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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : The Range Wars : Owners of new firing range in Inglewood say it teaches safety and self-defense. But critics fear that the facility will promote gun violence.

March 09, 1995|SCOTT COLLINS

Mark Sinaguglia planted his feet firmly on the floor, squared his shoulders and raised a Glock 9-millimeter pistol, zeroing in on his target. The crack of the gunshots made even a bystander wearing protective headgear flinch.

"That's five rounds, slow-fire," Sinaguglia said, peering at a punctured target hanging on a wire 21 feet away. Light shined through four holes in the orange-colored thorax of a human silhouette. "Four were dead-center, and one was off a little bit."

As the acrid smell of gunpowder wafted past, Sinaguglia resumed practicing his marksmanship one recent Saturday at the LAX Firing Range in Inglewood--where guns have lately become a target of fierce debate.

Since opening in January, the firing range near the Inglewood-Westchester border has become a local flash point in the impassioned debate over gun control. The business sells ammunition and rents guns and range time.

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Sinaguglia, the range's manager, and Sam Kash, its owner, envision their fledgling business as a family-oriented establishment where Dad--and Mom--can teach Junior how to safely load and fire a .38. They argue that their range, one of only a handful open to the public in the Westside area, actually curbs violence by teaching law-abiding citizens how to defend themselves. Novices can sign up for popular classes in firearms safety and instruction.

"We've had all kinds of (customers), from liquor store clerks to medical doctors to engineers from aircraft companies," Sinaguglia said. "Nurses, housewives, people from all walks of life. Our oldest shooter so far was in his mid-70s."

Sinaguglia said that weekends are busiest, with an average of 35 to 50 shooters per day. The majority are experienced shooters, he added.

But as a number of crime-weary Southern California cities weigh measures connected to the sale and possession of handguns and ammunition, some community leaders have protested that the new range encourages the use of handguns and could serve as a boot camp for gang members.

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The debate takes on special urgency in Inglewood, which has been plagued by a series of highly publicized gang shootings in recent years, and in 1993 recorded the 14th highest murder rate in the nation among cities with populations over 100,000.

"Why do we have so many innocent people shot down on the streets?" said Albert Harris, an associate pastor at the New Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in Inglewood. The reason, he argues, is that casual attitudes about guns have bred violence.

Believing that a new gun range sends the wrong message to Inglewood teen-agers, Harris is a staunch opponent of the LAX Firing Range. Last year, in fact, he paid a $300 fee out of his own pocket to bring the matter before a public hearing at a City Council meeting.

But the council, maintaining a business-friendly attitude and mindful that gun ownership is legal, approved the range on a 3-2 vote.

The council's decision, however, has not changed Harris' mind. Criminals, he said, use such ranges to "sharpen their skills and then go back on the streets so they don't miss."

Police--who, according to range owners, often practice at gun ranges--do not necessarily agree with Harris.

"I don't have a problem with" the new gun range, said Inglewood Police Chief Oliver Thompson. "Anyone can say that criminals learn to shoot this way, but that's not a concern of mine." He added that the LAX range's safety procedures--which include security doors and range officers trained in first aid--are "outstanding."

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The Inglewood range is the latest--but by no means the only--local outlet for gun users.

There's the Sharpshooter indoor shooting range in Torrance--one of the few gun ranges that also sells firearms. The Beverly Hills Gun Club, actually located in West Los Angeles, has been renting guns and range time for 13 years. Its range officer, William Lee, said the club's clientele includes police officers, families and even a few celebrities.

The popularity of these clubs reflects a growing local interest in firearms in recent years as public concern about crime has mushroomed.

Dozens of Los Angeles-area gun dealers advertise in the Yellow Pages, and experts agree that many more sell and trade guns illegally out of their homes or on the streets.

The Sacramento-based Department of Justice, which records all firearms sales statewide, said that last year 382,085 handguns were sold by authorized dealers, a 12% decrease from an all-time high of 433,822 in 1993.

Department of Justice analyst Ann Norman said the drop was partly due to stiffer controls on the purchase of handguns. Purchasers are now required to get a Basic Firearm Safety Certificate, either by passing a written test or watching a two-hour video, Norman said.

"One of the big spikes (in the number of gun sales) came in 1992, after the Los Angeles riots," Norman said.

As state gun sales increased over the past decade, so, too, did concern about the proliferation of firearms.

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