In Nevada, awareness of public safety is pretty high right now.
The October 1 shooting on the Las Vegas Strip, and fear of what could happen during New Year’s Eve festivities, has everybody wondering if it could happen again.
Yet, Las Vegas is home to several places where tourists can go and shoot at targets with a variety of weapons including automatics.
And there’s one place that doesn’t just let people shoot targets. They shoot other people with real guns and near-real bullets.
We sent Nevada Public Radio producer Fred Wasser to check out Las Vegas Gunfights.
Wasser: Las Vegas Gunfights is tucked away in a part of Las Vegas I’d never been to: Highland Drive. I had trouble finding it. Even my GPS device got confused. Highland Drive has a fascinating variety of businesses: Filterworks Air Filters; Advanced Sterilization: Providing Sterilization to the Hotel Industry – that’s what the sign says. At least two Strip clubs - Girl Collection and Diamond Cabaret. Also - The Las Vegas Machine Gun Experience.
As I approached Las Vegas Gunfights – the Encore, Wynn, Palazzo, and Trump hotels all loomed in the near distance.
Schoenmann: There are lots of business establishments in Nevada and everywhere where anyone can pay money and shoots guns. But this place is different. How so?
Wasser: Las Vegas Gunfights advertises itself as a “gunfight arena.” There are no paper targets. There are lots of places to shoot paintball guns or plastic pellets or real guns at paper targets. But at Las Vegas Gunfights, customers shoot at people in an arena using ammunition that approaches the real thing.
Schoenmann: So, what sets Las Vegas Gunfights apart from target ranges and other gun shooting galleries is the kind of AMMUNITION that’s used?
Wasser: Exactly. Las Vegas Gunfights uses a type of training ammunition called, “Simunition.” Simunition is a product and subsidiary of General Dynamics. General Dynamics is a global aerospace and defense company.
Schoenmann: And, Nephi Oliva, the owner of Las Vegas Gunfights says it’s the near-real aspect of Simunition that makes Las Vegas Gunfights a cut above other gun ranges.
Oliva: “The difference between paintball or Airsoft - those are toys. They’re not very accurate. They don’t function the same way that a regular firearm does. The paintball industry – Airsoft – has been aspiring to get as realistic as possible since the inception of paintball guns. Paintball guns were made to mimic real guns. But they’re toys. Then we came along and we were suddenly using real guns. Non-lethal ammo. And Simunition is a restricted-use product. It’s only available for law enforcement and military. Las Vegas Gunfights has the only civilian distributorship that General Dynamics has ever given anyone.
Oliva: Anywhere in the world. It’s a law enforcement, military-only product.
Schoenmann: But that’s not quite true is it, Fred? What did you find out?
Wasser: Joe, I’ve been emailing back and forth with General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems. A spokesperson there wrote to me that there are other gun ranges around the U.S. certified to use Simunition. What is true is that Las Vegas Gunfights is the only gun range in Nevada that’s certified to use Simunition.
Schoenmann: Who else uses Simunition?
Wasser: Simunition is used by professional trainers. It’s used by the U.S. military. General Dynamics says they “supply Simunition products to law enforcement” across Nevada. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department uses it, for instance.
Schoenmann: And - Undersheriff Kevin McMahill of Metro told State of Nevada why the department uses Simunition bullets.
McMahill: “They’re designed to hurt. So, let’s say we’re putting our officers into a scenario where they’re going to clear a building, for example. It’s one thing to teach them that they need to use cover and concealment appropriately. It’s entirely another thing, though, to have the opportunity for them to understand that when they make a mistake and they get hit with the Simunition that they have an immediate pain response to understand that, ‘I really screwed that up. I could have done this differently.’’ So, we introduced Simunition into our training a number of years ago. We use them fairly consistently within our reality-based training as well as our advances officers skills training, and at the academy. And the idea is in all of this to make the training as realistic as you possibly can so that you’ll never make those mistakes when you find yourself in the reality of a real scenario.”
Wasser: Kevin McMahill says he has not been to Las Vegas Gunfights. But, he does acknowledge that Metro officers probably go there to train when they’re off-duty – just as they go to other commercial gun shooting establishments in their off-time.
Schoenmann: Fred, tell us more about the owner of Las Vegas Gunfights.
Wasser: Nephi was born and raised in San Diego. He’s lived in Las Vegas for 22 years. In addition to being a bounty hunter, he also owned a pigeon control business for several years.
Schoenmann: Describe what it’s like when you get there.
Wasser: Well when you enter the front door of Las Vegas Gunfights – it’s a bit of a surprise – right there is a lounge with couches, with nice mood lighting. Nephi says the interior design is Moroccan. Sort of a social club atmosphere. Middle Eastern music is playing. Nephi’s two dogs, Showgirl and Blackjack, are wandering around. There’s a relaxed feel to it all. When I arrived, Nephi was at the bar – smoking a pipe.
