Las Vegas Mercury
Photos by Billy Logan
Training participants unload submachine guns at targets.
Friday, September 28, 2001
Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury
Front Sight wants guns to be as cool and acceptable as owning a Harley
BY ANDREW KIRALY
The jarring pang-pang-pang of gunfire has ceased, the shells have fallen, the dust has settled, and there sits in front of us 11 very Swiss-cheesed targets.
The mood is faintly festive. We're even a little proud of ourselves. After a mere day of training in how to fire a 9mm Uzi submachine gun — from three different positions and in two different firing modes, no less — we've done pretty well at the final challenge: firing a full clip on fully automatic, pouring 20 to 25 rounds into the gray paper target — ideally, into its thoracic cavity.
As high-fives and back-pats go around and the class heads back to the white tent for pizza and a sales pitch, someone wisecracks: "Think I'll pick me up one of those Uzis on the way home. Makes sense nowadays."
It’s a telling joke. Guns are once again on the minds and lips of Americans. In the immediate wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, citizens suddenly felt vulnerable. Around the nation, guns sales spiked; third-largest U.S. retailer Kmart, responding to the knee-jerk gun-run, even halted sales of sporting guns and ammunition (it does not sell handguns) on the day of the attack. In Nevada, meanwhile, business was booming.
"We saw a 100 percent increase in traffic in the store [the day after the attack]," says Kelly Carn, owner of Machine Gun Kelly’s Gun Vault. Carn says the store sold 12 shotguns in in two days, whereas the store usually sells two or three a week. Unlike the national surge in sales, which by all accounts lasted only a day or two, the wave in Vegas seemed to have staying power. "Last week, it continued," Kelly says. "The terrorist attacks have made a lot of people get off the fence in terms of deciding to purchase a gun. Almost everyone mentioned the attacks [as their reason for coming in]. It was a big factor."
Meanwhile, at the Nevada Pistol Academy, enrollment in the free concealed weapons class surged as well. "In some cases it was panic, with people going, 'What can I do to protect myself?'" says manager and rangemaster Pat Pelzer. Sunday’s concealed weapons class saw 25 students vs. the usual average of 15.
And, of course, here at the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute — a weapons training facility and, eventually, master-planned resort community that sits on Pahrump’s dusty front porch — enrollments and inquiries have spiked as well.
"Our number of phone inquiries has increased 25 to 50 percent," says Front Sight founder and president Ignatius Piazza. "My feeling is that Sept. 11 caused people to take a strong look at both their personal safety and the safety of the country, and they want to be proactive. Many people who've called have been thinking about taking classes for a while, and Sept. 11 caused them to say, 'Now is the time to go out and get trained.'"
Indeed, Front Sight — which as of now is a white bubble on the desertscape 15 miles outside Pahrump — might be ground zero for what looks to be a renewed debate on gun ownership and gun control, and changing perceptions about gun ownership. Once perceived as the province of bulging-chested jarheads and flannel-clad rednecks, gun ownership seems to be getting a makeover. Self-armament is all the rage among people you wouldn't necessarily expect to be packing.
"It’s not hard to imagine that we'll see more and more people accepting the carrying of weapons," says Randall Shelden, a UNLV criminal justice professor. "It’s already pretty unanimous among the airline pilots union that they should be able to carry firearms on planes, which may open up a whole new can of worms. It’s a simplistic solution to a complex problem." But, more and more, ordinary people are buying into the solution.
"Look around at the class," Piazza says. "These aren't tobacco-chewing bubbas spewing anti-government rhetoric. They're average people who you'd be happy to have as your neighbors." Indeed, this morning’s free, one-day submachine gun class includes a healthy share of legal assistants, electrical engineers, nurses and business consultants. Some are already gun enthusiasts who have come out to take advantage of the opportunity to squeeze the trigger on an Uzi. Others, such as Krishna Grant, a legal assistant, are relatively new to the world of firearms. "Sept. 11 affected me profoundly, but not as far as my reasons for coming here," she explains. "My apartment complex was broken into recently, and I want to protect myself." She’s thinking of purchasing a 9mm pistol.
Others you might call gun hobbyists, such as Peter, a Bechtel engineer who has enrolled in several Front Sight courses. "I'm mostly into target practice," says Peter, who did not want his last name used. Why not? "Because there’s still a stigma about gun ownership. It scares people. But for me, shooting is challenging and relaxing, and it requires a lot of concentration, practice and focus. None of us is violent. One of the things they teach you here is that the greatest gun battle is the one you can avoid."
The battle taking place at Front Sight instead is over the image of the average gun owner. It’s a quiet, sustained battle that begins once you walk in the white tent-like structure — surrounded by a number of outdoor ranges — that is Front Sight HQ. The rumors might have you believe the place is some gun nut’s fantasy ranch where Jeds and Billy Bobs can go blasting away to their beer guts' content, or that it’s a staging ground for some burgeoning militia with a score to settle with the federal government. It’s hardly that exotic.
