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.
Trail Glades Gun Range
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."
The shack grew silent. A few shooters with hangdog expressions shuffled out the door.
(There has never been an accident at the academy, according to Blaschik. But tonight a malfunctioning bullet lodged itself in the barrel of his 9mm Beretta. Had he pulled the trigger a second time, the gun would have exploded in his face. "Only an idiot would have kept shooting at that point," he remarked, tapping away at the stubborn bit of brass as he sat in the bed of his pickup truck.)
Ruiz shifted nervously in his brown leather loafers. "I've never done one-handed before," he said. Then he stepped up to the firing line and placed a loaded magazine into his Glock .34.
With the beep of Blaschik's timer, Ruiz ran toward the first shooting station, drawing and aiming his loaded pistol in a fluid motion. He took a firm stance behind a pile of oil drums, popped off two shots clang clang and scurried for the next station a few feet away. Ruiz hit everything he needed to in 50 seconds flat, his left hand tucked neatly behind his back.
Not a bad time, though he opted to penalize himself for missing one of his targets. "That's an extra ten seconds," he sighed. His penalty is rather arbitrary. Nothing is at stake tonight save the prestige associated with being the deadliest shot in the shack.
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On the grassy lawn outside, the city's private law enforcement community talked shop. Willy, a brick-jawed ex-cop with spiky black hair and a superhero's build, explained how to narco-train a K-9 unit: "You put the coke/heroin/weed in a PVC pipe and get the dog to play fetch with it. Then he thinks it is his toy."
As darkness crept over the combat course, many of the academy's less dedicated pupils began packing up and heading home. The rest continued to spray bullets down-range, their muzzles flashing and crackling in the gloaming.
"I love it, I do it, I like it, I have fun," said Pedro Reyes, an enthusiastic construction worker wearing a black baseball cap with the word infidel scrawled in Arabic. Reyes, who has left work every Thursday afternoon at two for the past six months, is an excellent shot.
When asked what brings him and his Glock to the Everglades, he begins, "I have fun, and living in this crazy town." Before he can finish his thought, he's called up to the line for his final run.