Oliva: It’s a Hookah, which is Egyptian made – the Hookah was invented in India. Basically, a water pipe with flavored tobacco. In the gunfight arena, everybody is super-amped. So, we wanted something to decompress them when they come out. So, it’s a very good way to do that.
Wasser: What is it that you’re smoking?
Oliva: This flavor is coconut and lime. It smells really good but it’s not super-strong. It’ll just kind of chill you out a little bit. It’s more social. It’s a good way to start a conversation with somebody.
Wasser: Nephi. I love that sound.
Oliva: (Laughs) It tastes delicious. Your listeners would be pleased to taste it. But, the sound is like bubbles.
Nephi Oliva, owner of Las Vegas Gunfights/Photo by Fred Wasser
Schoenmann: Fred – Nephi told you that in order to learn how to defend yourself you have to shoot at the real thing – people.
Wasser: The analogy he gave me is that a boxer who is training – well – it’s okay to punch bags – but really in order to be a fighter you have to get into a ring with a person. He says that in his arena it’s the equivalent of sparring. We already heard him say that paintball guns are a toy. And, as you might imagine, Nephi doesn’t think much of paper targets either.
Oliva: Shooting at paper (laughs) is really boring. But somehow, it’s been accepted as the norm. But shooting at paper targets is the lowest form of firearms training. Until you’re standing in front of another person, it’s really not relatable to the fight.
Wasser: Nephi went on to say that as a bounty hunter he was in dangerous situations. He also said he was responsible for more than 700 fugitive captures. I was not able to verify those numbers.
Schoenmann: So you were at this place, Las Vegas Gunfights. As customers are coming in. What kind of people are trying out the experience?
Wasser: Nephi says it’s a mix of locals and tourists. Tourists come for the arena experience. More locals come for individual or group gun training. About 85 percent of his customers are men, Nephi says. When I returned for a second visit to see the gunfighting– this time it was a Friday night --- there was a roughly equal mix of men and women. About 20 or 30 people in all – some were there for the birthday party for a City of Las Vegas employee. There are bleacher-seats separated by plexiglass next to the arena.
Schoenmann: Some did shooting in the arena, some just watched.
Wasser: Maybe 10 or 15 people went into the arena in small groups. The arena is 50 by 30 feet. Not huge; not small. The rifles are AR-15s. The ammunition, Simunition. The shooters wear vests, a helmet, and safety glasses. Nephi says that if the bullet hits bare skin it’s like a bee sting. But it does break skin. It’s not harmless. Nephi says the bullets travel about a third of the speed of regular round, but a lot faster than paintballs. Apparently, it does hurt – but Simunition is termed “non-lethal.” Participants shoot at each other. There’s sand on the floor, strobe lights, sound effects. Each round of shooting is three minutes. But ---- it’s an intense three minutes. Even so - not a lot was made of who won or lost. There was more fun than fear – that was my impression.
Schoenmann: Nephi told you he didn’t grow up with guns. He did shoot BB guns as a kid. The first real gun he shot was in the Boy Scouts. And he said his mom didn’t approve of his interest in guns. Still doesn’t.
Oliva: My mom didn’t like them. In fact, my mom really didn’t like what I was doing here.
Wasser: Has she come around?
Oliva: She kind of understands what I’m doing now. But I think her first impression was – she said to me: there’s enough gun violence in the world without you promoting it. And I was like, clearly you don’t get what I’m doing. This is about exactly that -- self-defense.
Schoenmann: So, it sounds like Nephi is aware of the sensitive nature of his business – the fact of people shooting at people in the arena with this kind of near-real ammunition.
Wasser: He is. And it was on the minds of people I spoke with that Friday night I was at Las Vegas Gunfights. I spoke with Tom, who lives in Las Vegas. He didn’t want us to use his last name.
Tom: “I am here for a birthday party. That’s pretty much it. Anything else about this place I’d ordinarily not be here for.”
Wasser: You’re not a gun owner?
Tom: “I am a gun owner. I own a Sig handgun. But I still did not really support the things that this place is promoting.”
Wasser: What is it promoting?
Tom: “It feels like it’s promoting person-on-person violence. We are responsible gun owners. We have gone out to Nevada gun ranges. We’ve gone out to the desert and shot at targets. But never a situation where it’s been a person-to-person – it just feels like it’s kind of a – it’s a spectacle.”
Wasser: So why do you own a gun?
Tom: “Home security. We do have a good time going out and shooting at the range. Just like billiards and darts and everything else, it’s a fun time. But at the end of the day, for me, it’s just home security.”
Schoenmann: Tom said he doesn’t like a place that promotes people-on-people violence. Does shooting at Las Vegas Gunfights - using real guns loaded with near-real bullets promote violence?
