Guns are big business in Las Vegas — and a source for international mockery
Various layers of government regulate gun sales. Nationwide, buyers must go through a background check and fill out paperwork, including Form 4473 issued by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, for over-the-counter gun sales. Customers must be at least 18 years old to get a rifle or shotgun and 21 for a pistol from a Nevada retailer. Metro Police issues concealed firearms permits in Clark County.
Some valley jurisdictions have more rules than others, and regulations are not the same for every weapon. First-time handgun buyers must wait 72 hours after a purchase before they can get the gun when buying from retailers in Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County. Henderson and Boulder City do not have that rule, so customers can get their guns after clearing a background check, which can be done in a half hour.
There is no waiting period in Southern Nevada for shotguns, rifles and other long guns.
Guns and ammunition are flying off the shelves in Las Vegas.
The fear of heightened regulation has sent people streaming into valley gun stores for gear and training.
Federal lawmakers, responding to last month’s shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that killed 20 children, are looking to crack down on gun ownership and there is talk of a renewed ban on assault rifles, but it’s unclear whether any new laws will pass through Congress.
“Obama’s our best salesman,” Range 702 manager Michael Heck said. “Every time he says the word ‘gun’ on television, sales go through the roof.”
Sales have skyrocketed for military-style rifles in particular, such as the AK-47 and the AR-15, one of the guns 20-year-old Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 to kill 26 students and staff. More people also are signing up for firearms instruction and concealed-weapons permit classes.
Some customers said they fear for their safety after the latest U.S. mass shooting and want to protect themselves, the retailers said. But most cited a fear of increased government oversight and want guns that soon might be outlawed.
Last month, sales volume at the Gun Store on East Tropicana Avenue was almost five times that of a typical December, owner Bob Irwin said. Sales were up six-fold at Discount Firearms and Ammo on South Highland Drive, according to General Manager Joey Wyson. At the newly opened Range 702 on Dean Martin Drive, sales revenue this past month doubled that of a normal month for an established store, Director of Business Development Lianne Heck said.
During a recent week, one man bought a gun every day at Range 702. He and other customers have a “fear of the unknown,” Lianne Heck said.
Assault rifles, which cost at least $1,000, are being gobbled up.
“Everybody’s panicking,” she said.
After the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., Discount Firearms sold its entire inventory of assault rifles in a week and a half. Many customers were first-time gun buyers who had put off buying a weapon. Now they figure they might not have another chance to get one, Wyson said.
Gun sales typically increase amid fresh fears of violent crime, Irwin said. For instance, some people buy guns after a neighbor’s house gets burglarized.
When government officials say they want to ban something, there also is typically a rush to buy, Irwin said. Some people buy the item in question in defiance; others because they predict the product will become a collector’s item.
The result, however, is the same: rising prices and disappearing inventory.
Irwin said he recently began limiting customers’ ammunition purchases. After his store sold almost all of its assault rifles and distributors went empty, he bought six or seven more from another store at retail price. He marked them up by $500 and sold them in two days, for about $2,000 each.
At the same time, more people are signing up for the state-required class to get a concealed firearms permit.
The Gun Store normally offers classes three days a week for up to 50 people at a time. Irwin recently added a fourth day because he’s booked through February. Range 702 now teaches its class once a week instead of the usual once a month, and its one-on-one instructional firearms lessons have tripled in volume.
Range 702 is one of several shooting ranges that have opened in the past year. In 2012 alone, five indoor shooting ranges with a combined space of almost 200,000 square feet have come before the Clark County Planning Commission for approval, most of them close to the Las Vegas Strip.
The rush on guns and Las Vegas' booming gun range industry, while good for the local economy, could backfire and hurt the valley's image.
In England, Las Vegas gun business received a rash of unflattering attention in the aftermath of Newtown, with several U.K. tabloids publishing stories about “shotgun wedding” services offered by The Gun Store and other shooting ranges. The services include a wedding ceremony, a session at the range and a chance to pose for photos with weapons, including Uzis and Thompson submachine guns.
The tabloids’ stories focused on the fact that no ceremonies had been canceled despite the Sandy Hook tragedy. As suggested by the Sun’s headline — “Guns 'n proposes: What hope for the U.S. when couples can now get married with weapons?” — the subtext of the stories was that the services symbolize an unhealthy obsession with guns.
“Draped in bullets and brandishing shotguns — like the one found in killer Adam Lanza’s car — couples in full bridal wear exchange vows at the Gun Store,” the Mirror reported. “They then go through to a marble-floored shooting range to fire off a few rounds. The bizarre chapel, in a gun-cleaning room decorated with red rose petals, an Uzi and a Tommy gun, hosts 10 weddings a month.”
Similar stories appeared on the website of the Guardian and the U.K. version of the Huffington Post.
Despite the bad press, a good number of tourists find spending an afternoon firing machine guns, rifles and handguns in Las Vegas a big draw.
Las Vegas promotes itself as a place to engage in adult freedoms, and nothing says adult freedom like squeezing the trigger of an AK-47 or Uzi, particularly for people unable to do so in their home countries.
In the big tourism picture, the city’s shooting ranges represent a fraction of the activities offered in Las Vegas. But because of the city’s cowboy history and its wild west setting, they appeal to international visitors fascinated by the culture.
“There are some visitors from countries where shooting a gun isn’t that easy to do, so there’s some added appeal to having it so accessible,” Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority spokesman Jeremy Handel said.
The city doesn't promote the shooting ranges in ad campaigns, but they are well known among tourists. Visitors who arrive at McCarran International Airport are greeted with posters advertising the ranges, and billboards for the shops line local highways.
Will the city's gun culture ultimately help or hurt tourism and the economy? It is unclear.
“I’ve never seen any instances personally or any evidence that something like that has hurt us,” Handel said. “But then, I don’t know that anybody’s really researched it either.”
Ric Anderson contributed to this story.