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The big bang theory
Story by David McKee and
Photography by Jacob McCarthy
Hypothesis: If you encourage tourists to shoot guns, more tourists will come to shoot guns. It seems to be working.
Across Interstate 15 from the resorts of the Strip is a kind of alternate tourist corridor, more affordable than a nightclub and infinitely friendlier to the middle-class and family customer. These low-slung buildings house shooting ranges such as Guns & Ammo Garage, The Range 702 and Machine Guns Vegas. You might still see the familiar Vegas sight of young men in a booth, Red Bull close at hand, ready for some action — except instead of getting their freak on, they’re getting in touch with their inner Rambo. Turns out gun tourism is booming in Las Vegas, along with the larger firearms economy. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, in 2012 the firearms industry in Nevada generated more than 1,900 jobs and $202 million in economic impact, an amount roughly equal to the Electric Daisy Carnival.
“Previously, we only had nightclubs,” says Brian Barson, owner of Strip Gun Club, which averages 50-60 patrons a day who are ready to pay at least $99 each for the sort of kick that bottle service can’t provide. “There’s nothing as exhilarating as shooting a machine gun on full auto,” he says of his patrons, who are drawn to his chrome-plated 50-caliber mount. “It’s hard to explain the power: 99 percent of the time there’s a huge smile they can’t wipe off their faces until they leave the store. They’re high-fiving, screaming.” And holster any stereotypes you may have regarding who these recreational shooters are. “If you took any tourist in Vegas for a week, that’s our demographic. The majority are families. We’ve had people in here 10 years of age shooting a small-caliber rifle they can handle. Respecting firearms is the key to safety.”
The gun craze has ramped up significantly in the last two years, in part thanks to the nation’s political mood regarding firearms — “Obama is the salesman of the year,” says Lianne Heck, marketing director of The Range 702 — and in part due to media coverage. In a segment of “Dan Rather Reports” titled “Firearms Fantasies” last January, the veteran newsman took note of the boomlet of firearm rentals in Sin City. A year earlier, the New York Times covered the opening of Machine Guns Vegas, the brainchild of a New Zealand entrepreneur named, we kid you not, Genghis Cohen. “Twenty years ago, I’d spend $400 at the strip clubs. Now, I just come here to shoot,” one middle-aged patron told the paper, while a young woman got to the crux of the mania: “It’s really exciting — it’s really easy.”
Indeed, for visitors from places with little gun culture, the power of a gun and the ease of using it can come as a surprise once you have an automatic in your hand — and a target downrange. “You’re dealing with five different emotions in a 20-minute period,” from nervousness to exhilaration, says Guns & Ammo Garage co-owner Mike Cole. “Once you finish your shooting experience, you’re happy again.”
Credit the tourism biz to The Gun Store and its owner, Bill Irwin — when he decided to rent automatic weapons to tourists, an industry was born.
“Every time I see him, I say, ‘Thank you,’” Cole says. Founded in 1988, The Gun Store grew so successful that the original range was bulldozed in 2011 and moved into a former pool-supply store on East Tropicana. Even though it’s several miles off the Strip, on a recent midweek afternoon a long line snakes back and forth along stanchions, soon-to-be shooters awaiting their turn at the trigger.
“It’s always been primarily tourists,” says Marketing Director Emily Miller, mainly from other anglophilic countries: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, plus a smattering of Japanese and Chinese shooters. The Strip Gun Club is popular with visitors from the Pacific Rim, “where they don’t get to shoot at all,” says a range master. Over at The Range 702, the primary demographic is Californians.
Wherever they come from, there’s no doubt why they’re here. “Come to Vegas, do something you couldn’t do in Dublin (or) Sydney,” says Machine Gun Experience representative Ron Futrell. “Vegas is all about giving people the experiences they couldn’t do in Des Moines.”
Or New Jersey. That’s where Ron and Cathy are from; they’re popping off a few rounds at Battlefield Vegas. “We just wanted to try some machine guns,” Ron says. “Guns are not our way of life (back home). There’s no gun culture.” The couple spotted Battlefield Vegas while driving past and got the urge. As Cathy says, “This is a safe way to try it for the first time.” Ron shot an M60 and an MP5 and says, “I might do it again.” If so, Battlefield Vegas has roughly 370 machine guns from which he can choose.
Across I-15, at The Range, Francesco and Susanne came on a passerby’s recommendation. She’s watching him shoot an M36 and an MP5. “Nothing for me, thank you,” she adds. Both are experienced handgun shooters back home, but full-automatic shooting is verboten in their native Germany, so they came to Vegas for that experience.
Heck calculates the client base at The Range 702 as 50-50 locals and tourists, but most of the competition leans heavily on out-of-towners — it’s almost 100 percent at Battlefield Vegas, which is hunkered down behind a helicopter gunship, a halftrack and ranks of sandbags just behind Circus Circus.
Not every range is chasing the gun tourist so enthusiastically. Executives of American Shooters, which does relatively little tourist business — 25 percent or less — disdain places like Guns & Ammo Garage. “We look at other stores like that as a meat grinder,” says spokesman John Velasquez, “trying to get them in and out as fast as possible.” Not only does American Shooters keep its range fees low, your $15 gets you all-day access. (Of course, it’s also a canny way to get people to hang out and rent more and different firearms.)
Guns go upscale
The Second Amendment covers an entire wall at The Range 702. The retail section is similarly huge, featuring everything from apparel to pilsner glasses. In the dining area, some TVs are tuned to The History Channel, others to the Food Network. From the looks of the VIP lounge, you might not even know you’re in a shooting gallery: wood-paneled flooring, pool table and bar, three TVs and three sofas. “When you walk in here, everyone has collared shirts on,” Heck says. “In today’s climate, it’s important to take guns seriously.”
