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Every Thursday, hours before quitting time, a curious handful of men duck out of Miami's construction sites, banks, and police stations to beat the rush-hour traffic to the edge of town.
They take the Tamiami Trail out past strip malls, suburban subdivisions, and a few hundred yards of thinning wetlands to the Trail Glades Gun Range. They emerge into the sultry atmosphere humid and wafting with gun smoke swat down a few eager mosquitoes, and walk off toward the edge of a little-known alligator pond.
In the distance, bullets clang against solid steel, offering the only hint as to what brought the caravan to the city's swampy penumbra. As the noise gets louder, a small, covered shack comes into view. Every now and again, someone steps out onto the grass through the building's narrow entrance (Glock on waist, goggles on eyes, plugs straining to escape their ears) to grab a cigarette or a chat.
17650 SW Eighth St.
West Dade, FL 33194
This is the place Miamians can go to become better gunfighters.
The eight-year-old Tactical Firearms Academy trains shooters in everything from warding off carjackers to Uzi technique. It's a natural byproduct of the Magic City's wealth of armed, clueless citizens. Neither Miami-Dade County's 41,126 concealed weapons permit holders nor its untold number of machine gun owners were required to demonstrate any real knowledge of gun use. "Imagine that the Florida DMV had you come out, get in your car, turn the key, roll down the windows, turn on the radio, and then handed you a license to drive a car down I-95," said Andrew Blaschik, one of the academy's owners.
The academy was started by Fort Lauderdale SWAT sniper Dave Sanders eight years ago. Two of his students, Blaschik and John Gardner, took control of the company around 2004. They learned much of what they know from Sanders, who still teaches.
Blaschik and Gardner run their Thursday shoots with the seriousness of orchestral conductors. "It's a passion," said Gardner, who supplements his income doing security work for rappers and the superrich (Paris Hilton among the notables). Gardner comes across like an ex-Marine football player's build, military buzz-cut while Blaschik has the air of a white-water rafting instructor ruddy face, hiking boots, and knee-high shorts.
By 5:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday, around twenty shooters sat loading magazines and comparing weapons beneath a cramped wooden shelter. Two ceiling fans wobbled above a few picnic tables holding enough guns and ammo to retake Cuba. The structure opened onto a narrow grassy gully that ends in a mound of bullet-riddled dirt. The sweaty bunch watched and waited to be called forth to blast away, from behind a pair of oil drum barricades, at six torso-shape silhouettes.
Each Thursday a new "combat course" is set up. Participants run through it as many times as they can between 5:00 and 8:00 p.m. The cost is a mere twenty bucks. But then there's the ammo. "When you fire 1000 or 1500 rounds down-range a month like we do, you blow about $600 a month," a beefy, baby-faced shooter named Joey said as he nursed an ailing knee.
They've waited all week for this opportunity. More than half of the crowd looked distinctly coplike: burly, clean-shaven, and clad in weapons-laden utility belts. A gallery of private investigator badges gleamed from their belt loops, and the word security was written across several backs. The private law enforcement contingent was joined by a paunchy band of white- and blue-collar men in jeans those who just love to shoot.
"This is great anger management," said a one-armed man wearing camouflage shorts and a dull red shirt reading "Bummer." Blaschik shouted his name as he took down the previous shooters' times. Bummer tucked an additional magazine under the stub of his left arm and picked up his loaded semiautomatic with the other. It was his turn.
Bummer breezed through the course, popping off shots with deadly accuracy. Blaschik followed only a few feet behind, clutching a digital timer and granting permission to begin and end. The humidity and constant gunfire added a squirreliness to the atmosphere, and the range grew loud with boasts and ribbing. "We're like a big cluster of all kinds of folks," Gardner said in his slow, friendly voice. "Everyone comes for their own reason."
The purpose of this night's run-through: to become proficient at shooting one-handed.
Gonzalo G. Ruiz stuck out in the crowd a slight man with tan, sagging cheeks; a striped blue polo shirt; and wire-rim glasses. By day, Ruiz presides over American Express's Central American and Caribbean affairs. For the past five Thursdays, however, he has come out to shoot with Gardner and Blaschik. He usually practices four times a week and recently completed one of the academy's all-day pistol courses. "It was grueling," he said, smiling, as if conveying the highest compliment.
"Listen up! We're gonna knock this shit off here," Blaschik shouted suddenly, his face beet-red. "We've got too many gun safety violations out here. If we have one accident, this will cease to exist! We got too much talking out here. It's supposed to be quiet! If you want to talk and bullshit, do it outside."