Automatic for The People

by John-Paul Pryor

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Prepubescence and Pistols Aplenty at a Las Vegas Shootery
It’s early morning on the day of rest, too damn early, but the photographer David Shama and I are gunning a convertible down the freeway trying to keep a rendezvous with a seductively voiced woman called Jasmine at a place called Machine Guns Vegas — purportedly the 33rd most popular tourist attraction in the city of sin and one of the only heavy duty gun ranges in the US to offer a “kids club” package, where “kids as young as seven” get to kick back, relax and squeeze off a few rounds. At least, that’s what it says on the press release, although when I spoke to an MGV suit on the phone about this feature he told me it’s not so much a kids club per se, it’s just that if kids come with their parents, they can shoot. The idea of handing a seven-year-old kid a semi-automatic sounds pretty insane to anyone from over the pond, especially post-Sandy Hook and the spring boom in San Diego 12-year-olds penning death letters to their schoolmates. Sure, we have a shared love of blowing away digital monsters, cops and innocent by-standers on-screen, but handing a real semi-automatic to a kid? It just doesn’t feel right, especially to a writer fighting a mescal hangover, one who is intending to appear professional and enthusiastic on his imminent arrival—you know, the guy pinching the space between his eyes, trying to dissipate the heady fog of last night. At the point I think I may be about divest myself of my innards, the burner I bought rings, again, loudly:

“Hi… Hi? Is that John-Paul? You said you would be here at midday!”

“Yeah… Hi… Jasmine? Yep… No. We are here. We should be with you within half an hour, maybe a little longer…”

“Perfect. You are going to have such a great time!”

Great. For some reason, my booze-soaked brain is picturing a chick decked-out in a costume worthy of a Saint’s Row hooker as I slide the burner back into the seat of the car wondering if we will actually even make it in time to meet the family that have been lined up by the MGV press folks for us to shoot. I peer through my fingers and on the horizon line looms one of the globe’s most infamous cities, one recently given the dubious accolade of being the most trigger-happy city in the States, with an estimated 36.9 per cent of all deaths in 100,000 related to guns (based on CDC data, 2012). We are approaching its glittering vortex much faster than I had imagined and huge billboards for classic gun ranges inviting us to “see it, shoot it” fly past the windows as the Swiss-Frenchman beside me furiously snaps away at the skyline. I refer to these as adverts for “classic” gun ranges because these are old-school ranges at which you can only shoot a handful of weapons, and they are also, as I understand it, direct outlets for the selling of guns. In stark contrast MGV offers a far more comprehensive array of weaponry to its adult customers but—arguably to its credit—doesn’t sell guns at all, choosing instead to simply cater to tourists who seek the thrill of pulling the trigger of hardcore fare, the most powerful of which are Full Automatics, such as the M60, M249 SAW, M4 Carbine, Thompson M1A1, M3A1 Grease Gun, Uzi, AK-47… There are over one million dollars worth of weapons held within the gray concrete walls of MGV.

I’ve done my homework and there are a bunch of serious shooting packages on offer here, such as the Special Ops-inspired “Compound” package in which you get to shoot 5 Full Automatics, 5 Semi-Automatics and 5 handguns, but in all honesty, I have given up on any expectations of the scene that will greet us when our Roger Moore-voiced GPS finally steers us into the non-descript parking lot of the long rectangular concrete building that houses all these guns, a long rectangular concrete building as non-descript as anything in the background of the furious killing action in GTA 3.

The painkillers begin to blow an ice-cool breeze through my skull and I realize I don’t have any kind of handle on what I thought this place would be like, but I’m not feeling too great about being here at all. In fact, I’m feeling slightly unreal, as if MGV is the malevolent manifestation of a digital imagination creeping into reality. But this is Vegas, where the real Caesar’s Palace operates under the shadow of a dwarfish Eiffel Tower. Vegas is the manifest capital of the unreal.

We pack the cameras and walk through the doors to meet the amenable, attractive and surprisingly friendly (given our late arrival) general manager Jasmine. We are way behind schedule, so she hurriedly introduces us to the mother of the Anderson family—a woman who tells me almost instantly that her parents sent her here to escape the violence of The Bosnian War some 20 years ago. Marian Anderson is now the MGV accountant and one of those lucky ones who took refuge in the American Dream and found it not wanting, raising a family of four very polite and seemingly well-adjusted kids—all of whom are here waiting for the well-endowed Tomb-Raider-esque hostesses (“MGV Gun Girls”) to lead them through to the rooms where the action goes down. The youngest of this clan of hopeful future baseball pitchers, teachers and scientists—two boys/two girls—is an impossibly sweet nine-year-old girl named Katie who informs me she wants to be a vet when she grows up and that she enjoys shooting guns both on-screen and off in her down time. Her mother Marian, however, has never shot a gun in her life—“I’ve never shot but everyone I have talked to just loves it.”As I understand it, this is a woman whose family has experienced the horrors of real armed conflict, but here she is as they fire at mock targets of Osama Bin Laden and a wide variety of gun-wielding (it has to be said, quite often African-American) bad guys.

