RIFLE — When waitress Ashlee Saenz takes your order at Shooters Grill in Rifle, she not only carries a pad and pen — she also packs a loaded Ruger .357 Blackhawk handgun holstered on her leg, Old West style.
It’s loaded and she knows how to use it.
Saenz and her co-workers, along with customers who come into Shooters, are encouraged by Shooters’ owners to pack heat in the restaurant, as allowed by Colorado law.
The restaurant also hosts concealed carry training — the $75 price tag includes dinner — that qualifies customers for Colorado and Utah permits.
In a nation torn in recent years by emotional Second Amendment debates, fueled in part by mass shootings, there’s no such controversy in this town of 9,200 that’s centered in ranch and natural gas country.
A sign on the front door of Shooters Grill reads, “Guns are welcome on premises. Please keep all weapons holstered, unless the need arises. In such cases, judicious marksmanship is appreciated.”
Shooters owner Lauren Boebert of Rifle said she is simply allowing customers and employees to exercise their constitutional right.
“We encourage it, and the customers love that they can come here and express their rights,” Boebert said. “This country was founded on our freedom. People can come in carrying their gun, and they can pray over their food.”
NO ALCOHOL, ‘GUNS ALL OVER’
Boebert was born in Florida, raised in Aurora and moved to Rifle in 2003, where she met her husband, Jayson. They decided to open a restaurant a little more than a year ago and tried to come up with a good name that would suit the town.
“I consulted with my Christian friends and everyone said ‘Shooters’ sounded like a bar or a strip joint,” Lauren Boebert said with a laugh. “But I thought, this is Rifle — it was founded around guns and the Old West. We called it Shooters and started throwing guns and Jesus all over the place.”
The decor of Shooters — which offers American and Mexican fare and does not serve alcohol — is decidedly Old West, with guns and cowboy art on the walls, a rough-hewn woody look and three large silver crosses that reflect Boebert’s strong religious faith.
Customers on a recent morning had no problem with the gun presence.
Wayne and Martha Greenwald are from a small town called Grand Marais in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and come to Shooters whenever they’re in town. The couple fully support allowing people to carry guns in the restaurant.
“We think it’s just fine — we’re very positive about it,” Wayne Greenwald said. “We carry guns ourselves and own a rifle, shotgun and handguns. We live in a very small town and we take care of our own crime problems. No one comes to Grand Marais to break into someone’s house.”
Said customer Madison Potter of Rifle, “It’s safe and it fits the town well.”
VIOLENCE IS RARE IN RIFLE
Violent crime is rare in Rifle — the name, by lore, comes from when a cowboy surveyor left his gun leaning against a tree alongside a creek. The town had its first-ever bank robbery in May 2011, and reported no homicides and one robbery in 2013.
Police Chief John Dyer said the last shooting death was in 2001, when Michael Steven Stagner shot seven people, killing four. Stagner, who targeted Latinos and ranted about illegal immigrants during his rampage, was found not guilty by reason of insanity and is confined to a mental institution.
Dyer is OK with Shooters’ business model. “If it was a bar, I might be saying something different. But I have no problem with it,” he said. “And besides, they make a really good burger.”
The 55-seat restaurant also offers regular classes to qualify for a concealed carry permit — complete with dinner.
Held every other month, the five-hour training seminar is conducted by Utah-based Legal Heat, which offers the classes around the country, usually at sports shops. The event hosted at Shooters qualifies people to obtain concealed carry permits in Colorado and Utah. The May class drew 25 people; the next session is July 22. Boebert said she will offer the deal monthly if demand is sufficient.
To get a concealed carry permit after the training, residents must fill out an application and be fingerprinted. Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario decides whether to issue permits after reviewing applications and background checks.
“I encourage people to get a concealed handgun permit,” Vallario said. “I think there’s this misunderstanding that we can always be there. But I’ve got about one deputy per 1,000 people. People have the absolute constitutional right to protect themselves.”
He said the county’s number of permits and applications has been steady for several years. Through June 20 this year, the sheriff’s office has issued 124 new permits and 190 renewals (a permit is good for five years). That pace is down from 534 new permits issued and 277 renewals last year.
DON’T DRINK AND CARRY
The sheriff urges leaving guns at home in some situations.
“Guns and alcohol, just like alcohol and driving, are not a good mix together,” Vallario said.
Certain people, including convicted felons or those with known substance abuse or mental problems, are not allowed to possess firearms.
Colorado gun-control supporters say they favor concealed carry over open carry because of the permitting requirements.
“We stand behind the Second Amendment, but we don’t encourage people to carry guns as a public display in places like stores or restaurants,” said Jennifer Hope of Golden, the Colorado chapter leader for the national Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, founded in 2012 after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut. “If there was a problem in a store and it got robbed or something happened, how would you know who were the good guys and who were the bad guys?”
It’s unlikely a whole lot of bad guys will visit Shooters, but the guns the workers carry are the real deal. Some people think it’s all part of a costume.
“No, they’re real and they’re loaded, and we know what we’re doing,” Boebert said with a smile. “I fear for anyone who tries to rob us.”
“We called it Shooters and started throwing guns and Jesus all over the place.”
Owner of Shooters in Rifle