Not long after news broke that 20 grade-schoolers were slaughtered on Friday, a local shooting range invited people to come down over the weekend to get their pictures taken with Santa and a machine gun. The advertisement was posted on Colonial Shooting Academy’s Facebook page. It was followed by a message expressing condolences to the victims of the Newtown tragedy.
As of noon on Sunday, five couples had come to sit on Santa’s lap while wielding their choice of two fully automatic assault rifles. Santa is big and round, has an authentic white beard, and is clearly a gun enthusiast. A giant sniper rifle is mounted on the wall behind him next to stacks of gift-wrapped boxes and other Christmas dressings.
I approach Santa looking for answers. “I don’t usually picture Santa with a machine gun,” I say.
He responds without hesitation: “Someone’s got to protect the North Pole.”
The general manager of Colonial Shooting Academy, Ed Coleman, tells me he doesn’t see any reason to cancel the event, which had been planned weeks in advance. “It’s just kind of a little different thing people do, and people really seem to enjoy it,” he says. “We had people bring their kids. We had a guy bring his wife and his dog to pose with Santa. … It’s kind of a novelty thing.”
And it’s a novelty that has absolutely no relevance to what happened in Newtown, Coleman says. To him and many of his customers, the tragic murders by an assault-rifle wielding 20-year-old have about as much of a connection to the shooting range as a mass-drowning would have to the swimming pool at the local YMCA.
“There’s obviously a big disconnect between what happened up there and how people shoot here,” Coleman says. “This is obviously an educational place and a recreational place. So people want to continue on with their lives just like we are.”
I actually stopped by Colonial two days before, on Friday evening, because I wondered what the mood at a shooting range and gun store would be like after one of the worst school shootings in the country’s history.
I asked a clerk if mass shootings have much impact on business. He responded with a flat, abrupt, “No.”
Next to me at the counter was a married couple shopping for a handgun. Behind them was an excited 20-something with two friends waiting to pick up a new assault rifle he’d put on layaway.
While the first man’s wife inquired about gift cards, I talked to him about whether it felt weird to buy a gun the night of a tragedy like this. No, he said. Then he gestured up at a wall displaying about 15 assault rifles. “But I was looking at those and thinking, ‘Why does anyone need that?’”
The range itself is filled with the unmistakable smell of burnt gun powder and the persistent cracking of pistols and rifles. At 8:30 people are starting to clear out. One of the range safety officers makes small talk with a shooter.
“How’s that Glock treating you tonight?” he asks.
“Not well,” the target shooter responds.
“I understand,” says the safety officer. “We all have bad nights.”