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PEOPLE STORY

Vegas People: Owner, Gun Store

This month an innate thirst for violence led Paul Sculpher to travel to the legendary Gun Store, a few minutes from the Las Vegas Strip, to speak to owner Chris Irwin and let off a few rounds

Walking into the Gun Store is quite an eye-opener for an Englishman, as the walls are literally lined with murderous looking weapons of all shapes and sizes. Gambling went into the retail area first, with a huge variety of brand new guns available for purchase, not to mention a host of accessories, t-shirts and other paraphernalia. On the other side of the building was the gun hire area, with a mass of different weapons dating from World War II and even earlier. This is adjacent to the ranges where punters can, under supervision, try these weapons out with a variety of targets (including the obligatory Osama Bin Laden pictures).

Gambling: Chris, this is quite a facility you have here. How did it all get started?

Chris: Thanks very much. We have been running for 20-25 years now, with my father founding the business. The facility started as just a gun shop with a testing range and a licence to sell weapons of all kind including fully automatic items. One day, one of the customers suggested that we should offer people the chance to fire the weapons on the range whether they were potential buyers or not and it was kind of a ‘light bulb moment’.

And you have all kinds of weapons today – where is your income split?

We have a huge number of weapons, including those used by a lot of current armed forces, through to stuff from modern legend such as M-16s and Kalashnikovs, down to World War II classics like the Sten Gun and the German MP40 ‘Schmeisser’. We now find that the range generates more income than the retail side. We sell a lot of hire packages, such as the World War II package including the MP40, ‘Tommy Gun’ and 1911 .45 pistol, bundled with a bunch of ammo and a t-shirt.

Most of the customers are tourists – we get a lot from the UK, actually – and our retail trade went particularly well after president Obama’s election, as people were a little nervous that he might crack down on gun ownership.

How do you get hold of the weapons and ammo?

We’ve been in the business a long time and acquired many of the older weapons a while ago. The ammunition is still made commercially and we never use reloaded cartridges. Obviously much of it is still in current circulation around the world and many of the older weapons use generic loads. We get through over 100,000 rounds per week here.

What’s the most popular gun people will pick?

People love to go with the classic weapons they’ve heard about or seen on TV. That’d be guns like the Uzi, or AK-47, or the prohibition/gangster era classic, the Tommy Gun – aka the Chicago Typewriter. The Smith and Wesson ‘Dirty Harry’ piece always goes down well. We have a variety of targets too, including the ever-popular Islamic terrorist look, along with the Nazi Zombie.

Go on then, what’s your best weapon?

Well, the Barrett .50 calibre is a pretty cool weapon – recently featured in the movie The Hurt Locker. It retails at $8,900. You have to be careful firing a gun like this in your backyard, though, if you don’t have something backing up your target the rounds can easily travel 1,200-1,400 yards. [For the record, Chris shows me the Barrett – it’s massive, and very scary. One round of ammunition is about the same size as a large cigar and the bullet is so heavy I reckon I could do a lot of damage by throwing it at you, let alone firing it.]

Given that there are an awful lot of dangerous weapons around this facility, I noticed a newspaper article recently that said Vegas is the suicide capital of America. I presume you have precautions in place to make sure that people don’t choose this as a way to go out with a bang?

Yes, there are always challenges inherent in this environment. All of our instructors are well-trained and mostly former armed law enforcement. They carry sidearms, partly to showcase the product we sell but partly for security.

And do you have any issues with people messing around with the weapons on the range?

Well, we take a good look at everyone who wants to shoot. When we see bachelor parties rolling out of their limo with beer bottles in hand, we just tell them that they’ll not be shooting today. And we also avoid anyone about whom we have doubts as to their mental status. With Las Vegas being a 24-hour city, people sometimes come in after a night out – who wouldn’t think it was a good way to finish off a day or night in Vegas? So part of our standard procedure is to look carefully at everyone wishing to hire a weapon. Everyone also receives a safety briefing, but even then, we very occasionally get people who forget the briefing and will wheel around with a weapon when they get a jam, which keeps our instructors on their toes. The procedure is to lay the weapon down on the counter at the front of the range, but in the heat of the moment people forget what they’re doing sometimes.

On the other side, we’ll have parents bringing their children in to use the weapons – all perfectly legal, as long as they’re physically strong enough to handle the weapon and tall enough to see over the counter. They’re welcome. It’s a big thrill for a lot of kids.

TESTING TIME

With this, it was time to move to the range. I met a few of the staff, whom I could comfortably describe as some of the hardest looking people you could ever hope to meet. Put it this way – if you worked at the McDonalds across the street and they challenged you to a staff football match, you’d better claim a swine flu outbreak. They are also keen on saying things like “If someone’s aiming the Barrett .50 cal at you, don’t bother running – you’ll just die tired”. Americans – gotta love ‘em!

I took the World War II package, with an additional 12-gauge shotgun and a belt for the M249 SAW (modern) machine gun. What they don’t tell you is quite how physical an experience firing these weapons is. Starting off with the .45 calibre pistol, after the safety briefing it’s time to let loose. Even through the ear defenders and eye protection there’s a feeling of serious power as the recoil kicks your hands up after each shot. That’s nothing, though, compared to the machine pistols. Even though they tell you that the weapons ride up with the recoil after a couple of shots, you still can’t help your aim drifting upwards, as the photo of one of my targets shows. These weapons are not meant to be hugely accurate, and I couldn’t keep them on target at a range of about 20 feet. The large number of bullet holes in the ceiling bore reference to the fact that some people can’t resist emptying the mag in one go.

The SAW was the pièce de résistance – a bipod-based machine gun with a really cool glowing LED-style sight, and this was much more accurate. The target for this was a terrorist-type picture, and let’s put it this way – if it had been a real target and a real belt of 50 rounds, you wouldn’t need to bother buying him any Christmas presents.

Shooting these weapons is an intensely physical experience, and tremendous fun. The noise, the recoil, and even the smell of cordite meant I ended up leaving with a huge grin on my face. We even had a comedy moment, as my photographer took a go on the Schmeisser and I stood in the wrong spot behind him, to experience the not-altogether-pleasant feeling of a hot empty shell casing flying directly out of the ejection port, off a wall and a ceiling, directly down the collar of my shirt.

I’ve been to Vegas many times and never made it out to the Gun Store before, but considering it’s only a short cab ride out on Tropicana Avenue (the road just north of the airport) I’ll definitely have another shot next time. It’s a must for a Vegas trip – just make sure you’re not hungover when you arrive.

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