Gunning It

Snow tires optional, four-wheel drive — mandatory. There’s a fork in the road where 38 meets Beam Hill. A cop sits posted at the base with his lights off, but there’s really no way to make it up the steep, wrenched path without absolutely gunning it. 

About a quarter mile up the wooded street, nestled between three freshly painted cabins and shaded by snowy oaks and pines, sits BoltWorks Tactical Firearms, in all its rustic glory. 

Four cars, all pickups, are parked in the lot along the shop’s front door. Each of the cars’ tires rest on a mixture of rock gravel and metallic shells, giving the ground a shimmery glare that stretches a hundred yards back into the homemade target range behind the cabin next door. 

Suddenly, six roaring gunshots rip through the quiet landscape, sending shaky blasts through the trees.

“Fire,” Skip says inside the shop, pulling the door closed a second too late.

Tommy Battistelli

Tommy Battistelli/The Ithacan

One American flag is on display at BoltWorks. It’s dirty and tattered, which fits the decor but makes a striking contrast to the shiny new guns that line the walls and shelves. Small posters and memorabilia are scattered wherever there’s room. A bulletin board smeared with fliers hangs on the wall by the doors. In the middle is a photograph of a woman holding her baby with one arm. Two scared children bind her legs, tucked into her sides. She has a handgun in her spare hand, pointing directly to the camera. Above her head are the words: “When running away is not an option.”

BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG! … BANG! 

“Man, when you hear ’em like that … that’s a big gun! Hah-ha haa, woo!” Derek Barr, also known as D-Barr or D with this crowd, kicks back his head in laughter while he listens from behind the counter.

“What is that, .308? Sounds like it donn’ed it? He’s havin’ way too much fun out there,” D says as he watches for Jamie, the owner of the shop and the lucky jackass who gets to test out the firearms he fixes. Jamie walks back in, holding the enormous hunk of metal in his right hand. The muzzle of the gun is pointing downward, unloaded. 

“2-2-3” he says to D without looking up. “Fireballs comin’ off the end.” Jamie pulls the gun up and secures it in its case on the counter. “I gotta go move the four-wheeler so we can get more people packed in here.”

Jamie, Derek and Skip move along the counters of the shop to make sure everything is situated. Derek is an ex-SWAT and a buddy of Jamie’s who helps at the shop whenever he can, and Skip has the face of a kid and demeanor of a teenager, but was hired by Jamie because he knows a thing or two about firearms.

It’s the first day of the 10-hour hunter safety course BoltWorks offers a few times a year, but they’re not expecting to have to do much — the course is kinda a buzzkill for business. Even without much in the way of profit, Jamie insists on having the events. 

“I think everyone who gets a gun permit should have to take these classes,” Jamie says, loud enough to get nods from Derek and Skip. “The best thing you can do to defend owning a gun is to learn how to use it right.” 

Making a guest appearance is Environmental Conservation Officer Ozzie Eisenberg, whose full, green, bullet-proof uniform keeps him at the center of attention for most of the night.

Men and boys of all ages start lining up at the sign-in table, with a smaller number of girls and women trickling through in between them. Those who haven’t been here before select one of the 30 folding chairs lined up in front of a projector and take a seat. Those who have, start moving around the perimeter of the shop, shaking the hands of anyone with a familiar face. 

Two guys in old baseball hats and blue jeans are too late to find seats and wind up leaning in the back, their elbows propped up against the counter. 

“Hey how are ya,” one says in a quiet voice, bringing his hand out in front of him.

“I’m not so bad, yourself?” They shake.

“I’m alright, I’m alright.” They exchange names in a friendly, low voice. 

“Hey, you don’t happen to know Johnny do you?” 

“Well shit, I do! He works with my buddy downtown!” 

They find out they have more people in common and start chuckling at the coincidence in the back of the room. Jamie notices the disruption and walks over in front of them, turning his back toward Ozzie and Les who are leading the class. 

“Hey guys, I’m sorry I have to ask, but do you mind steppin’ outside to catch up? You’re welcome to hang out there as long as you’d like.” 

The two realize their mistake and give sincere, mumbled apologies as they head out
the door.  

***

Jamie Arnold’s nails are so short that the calluses on top of his fingers have nearly grown over them. Grease has settled between the cracks in his hands. They’re rough and gritty, reeking of workmanship and experience. 

Before quitting his job to start the gun shop, Jamie worked for the Department of Transportation. He and his wife Caren took the kids on their fair share of vacations, and they were always in the stands at Molly’s soccer games. When Jamie was at the DOT he had normal hours, a solid paycheck and the ability to separate work from home.        

He is a self-taught shooter, and a pretty good shot, who’s had a passion for firearms for as long as he can remember. He always loved taking apart his own pieces, but it wasn’t until he started fixing up a few of his buddies’ guns that the idea of a shop came into the picture. 

