The Family That Shoots Machine Guns Together….

A friend of mine recently spent some time in Las Vegas. She returned and lamented what the place has become. A quick paraphrasing of her comments. “There wasn’t a sign of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson to be found anywhere.” 

I’ve never been a fan of Vegas, or at least Vegas-proper. You can keep all those glitzy casinos on the strip. To me, they’re all exactly the same. Each has a gaming floor, a few nightclubs, some restaurants, a half-assed gimmick like a pirate ship parked out front and an area with tacky shops. A weekend there is like getting trapped in a shopping mall chock-full of the country’s lamest drunks. 

I don’t think I’ll be heading back there anytime soon but the city does have at least one saving grace: The Gun Store – a beacon of what Vegas should be. 

Oh, and what should Vegas be? IMHO, Burning Man but without the sand storms. Anyway…

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I grew up in Portland, Oregon, a liberal town with a liberal heart, liberal lungs and other no-doubt liberal body parts. Before the rest of the country had even heard of recycling, I and a lot of other locals were diligently separating our plastics and smashing milk cartons. During my more impressionable years I spent more hours than I care to admit clearing English Ivy from state parks and watching Captain Planet.

I was taught at a young age that bicycles are sacred, nature is even more sacred and that large American automobiles and guns are the most evil things ever created in the history of the universe. I know at least one Portlander that is so intensely afraid of firearms that she plugs her ears whenever guns start blazing in action films. You should have seen her reaction to that scene in Kill Bill when Vivica A. Fox abruptly whips a pistol out of a cereal box. I think she still has nightmares about it.

So how does someone with my “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” upbringing wind up in a Vegas shooting gallery in front of a paper Osama Bin Laden target?

Well, primarily, because when I hopped off a plane in Sin City last August one of the first things that greeted me was this display in baggage claim:

And just like that, my liberal upbringing was on the ropes. If I hadn’t known any better, I would have assumed the sign had hypnotic powers. It should also be noted that I was traveling with my mother and father, making me the first human being over the age of 18, ever, to set foot in the city of Las Vegas with one’s parents. It was a lonely, pathetic trail to blaze but my impoverished ass was happy to blaze it. And if you think that’s lame, well, keep reading.

We ended that August afternoon at the nearly empty Star Trek bar in the Vegas Hilton. The only other people in the place were three conventioneers that took great delight in annoying the hell out of an actor paid to mingle with customers while covered in latex. Also sitting at another table was an enormously obese man and his teenaged son. The teen looked thrilled to be there as his father downed glass after glass of blue-dyed “Klingon Ale” while puffing on a pipe and apparently trying to induce a heart attack to escape the place. A waitress dressed in a sci-fi flight suit brought our table a few $12 glasses of neon brown liquor filled with dry ice.

Feeling that the day wasn’t already surreal enough, I decided to throw this idea out there: “Hey, Mom and Dad. I saw a sign in the airport about a place that rents machine guns. After we finish drinking this expensive liquor endorsed by Captain Picard, would you like to go play with M-16s?”

I knew my father, who spent a good amount of time at firing ranges while serving in the military, would be cool with the idea but my mother? Who was also raised in Portland? Who had never come with 50 yards of a BB gun in her entire life? No way she would be down with a trip to a place called “The Gun Store.”

Maybe it was the space booze talking but she agreed. We trucked over to a humble, white building about a mile off the strip. While the folks weren’t liquored-up enough to rent a high-powered weapon themselves, they joined me inside the firing range. We each signed a disclaimer promising not to sue if I dropped the gun and, well, inadvertently killed everyone in the store. I picked out my weapon: an AK-47. Samuel L. Jackson’s endorsement from another Tarantino movie was enough to sway me from an M-16 or a more pricey Tommygun rental:

“An AK-47! When you absolutely, positively have to kill every last motherfucker in the room!”

Yeah, that one. From Jackie Brown.

“So do you want to shoot a generic target or one of these guys for an extra 3 bucks,” the guy behind the counter asked, pointing to a row of posters. I had my pick of paper targets ranging from Saddam Hussein to a variety of generic burglars in black masks. The choice was obvious: an extremely cheesy, poorly-Photoshoped poster of Osama Bin Laden holding a machine gun and smiling vacantly as if he were day-dreaming while scribbling in a diary covered in pony stickers.

This wasn’t the first time I’d ever held a gun in my hands. In college I spent a year living with a future Special Forces candidate who got his kicks from shooting rusted-out cars with a shotgun. While there’s still a part of me that nags “guns are bad, they should be outlawed and melted down into bright pink peace symbols” I’ve come to terms with the fact that firing high-powered weapons can, in a controlled environment under the right circumstances (like being filled with space booze in Vegas), be a hell of a lot of fun…just like writing run-on sentences like this one.

Now you would probably assume that a place like this would be filled with Larry the Cable Guy aficionados and wiry survivalists. Instead the airport sign’s siren call had lured people from all walks of life off the Vegas strip and to the Gun Store’s firing range. Inside a tiny blonde sorority girl and her boyfriend were taking turns with a shotgun. A middle aged yuppie couple looked like they had been there for hours and had a pile of bullet-hole laden posters to prove it. A guy who looked like he had raided P. Diddy’s walk-in closet was busy pumping holes into a poster of Ayatollah Khomeini.

A staff member walked me through putting the clip in the gun and advised me to aim low, pointing to a ceiling filled with the bullet holes created by other novices. I set the gun to semi-automatic and 45 seconds and $25 dollars later I was out of ammo. The gun had maybe a tenth of the recoil of a shotgun and it felt like a fake gun you could find attached to an Operation Wolf machine in an ’80s video arcade.

He hit a button and reeled Bin Laden back in. “Congratulations, he’s good and dead,” the guy said as my always supportive parents praised my efforts. Somewhere there’s a photo of me holding the AK-47 and grinning like an idiot next to the Bin Laden poster but I’m not about to put that on the internet. Here instead is proof of the damage done:

I don’t think Mr. Paper Bin Laden is going to survive that bullet to the cheek.

Back out front my father fondly recalled his days as an MP. “Hey, check out this nightstick,” he said cheerfully, pointing to a bucket full of them. “I had one just like it.” At that point, culture shock finally got the better of my mother and she pushed us towards the door.

Oh, and there was a nifty bazooka hanging on the wall. The staff wouldn’t rent it to me though. I guess there are some things that are still illegal in the state of Nevada. As we headed towards the car we spotted two rail-thin hipsters that looked like they had just stepped out of a bar on SE Belmont. Under their arms each was carrying a half dozen posters as they proudly puffed on cigars.

The moral of this story: everybody loves machine guns. For what it’s worth, my mother still regrets not plucking down $40 for a round with one of the Tommy-guns.

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