Tales of inspiring journeys, intriguing places, and fascinating people.


I never understood the emotion around the gun ownership debate until I picked up an M16 . . .

The Gun Store is an unassuming, long, low warehouse squatting between a carpet showroom and a furniture outlet on a suburban street in East Las Vegas. Only a lack of windows, six security cameras, and a solid steel door suggest this is not a regular neighborhood store.

Security is tight because inside are enough weapons to fight a war. Racks of hunting rifles line one wall, rows of shotguns along another, and shelves of handguns are on show below glass counters. An arsenal of assault rifles hang behind the counters, including collector’s items like a World War Two Thompson sub-machine gun and an AK47 from the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. In the center of the store mounted on a tripod is a menacing Browning 0.50 Cal M2 machine-gun, its three foot long barrel ready to be fed the high caliber cartridges inserted into a belt that unwinds from a camouflaged green and grey ammunition box.

At a counter, an assistant in a black polo shirt is explaining the mechanism of an assault rifle to a customer. Both are mature men sporting sagging bellies and thinning grey hair. With a click and a snick, the assistant expertly dismantles the gun and lays the components on the glass. The customer crouches down to get a closer look.

‘Precision made: quality steel’ says the assistant.

‘Reliable in Auto?’

‘Yep, this’ll stand the heat – it won’t jam.’

Their talk is technical and the tone is serious; it is about metal, machining, reliability, and power, as other men might talk of electric drills in a hardware store. However, firepower is the focus of this purchase; the power to hit, to harm, and to kill – and consequently the power to intimidate, threaten, and coerce.

The assistant rapidly reassembles the weapon, and then reaches down another model from the many cradled in chrome wire brackets plugged into the pegboard wall. ‘Maybe this H&K MP5’s shorter stock is better for you?’ He says, somewhat like a tailor trying a suit on a customer.

I assume each model has unique features that appeal to enthusiasts and every manufacture will have its fans. The display counters are full of famous names including Beretta, Colt, Glock, Ruger, and Smith and Wesson. Perhaps there are fashion trends in firearms that gun owners follow. After all, a weapon is the ultimate positioning purchase. An instant elevation of status from unarmed to armed. An assault rifle is the fashion accessory that no-one can ignore.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Gun Store - Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

As with any fashion product there is price for every pocket; tags range from a couple of hundred dollars for a Raven MP25 “Saturday Night Special” snub-nose 38 pistol to $11,000 for the Browning 0.50 M2 cannon standing out there on the floor. I am appalled that virtually anyone can stroll in off the street and purchase military firearms to use as they choose: be that for good or evil. One phone call to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and if you are not on their stop list, you can swipe your card and carry lethal automatic weapons out the door with 50 rounds of ammunition thrown in for free.

My trigger finger is getting twitchy gazing at all these gleaming guns: I have to give one a go. There is a shooting range out back where you try any of the stock on display. I pick three; the “Iraq Pack”, an M9 pistol, an M16 Assault Rifle, and an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon as issued to Coalition Forces for the “Desert Storm” campaign. And there is a choice of targets too; either a traditional Bulls-eye or from a range of life size photographs of movie villains, thirties mobsters, outlaw cowboys, and alien invaders. I choose Osama bin Laden, an evil looking armed robber, and a traditional red and black Bulls-Eye.

I collect my ammunition from a hatch, then stand in line looking like Rambo with a belt of 40 rounds over my shoulder, and an M9 magazine and a full clip for the M16 clutched in my fist. Next to me is a short fifty-year-old woman wearing rimless glasses, her greying hair is neatly clipped and her peach colored blouse blends tastefully with an apricot sweater. She shoulders a similar cartridge belt and holds magazines in both of her diminutive hands. Seeming embarrassed, she smiles shyly, and says: 'I always wanted to shoot something with an assault rifle.' This sounds as out of place as the belt of bullets draped over her cashmere sweater. The sinister way she pronounced 'shoot something' unsettles me. I realize I am surrounded by strangers who will soon be armed, and possibly dangerous.

Fortunately, the shooting range is closely supervised with a strong emphasis on safety. Instructors brief each shooter in a booth before they step up to the firing position. The process of loading, firing and clearing is explained step by step; and a watchful eye is kept for wackos, weirdoes, and postal workers. This is reassuring since twin sisters attempted a dual suicide by shooting each other on a public range only last year.

The shooting range is a dimly lit concrete tunnel with ten partitioned booths at one end and banks of sand bags at the other. Targets are suspended on wires to be cranked down to the sandbags by a system of pulleys. Pistols crack, assault rifles bark, and shotguns boom from the booths as crimson flashes flare, then fade as bullets rip down the range, tear into targets, then thud into the sand bags. The acrid stench of cordite fumes fills the stale air.

I step up to my firing station. My instructor, a tall, lean, clean cut young man runs through the rules of the range in a clipped monotone with military precision. I pull on the earmuffs and protective glasses offered, then he hands me the M9 pistol. The smooth metal is cool and smells of oil: it weighs heavy in my hand. Down the range Osama is smiling at me: I put a shot right through his ear.