Marian Anderson is a nice woman but there is seemingly no mental connection whatsoever made between death and guns because, hey, this is just about weekend funtimes in the land of the free, where gun homicide rates in cities stand level with those in some of the world’s most violent nations (two out of three homicides in the US involve a firearm and there are an estimated 310 million guns in the hands of the populace. That’s more guns than there are people). Unfortunately, the guns-for-kids-entertainment paradigm is very far from rare. According to the New York Times there has been a decided financial push by the NRA and their ilk in God’s Own Country to get the next generation even more enthused about handling guns than Rockstar Games. Those same guns used to mow down members of said generation in various tragedies—the lethal AR-15, for example, a gun made famous by the tragic aforementioned killings at Newtown, Co. There have, of course, also been mass shootings in recent times at Oak Creek, Wisconsin and Aurora, Colorado, which have similarly shocked this nation and invigorated debate on gun control. But none of that is the issue here, and it’s certainly not an issue for the kids, who are only too keen to show us their skills when we go through to the back room—a concrete space heady with the stench of gunpowder.

Once we are within the range our ex-services handler talks us through the kinds of guns the kids will be shooting. I have to admit that I immediately get the sense that any one of the people around us blasting away could just swing round and shoot the hell out of everybody, but our man assures me that he could overpower anyone twere they to go crazy with a firearm, and, in all fairness, it does seem safe when these ex-army guys are around, but then again he’s not that convincing… (it was nothing short of chilling after writing up this piece to find out that the Iraq veteran Eddie Ray Routh killed two men at a Texas gun range, one of whom was ex-Navy Seal Chris Kyle, one of the deadliest shots of all-time and author of American Sniper). The first kid up to shoot is nine-year-old Katie who begins her morning at MGV with a silencer-fitted handgun. I’m kind of expecting this kid to pull the trigger and fly backwards across the room like a swatted fly, but she stands calm and poised, takes aim and proves herself to be a formidable shot. When she stands innocently gap-toothed and smiling with her target afterwards, we are told proudly by her mother that she is not one to be messed with.

“Did you like shooting that?” I yell to Katie above sporadic machine gun fire.

“Yeah…” she replies after a long, painfully shy pause.

“Why?”

“It’s neat, fun…”

“How is it different to shooting people in a video game?”

“It’s different because… I don’t know. I can hold it.”

“Which guns do you like the most?”

“I like handguns the best.”

“Would you keep a gun when you get older?”

“I think I would keep one in the house… for self-defence.”

Welcome to Hunter’s Kingdom of Fear. The nine-year-old wants a gun and it’s smiles all round from mum and the clan. Further inquiries with the kids reveal that the idea of guns being in the house for self-defence is something that seems sensible to pretty much everyone in attendance, except Carlee (13), who isn’t too sure she would keep a gun, but probably would. The eldest of the boys (Drazen, 17) goes a step further than his sharp-shooting little sister: “In America? I would probably carry a concealed weapon about my person. You just never know. I don’t feel I would need to do that in another country though. I wouldn’t feel a need to do it in Europe.” I have to admit I understand this mentality to some degree. I am an outsider in The States and I’ve been to some of those far-flung rural areas where you feel one wrong turn and anything could turn just a little bit Deliverance. But these aren’t hunting rifles we are talking about—these are semi-automatic deliverers of death en-masse, and the most prevalent weapons in practically every shoot-em-up game on the market.

One does wonder if fostering the notion in kids that guns are absolutely fine as an entertaining pastime doesn’t serve to negate their primary power and purpose in absolute reality (it’s sentient to note that there is a “gamer” package on sale at MGV). The question becomes whether we want to sell guns to kids on any level as Nerf video games or actual. I mean, when we finally get into the realms of all-encompassing virtual reality games will killing for entertainment feel like killing for real? And what would that mean for a badly wired kid? Tellingly, the author Stephen King recently pointed out that it’s never middle-aged men carrying out these mass killings. It’s usually pissed-off, pissed-on adolescents who hate the world and themselves and have direct access to violent video games and semi-automatic weapons, because mom or dad legally keeps them at home for “self-defence”—an absurd reasoning, unless you intend to open the door every day with your Uzi primed. And what of that one kid who gets the thrill a little too much at the range — the one who constantly obsesses on pulling a trigger?

But what the hell, this is no blame game. Machine Guns Vegas is full of serious (quite heavily tattooed) and professional people who know precisely what they are doing when it comes to shooting guns safely, and arguably it’s far better for a kid to learn how to handle one in this environment than it is out in the sticks somewhere (Drazen tells me he shot his first gun at the age of 12, “with friends”). But one has to wonder if the problem America faces, with its increase of mass shootings, might be better solved by telling kids that guns are never to be handled, in any situation, and that to be found doing so would be illegal. Then maybe this country could take its first baby steps off the hamster wheel feeding the spectacle of violence as entertainment.

I don’t know. I don’t feel it’s really for me to say, and all the people I met at MGV were seemingly decent—responsible types working in a service industry that is in high demand. Also, it’s worth re-iterating that the Anderson family couldn’t be a nicer bunch—none of these kids struck me as the kind to ever grow up to be anything other than responsible, productive adults.

I won’t pretend for one minute that I didn’t get a kick from firing an AK47 when invited to do so. It’s not for me to comment on this country’s gun obsession. After our morning at MGV, David Shama and I drink heavily at the bar at The Cosmopolitan where, by happenstance, an event is taking place for veterans, all of whom are wearing an impressive array of medals (including the medal of honor)—one is badly burned, one has no legs, one is blind. And what do you have to say about that?