The menu at Strip Gun Club. [Kim Kelly]

The glitz and absurdity of Las Vegas's gun playgrounds

Las Vegas has a little bit of everything — gambling, live entertainment, a strong organized labor tradition, free-flowing rivers of booze, shrimp cocktail on demand — and the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t dampened the city’s appetite for excess. Even as the Strip itself has emptied out, business has been booming at the shops selling guns and ammunition nearby. In our current age of government mandated-lockdowns and widespread non-essential business closures, Nevada’s gun stores skated by scot-free, thanks to a 2007 state law that makes shutting them down flat-out illegal. And gun stores aren’t the only part of Nevada’s firearms industry that is still alive and kicking right now.

In a city that does everything big, one of its most interesting excesses is its bevy of high-powered shooting ranges. The Strip is peppered with these garish shrines to gun culture; some are nestled right next to glittering clubs and casinos, while the larger, more extravagant versions require a short drive down Las Vegas Boulevard — but they’ll even pick you up in a tricked-out Humvee if you book in advance. They are a set of uniquely, aggressively American tourist traps in a city that saw its own mass shooting nightmare in 2017. The majority of these joints are targeted to Asian and European tourists drunk on the excitement of a wild and wacky Vegas vacation, who want to cap it all off by shooting some big ol' machine guns. And even though the tourists have stopped coming now, many of the ranges are still open for business.

This past winter, before coronavirus began to spread, I found myself with a few hours of free time in Las Vegas. Seeing as I’m not much of a gambler, I decided to blow off some steam by falling back on a more familiar activity: firing off a few rounds at the range. I’d seen billboards advertising the local options, and their outrageous advertising had left me curious about what it was actually like to go shooting there. As a leftist firearms enthusiast who is very down with community self-defense but fiercely opposed to right-wing gun culture’s fascist dog-whistling and pro-police propaganda, visiting commercial gun ranges often leaves me feeling uncomfortable about where my money is going. However, because gun culture is still monopolized by the right wing, there aren't many other options, and I wanted to see how Vegas stacked up. (I also really wanted to try out a Tommy gun, because, well, why the hell not?)

The author at Range 702. [Kim Kelly]

There's a weird, Disneyfied vibe to a lot of these places, many of which offer zombie hunts, comically large semiautomatic and fully automatic guns (colloquially known as “machine guns”), military or video game simulations, and "Wild West experiences." One even has the option to shoot a sniper rifle out of a helicopter. It’s absurd in a lot of ways, but that seems to be part of the appeal; there’s an alluringly crass “America!”-ness to the thought of strolling into a building located next to the Hustlers Club and paying $60 to shoot a machine gun.

“Hate it or love it, it's hard to think of a more iconic and glamorized American object than the gun,” Patrick Blanchfield, an associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and the author of Gunpower, a forthcoming book on American gun culture, tells Mic. “And there remains the blunt fact that, under the right circumstances, and if such is your disposition, shooting guns can be a lot of fun. It's an embodied experience that hits a lot of senses — touch, sound, smell — and gives people a sense of power and control.”

Range 702 is housed in a massive, windowless warehouse with its neon-green logo plastered everywhere. The counter person seemed surprised when I arrived already knowing what I wanted to shoot; from what she told me, it was a rarity for people with firearms knowledge to patronize their establishment. I selected a Thompson submachine gun, a Desert Eagle .50AE pistol, and an AK-47 — a trio of classics that still felt appropriately swashbuckling for a Vegas adventure — and met my safety officer, who stayed glued to my side throughout the entire half-hour session. He loaded the magazines for me each time, and to my surprise, physically held my hip and elbow when I was shooting the Tommy and the AK.

The lineup at Range 702. [Kim Kelly]

When I told him there was no need for the physical reinforcement, he said that it was one of the company’s non-negotiable safety rules. I got him to let go when I had the pistol, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. It makes sense to use an abundance of caution when you’re dealing with big guns and first-time shooters on a regular basis, but it all felt more than a little infantilizing. I could see how someone who’d never shot a gun before could leave feeling as if it was no big deal, especially if they’d opted for something like the Quadzilla (a Frankensteined four-barrel monstrosity that the counter person said was the result of their resident gunsmith being bored one day and soldering together various gun parts). There is a difference between giving curious people a safe environment to try out new firearms and seeing them encouraged to treat weapons as literal toys, and in this instance, it felt troublingly more like the latter.

In contrast, the atmosphere at the Strip Gun Club was a breath of semi-fresh air (there’s always a bit of a metallic tang at indoor gun ranges). There were similarities — the instructors were all former or current military, and they had most of the same firearms on offer — but there was a more low-key, clubby vibe, without any gaudy stars-and-stripes frippery. A Nicki Minaj song was playing as I walked in and struck up a conversation with one of the counter workers, who told me about how she’d been target shooting since she was 9 years old and how the range tries to foster a more welcoming, less aggressive environment than its competitors. After I told her my preferences and experience level, we settled on an Uzi submachine gun, a Springfield 1911 .45ACP pistol, and a vintage hand-cranked Gatling gun.

