Melissa Leong, National Post
August 23, 2008
On a whiteboard facing the Union Station pistol range, a handwritten message reads, “Goodbye to all. Thank you for helping me get to the Olympics. Remember the good times and keep loving shooting. Avianna.”
Above that, Avianna Chao, who is in Beijing where she competed in the women’s 25-metre pistol shooting, wrote, “1927-2008, CN Handgun Club.”
For 81 years, members of the exclusive Canadian National Recreation Association handgun club have strode through Union Station with weapons locked in their briefcases or bags. They have passed through an unmarked door in the lobby, rode a scissor-gated elevator to the fifth or six floor – depending on where it wants to stop – and then climbed a narrow twisting stairwell to the shooting gallery.
But the historic range will not be live for much longer. The site closes Aug. 29.
On a recent evening, the mood at the gallery is mostly jovial. The dozen or so members who have gathered for their last days at the range are also wistful, at times angry.
In June, city council voted to close down two shooting ranges on city premises – one at the Don Montgomery Community Recreation Centre in Scarborough, the other at Union Station. Following the death of bystander John O’Keefe who was gunned down with a legally registered weapon last winter, Mayor David Miller said, “I don’t think there’s any defence for sport shooters anymore… It’s a hobby that creates danger to others.”
Tom Bradbeer’s frustration is muffled by his soft-spoken manner, “The club’s closing changes nothing. What happens to us has no impact on crime in the streets.”
Honest gun owners are an “easy target,” says Mr. Bradbeer, a 55-year-old information technology manager and president of the club.
“It’s much easier for the mayor to shut us down than it is to deal with the real problem,” John Robertson, 71, adds. “The real problem in the city is the gun culture among the gangs.”
About seven shooters are inside the dim, gray range which is 20 metres long and 10 bays across. They shout at each other over the growl of the ventilation system. It moves 15,000 cubic feet of air per minute, sucking gunpowder residue and fumes.
At one of the carpeted bays is a young brunette wearing a black dress with white flowers. Her loafer-covered feet stand shoulder-width apart as she stares down a paper target hung on a wire by two clothespins. Her left hand cradles her right which grips a .22 caliber Ruger.
“Does she look like a gang banger?” Gary Guerin, the range officer in charge of safety, asks.
Jenny Johnson, 28, is one of the club’s newest members. She got her firearms licence last fall.
“She’s Wyatt Earp,” Mr. Guerin says. “I have a 92-year-old Luger that I have never been able to hit the paper with. Jenny can cut the centre out of the target with the damn thing.”
It’s like trying to “hit a toonie at 20 yards,” another member explains.
As her mentor, Mr. Guerin has taught her much about shooting — how to stand, how to sight, how to breathe: let out half of the air in your lungs and pull the trigger.
He is a well-known client at the bank that Ms. Johnson works at and invited her to shoot last April when he found out that she was studying criminology at York University.
Before that, from the media and stories from her uncle who is a police officer, she saw guns only as tools of violence. Now, she sometimes wears a silver pendant of a .45 semi-automatic.
“It is a constant challenge against yourself. You have to get yourself in a very calm state.”
Mr. Guerin, who collects firearms and antique cars, also taught his daughter, a doctor, and his wife, a public health nurse, to shoot. He lives near the site of last week’s explosion at a propane facility and on this night, makes frequent mention of it: “Are guns more dangerous than propane?”
“Will you stop with that?” Ms. Johnson says.
“Well, it just scared the living hell out of me.”
When everyone in the range stops firing, he flips a switch that turns on a green light bulb above the bays. Ms. Johnson and Chris Davidson, 35, practically skip over to look at the paper targets that are punctured with holes the diameter of a pencil.
“I didn’t shoot the clip,” Mr. Davidson says, referring to the clothespin missing from Ms. Johnson’s target.
“I was aiming for the clip,” she retorts.
Behind the targets, a reinforced steel backboard, tilted at a 45-degree angle, has deflected their bullets into a sand pit.
While their colleagues shoot in the gallery, a few members sit in an adjacent room, talking about the mayor, talking about moving out. One of them is a high school teacher, another is a university professor; both ask that their names not be used.
The association cannot afford to establish another location but Mr. Bradbeer said other clubs have temporarily volunteered their space.
In the meantime, Mr. Bradbeer has stacks of paper, “evidence,” to shred, he jokes. He scans at a typewritten membership application form from the 1980s. This person was rejected, he says, because under a question about criminal records, the applicant wrote: “possession of cannibis.”
Later, the members flip through dusty photos from a cabinet.
“These are old!” Weisun Leong says.
“They’re not that old for crying out loud! They’re only from the eighties,” Mr. Robertson protests.
Many of today’s 130 membersÃƒâ€šÃ‚Â – who include about 20 women and who range in age from 16 to their eighties – would have been eyed by Mr. Robertson before being accepted into the club.
As chief range officer for almost 20 years, he was the club’s gatekeeper. You had to have a valid firearms licence and you had to know someone to get in.
“They always thought I was a nice old guy but I was asking them pointed questions,” he said.
“We certainly don’t want somebody in the club who has a hair trigger.”
The club invited about 10 new members every year.
The members reminisced about helping fledgling police officers pass their weapons training and teaching soldiers who are now in Afghanistan.
The association’s range was built into Union Station when it was completed in 1927. Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway police used it for practice.
It was open exclusively to railway employees. Later, an associate category was created for non-employees.
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