Las Vegas' gun-culture tourism thrives alongside gambling, shows
It was business as usual Monday at Battlefield Vegas, a shooting range where guests can fire all manner of automatic weapons and even drive a tank over a car.
Employees in military fatigues escorted guests. A group of Asian tourists took photos of themselves manning the gun of an armored personnel carrier. Three patrons, holding targets riddled with bullet holes, declined to chat about their experience as they left. "We booked this a long time ago," one said.
Establishments like those in Las Vegas where tourists and locals can shoot military-grade weapons underscore how deeply the gun culture is embedded with many Americans and the challenges President Donald Trump and other politicians face when they try to change gun laws. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, who survived a 2011 assassination attempt in Tucson, are among those who called for tighter regulation.
"If you want to add to your once in lifetime experiences, put Battlefield Vegas on your 'Bucket list,'" Anthony W., a visitor from Oakland, California, raved on Yelp.com last month. He chose the "D-Day package" which included firing a Thompson submachine gun and said, "I'll be going back soon for another experience."
On Sunday night about 3.5 miles away from Battlefield Vegas, a gunman wielding high-powered weapons opened fire on an outdoor concert from the 32nd floor of a casino, killing 58 people and wounded more than 500. Trump visited the city Wednesday to offer support for the victims, police and paramedics, and to survey the scene.
"We will be talking about gun laws as time goes by," he said Tuesday. At a press conference Wednesday at a Las Vegas hospital he declined to comment further.
A billboard for Battlefield Vegas offers the chance to shoot a 50-caliber machine gun for $29. Machine Guns Vegas promises the best shooting deal in town, from $99 for its "Urban Assault Experience." which includes firing the Colt Commando, the Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun and a Glock 17 handgun.
Machine Gun Helicopters takes the show into the air, letting patrons fire automatic weapons from a chopper in what it calls a "true door gunner experience." A video clip shows the customer cutting down a couple of human dummies perched on a sofa out in the desert.
"We believe, as we always have, that there should absolutely be more stringent control on the types of firearms private individuals can own and the processes they must go through in order to own those firearms," Machine Guns Vegas said in an emailed statement. "There were many factors contributing to this tragic event, but there is no doubt that the shooter's ability to inflict so many casualties was heavily due to the types of weapons he had access to."
The others declined to comment or didn't respond to requests for comment.
"Typically after mass shootings, gun sales go up," said Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign, a group that seeks to reduce gun deaths. "I would guess that activity at shooting ranges follows that pattern, too."
Annual sales of guns and ammunition in the U.S. total about $13 billion, according to data compiled by IBIS World. About 141,500 people are employed directly in making and selling firearms, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the industry.
Some advocates, like Gardiner, argue ranges provide a valuable service for responsible firearm owners, giving them a place to learn how to use weapons safely and responsibly.
Nevada is far from the only state where enthusiasts can shoot high-caliber weapons on a range. Businesses in Kentucky, Arizona and Georgia advertise similar experiences. Las Vegas may be unique though in both the number of establishments and their proximity to one of the world's largest tourist destinations.
"You see all those ads all over Las Vegas," said Rommel Dionisio, an industry analyst at Aegis Capital Crop. in New York. "On billboard and magazines, that's what they say, the ability to shoot automatic weapons."
Restrictions on private ownership of automatic weapons date back to the Prohibition era, according to the Brady Campaign. The National Firearms Act of 1934 didn't outlaw such guns, but it made them hard to get. Sales were recorded in a national registry. Owners underwent a background check and had to meet certain requirements.
Additional restrictions passed in 1968 barred the sale of imported weapons "with no sporting purpose" to civilians, and automatic weapons were determined to fall in that category. The Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986 banned civilian from possessing machine guns made after May 19 of that year, limiting ownership to older models. An assault weapons ban passed in 1994 expired 10 years later.
Nevada has long been associated with the Wild West and gun culture. The Nevada State Museum, just a few blocks from the capitol in Carson City, has an extensive firearms collection on display, everything from blunderbusses to Gatling guns.
"Nevada has some of the most lax gun laws in the nation," Gardiner said.