Gun tourism grows in popularity in recent years

Friday - 8/29/2014, 12:00pm EDT

MICHELLE RINDELS
Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- The death of an Arizona firearms instructor by a 9-year-old girl who was firing a fully automatic Uzi displayed a tragic side of what has become a hot industry in the U.S.: gun tourism.

With gun laws keeping high-powered weapons out of reach for most people -- especially those outside the U.S. -- indoor shooting ranges with high-powered weapons have become a popular attraction.

Tourists from Japan flock to ranges in Waikiki, Hawaii, and the dozen or so that have cropped up in Las Vegas offer bullet-riddled bachelor parties and literal shotgun weddings, where newly married couples can fire submachine gun rounds and pose with Uzis and ammo belts.

"People just want to experience things they can't experience elsewhere," said Genghis Cohen, owner of Machine Guns Vegas. "There's not an action movie in the past 30 years without a machine gun."

The accidental shooting death of the firing-range instructor in Arizona set off a powerful debate over youngsters and guns, with many people wondering what sort of parents would let a child handle a submachine gun.

Instructor Charles Vacca, 39, was standing next to the girl Monday at the Last Stop range in White Hills, Arizona, about 60 miles south of Las Vegas, when she squeezed the trigger. The recoil wrenched the Uzi upward, and Vacca was shot in the head.

Prosecutors say they will not file charges in the case. The identities of the girl and her family have not been released.

The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the state's workplace safety agency, is investigating the shooting-range death, said agency spokeswoman Rachel Brockway, who declined to provide specifics on the examination.

The coroner in Las Vegas said Vacca suffered from a single gunshot to the head.

Clark County Coroner Mike Murphy told The Associated Press that it will take several weeks for blood-toxicology test results to be complete, and authorities were still investigating the shooting. The coroner said that an official cause of death was pending.

Attractions similar to the Last Stop range have been around since the 1980s in Las Vegas, although the city has experienced a boom of such businesses in the past few years. One dusty outdoor range in Las Vegas calls itself the Bullets and Burgers Adventure and touts its "Desert Storm atmosphere."

Excitement over guns tends to spike when there's fear of tighter gun restrictions, said Dan Sessions, general manager of Discount Firearms and Ammo, which houses the Vegas Machine Gun Experience.

There's also the prohibitive cost of owning an automatic weapon -- an M5 might go for $25,000, while a chance to gun down zombie targets with an AR-15 and three other weapons costs less than $200.

"It's an opportunity that people may not come across again in their lifetime," Sessions said.

Tourists from Australia, Europe or Asia, where civilians are barred from many types of guns, long to indulge in the quintessentially American right to bear arms.

"People have a fascination with guns," said Cohen, who is from New Zealand and estimates about 90 percent of his customers are tourists. "They see guns as a big part of American culture, and they want to experience American culture."

The businesses cast a lighthearted spin on their shooting experiences, staging weddings in their ranges and selling souvenir T-shirts full of bullet holes.

But behind the bravado, owners acknowledge they are one errant movement away from tragedy. Cohen's business, for example, is installing a tethering system that will prevent machine guns from riding upward after firing -- the same motion that killed the gun instructor this week.

"Guns are designed to cause damage, and if they're mishandled, they'll do exactly that," said Bob Irwin, owner of The Gun Store, the original Las Vegas machine-gun attraction. "They have to be respected."

Sam Scarmardo, who operates the outdoor range in Arizona where the instructor was killed, said Wednesday that the parents had signed waivers saying they understood the rules and were standing nearby, video-recording their daughter, when the accident happened.

"I have regret we let this child shoot, and I have regret that Charlie was killed in the incident," Scarmardo said. He said he doesn't know what went wrong, pointing out that Vacca was an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jace Zack, chief deputy for the Mohave County Attorney's Office, said the instructor was probably the most criminally negligent person involved in the accident for having allowed the child to hold the gun without enough training.