On the last day of my first trip to Vegas three years ago, my older brother and I faced a conundrum: What do you do in Sin City when the sin's been had and only the city is left?
Go to Caesar's, maybe, and lose another $50 bucks at craps, or, schmuck-like, watch the Bellagio's fountain show for the sixth time? Then I thought: What better way to bid farewell than with my finger wrapped around the trigger of an automatic weapon?
Enter The Gun Store, one of a growing number of Vegas businesses specializing in machine-gun tourism. With a picture ID and $50 bucks, you can fire 10 rounds on a Desert Eagle, or 50 with an Uzi 9mm.
Now, I'm not exactly a card-carrying NRA groupie. My dad, a handgun owner, taught me to shoot when I was young so I'd be safe around firearms, but I've rarely handled guns since. But my brother and I are also geeks and gamers who share a weakness for high-tech weaponry. And so, on our last day in Vegas, we set off for The Gun Store.
Inside the squat, stucco building, fluorescent lights cast a grimy glow over the wall-mounted weapon collection, where a "ladies" pink-handled AK-47 stood out cheerily among the gray-black arsenal of machine guns, pistols and rifles. T-shirts with screen-printed crosshairs and bullet holes, camo sweatbands, and souvenir key chains crowded the showroom shelves.
Shooting targets hung limply from the ceiling, a menacing cast of paper villains that featured zombies, gangsters and even a turbaned bin Laden. There were also a handful of gun-toting burglars, nearly all of whom, we realized to our disturbed amusement, were supposed to resemble ethnic minorities.
No doubt, the store was a gun-lover's paradise. But most gun-tourism destinations in Vegas -- there are at least four -- don't cater to weapon-heads. Instead they seek out bored tourists, like my brother and me. "People aren't coming in because they're gun nuts," says store CEO Bob Irwin on The Gun Store's website. "They're coming to go on a ride."
We joined a queue of college kids in flip-flops and board shorts, fanny-packed vacationers and giggling teenagers. My brother, a serious film buff, chose an MP5 submachine gun -- the weapon wielded by the German baddies in Die Hard, one of his favorite action flicks. I went with a Thompson submachine gun, Dick Tracy-style.
We were given headphones and safety glasses, and assigned to hulking, square-jawed range instructors, who resembled the tattooed goons Chuck Norris kicks around in Walker, Texas Ranger. I followed my guide to the range and into a booth that faced my target: the classic, retro-looking "silhouetted man." The concrete floor was littered with spent cartridges, thousands of which had been swept into waist-high mounds that twinkled like metallic snowdrifts.
My instructor explained the finer points of range shooting: Don't point the gun at anything but the target, and don't drop it. Until now, I hadn't been nervous. But the range's sharply metallic odor and harsh gunshot staccato was a bit unsettling.
Even in my instructor's meaty paws, the tommy gun looked big. He helped me position and sight my target, then stepped aside. Squaring the "man's" stomach in my sight, I warily pulled the trigger.
A spray of bullets tore through the target's blank white border. Whoops. I took a deep breath and fired again, blasting away the "man's" left shoulder -- I'd been aiming for the head. Keyed up, I finished my 50 rounds in a heady stupor.
My brother describes the experience as "exhilarating -- chemistry and physics in action." I agree. Blasting through 50 rounds of .45 caliber ammo on a gun made famous by Al Capone and the Untouchables was indeed a glorious two-minute fantasy fest.
Last May, my brother returned to The Gun Store, which, he says, has changed dramatically since our previous visit. It now caters more to weapons enthusiasts than tourists: The decor is decidedly less flamboyant; the range masters, in pastel polos and khaki pants, look more like golf instructors than movie thugs; and the arsenal is likewise staid.
The Gun Store's all-business makeover is likely a response to its increasingly over-the-top competition. Machine Guns Vegas features a swanky, upscale lounge, V.I.P room, and busty, scantily clad hostesses; the Las Vegas Gun Range and Firearm Center maintains a photo gallery of its "hottest" customers, and American Shooters, which specializes in firearms training, boasts an interactive, live-fire shooting simulator.
Are machine gun rentals displacing Elvis impersonators and blackjack in Sin City's entertainment hierarchy? And if so, why? Maybe, with the recession squeezing vacation budgets, shelling out 50 bucks to go all Dirty Harry on a paper bin Laden is simply more satisfying than paying twice that to see a Cirque du Soleil show or chancing hard-earned cash at the casinos.
In March at Machine Guns Vegas -- the new "boutique" gun lounge off Interstate 15, where "ultra lounge meets firing range" -- a vacationer told Fox5 News that shooting high-powered military weapons was really "a nice experience for an afternoon." You know, kinda like a family picnic -- if Rambo and Dillinger were pouring the punch.