Our first-ever ranking of the five shootin'est, most handgun-friendly cities in the country.
So let's begin with the obvious: a "best of" ranking of anything--people, places or things--comes with a big dose of subjectivity. In selecting the best towns for handgun owners and shooters, our subjectivity factored in the available shooting ranges and the popularity of shooting clubs, leagues, competitions and handgun classes. We also examined state and local handgun laws.
Then the more difficult question: How strong is a locale's handgun "culture?" To get a sense of that, we scanned the local gun shows, firearms museums, collectors' associations and noteworthy retailers to solicit opinions and observations. We looked for a few places somewhat off the beaten path, too.
Of course, certain cities were automatically eliminated. Anti-handgun Chicago, for example, was not even a consideration. No places in New Jersey or California, with their one-handgun-per-month rule, made the cut for obvious reasons.
Still, many fine handgun cities and towns were left off, and that's bound to happen in any compilation such as this. Having said that, here are what we consider the top handgunning cities in the country, presented in no particular order.
Population: city proper, 1.4 million; metro area, 3.4 million
Handgun ranges within 60 miles: 12
Open carry? Yes
In addition to ranges such as Ben Avery and active pistol leagues, Phoenix is within striking distance of the famed Gunsite Training Center.
Nicknamed the "Valley of the Sun," Phoenix boasts more than 300 sunny days a year and an average temperature of 74.2 degrees--what we call fine shooting weather. And shoot they do, especially at the 1,650-acre Ben Avery Shooting Facility, with specific ranges dedicated to pistol silhouette and practical pistol shooting. Five handgun clubs call BenAvery home, and club-sponsored shoots include practical pistol, cowboy and silhouette. USPSA and Steel Challenge matches are held here, too.
"Arizona Cowboy Mounted Shooters Association uses Ben Avery as our main shooting arena," says ACMSA president Diana Olson. "We have held four events between January and March this year and have several more scheduled for 2010. The arena is also in use every weekend by ACMSA members for practice."
Maricopa County, home county for Phoenix, has 78,000 concealed carry permit holders, well over half the state's total, plus 1,000 certified carry instructors.
"I don't know many people who don't carry all the time," say Jane Anne Shimizu, marketing director for the Gunsite shooting school. "In Arizona, especially the Yavapai County area, handgun shooting is a sport--kind of like fishing or golf--and many people with the time shoot in competition. And we don't like to sell our guns; we feel you can never have enough."
Yes, that Gunsite, located north of Phoenix and founded in 1976 by Jeff Cooper. Gunsite's mission was and is to spread the gospel of Cooper's "Modern Technique of the Pistol." Thousands of shooters--from novice to advanced--come here every year to do just that.
In addition to the newly opened Clark County Shooting Center, Vegas is also home to championship caliber matches such as the USPSA nationals.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Ranges within 60 miles: 13
Open carry? Yes
Las Vegas bills itself as the "Entertainment Capital of the World." Among the city's entertainments that don't get much notice? Extensive handgun shooting opportunities, from touristy handgun range rentals to numerous leagues and competitions. Among the latter, the U.S. Practical Shooting Association national championships are held at the Desert Sportsmen's Rifle and Pistol Club. Las Vegas was chosen in part for its active shooting community.
"We couldn't have those events in any city that doesn't have active local volunteer USPSA members willing to devote considerable time and effort to make the match successful," says Dave Thomas, USPSA executive director. "We are fortunate that such a core group is resident in Las Vegas."
"Las Vegas is very gun friendly," says Michael Morrissey of the Las Vegas Gun Range & Firearms Center. The center holds numerous concealed carry certification courses, and rents firearms for tourists in a shooting kind of mood, from .50 caliber Desert Eagles to Tec-9s.
Handgun shooting opportunities should only get better here, thanks to the newly opened Clark County Shooting Park. It took 24 years of planning and work, but the park opened in 2009, initially with 178 acres of ranges and facilities out of a planned 900 acres total. Currently, two handgun ranges are open to the public.
