Nov 30, 2012 No Comments ›› Dinah Tellya
Excerpted from The Guardian: A tourist is aiming an assault rifle at a paper zombie. His name is Craig Auringer, 42, and the gun is a fully automatic MP5, a model designed for Swat teams and special forces. He peers through the scope and finds the zombie’s head in its crosshairs. He squeezes the trigger, an explosive hammering fills the room and holes appear in both the zombie and its busty, blond hostage. “Nice shot!” the range master shouts. He shoots again, spraying through the rest of the magazine in seconds. To his right, a 19-year-old girl grips an M16. A shotgun blasts to the left.
Welcome to Las Vegas, where the nation’s loosest gun laws, an aggressive tourism market and weak local economy have triggered a fast moving, powerful trend. Six machine gun shooting ranges have opened here in 2012, including this one: the Range 702. They follow several more open since 2010, and more are on the way.
Quintessentially American, risky and bold, this surge has provided a rare glimmer of economic sunshine to Nevada, which has the highest unemployment rate in the US and is still reeling from the 2008 housing crisis. Many of the entrepreneurs behind this trend previously owned businesses in the construction industry in fact; they were big-time gun enthusiasts beforehand too, of course, but the main reason they opened shooting ranges recently, they say, is that the development boom is dead.
And then there’s the strong demand. Lynda Ducas, owner of the Arizona Last Stop restaurant en route to the Grand Canyon, said she had customers regularly asking where they could shoot guns in Las Vegas. So, a few months ago, she made some calls, bought an arsenal of weapons and launched the “Bullets and Burgers Experience”: a day trip to her property that includes a scenic drive through the desert, shooting a .50-caliber sniper rifle, blasting an M249 SAW machine gun, and eating a “world-famous cheeseburger”.
Yet while each range has a unique theme and ambition, they’re all after the same tourists and target them the same way essentially. Nevertheless, there’s room for all of them to thrive, they insist. Demand to shoot assault rifles has never been higher apparently, and this is the perfect place to exploit it because, well, it’s Vegas.
“You’re just looking for thrills when you’re here,” Craig Auringer said after shooting “Osombie” Bin Laden with an M4. A real estate agent vacationing from London with his brother, he added that: “We did the Mario Andretti Indy racing experience yesterday, so we decided to come get our kicks here today.”
Dan Schott (pronounced “shot”) of the Vegas Machine Gun Experience called it a bucket-list item for out of towners. “It’s skydiving but without having to jump out of the plane,” he said.
A majority of these customers are also coming from places with strict gun control laws, he said. As many as 20% are from the UK, while most of the rest arrive from Canada, California or New York.
Renting machine guns to tourists has always been legal, though, and one range, the Gun Store, has been doing for almost 30 years with the whole market to itself. So why the sudden boom now?
Schott said he could answer that one in three words: Call Of Duty.
“Video games are largely responsible for raising interest in firearm use,” he said. “That’s a first person shooting experience on a TV, this is a first person shooting experience in reality.
“People come in every day, look at the wall and quickly go: ‘Do you have an M4? Do you have this?’ And it’s because that’s their gun of choice on the game, and that’s the only reason they came,” he said. “And it’s completely different: you feel the thump in your chest. You feel the feedback from the weapon, the recoil in your shoulder. It always exceeds the expectation the game player had sitting in front of the TV.”
Ranges offer different shooting packages, such as the kid’s package with .22 caliber rifles and handguns, the mob package with a shotgun and Tommy gun, the second world war or zombie apocalypse packages, but all of them offer the Gamer’s Package with weapons straight out of Modern Warfare.
They even stock their arsenals through research on the Internet Movie Firearm Database, a website that lists guns appearances in media the way IMDB does actors.
But since these are incredibly violent video games, and the intention here is to make elements of the gaming shooting fantasy a reality, it’s fair to ask: Is this safe?
Benjamin James, a psychology professor at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, told the Guardian that, upon exiting the range, some tourists might experience the “weapons effect”, a biological reaction to handling firearms that causes individuals to behave more aggressively. “I’m not saying they will shoot up a casino afterwards by any stretch. But I do see the possibility of people becoming incrementally more aggressive,” he said.
Frank McAndrew, a psychology professor at Knox College, agreed. “I don’t see any massive problem for society. I think the biggest danger is the safety of the place itself: if you put the wrong person in there, and they’re running around with a gun and decide they don’t want to play by the rules … But I don’t think that’s something that would be caused by the gun,” he said. “That’s just an unstable person being put into a bad place.”
Perhaps with that dreadful scenario in mind, each site employs a range master who stands with the shooter, loads their weapons, guides them through safe handling and makes sure gun barrels are pointed downrange at all times.
But as in any competitive business environment, ambitions have a way of outgunning safety precautions. One industry supplier, who preferred to remain anonymous, told the Guardian that some gun enthusiasts plan to build a “Circus Circus of gun ranges”, one including their incredible idea of a funhouse: a “kill room” inspired by those inside law enforcement and military training facilities. They apparently envision a course, packed with visceral distractions and decoys and moving targets, where tourists armed with automatic weapons can roam and fire bullets 360 degrees.
This source declined to identify the individuals behind that idea, but the Las Vegas branch of the Zombie Eradication Response Team, an international weapons training group that calls itself Zert for short, posted a video recently announcing an “unconventional zombie warfare school” – a “12,000-square-foot, live-fire shoot house” – available on the second floor of the Range 702. That site’s chief executive, Brian Lake, denied such a thing existed there however, saying he is studying a different plan for the space.
And all of this – the boom, the “kill room” rumor – has Bob Irwin, the godfather of Las Vegas shooting ranges, shaking his head. “Anybody who knows what they’re doing is going to realize that’s incredibly dangerous,” he said. For almost three decades his site, the Gun Store, has beaconed tourists with billboards bearing AK-47s next to the words: “try one.” He’s familiar with, and even admires, entrepreneurial spirit, he said, but his competitors’ willingness to gamble worries him.
“Somebody will build it. I have no doubt,” he said regarding the kill room. “And when they get a customer killed, I’m going to be a witness in that court case.”
Irwin has testified as a forensic expert in 34 court cases involving shooting accidents, including four that took place inside shooting ranges.
“The public assumes this is really dangerous. It’s not. But it can be if you just look at traffic numbers and go: ‘I can build a range too’, and you hire some guy because he says: ‘I was in the army and therefore I can run a range for civilians who have never shot before; I know how to be safe.’ They don’t. They do not understand what they’re looking at,” he said. “They won’t understand until someone is bleeding on the floor.”