARK — When I received an email from Dick Buehler, the president of the Sportsmen’s Club of Clifton Park, offering to give me a tour of the facilities, clarify what the term “assault weapon” means and give me a shooting lesson, I couldn’t turn down the offer. Buehler wrote in to Your Clifton Park & Halfmoon in response to a recent “My Take” one of our photo interns did, asking community members to share their thoughts on assault rifles. What exactly makes a gun an assault weapon has been the subject of a heated debate in recent years, especially since Governor Andrew Cuomo spearheaded passage of the New York SAFE Act three years ago banning assault weapons. Buehler offered to brief me on the subject from his perspective.
Originally from Brooklyn, Buehler first moved upstate after being transferred with the military in 1980.
Buehler served 33 years in the Army, and eventually attained the rank of colonel. When it came to the SAFE Act, he could hardly contain his disdain. “Did we actually pay someone to write that?” he asked.
The SAFE Act, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, aims to keep firearms out of the hands of convicted felons, anyone who has been involuntarily committed and those under an order of protection. It increases penalties for those who use illegal guns and boasts “the toughest assault weapons ban in the country.” Those who already own assault weapons can keep them as long as they register their gun with the state. Convicted felons, anyone who has been involuntarily committed and anyone under an order of protection will not be able to register. Cuomo said, “For hunters, sportsmen, and law-abiding gun owners, this new law preserves and protects your right to buy, sell, keep or use your guns.”
Today in New York state, an assault rifle is defined as any semiautomatic gun with at least one designated “military-style” characteristic. These features include pistol grips, detachable magazines, folding telescoping stock, muzzle brakes, flash suppressors and bayonet mounts. Many who oppose the SAFE Act believe “assault weapons” are not semiautomatic, but fully automatic weapons.
“It’s like changing your lipstick,”said Buehler, referring to the SAFE Act. “It’s cosmetic. We are now going
from looks and looks are very deceiving,” he said. “You don’t have problems with legal firearms,” he said. “It’s the people who aren’t going to follow the law anyways.”
That said, the general citizenry can legally accumulate some impressive firepower. “A vast majority
of guns used in 16 recent mass shootings, including two guns believed to be used in the Orlando attack, were bought legally and with a federal background check,” according to a New York Times article published in the wake of the Orlando shooting.
Buehler and Jonathon Schopf, the club’s attorney, gave me a tour of the target range just off Englemore Road in Clifton Park and then gave me a shooting lesson. Schopf represents Clifton Park on the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors and has been a member of the Sportsmen’s Club of Clifton Park for 10 years.
A winding dirt road twists through the range, from the trap fields, rifl e range, archery range and the plinking area. The site has modeled some of their retaining walls to double as sound barriers and added
trees so the intermittent “Pop! Pop, Pop!” is somewhat muted from the homes nearby. Of the 67 acres
owned by the club, 65 are part of a conservation easement meant to remain forever wild, according to
Buehler. “We want this in place for our grandkids,” he said. The range was relatively quiet when I visited
in the middle of the week.
My first mistake was starting with a pistol. Once Buehler taught me how to hold the gun, I readied myself … “click.” The recoil and resounding “pop” caught me off guard no matter how much I tried to brace myself each time I pulled the trigger.
Rifles, on the other hand, I could handle. Buehler helped me get situated in the wooden seat and propped the gun up to rest comfortably against my shoulder. Not sure what to expect after being so startled by the recoil from the much smaller pistol, I braced myself. I peered through the scope and centered the red dot on the center of the human-shaped target down the range. After a long, deep breath, or maybe two, I pulled the trigger. While there was no recoil this time, the loud bang still made me pause. The bullet I shot — from the same 5.56 mm cartridge used in military assault rifles and their civilian look-alikes — ripped through the paper target stapled onto a plastic barrel. I fired again, closer to the middle this time. Again, and again, I fired … consistently hitting in the center of my target. The little red dot in the scope centered, without effort, back on my target. My ability to use such a powerful tool somewhat well was exhilarating. The time flew with the bullets. Shell casings hit the hard floor below. I was beginning to understand Buehler’s point — it’s just another sport. An adrenaline-heavy sport, at that.
I had only gone shooting once before. My fiance was getting into hunting, so he wanted to go practice at a range near our college. I had never even held a gun before that, but I went along and fired a couple rounds. I did pretty well and was proud of it, waving my swiss-cheese tin can in the air.
“Tell your fiance to watch out,” laughed Buehler as he handed me my holey target.
Just as shooting was exhilarating, it was unsettling. If a writer who only shot a gun once before, years ago, can shoot with such relative ease… what’s stopping a homophobe from shooting up a gay bar or a
mentally disturbed man from massacring school children? It isn’t always apparent whether someone is mentally and emotionally fit to own a firearm, after all.
While I struggled with the pistol and didn’t have perfect aim by any means, I shot my target again and
again, with consistent grouping in the core of the target. With the lack of recoil and help of the scope, it was beginning to feel more like a video game than real life. Though my video game experience is just about as limited as my experience with firearms, they were hard to avoid with two older brothers. After firing just five or six bullets, it was clear to see how easy it is to keep shooting and hitting a target with the right equipment.
Like a video game, all it takes is a slight shift of a finger. After shooting at the range for an afternoon, I empathize with those who shoot for sport. It’s fun, it’s true. It feels good to aim, pull the trigger and hear the bullet rip through the target. I admire hunters who track down and kill their own food. I suspect, if you have a conceal carry permit, it feels good to know you have an insurance policy, so to speak. Still, I left the range just as convinced as I have ever been of the importance of keeping these weapons out of the wrong hands.
Buehler first pulled the trigger of a gun before he was 10 years old. “My father was in the Army,” he said.
Noting how “kids are notoriously interested in everything,” Buehler said teaching them how to properly use a gun takes away the mystique. He likened the experience to “teaching kids not to dive under the kitchen sink and see how everything tastes.” He still has the fi rst gun his father taught him how to shoot.
Buehler advised gun owners to teach their kids about guns as soon as they’re curious. With his own children, Buehler used a watermelon for target practice once they expressed interest. Watching the watermelon seeds and pink flesh of the fruit scatter after the bullet’s impact was an eye opener for his
kids, according to Buehler.
Buehler, and the club in general, would like to see the right to carry a concealed handgun expanded in
New York state. “If you don’t have an option, you’re a victim,” he said matter of factly. He compared having a concealed weapon to having a parachute on an airplane. “How long does it take for 911 to respond,” Buehler asked Schopf. “About four and a half, five minutes,” replied Schopf. “That’s a long time,” said Buehler. Both Buehler and Schopf think better communication among gun shops, governing bodies and law enforcement is paramount to addressing the nation’s gun violence.
Today, the club boasts a membership of just over 1,200. A yearly membership costs $100. “There’s 600 on the waiting list,” added Buehler. “It attracts from the military, blue collar, lawyers, physicians, dentists … all walks of life,” said Schopf.
“Some people race cars or go climbing. This is just a different sport,” said Buehler. “Like anything else, it’s not the equipment, it’s the person. If you’re climbing a rock and you fall, it’s not the rock’s fault,” he said.