Brothers in arms

"Does anybody here have a problem with taking a life?" asks 69-year-old General Laney, owner of Laney's Guns and Supplies on Detroit's east side. "If you're not capable of taking a life then you're not in the right place," he warns, "'cause you might have to take a life. You have no choice because the person who wants to take your life has no feeling for you."

Laney should know — he was once shot six times.

Laney's teaching a self-defense and concealed weapons (CCW) permit class. The students look uneasy at times.

Aside from an old house, his store's the lone building on the block. It's along a terrible stretch of Chene that was once part of Poletown but now's in an urban prairie. In a town full of guns, Laney's is the only place left where you can buy them legally within city limits.

Laney's sells firearms and ammunition, hosts the aforementioned classes, and has a shooting range in the basement for which you can rent guns. From the 1920s until he bought it, the building housed a billiards room — it was a place to shoot pool and guns.

The main floor is cluttered with stacks of files, piles of newspapers and buckets of bullets. A space heater crackles, glows orange in the otherwise cold room. Two Dobermans — Sarge and T-Man — are locked in the back. Laney sits at a front desk, surrounded by stacks of paperwork and shelves stocked with ammo.

"This neighborhood was originally a white neighborhood, and it had the gun range," says Laney, who is black. "When black people moved in, it was still there but it wasn't made available to black people. Things changed when I got here."

Laney grew up in Inkster, where his family's pawn shop sold a few guns now and then. "Inkster's a little different than Detroit when it come to guns," he says. "Different way of thinking. My family's from the South anyway, and our thinking about guns is a little different than in Detroit."

His core belief is that gun laws target blacks. "Gun control in Detroit is racist to begin with. You heard of Dr. Sweet?" he asks, referring to the case of Ossian Sweet, a black physician who, with his family, was tried and eventually acquitted for shooting into a mob that attacked their home when they moved into an all-white neighborhood in 1925.

Soon after, the state passed stringent gun-control laws, known as Public Act 372 of 1927. Laney sees those laws aimed squarely at blacks, a reaction to the verdict. "After the Sweet case, the Michigan Legislature said we couldn't allow black people to have guns, and that's how Michigan gun laws come about. Gun control is race control. It has been that way to keep blacks in servitude." Another hero of his is Robert F. Williams, a 1960s advocate of armed self-defense for the black community and an inspiration to the Black Panthers.

Laney has become nationally notorious in the gun industry for his views, eventually drawing the law's attention. In 1999, six years after he bought the place, the Wayne County Sheriff's Office sent an undercover cop into the store to make a "straw" purchase, in which a qualified buyer purchases a weapon on behalf of someone who can't legally buy it — in this case it was another cop posing as a minor. The sting resulted in charges against Laney and two other gun shops. Laney fought the well-documented case all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court and was exonerated. He says he spent $50,000 on legal bills defending himself.

"They tried to set me up," he claims. "It's a moral victory." A gun group gave him a trophy consisting of two brass balls to commemorate his tenacity. "It's a thing that should never have come to court anyway. When court was over I said, 'Your honor, when you're dead and in your grave, when you feel that water coming in, it will not be rain. That will be me pissing on you.'"

Seventy-year-old Walter Martin works here too. He teaches gun safety down in the basement's roughshod gun range, where puddles of water pool on its cement floor, dripping from the leaky roof on rainy days. Sheets of metal are positioned to direct wayward bullets into a muffling pile of old boards. A beam of wood holds a series of paper targets in place.

"From back here I've been hit with some of these," Martin says, standing at the shooting line, reminiscing about ricocheting bullets. He unconsciously shields his groin with his hand as he talks. "A woman was shooting, and I got hit right on the head of my dick!" he says. "But it didn't hurt. It just come and fell. So about two, three months later a lady's down here shooting, the damn bullet ricocheted, hit my damn dick. I said 'What the hell's going on here!'"

Neither man tolerates thug behavior or incorrect shooting techniques like pointing the gun sideways, gangsta-style. "We don't play that," Martin says. "You come down here and shoot right or you get the hell out. In the classes we promote safety. I don't give a damn if people never hit the target. You're learning how to handle the weapon safely." They once taught a blind man how to shoot toward the sound of an intruder.

Every few minutes a new customer steps in — each with a story. A mumbling guy offers a broken handgun, saying he's moving down South and doesn't want to leave his elderly mother alone, unprotected. He needs the weapon fixed. A short, woeful woman says she needs a gun permit because she works the closing shift at a liquor store and is scared for her life.

"We've had women come down here, old ladies come down, seventysomething years old," Martin says. "Like I tell people, when you need the police, he's not never there." The common thread among customers here is fear of random violence.

"I've been carjacked a few times," says Tawon Baldwin, 25, as he sits in Laney's CCW class early one morning. "And I felt like I didn't want to ride around with no illegal gun, get charged with it." He's wants to be legit.

"I've been carjacked too. Twice," says 28-year-old Selicia Huff, the only other applicant here. "I stay in a pretty bad neighborhood, so not only do I want it for protection; I figured if I have one I should know the correct use."

Laney can sympathize — a renter once unloaded a gun on him, leaving six bullet holes in his body. "You'll never forget it when it happens," he says. "I have flashbacks of him shooting at me."

The classes here go beyond firearm safety to include inner-city survival tips. "Don't let nobody get you down on your knees begging for your life," Laney warns the students. "If you fight you could win. And for God's sake don't let nobody put you in the trunk of no car. You definitely not going to win there."

Everything at Laney's is designed to prepare those who figure they might one day stare down the barrel of a gun. "Somebody else is going to determine when this is going to happen, so you have to be prepared for what it is," Laney tells them. "You can't say who or where or when it's going to happen. If it does happen, one thing about it — you must win."

Laney's Guns and Supplies, 4752 Chene, Detroit; 313-922-8752.

Detroitblogger John writes about the city for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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