“Most people like a little customization with their firearms, and it’s hard to find people — especially in your area — that you trust enough to give yours to,” Jamie shouts across his mechanic station, metal-to-metal contact echoing over the cement floors of the shop. 

Construction began in the summer of 2012, and Caren thought he was crazy. 

“I remember having our kitchen table covered with parts for weeks at a time,” Caren says as she leans forward onto the glass counter across from Jamie, her arms folding over each another. 

An elementary school teacher in Ithaca, Caren has that sweet tone of voice that always comes off friendly and kind, but firm. When she’s not at work or in the house, she’s filing paperwork or helping with sales in the shop. Caren wears her hair in a stylish ponytail, showing off dangly silver hoop earrings that shake a little each time she laughs. Red tortoise reading glasses cover her eyes and a delicate wedding ring sits on her finger. 

“When he told me he wanted to do this, I said … well, I just … I had no idea it would turn into this,” she says in disbelief, the slightest bit of country twang in her high-pitched voice. “It’s just unbelievable!”

The store is essentially one big room, with two long, see-through countertops separating the register area and the assembly station with the rest of the open space. Every surface is covered. Emergency beef jerky, rope, whistles, boot straps, face masks. The glass countertops under and around the register are filled with handguns. They range from delicate to menacing. The pink, flowery one has rounded edges — user friendly.

Tommy Battistelli/The Ithacan

Tommy Battistelli/The Ithacan

Jamie and his buddies put the building together on their own. He created a digital layout online and built everything the way he wanted. Mason and Molly, their children, who were 10 and 12 at the time, helped flatten the foundation and put in the drywall. Getting Molly to put in the work was a job in itself, and it wasn’t until recently that she started to warm up to the business.

“It took her a longer time to adjust than Mason,” Jamie says to Caren, his eyebrows raised, waiting for her to say it wasn’t just him who noticed Molly’s attitude. Without even looking at Jamie, she smiles and nods her head in exaggerated agreement. “She wanted our time, and we just couldn’t give it to her,” Jamie adds. 

“With the shop only 20 feet from the house, I never really stop workin’ except usually on Sundays and Mondays.”

Molly likes the store now, although she still doesn’t get as involved as Mason does. She’s almost 16, and her life revolves around pushing herself in soccer practice, trying to get a job at the grocery store where all her friends work and hanging out with people after school. Molly has always had an independent spirit, which her mom lovingly attributes to a book she read when Molly was a baby.

“It was called ‘How to Raise a Confident Girl,’” Caren admits, laughing. “I think I did it too well because she’s a little shit.” 

***

Derek, his wife Shera, Mason, Caren and Jamie sit around the kitchen table one night, picking at homemade mashed potatoes and grilled Italian sausage while filling one another in on town gossip. Jamie bends down to pick up the 6-month-old, black kitten that Molly brought home after Caren distinctly said no. It has six toes on each foot and is way more fun than the other cat that only comes out when it needs food. “Come here Lucy Liu,” Jamie says as he snuggles his face into the animal, and it settles into his arms with ease. He’s holding the kitten as he walks over to look at marks on the Arnolds’ wall.

Mason is scooting out of his chair to get some Swedish fish when Jamie pipes up, “Hey Mase, come over here — let’s see how much you’ve grown.” 

It’s hard to believe there was a time when Mason was smaller than his parents. He moves behind the table and lines his back up tall and straight against the frame of a sliding door. 

“Three and a half inches since November!” Jamie says while he marks the wall with a new dash and date.

“Holy cow,” Derek says to Jamie, who is pursing his lips, trying to hide a smile.

***

It’s summertime when Mason gets to try shooting a gun — he’s 6 years old.

There’s a gap in the railings around the big, red porch outside the Arnolds’ house. The wooden posts were taken out in order to shovel snow off during New York’s snowy winter months. But on sunny days, Mason would find himself dangling his legs over the edge, looking out over the Arnolds’ four acres of land.

Mason liked that little opening; it was the perfect place to spot chickadees, or “tweety birds” as Jamie calls them. 

The boy sat on the porch, with a gun his dad gave him grasped tightly by tiny hands. Jamie watches from a window upstairs, making sure Mason uses the right form and safety techniques. Over, and over Mason would shoot, all day, all summer long. 

Mason was an observant kid, who spent his free time watching his dad hunt and hit targets in their backyard. 

“He knows how to respect a gun,” Jamie says of Mason’s practice as a little kid. “And when he did something wrong, I ran downstairs and told him what to do. I trusted him because I showed him early on what would happen if he played with guns.”

Mason pulls the trigger on something other than his target. Jamie pulls out a plastic jug of water and goes outside to where his son is sitting. He tells Mason to take the gun and shoot it at the jug. When he does, he reminds Mason that that kind of power, the power to make something leak, bleed, break, isn’t something to mess around with.

