YOU CAN HEAR THE FAINT pop of gunfire as you cross the parking lot to American Shooters. The low-slung, inconspicuous building is painted grim, battleship gray and sits, aptly enough, next to the Leatherneck Club Bar & Grill. It’s a muggy weekday morning and I’m here to hone my shooting skills.
For most of my 52 years, I’d avoided handguns, sure that I couldn’t hit anything with one. But when I was cast as a survivalist in the play Early One Evening at the Rainbow Bar & Grille, at Las Vegas Little Theatre, I figured I’d better learn how to carry a gun like I meant business. It took me a while to develop any proficiency, but none at all to learn why so many Americans like to blast holes in a target — and why shooting ranges are a growth industry in Vegas: It’s a rush. “There is something very therapeutic about shooting a firearm, feeling the recoil, and something very satisfying to learning to control that force,” says American Shooters Marketing Manager Jeremy Ng.
What was surprising was the number of left-of-center friends in my circle who came out as pistol, shotgun and rifle enthusiasts. It’s a pastime with a catholic appeal.
For my visit to American Shooters, Ng and Business Development Director John Velasquez have matched me with a FNP .45, fitted with a suppressor. It’s a heavy brute and a lot of gun for anybody, but my five allotted shots form a respectable center-mass cluster, with two in the same spot, right next to the bull’s-eye. It’s exhilarating — and not a little sobering — to have that destructive power at hand.
It’s also ladies’ day at American Shooters, and the percussive din from 14 pistol lanes drowns out conversation in the lobby. “We want people to shoot things that they’re excited about, because we like cool guns. It’s what we do,” Ng says. Demonstrating the slide (“like butter”) on a Nighthawk 1911, he adds, “We embrace fine tools and we want our customers to experience that.”
They’re not alone, irrespective of ideology. One of the discoveries I made when I lost my firearm virginity was how many of my fellow left-leaning friends shared the enthusiasm. Having carved out a nation with gun power, it remains encoded in our American DNA. Or, as Joe Rocco, a retired IRS employee, says quite succinctly of firing his 9 mm pistol, “It’s fun.”
“It’s like anything else gives you pleasure you can’t figure out why,” elaborates John Morris, who teaches at Las Vegas Academy. “There’s nothing else in the world going on when you’re shooting. It’s just you and that gun, and you’re paying attention 100 percent to it. So it does require this heightened sense of awareness.” Small wonder that you can feel the endorphins dancing through your veins after a session at a shooting range.
LOSING MY VIRGINITY
My own first experience was at a dingy range on Blue Diamond Road. I gained so much confidence banging away with a Walther that pretty soon I was violating a cardinal rule of shooting and firing the thing one-handed. (When you visit a shooting lane, you can be certain to get a lesson in the proper two-handed grip.) I was also cocky enough to try a round on a mammoth six-shooter, which felt like discharging a howitzer bare-handed.
At least I had the sense to let myself be steered toward a bargain-oriented shooting range. If you can afford the hobby, American Shooters is also geared toward value for the dollar. Both Ng and Velasquez, both of whom speak in a rapid-fire manner laced with technical jargon, look down on the gun-tourism phenomenon that has arisen around the Strip. “You’re not going to see us corral tourists into a theme-park ride,” Ng says. Adds Velasquez, “They’re more from the cheap, easy, ‘give ‘em two or three guns and get ‘em out in an hour.’” They pride their store on having been around for nearly 35 years, saying, “We do well for the amount of advertising we do … it’s all from word of mouth.”
“A lot of ranges, they’ll hustle you in, hustle you out, ‘I’ll see you later,’” echoes Discount Firearms General Manager Joe Wyson. His store, however, does offer the tourist-oriented Machine Gun Experience. American Shooters gets some tourist business, too, but has a mostly local clientele. So much of American Shooters’ customer base is from the law enforcement community that it’s been nicknamed “The Cop Shop.” If you’re a civilian and want to buy a bulletproof vest, go somewhere else.
THE FIRST TIME
“I only weighed like 100 pounds or so, so it kept knocking me back, and I had a huge bruise on my right shoulder. But I liked it,” recalls boiler firm Pyro Combustion’s Stephanie Tuggle of her first firearm experience “I was the only girl out there, so they were letting me try the different guns, and they kept tossing me back. I like the power,” adds Tuggle, who doesn’t own any firearms herself. “It’s fun to blow things up.”
Rocco, who grew up in a gun culture in Pennsylvania, found it “kind of scary” the initial time he went shooting, at age 9 or 10. “Just didn’t know what was going to happen.” But by the second or third shooting expedition, the fear was gone. “I had guns for a long time, but in Philadelphia there wasn’t much cause to use them.”
In Vegas, he likes to take his 22-caliber rifle and pistols to various outdoor ranges and hone his target-shooting skills. “It’s for the sport of it and to see how good you can do” and how much he can improve.
“Both of my parents went to re-creations of the fur-trapper era,” says Brandon McClenahan, who runs a pool-cleaning company by day and Quadranine Productions the rest of the time. “Pretty much from when I was a baby I was into competitive rifle-shooting, tomahawk- and knife-throwing, and shit like that. When I was probably about 16, I spent two months a year doing the fur-trapper re-creation.” And, in doing so, he discovered a ritualistic, even artistic side to firearm culture.
“You’ve got to check your grain count, load in your grain, your ball, put it on top of a cap, hammer it down, ramrod it in,” he explains. “If it’s a flintlock, it has a pan on the side you have to light with priming power. Sometimes it will take three full seconds before the gun actually fires. You have to stay focused, staying aiming throughout the full [flintlock] process and keep on target. It makes a more disciplined shooter out of somebody.”