"In the future, we plan on an additional 30 tactical bays, a pistol silhouette range and a 50-meter 100-point PPC-style range," says Don Turner, shooting park manager. Soon after opening, the park began fielding inquiries about handgun competitions and league shooting possibilities. In April, it held its first handgun event, a cowboy shoot hosted by the Single Action Shooting Society.
With a bug jump in concealed- carry licenses being issued in Ohio, handgun training classes such as those at SimTrainer are regularly filled to capacity.
Population: 1 million
Ranges within 30 miles: 40
Open carry? Yes
Dayton-Springfield-Greenville is what the U.S. Census Bureau defines as a Combined Statistical Area or CSA, a population clustered around a core area with substantial economic and cultural connections. Put another way, the Dayton-Springfield-Greenville CSA is a million people situated between Cincinnati and Columbus, anchored by Dayton in the south and stretching out over five counties.
The Dayton-Springfield-Greenville CSA is home to more than 40 shooting ranges, including one of the Midwest's best-known: the Lauhorner Gun and Archery Range in Springfield. A National Association of Shooting Ranges five-star range, Lauhorner hosts many handgun leagues, including the three-month long Glock Sport Shooting Foundation matches, plus a popular combat pistol league.
While local shooters have always had a strong interest in handguns, says Mark Avery, an NRA-certified firearms trainer at SimTrainer Range and Training Center in Dayton, new handgunners are filling the ranks. For example, SimTrainer hosts a National Shooting Sports Foundation First Shots class at least once a month, providing neophyte shooters a safe and educational introduction to handguns.
"But, lately, the classes fill so far before the event, we've been adding at least one extra class every time," Avery notes. "Over half the participants return for advanced training, purchase handguns, obtain their concealed-carry licenses and join our training league or participate in recreational shooting."
"One of the local companies had employees who indicated an interest in starting a company handgun league," Avery continues. "They contacted us wondering if we could support about 40 to 50 participants. By the time the signups were complete, over 100 people joined the league."
"Handgun collecting is very popular with our members," says Laura Knotts business manager of the Ohio Gun Collectors Association, which holds numerous shows in the Dayton area every year. "We have 15,000 members, and a typical meeting includes 800 eight-foot tables strictly limited to gun or gun-related material."
Gun shows are a big draw, too.
"We conduct 12 to 13 shows each year in the Dayton/Vandalia area and have done so for the past 30-plus years," says David Goodman of Bill Goodman's Gun & Knife Shows. "Our shows attract approximately 450 tables each show and thousands of customers. Our show is mostly modern guns. Handgun sales are up about 40 percent or more since President Obama got elected."
Ohio as a whole is experiencing a boom in concealed carry popularity. In 2009 alone, Ohio issued more than 56,000 carry permits, the most in any year since the state's shall issue law passed in 2004. Greene and Montgomery Counties, which contain most of metro Dayton, had just over 4,000 CCW permits issued in 2009 alone, most of those new permits.
Active Leagues are big gun shows are just part of Loiusville's attraction. It's also host to the Frazier museum, showcasting guns such as the Colt Model 1861 Navy revolvers presented to Gen. George Armstrong Custer during the Civil War.
Population: metro area, 1.025 million
Handgun Ranges within 60 miles: 15
Open carry? Yes
Clustered along the banks of the Ohio River, "Louisville is a good place for concealed carry, especially since the Kentucky Coalition to Carry Concealed (KC3) was successful last year in forcing the Louisville metro government to rescind illegal restrictions on CCW in public places," says Charles Riggs, KC3 co-founder. "The metro government is finally coming around to realize that CCW permit holders are an asset to public safety, not a menace."
Riggs notes that handgun leagues are popular in Louisville and just across the Ohio River in southern Indiana. He says practical shooting, especially USPSA, IDPA and other disciplines that emphasize CCW and personal defense are particular favorites.
The nearby Blue Grass Sportsmen's League Pistol Range hosts the annual Kentucky State Pistol Championships.
"The area's a hotspot for handgun selling, buying and collecting," says Ron Dickson, promoter of the National Gun Day Shows, held four times annually in Louisville's Kentucky Exposition Center. "Last year, the winter show, the line was over a half-mile long waiting to get into the show--at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning."