Even wearing muffs, the pistol’s report is jarring as the gun jumps in my hands. I steady, tighten my grip, one hand over the other, then I brace my arms straight and launch off another two wide of the mark. My next shot gets closer to the target as I wing him in the shoulder, but I want to wipe that smirk off his face. Firing off the next two improves my grouping, blasting the rest of the magazine chops his face into confetti.

Change target and change weapons. The M16 seems compact for a rifle having only a short barrel and stock, yet this is a potent package. Its laser sight projects a tiny red dot on the target of the robber swinging from the wires down the range. Not a chance of missing with this laser guidance. I launch one shot and almost lose my balance as the stock kicks me backwards.

The instructor shows me how to switch to Rapid Fire and find with one click you can create your own war zone. Rapid Fire unleashes awesome power spewing a stream of molten metal towards the target. I squint through the flames flashing from the muzzle. The butt beats against my shoulder almost breaking bones. I feel the heat of the gun bucking against my cheek. Cartridge cases cascade from the breach to clatter onto the concrete floor. Smoke swirls around the firing booth stinging my nostrils and watering my eyes; even wearing earmuffs the noise borders on the painful.

Shooting steady and straight through the shock waves and swirling smoke takes all my strength and skill. Twenty-five rounds are rattled off in seconds as the target is torn apart, shredded and scorched into paper streamers. I am stunned by the weapon’s fearsome firepower. I hand back the M16 thinking what if that robber on the paper target had been real flesh and blood?

Apprehensively I accept the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, not sure my shoulder or ears can stand another pounding. This machine gun is serious heavy metal; I rest the barrel’s two steadying legs on the parapet of the booth, flay out the cartridge belt, and squat down behind the sight. I adjust my earmuffs, wipe my glasses with a sweaty finger, take a breath – then I slowly squeeze the trigger. Heavy shells lob from the muzzle tear through the target, to thud into the bags throwing up sprays of sand. I hear the bangs and feel the thumps as the belt flies through the breach dealing out devastating destruction. The target is destroyed in seconds. I know I have graduated to a formidable gun: a big gun that would punch through body armor and vehicle steel. However this M249 machinegun is controllable, the automatic action is more measured and firepower more focused.

Another breath, then a second burst. The initial mayhem settles into a steady staccato beat, the recoil takes up a rhythm, the sights hold steady, and my accuracy becomes deadly. This massively destructive high caliber weapon is all the more menacing and murderous in the methodical way it dispatches deadly force, it could dispassionately decimate a whole army. The last rounds rattle through; the cacophony ceases, then only wisps of white smoke twist from the muzzle. I flick the safety catch, clear the belt, and shoulder the smoldering M249.

I stand there stunned and shell shocked; in a state of curious calm, detached from the racket around me, insulated from the flashes from other firing positions, and ignoring the bullets blasting from adjacent booths. I am in another place in awe of potential of these powerful weapons and astounded by what I could do with them. I gently lay the M249 down and step back in a state of confusion: rationally repulsed, yet emotional enthralled.

My instructor says something that I don’t hear, then ushers me from the firing position, out of the booth, and back into the store. The weapons hung on the walls have a new fascination. In my dazed, disorientated state they offer a tempting promise triggered by the sense of power and supremacy I have just experienced. I emerge from my mesmerizing trance within minutes; yet the smell of the cordite fumes stays with me for days, and the allure of that frightening firepower lingers much longer.

The Gun Store experience has given me an insight into the gun ownership debate and an appreciation of why it is so emotive. Many have argued motivations for gun ownership run deep into a sense of masculinity, even a subliminal sexuality. Caress the trigger, feel the adrenalin rush, and eject a potent discharge in a stream of smoke and flame. Yes, you could easily become smitten by that, seduced by the sensational symbolism and the dominant male posturing. Sure, the right to bear arms is enshrined in The American Constitution. There is the self-defense argument too. However, these important points may mask a more personal concern; a fear that an unarmed man becomes a lesser man; an anxiety that a virile gun-toting male who gives up his weapon is perceived as an impotent, girly kind of guy. I suspect for some gun owners losing the right to bear arms is an awful prospect. To them the consequences of taking away their weapons would be unimaginable, in their minds being disarmed is the equivalent of being neutered. Condemned to be innocuous and inconsequential, relegated to the ranks of the servile and subservient.

Outside in the bright Nevada sunshine, a warm breeze wafting in from the desert clears my head. I strap on my helmet then fire-up the Harley to ride back downtown to my hotel. I leave The Gun Store and the gun ownership debate to others. All I know is being ‘Rambo’ for a day has been an enlightening glimpse into the beguiling attraction of gun ownership. I now understand it goes beyond any rational need to something much deeper in the psyche – a primeval urge that is hard to resist and even harder to eradicate.

© Stephen W Starling

'The Gun Store' is an extract from Stephen's latest book, 'Three Harleys, Three Aussies, One American Dream: a 5,000mile motorcycle adventure searching for the Real America' now on sale on-line and in bookstores – for more details click here

You can experience the allure of an assault rifle at The Gun Store at 2900 East Tropicana Avenue, Las Vegas, Nevada 89121, USA, call them on +1 702 454 1110, or visit www.thegunstorelasvegas.com

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