“Everyone knows Mason can beat most competitive shooters around here, and I know more than anyone that the kid knows how to hit a target.” 

***

It’s an hour after close. Jamie’s at the computer showing a guy something neat he found online the other day, and Derek is at the counter talking to an older gentleman and his nephew. Jamie and his customer, a regular — a buddy of his — are shootin’ the shit.

Derek, on the other hand, has taken it upon himself to show off the true meaning of customer service, pulling out model after model of handguns for the two new guys to see. Derek is an officer of the Ithaca Police Department, and is lining up his retirement by taking up some hours at the shop. He and Jamie met through their daughters, but the men became friends in their own right. Derek describes himself as a “character, you know what I mean” and something of a ladies’ man. He’s a smooth-talker, and has a quick wit. Jamie and Derek’s banter is constant when he’s around — but there’s also an enormous amount of respect there. The words “Glock Team” on his baseball hat are covered by a pair of those sunglasses that all cops seem to have.

The older customer flashes a special license, and Derek pulls the magazine out of the first gun and hands it over to him to see how it feels. He aims at the wall, his nephew standing by, his eyes fixed on a different gun in the showcase. 

“Listen, Jerry. We want you to be happy, alright? Close your eyes for me, will you Jerry?”

Derek is talking as he turns around to the safe and locks in a Glock from earlier using a 5-digit code. When he turns back toward the front counter, he narrows in on Jerry’s eyes to make sure they’re really closed.

“Imagine you got one of these on you. Pull it up, pop a chuck, put it back in your pocket. How does it feel?” Derek has both hands on the glass, leaning forward, exuding confidence and the air of the best blue-collar salesman on this side of the Mississippi.

“Oh, well you know I really like that 9mm — the Kel Tec,” Jerry mumbles, his scratchy, muffled voice giving away his old age.

“Yeah, I know you do, Jerry.” Derek’s intonation rising, he knows what Jerry wants. “Here’s what I’m saying: Go home, sleep on it, come back in whenever you want. If you keep thinking about the same one, it’s probably the right one for you. I’m tellin’ you.”

Before his eyes even open, Jerry’s shoulders fall slightly lower as he realizes he can relax. The self-driven pressure of buying a handgun too hastily fades away, and he starts nodding his head in agreement. His eyes slowly open, readjusting to the light.

Derek pushes off the counter as Jerry comes to, crossing his big arms over his chest, his underarmor shirt clinging to him. He reaches one hand up to rub his temple as he falls back onto his heels and leans against the table behind him. 

“Listen, Jerry.” Derek says cooly. “We’ll work with you, we’ll find a price that works and we can find a payment plan that works over however long you want. We love what we do, and we love havin’ you stop by.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll come back,” Jerry responds as he shuffles across the glass for one last look at his favorite pieces.

“My time is your time, my friend.” Derek unfolds his arms and reaches out, grabbing Jerry’s attention. They exchange a sturdy handshake and friendly nods, and Jerry makes his way out the door. 

Tommy Battistelli/The Ithacan

Tommy Battistelli/The Ithacan

***

On Mondays, Jamie locks the double glass doors and closes up shop. He and Caren want to have at least one day a week where they can be a family and try to have dinner together. Sitting at the Queen Diner in Dryden one Monday night, Jamie, Caren, Molly and Mason drink milkshakes and catch up.

“I can’t even go to Christmas parties anymore you know,” Jamie admits in between bites of biscuits and gravy. “I always say, ‘People don’t know what they don’t know.’ Gun safety always ends up coming up, and it’s just so tiring being on the defensive all the time.”

There’s a strong tone in Jamie’s voice, a confidence that others in the community recognize. He’s become the point of contact for the local radio station when they need someone to speak about new laws or regulations in the gun community. When Jamie’s not holding a new gun, getting giddy about “blowin’ some shit up” at target practice, he’s extremely eloquent and well-spoken. “He’s getting pretty famous,” Caren says with a grin.

“Some people just don’t want to hear facts. People who shop at sports stores like Dick’s and L.L. Bean don’t know that part of the tax in those stores goes to environmental conservation, which includes running gun safety classes for hunters.”

“I have a fire extinguisher, but I’m not going to use an open fire in my house to cook my dinner. People drunk drive, but we don’t blame the car, do we? No, we blame the person who crashed it and killed someone else.”

Jamie carries his Glock when he’s working and is confident that most people who come through the entrance are packing too. But even surrounded by military-grade rifles, heavy handguns and big boxes of bullets, there’s an odd sense of safety within the walls of the shop.

“Honestly? I’m not worried about beating somebody with a gun,” Jamie says matter-of-factly. “If a time comes when I need to protect my family, I’ll be ready.”