This venue boasts more than 2,000 exhibitor tables every show, with thousands upon thousands of handguns for sale and on display.
Louisville's also home to the Frazier International History Museum--four floors of firearms, armor and edged weapons. The museum holds more than 150 handguns, with extensive collections of Colts, Remingtons, and Smith & Wessons. Notable handguns include a 1570 German wheelock, a Model 1890 Single Action Army Revolver engraved by the famed Louis Nimschke, and a cased pair of Colt Model 1861 Navy Revolvers presented to Gen. George Armstrong Custer during the Civil War.
The Knob Creek Gun Range, just a half-hour southwest of Louisville, is best known for its annual machine gun shoot. However, Knob Creek is also a center for defensive and tactical handgun training and features monthly practical pistol matches.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Population: 551,000; metro area, 1.2 million.
Ranges within 60 miles: 16
Shall issue? Yes
Open carry? Yes (though generally prohibited in public places)
Oklahoma City Gun Club and other facilities in the region are home to burgeoing action-pistol scene.
The largest population center in the state, Oklahoma City combines a modern business and cultural center with a strong dose of Old West heritage. That Old West influence likely explains why handgun shooting thrives here.
"At the Oklahoma City Gun Club, we have an extremely active USPSA club with average attendance at monthly match averaging in the upper 50s, with really nice weather days into the 80- to 90-competitor range," says Matt Johnson, who heads up the club's handgun leagues.
The club, which has been an Oklahoma City institution since 1958, also hosts an ICORE (revolver-only IPSC) match monthly and has just begun a Steel Challenge program. "All of our events are open to the public, with approximately 70 to 80 percent of the competitors being non-club members," Johnson says.
IDPA league shooting is also popular at the H&H Gun Range, just west of downtown Oklahoma City. H&H's Sunday night IDPA league used to attract a dozen or so shooters, but, says owner Miles Hall, "Now, we're getting 90 or better for every shoot."
A local charity holds a fund-raising shoot at the H&H range annually. The shoot once had trouble lining up 30 people. "This year they had to cut it off at 120 shooters--for the third year in a row," says Hall.
Concealed carry's big in Oklahoma City and growing. H&H is one of a dozen facilities teaching the required carry certification course. "Currently, we teach six CCW classes per month, with 36 students per class," says Hall. "And we're booked a good one to two months in advance."
While many Huntsville-area residents shoot on their own properties, they also have access to places such as Shootrite, a tactical school just east of the city.
Handgun ranges within 60 miles: 8
Shall issue? No
Open carry? Yes
Tucked in between the Tennessee River and the Appalachian Mountains, Huntsville is often called "Rocket City," as NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in located here. So, too, is the Redstone Arsenal, a research and development center for the U.S. Army's missile program.
"Ask anyone around here, and they'll tell you, 'I've been shootin' my whole life,'" says James "Tiger" McKee, who operates the Shootrite Firearms Academy, a tactical shooting school just east of Hunstville. "Lots of shooting competitions, number of clubs."
Compared to some other areas, there are not a large number of public ranges, but don't let that fool you. "I suspect that's because so many of us have our own pistol ranges, set up on our own land." McKee explains.
Larry's Pistol and Pawn is "Handgun Central" for Hunstville, so much so that the store was Ruger's Retailer of the Year in 2009. Larry's also has the city's only indoor pistol range.
"We have a full-time range officer on duty all the time," says owner Larry Barnett. "But as many as three of them on duty on Fridays and Saturdays, when things get really crazy.
"You can say our area's handgun friendly," Barnett continues. Much of that, he notes, is because firearms are so much a part of local culture. "But we get a lot of shooters, too, because the area's so influenced by the military and the defense industry--lots of customers with strong handgunning backgrounds."
Brent Oliver produces gun shows throughout Alabama, including several each year in and around Huntsville. "The interest in purchasing, collecting, and/or trading handguns is popular today in Huntsville, as much as it was 10, 20 years ago," Oliver notes. "Communities like Huntsville are very passionate about their firearms."