The Gatling gun at Strip Gun Club. [Kim Kelly]

My instructor, who was also the shop’s resident gunsmith, was extremely methodical in explaining how each gun worked and its exact mechanisms and history. He looked aghast when I told him about Range 702’s coddling, and stood off to the side as I tried each one out, offering pointers and trivia. He still handled the ammunition for me, but this time instead of being patronizing, it felt luxurious. The Uzi was the most enjoyable, the Gatling was a jumpy novelty that spit sparks into my face, and the 1911 just made me appreciate Glocks more — sorry, Dad.

These establishments are some of the only places in the U.S. where civilians can get their hands on fully automatic guns, so they do a roaring trade in tourist dollars. They require zero firearms training and take out all the guesswork. There are deals all over Groupon, too. According to the range workers I spoke with, the vast majority of patrons come from countries where gun ownership is rare.

I visited the Strip Gun Club on a slow Thursday afternoon, so the instructors had time to be chatty (though they declined to comment when I asked if they’d go on record). Mine was a mild-mannered, middle-aged white veteran who described himself as a Democrat and told me that people don’t believe him when he tells them where he works; according to him, he’s true-blue, just “old school” about it. One of his coworkers, a Latino man around my age, popped in to drop off some ammo and ended up staying to chat. We commiserated over our mutual dislike of the right-wing propaganda that litters so many gun ranges, and he told me how important it is to him that people feel comfortable at his range and that they leave with some new knowledge and a smile.

When I brought up the 2017 shooting on the Strip, both became somber. The younger man said, “‘A lot of people in this country have guns, and some people do terrible things; it’s on them, not the guns.” Nobody comes to Vegas to argue over the state of gun violence in the U.S., it seemsnot even those who have some skin in the game.

The Las Vegas Strip gun range is certainly over-the-top, but it also serves a function that many people obviously find useful: It gives the inexperienced and curious a safe place to work out their gun fascination without making them think too hard about why they have one in the first place. It’s otherwise difficult to access this kind of experience easily, “so, if they're going to do it, at least it's in an environment that's contained and supervised and presumably insured,” Blanchfield says. “You definitely pay fucking stupid markup for a few seconds of bang — it's probably the only faster way that exists to blow through $50 than a gram of cocaine, or so I've been told.”

Almost no one who visits these places has any real investment in gun culture or in purchasing their own firearms. Big-name outfits like Battlefield Las Vegas and Machine Guns Vegas lean heavily into the fantasy aspect, and some of their wording, like on the “Red Threat” and “The Second Amendment” packages, hinted at a certain right-wing sensibility that raised a big red flag for me. Almost every spot I looked up also had some kind of “ladies’ package” that offered smaller caliber firearms, sometimes in novelty colors; why anyone would want to shoot a pink AK-47 is beyond me, but apparently, they are quite popular with bachelorette parties.

[Kim Kelly]

Visitors to these ranges don’t feel pressured to consider the realities of gun ownership or American gun culture, good or bad. This commercial, aseptic assembly-line model reduces shooting to the loud ka-pow! aspect without requiring patrons to acquire any real knowledge or wrestle with any of the thornier implications that can come of encouraging the public to treat deadly weapons like toys. It’s an abdication of responsibility at best, and at worst, contributes to the uniquely American obsession with willfully stockpiling weaponry without adequate training — or common sense.

“America is what I call a ‘gunpower’: Its social order depends on the wide circulation of firearms and the constant affirmation and protection of the prerogative to use them,” Blanchfield explains. He isn't fazed by the continued existence of these fantasy ranges, or their glitzy place amidst the reality of gun culture in this country. "American gun culture ... has always mixed the allure of military weapons with civilian ones, and monetized it at both ends," he says. "This is not new."

“Fear may be an emotion, but it has its logic. And in a gunpower, the guns must flow.”

He is also unsurprised to see sales of guns skyrocketing in the face of the pandemic. “As people are variously kept home and plunged into states of escalating fear — realistic or otherwise — of resource scarcity, contagion, and invasion, as their way of life seems threatened, it makes perfect sense that they would arm themselves, and that the businesses that cater to that stay open,” he explains. “Fear may be an emotion, but it has its logic. And in a gunpower, the guns must flow.”

And that seems to be what these places want. As firearms enthusiasts from across the ideological spectrum know, bringing politics into the conversation often takes all the fun out of the actual sport of shooting. Now, even basic survival measures have turned into a partisan morass, the bodies of the dead continue to pile up, and heavily-armed right-wing militia members have become a fixture at “lockdown protests” across the country. The fact that these fantasy gun ranges are still welcoming visitors as other, arguably more life-sustaining local businesses die off en masse seems like a hamfisted parody of American ignorance.

As a gun owner, an anarchist, and a human being who generally trusts the federal government about as far as I can throw it, all that comes to my mind when confronted with this absurdity is a desperate plea for America to read the room. Shooting machine guns in the middle of an adult playground like Vegas is fun as hell, but none of that matters if you’re not alive to enjoy it.