Sure, the instructors are packing pistols and they're dressed like concert security guards, but the vibe is exceedingly courteous, friendly and professional — and it remains that way from Piazza’s intro spiel to standing on the firing line with rangemaster Tim Lynch. Inside the tent, a big-screen TV shows clips of news stories — from local coverage to full-blown MSNBC and "Good Morning America" features — that are all disarmingly positive, giving Front Sight the light-feature treatment without any anti-gun spin. Piazza is proud of what seems to be overwhelmingly positive coverage. The media-savvy Piazza even requires all reporters who wish to write about Front Sight to enroll in the one-day submachine gun course.
"We get such good coverage because reporters realize that we are truly part of the solution to gun violence," Piazza says. "Everyone agrees that law enforcement professionals should have the best training possible, and that’s what we provide. No matter what side of the gun control debate you're on, everyone agrees that a law-abiding citizen who chooses to own a firearm should be trained. And our training exceeds that which the law enforcement community receives."
Piazza himself is equal parts entrepreneur, spinmeister and gun enthusiast, a former chiropractor who was shaken by a drive-by shooting in his Santa Cruz-area neighborhood in 1988. "I kept guns more as art objects than tools or weapons," he says. "I realized during that incident that I lacked the skills to defend myself in a real-life situation." Training for years under various gun experts and institutes eventually earned him the title of Four Weapons Combat Master. But Piazza envisions Front Sight as more than a training center where he and his staff can turn out pupils schooled in everything from defensive handgun techniques to practical rifle use. Piazza banks on building a $25 million master-planned community that will include shooting ranges, a celebrity training center, an armory and about 200 upscale one-acre homesites. Sure, Piazza wants to make a buck, but his broader mission is to change the image of firearms ownership.
"If I had the National Rifle Association’s budget, I could do it in three years," Piazza says. "My goal is to do it in 20." It’s at times like this that Piazza talks more like a marketing exec than a firearms expert. And what he’s marketing is the New Gun Owner.
"Twenty years ago, what did people think of when you said the words Harley-Davidson? They thought of bike gangs and criminals," he says. "But the company turned that image around. How? By putting their product into the hands of opinion leaders. You see an author you've never heard of go on 'Oprah' to talk about his book for five minutes, and what happens? The book flies off the shelves. That’s what we need to do with gun ownership."
Wedging himself into the media discourse — whether it’s Fed Exing gun opponent Rosie O’Donnell personal invitations for free training, or sending out a press release offering to train all commercial airline pilots in defensive handgun training free of charge — is perhaps Piazza’s biggest weapon. It’s likely he'll catch a buzz — if not necessarily any business — from the latter, as Bush and congressional leaders are already eyeing the idea of stationing armed marshals on commercial airliners.
In the meantime, it’s noncelebs like us who are taking the class on a recent Saturday, which sees rangemasters Tim Lynch and Pat Pelzer taking 22 students from green to green berets … well, almost. By 4 p.m. — after a day filled with deliberate, encouraging and thorough training — most of us can handle and fire a submachine gun with confidence and control. Few are here as a reaction to the Sept. 11 tragedy, but it’s borne well in mind as they unload Uzis into paper targets set against a sandy berm.
"I think the stigma of gun ownership is going to disappear," says Nathan Taylor, a government affairs consultant and chairman of the Clark County Young Republicans. "After the events of Sept. 11, people are definitely going to be more inclined to view owning a gun as safer than not. People want to feel safe again. I'm an NRA member, but being here today has taught me that I'm not doing enough to protect our Second Amendment rights. I'm going to get as many people to come to this course as I can. It exceeded my expectations."
Piazza says 99 percent of people who enroll in the submachine gun course go on to take other courses at Front Sight. And who knows? Maybe a Dennis Rodman or Brad Pitt might be among the student body one of these days, and Piazza’s crusade to deflate stereotypes about gun ownership will have truly begun. Still, some think it’s more of an uphill battle than Piazza suspects.
"I don't think gun ownership will necessarily become more socially acceptable because of recent events," says Amy Stilwell, a spokeswoman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun control organization. "But if someone chooses to purchase a handgun, perhaps they should understand more than ever that it’s not the kind of purchase you make on an impulse, and it’s imperative they learn to use the weapon properly."
It’s perhaps the one sliver of common ground shared by gun control advocates and gun enthusiasts like Piazza.
"When people sit down and look at the security of the country today, they're coming to the realization that if law-abiding citizens are armed and trained, it’s a good thing," says Piazza. "It’s good for our country and our security. People’s attitudes are already changing."