McClenahan’s father’s best friend adorned many a rifle and flintlock pistol with “amazing” scrimshaw. “Seeing the care that goes into the crafting of the pieces themselves was a real gift to me as a kid. There is this art that goes into them becoming such deadly weapons,” McClenahan adds with a laugh.
FEAR OF A BLACK PRESIDENT
“I grew up in a very small town in central Utah, so at heart I’m a bumpkin,” claims Morris. “My dad had a 30-aught-6 for a while. My brother had maybe a 30-30. We had a shotgun kicking around the house for the longest time. I didn’t do much hunting, but I wasn’t into killing Bambi. I’m not opposed to eating Bambi, I just don’t want to kill it.”
If McClenahan emphasizes on the ritualistic side of shooting, Morris focuses upon the discipline of gun ownership, the great responsibility that comes with great firepower. “What most people don’t get about gun ownership — and it drives me crazy — you can’t just own a gun. You have to own the idea of the gun. You have to know it can potentially backfire and kill you, either because someone’s going to take it away from you or you don’t know how to use it correctly.”
Practicing what he preaches, Morris doesn’t own a weapon at present because he hasn’t the time for one. “How often do you take that gun out and clean it? You’ve got to clean that gun on a regular basis, fire on a regular basis, know how to use it. You’ve got to take classes in actual situations.” Those are time- and money-intensive obligations.
Morris, Rocco and Tuggle experience surprisingly little blowback from their comparably left-leaning friends. “My mom is super-liberal, but she has guns,” says Tuggle. “I was raised with guns in the house. She’s totally fine with shooting.” Nobody will diss McClenahan’s hobby to his face, but he reports getting passive-aggressive sniping on Facebook, for instance.
“It’s weird being liberal on the side of my political beliefs and then being pro-gun, it’s this thing that people don’t see being together. As far as gun safety, I was taught from an early age a gun is a weapon. There was a gun in every single room of the house I grew up in, no joke,” he says. “I have a hard time that we’ll read one half of the Second Amendment and not the other half. We don’t have a well-organized militia. This was a wartime amendment. We do, as citizens, have a right to have guns … but I don’t think the Second Amendment entitles us to have unlimited access to whatever destructive weaponry deemed fit.”
This has inspired some “pretty heated” arguments within the McClenahan family, but he thinks the NRA is looking a gift horse in the mouth: “Gun stores are recording record profits. It’s got to be better for gun companies to have a liberal in office because people start buying.”
“[President] Obama is the salesman of the year,” says The Range 702’s marketing director, Lianne Heck, who’s seen “amazing sales for a few months now.” Reaction to the school shootings in Sandy Hook, Conn., sparked a run on high-capacity magazines and on ammunition. Assault rifles flew from the shelves. “There was a time when nobody had any,” says Heck. “You walked in and we had squirt guns on the wall,” adds Guns & Ammo Garage co-owner Mark Cole.
OFF HIS ROCKER
Interestingly, for all the Obama-driven panic that the government was going to come (presumably in black helicopters) for our guns, high-end shooting ranges draw most of their business from overseas, especially the United Kingdom and other parts of the Commonwealth. In Germany, for instance, automatic weapons are strictly verboten for civilians.
Those of us who wish to exercise our Second Amendment prerogatives to keep and bear weapons have a cross to bear in the form of the National Rifle Association and its foaming-at-the-mouth, seemingly unhinged mouthpiece Wayne LaPierre (the last person I would trust with a firearm). The paranoid, hyperbole-laced rhetoric fulminating from NRA HQ makes “responsible gun ownership” sound like a contradiction in terms.
“When you listen to the NRA talk and they spout this crazy, almost militant agenda and most of us reasonable [owners] are going, ‘Why are you doing that?’ It’s fine to own a weapon. We just want to know that you’re not a nutjob when you own it … just like you’re responsible with owning a car,” says Morris. “We just had a discussion among some of my colleagues about the crazy notion that teachers should carry guns. I can’t even keep track of my iPad! I would have to spend the [school] day keeping track of my gun.”
THE COOL FACTOR
McClenahan has a small arsenal of nine or 10 weapons, mostly black-powder and flintlock. However, he does wield a 007-worthy device that also probably comes in handy on the days when he has to make payroll: a 1973 Derringer that is concealed inside a wallet. “Say you get robbed, you can actually fire the gun inside of this wallet,” its owner says, sounding like a man’s who’s seriously contemplated that scenario. “I can almost palm the thing without being noticed.” But for keeping his home safe, McClenahan goes old-school with a Colt revolver: “They’re more reliable in a high-pressure situation.”
Of course, when shooting simply to get one’s rocks off, the design, the aesthetic appeal and the cool factor of the weapon come into play. On my favorite TV show, Stargate SG-1, the P-90 submachine gun is the weapon of choice, so I’ve shot up a zombie-clown target with one of those. (Clowns are bad enough; zombie clowns are unspeakable.) James Bond long favored the Walther PPK, so I’ve tried that, too — not very well. And the 1911’s design will always be preferable to the ubiquitous Glock … unless you have pretensions to being a rapper.
Even Vegas’ manifold gun ranges may not have some of the weapons Morris has fired when visiting his in-laws. “I shot a Japanese 7.7 World War II rifle. Just about a year ago, I shot a giant Magnum. I call it the Yosemite Sam gun,” he chuckles. “It looked like something out of Dick Tracy, this giiiaaant gun. Boy, it had some kick.”
“This device has done so much to shape the world that we live in,” McClenahan says of firearms. “To be behind that and harness that kind of power is a rush, and to do it safely is a challenge. It’s putting yourself at the reins of a fucking bull and trying not to get the horn.”