Wasser: Gun ranges such as Las Vegas Gunfights raise all sorts of public safety issues. Undersheriff McMahill didn’t want to weigh-in on the public safety issue. For now, it’s something to ponder. Shooting at people, I’m thinking, might improve skill. But it’s natural to wonder: at what cost? I’m just raising the question. No answers here.
Schoenmann: But some people at the arena a couple of Friday night ago were fine with the experience.
Wasser: Yes certainly. A lot of people were having fun. And it was fun to watch.
“I’m Lorenzo Methano. I’m from Italy originally. But I’ve been living in Las Vegas for about two years.
Wasser: What are you doing here tonight?
Lorenzo: “I came here because it’s my birthday. And me and my friend, Fred – actually his birthday is tomorrow. So, I happen to know that he was going to have this thing here and visit this place, and I was curious to see how it was. And we’re spending our birthday together.”
Wasser: You went out there with body armor.
Lorenzo: Yes I did. It was the first time I had a mask on my face to protect myself from some stuff, and yes. It felt comfortable.
Wasser: Is this the first time you’ve been here?
Lorenzo: Yes, it has.
Wasser: What was it like to be out there? Was it frightening?
Lorenzo: No. It was fun. Almost like a video game kind of experience
Schoenmann: Fred, I understand had your own gun experience at Las Vegas Gunfights.
Wasser: Well, in a way, yes. There it was in the room where the guns are stored at Las Vegas Gunfights. Nephi calls the room, the armory. A pistol: A Sig Sauer P226. - I later read about it in the safety of our newsroom. This is a handgun often carried by Navy Seals. To me, it’s a little intimidating.
Wasser: I’ve never held a pistol. Can I put it in my –
Oliva: Are you sure?
Wasser: Yes. It’s a little scary.
Wasser: But you’re checking to make sure it’s not loaded.
Oliva: There you go.
Wasser: It’s heavier than I would have expected.
Oliva: And it’s not loaded. It’s a little heavier when it’s loaded.
Wasser: See, I don’t think I’d be good at pistol shooting because my hand shakes.
Oliva: You’d be surprised. That shake might go away when you get into some stuff (laughs). Adrenal is a powerful, powerful chemical. And it’s there to protect us. It gives us more power. But it can also be our enemy. You only have three reactions. Fight, flight, or freeze. Right? Freeze is the one that gets you killed. So, you have to learn to control that. That’s why it’s important for people to go through this. I have people that have CCW’s -Concealed Weapons Permits – and I put them in here and they’re shaking like a leaf. And they’ve been carrying for ten years. And I’ve said: You need more training. Something is going to happen and just because you have a gun it doesn’t mean you’re going to be the one prevailing in that situation. In fact, it’s likely you won’t. And that’s the part that upsets me. When I see law enforcement officers lose their life to a firearm. Or I see civilians who were just trying to defend themselves that didn’t have the training. Or the mental fortitude, the preparation – all the things – even the fighting instincts. It really makes me angry. Because I do morally think that good guys should prevail more often. In fact, I think the good guys should always prevail. But that isn’t true. That’s not what happens.
Wasser: Do bad guys sometimes come in here to be trained?
Oliva: Well, that is an interesting question because we get that a lot. Of course, October One happened and the ATF interviewed us twice. And asked us if we trained either Paddock or his girlfriend, which of course we did not. There’s always the danger that someone is going to want to utilize this information and training for the wrong purpose. But believe it or not, there’s nothing any one of them can get in one session that is going to make them that much more lethal. I’m very particular because I do all the training. I ask people: Why? So why did you come today? Why are you here? They don’t realize I’m asking that question because I want to know why they’re here. If I feel that they’re just – if they’re someone like that, they’re going to behave differently from everybody else.
Wasser: Has your business changed since October First?
Oliva: It did change slightly. Even the first night – you know we run Friday night gunfights every Friday, 8 p.m. And we do exhibition matches. It’s always sold out. That Friday night we had less people attend. But I said, you know, we’ve seen enough gun violence for the week. Let’s just play some beer pong and smoke some Hookah. And that’s what we did. But I had a lot more training come in. We were taking phone calls from two in the morning on October 2. So, just hours after the shooting. And people were calling and they were crying. They were asking what can we do to prepare? How do we train? And we took 600 enrollments for training. And we offered that training for free. People need to know what they can do. And if anything – is it better if somebody meets their end suffering and stressing out because they just felt helpless? Or would it be better to meet your end feeling empowered and at least you had a fighting chance? It does matter how we meet our end – if that’s what going to happen.
Schoenmann: Fred, In January, Nephi is adding another element to Las Vegas Gunfights.
Wasser: Yes, as you enter Las Vegas Gunfights to the right is the interrogation room. Nephi’s plan is to teach customers - who agree to participate- to withstand interrogations. He described it to me a “civilian version of SERE training.” SERE training is part of the training that Special Forces personnel go through. “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape.”
Las Vegas Gunfights is a complicated place.
Fred Wasser, Producer at Nevada Public Radio
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