Driven by the popularity of gun ownership, the indoor shooting range business around Charlotte is rapidly expanding.
With the opening of the citys first public indoor shooting range this fall, the number of ranges in the area will have doubled since 2010. Two more are planned for early 2014, raising the count to 10 within 30 miles of uptown.
These new ranges serve experienced shooters but also make a special effort to draw in the curious and turn them into customers. Gun rentals give people a chance to try before they buy, and employees are knowledgeable about how to apply for gun permits.
Most ranges offer concealed carry and safety classes, and many are marketing to growing interest among women. Some offer to host special events, from corporate team building to divorce parties, and up the level of entertainment with simulators and timed targets.
A third of American households report having a firearm in the home, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. And while gun sales are not officially tracked, the FBIs background check system suggests sales have been on the rise, with the biggest increase in 15 years in 2012.
The Pew Research Center also found that nearly half of all gun owners now say protection is the main reason they own a gun, up from about a quarter of all gun owners in 1999.
That trend is reflected at local gun ranges, shop owners say, and is coupled with concerns about possible new government restrictions.
Any time theres fear ... I think people want to do something tangible to address that fear, said David Drummond, owner of Carolina Sporting Arms in Charlotte. I think a lot of people are going out buying guns to address that fear.
Carolina Sporting Arms plans to open Charlottes first public indoor range in the fall. Lincoln County could have an indoor range in Denver by spring. And the owners of The Range at Lake Norman in Cornelius, which opened in 2011, plan to open a second facility called The Range at Ballantyne early next year.
In a growing urban area, indoor ranges are a safer and more practical option than backyard target practice, said Robert Watson, the developer who plans to open the Denver range.
I think theres a big need here because theres people out shooting all over the place, Watson said. They want to get it kind of in a controlled situation instead of people out shooting on private property or poaching on other peoples property.
Suzanne Conway, leader of the Charlotte area chapter of gun-control advocacy group Moms Demand Action, wants more gun regulations but said she is not against guns. In fact, she said, gun ranges are a preferable option for those who enjoy using guns.
Wed much rather they get out there and, if they want to shoot their guns, theres a special place for it, Conway said.
Catering to women
Audra Lattimore is a real estate agent in Denver who attended a public meeting last month to support Watsons proposed range.
Shes developed an interest in guns and shooting in the last couple of years, and shes noticed it becoming more socially acceptable for women to take part in the sport.
She has a concealed carry permit and said she feels safer knowing she can protect herself if needed. I go in vacant houses with people I dont know every day, she said.
But Lattimore said she also shoots for the fun of it. Her womens business networking group recently got together at The Range at Lake Norman.
The challenge, the competitiveness, having the range to be able to go and do something as a group together its just a competition, Lattimore said.
More than three-quarters of national gun retailers said they saw an increase in the number of female customers in 2012, the National Shooting Sports Foundation reports.
Men are still about three times as likely as women to own guns, according to Pew surveys. About a quarter of gun owners are women.
Local gun range and shop owners say women are the fastest-growing demographic in the firearms market, and businesses are adapting from the products they carry to the radio stations they advertise with.
Youve got to adapt or die, said Drummond, of Carolina Sporting Arms. Shooting sports in general are on the rise. ... I think a lot of ladies have found out that its a lot of fun.
Business at Hyatt Gun Shop in Charlotte is no longer driven predominantly by male hunters, owner Larry Hyatt said. The growth is in self-defense buyers, particularly women, who he said may feel more vulnerable.
Before opening The Range at Lake Norman two years ago, the owners spent time traveling to other ranges around the country and taking note of demographics, said co-owner Brian Sisson. What they noticed, he said, was a tremendous amount of women taking up shooting sports.
Our target market was women and families. Theyre the largest growing portion of the shooting sports industry these days, Sisson said.
Some of the older ranges can be intimidating to women, he said. The Range at Lake Norman has tried to create a welcoming environment, partly by employing a lot of women to make female customers more comfortable, he said.
Customer traffic at his range has been better than anticipated since it opened, Sisson said, and 52 percent of those customers are women.
Watson also expects the majority of shooters at his Denver range to be female.
Were going to have a nice restroom area, nice everything for women, Watson said. Theyre really into this. I think that women want to make sure they protect themselves.
Close to home
Indoor ranges have opened around the country in response to a major increase in firearms sales in the last few years, said NSSF spokesman Bill Brassard. The NSSF does not have data on the number of ranges that open each year.
As many as one-fourth of all gun purchases are made by first-time gun owners, the NSSF estimates. And first-time gun owners are active shooters, with 60 percent of them using their gun at least once a month. Brassard said that could explain the wave of ranges opening in the Charlotte area.
It wouldnt surprise me if more ranges are opening up near urban areas (nationally) because thats where the numbers are, and those areas have not been well served by ranges, Brassard said. With more people owning firearms, they want the convenience of the range nearby.
Sisson said many of his customers at The Range at Lake Norman commute from the Ballantyne area in south Charlotte and have shown interest in having a shooting facility nearby.
Sisson drew from demographic research provided by the NSSF, including information about the number of people involved in shooting activities in the area, to plan his Lake Norman and Ballantyne ranges. The NSSF uses survey data rather than the more controversial gun permit information to provide market research.
In Denver, locals met recently to give their input on Watsons proposed 14,000-square-foot facility, and the comments were overwhelmingly in favor of opening the countys first public indoor range.
Supporters included Lake Norman Lutheran Church, located on neighboring property. At the meeting, church members expressed no concerns other than that the building be soundproof and that it open later on Sundays.
Denver business owner Ken Moore has been going to gun ranges for more than 20 years, and he said hell appreciate the convenience of having a range closer to home. He sees the opening of a range in Denver as a healthy part of the areas commercial development.
Moores interest stems from both personal safety and recreational enjoyment, and he takes his 8-year-old son to shoot, too. He says shooting is just like any other adrenaline sport.
I think there are probably a lot more people out there that own weapons and artillery than you would even think, Moore said. Theres a lot of interest, and people see it as a way to generate revenue. I think theyll do well.
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