Heck would know; she was the first employee Genghis Cohen hired at Machine Guns Vegas. “Their theme is completely nightclubs and guns,” she says. Indeed, you can fire off an MP5, M4 carbine and a Sig Sauer P226, then get a complimentary ride, free admission and a comped drink at Sapphire. (You cannot, however, reverse that trajectory.) Mind you, The Range has its own “Hangover Package,” a guaranteed-access nightclub partnership with Epic Club Crawl. One of Machine Guns Vegas’ newest attractions is the rotating-barrel, heavy-caliber Minigun, popularized by the movie Act of Valor. Four hundred rounds from this bad boy will set you back a thousand bucks.
For its part, The Gun Store frowns on both outside partnerships and alcohol. “We’re a gun range. We’re not being a nightclub,” Miller says. The Gun Store’s zero-tolerance policy for booze can get your entire group 86ed. That hasn’t deterred some serio-comic attempts at evasion: “We’ve had people leave, change their clothes and come back. We deal with such a high percentage of tourists who have zero idea — like Americans going to Amsterdam to smoke some weed,” jacked up on a forbidden thrill. No wonder the range officers are all packing heat.
And even if you don’t grip a weapon, some things are just better — for some folks, anyway — in the vicinity of guns. Marriage, for example, has proven to be a heavy-caliber business for The Gun Store. To the left of the shooting lanes is an austere chapel. “We call this 50 Shades of Gray,” Miller says. “I’ve married all sorts of people in this place,” from which one can hear the steady rat-a-tat of gunfire. During one ceremony, it was startling enough that, instead of saying “I do,” the bride exclaimed, “Holy shit!”
[HEAR MORE: How good is Metro at solving guncrimes? Hear a discussion on "KNPR's State of Nevada."]
Still, for some range operators, there are limits to how far they’ll go to capitalize on firearms mania. The Gun Store canceled a promotion right after the December 2012 mass killing in Sandy Hook, Conn., hometown of the National Shooting Sports Federation. “They knew people who were killed. We’re not so blindly loyal to the Second Amendment that we’re not going to take feelings into consideration.”
Chrome and Call of Duty
The “shooting Strip” and the tourist corridor intersect at Strip Gun Club, the new kid in town (it opened last December). A half-block north of the Sahara, it’s tucked inconspicuously behind the Chapel of the Bells. Compared to bellicose Battlefield Las Vegas, the palm trees and cordon of shrubbery at Strip Gun Club exude tranquility, even if the building is wrapped in green and red corrugated metal. Inside, the vibe is totally “nightlife.” Before the staff sets out the weaponry each morning, you might mistake the lobby for a bar: Done in black, red and cream, it has comfy, leatherette seating and a long, metallic counter. Large, transparent cubes in which Glocks and Sig Sauers repose neatly atop a bed of shell casings add a surreal touch.
Converted from an old motel, Strip Gun Club deliberately blurs the firing line between nightlife and weaponry, the latter a banquet culled from the arsenal found in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. “If (tourists) want crystal chandeliers and chrome machine guns, they’ll come to us,” Barson says. “People are in Vegas and expecting a higher-end experience, visually,” characterized by silver light fixtures and red LED stripes. Should you qualify for the VIP range, you get fully dimmable lights for tactical situations that include lasers and night vision. “If we have a celebrity, we can take them back in there,” Barson says. Locals, though, are welcome for a $20 lane rental plus ammo.
To get a firsthand sense of why people would travel to Las Vegas to shoot guns, I visit The Range 702. I start with a Smith & Wesson 1911, a gun that’s still serving American armed forces after more than a century. It’s got a fierce bark and quite a bite. Still, I manage to put all but one shot on target and most of them in the center-mass area I’m supposed to aim for. Next, I choose a target of a mutant boar and am handed an MP5 machine pistol. Slender and easy to sight, it discharges short, efficient bursts, easy to control, and I am rewarded with some fairly well-targeted rounds. As I hand the weapon back, the air is thick with the smell of cordite.
Finally, I’m entrusted with a M4 carbine and two magazines. A good thing, as this gun is a glutton for ammo and bucks like a bronco. Mindful of my wife’s great fear of spiders, I decide to slay a giant paper one for her. The gun’s high-tech sighting mechanism and my left-eye dominance do not get along well. It’s a struggle to keep the red circle in view. Yet, even as I spray shell casings about, I put several shots through the arachnid’s head, and create a ringing in my own.
Shooting off controlled bursts, feeling the heavy thud of the submachine gun, you definitely have a sensation of power and the gratifying feeling of not just pumping out shells but mastering a skill involving a potentially dangerous tool. An endorphin rush undeniably kicks in once you’re finished. Good for the gun ranges: They’ve just created a repeat customer — whether I came from the suburbs, Germany or even New Jersey.
More bang for the buck
For the best values in shooting, aim off the Strip
American Shooters: For price plus quantity - 21 lanes - this place appeals to the cost-conscious and offers special military and law-enforcement discounts. For civilians, sessions start at $28 - though it's more like $50 with ammo - and run up to $100. It could cost more if you're wielding a "specialty firearm." 3440 Arville St., americanshooters.com
Come to Vegas, defend Stalingrad!
Exotic deals for the tourist with an itchy trigger finger
Machine Guns Vegas
Pick up your Desert Companion today at one of these Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf or Jamba Juice locations.
Also available at Clark County and Henderson libraries.