On a recent Sunday afternoon, the half-dozen or so firing stalls at Shooting Sports gun range on North Dale Mabry are filled.
The men and two women taking practice on this day adjust their safety goggles and ear protection, prepare their handgun, stand up straight, stare down their target and fire. It's a process they repeat dozens of times.
While one of the most recent surveys of average gun owners describes them as white, male, affluent and nearing retirement age, the only men who come close to that description are the store owner and supervisor. On this day, the majority of shooters are young professionals — millennials in their 20s, with a few Gen Y's and Gen X'ers for good measure.
It's becoming a common sight, according to several Tampa Bay gun range owners, who say anywhere from a quarter to 50 percent of their clientele are younger than 35.
"We have a good percentage of families and they have kids who are 10-18," notes Jason Collazo, the operations manager at Shooting Sports. "It's their family night at the range."
Collazo estimates about 35 percent of shooter range in age from 21 to 35. They're young professionals like 25-year-old Kierron Conner who's trying out his Glock G23 for the first time after purchasing the weapon at a gun show. He recently completed a concealed weapons course and the training has been an inspiration for his older brother, Danny, 28, to get back into practice after a six- year hiatus.
A little rusty, Danny admits he needs more time at the gun range in order to feel completely confident firing his weapon.
"I think a lot of people own guns for the wrong reasons," said the older Conner brother. "But if they're knowledgeable, they would be safe and know how to protect themselves."
Safety/self-protection is the primary reason for learning to shoot, said several gun range owners.
Angela Aliff, 33, has been shooting since she was 10 years old. When the Tampa health care professional moved out on her own, her father bought her a handgun.
"I'm in a big city where there's crime," she said, after an afternoon of target practice with her boyfriend. Many of her friends, both male and especially female, also own guns.
"It's about empowerment," added Ken Zellers, owner and founder of the Indoor Shooting Company on E Fowler Avenue in Thonotosassa. "There's bad people in the world."
Zellers notes that nearly half of his customers are younger than 40 and in the last 10 years the number of female customers has grown exponentially. As a result, he has hired more female instructors and offers free range time for women every Friday.
"In this day an age, people want to feel secure," noted Paul Williams, the second vice president at the Wyoming Antelope Club in Clearwater, an 1,800 member gun club that offers an extensive juniors program for tweens and teens. "The only difference in the last 10 years is that people are more informed."
The gun owners we spoke with take some exception to how the media portrays them.
"I think most people's perspectives of gun owners is based on what they see in the movies," added Collazo, from Shooting Sports. "But most people who own guns are law-abiding people."
Added Aliff, "People are anti-gun because of what they see in the media. But we don't go out and hurt people. We're using guns to protect ourselves and our families."
While self-protection may very well be the intent of gun owners, a study released in June by the Violence Policy Center found that guns are rarely used to kill criminals or stop crime. Of the 8,342 criminal homicides in 2012 — the most current data available — less than 300 people actually used a gun to kill someone in self-defense.
Those statistics are of no concern to many young gun owners, who insist they just want the option to protect themselves.
Contact Candace Rotolo at [email protected]