The Gun Store illustrates Vegas' wacky charm.

Notes from different corners of the world.
March 3 2004 11:00 AM

Bulletproof Me

The Gun Store is the perfect representation of Vegas' wacky charm.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

"What happens in Vegas," the city's sinister tourist-board slogan proclaims, "stays in Vegas." It's the perfect motto for a vacation destination where one can indulge in activities not commonly available at home—a metropolis where gambling, prostitution, and warbling "My Heart Will Go On" while surrounded by capering Cirque du Soleil acrobats are all perfectly legal. But of all the attractions of Sin City, one of the most sublime isn't advertised on the city's billboards or spelled out in neon letters on the Strip—in fact, it isn't even on the Strip. Instead, it's a few miles east, in a nondescript building kitty-corner from a Wal-Mart, a low-slung, windowless building with a sign out front that says, in big letters "GUNS—Indoor Range." This is the Gun Store, and it is where locals—and, especially, out-of-towners—come for the rare opportunity to fire off anything from handguns to machine guns on the in-house target range. Nevada's gun-control laws are sufficiently relaxed that, in exchange for plunking down a few 20s and a photo ID, it's possible to while away an afternoon with some of the deadliest weapons known to man.

With its lack of windows, the store looks forbidding from the outside, but the staff of the Gun Store are, to a one, exceptionally friendly—as, perhaps, they can afford to be, since they are all armed to the teeth. They're mostly former police officers or ex-military, and they all have fine, dark senses of humor. "I'm assuming there's some safety training, because I would very much like to not shoot my face off," I inform the proprietor, Bob Irwin, before beginning my morning of shooting. "Are you sure?" he asks pleasantly. "It would make for a better story if you did."

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After a brief how-not-to-shoot-your-face-off tutorial from salesperson Mike Veitch—who offers the motto, "Safety first, safety last, mistakes happen very fast"—I am equipped with safety glasses and a noise-dampening headset and handed a Ruger GP-100 revolver. It is the first time I've ever held a gun, and it's a bit heavier than I expected. It is also a bit scarier. Granted, there are plenty of common objects that, in my hands, have the potential for horrific outcomes—steering wheels, stove knobs, steam irons, babies (I'm a bit clumsy)—but none that have bodily harm as their sole and exclusive purpose.

Holding it in my hands, it seems entirely possible that a bullet could come out of the barrel at any given instant. The fact that some men carry loaded guns in their pants' waistbands has never seemed more incredible to me than at this moment. I'm very careful to keep the barrel of the gun pointed down the target range—away from my instructors, bystanders, and, especially, my own head—and to be very gentle in picking it up and putting it down. It doesn't take long before I realize that I'm far more nervous about the fact that I'm holding a gun than the store's staff is.

I sample a few of the store's wares and learn this: Firing a .38 caliber bullet makes precisely the satisfying pop you'd hope a gun would make. And also this: Firing a .357 makes a bang that seems like a sonic boom, and the gun's recoil is not unlike being shoved by a bouncer. And, finally, this: Firing an MP-5 machine gun is a terrific adrenaline rush. "A lot of people—especially the ladies—let out this tremendous whoop the first time they fire off one of these," Veitch informs me. "The first time my wife fired one of those, I had to buy her one," adds one of his co-workers.

I also discover that, if and when I am attacked by paper targets, I stand a pretty decent chance of fending them off. Although a session in the store's video-shooting gallery—where you can fire live ammunition into a pressure-sensitive target wall, onto which video images of police shootouts are projected—dispels any false confidence the target range might have inspired. If I should ever become an officer of the peace, I stand a decent chance of winding up either dead or hauled before a disciplinary review board. "I shot a few civilians. And I kept running out of ammunition before I ran out of bad guys," I tell the store's staffers when they ask how I fared. "Always save a bullet for yourself," one of them counsels wisely. It's the kind of advice one never finds embroidered on throw pillows.

Its name notwithstanding, a decent proportion of the Gun Store's clientele aren't there to buy guns. They are, like me, just out-of-town pencil-necked geeks looking for kicks. The store, Irwin says, does $3 million in business a year, and half of that comes from the target range. On weekends, the lines for the range can go out the door.

The store's business spikes when certain conventions are in town—sportsmen's conventions, as you'd expect, but also computer confabs. "They like to come in here and shoot their competitors' laptops," Irwin says. "We have to sweep up all the little computer bits off the range." And there are the occasional parties of women celebrating a recent divorce who will put up a photo of the ex-husband and shoot it to smithereens. But perhaps the oddest client Irwin can recall was the gentleman who came in and shot up a photograph of himself—a sign of either deep self-loathing or perhaps a blood feud between a pair of identical twins. In either case, Irwin says, "We would not have sold him a gun."

After a brief perusal of the store's other merchandise—Tazers, hunting knives, videos with titles like Shoot to Live! and Rock & Roll #3: Sexy Girls, Sexy Guns—I head back to my hotel on the Strip, driving past ads for Vegas' better-known attractions: loose slots, daring acrobats, and death-defying magicians.

In its way, the Gun Store fits in perfectly with these other attractions, whose appeal rests upon a never entirely concealed undercurrent of danger: Maybe you'll lose your house on this hand of blackjack, maybe an acrobat will fall from the trapeze, maybe tonight's the night the trained tiger will forget its training. We go to Vegas for the danger that's lacking in our daily lives. But that's only half the appeal of Vegas. The other half is that, at the end of the trip, you can leave the danger behind. And while I know there are 3 million NRA members who might beg to differ, one of the greatest pleasures of visiting the Gun Store came in returning my weapons to the staff at the end of my visit and going back to a life in which I never need to remember to save a bullet for myself.

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