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Guns of CES: Talking Innovation and Regulation at Las Vegas’s Disneyland for Firearms

On the front line of firearm tourism.

Noah Kulwin / Re/code

On a Tuesday morning earlier this month, President Obama unveiled a new set of executive actions to enact stronger gun control rules. It included expanding FBI resources for background checks, more stringent background checks and stricter reporting requirements for missing guns. The president also announced that he was directing the federal government to research and possibly procure “smart gun” technology, earmarking $20 million for the effort. At one point during his remarks, President Obama began to tear up while recalling some of the deadliest mass shootings in recent years.

 A Battlefield Vegas Humvee
A Battlefield Vegas Humvee
Noah Kulwin / Re/code

That same Tuesday morning, I was in Las Vegas for the tech industry confab CES. The city happens to be home to some of the world’s craziest gun ranges. I couldn’t think of a better time to find out what gun lovers thought about the president’s initiatives.

Death wish? Maybe. After all, the gun lobby has done everything in its power to make sure innovation in gun technology is kept out of the hands of Americans.

Regardless, I got in touch with the people at one such range, Battlefield Vegas, and arranged for a visit.

A Humvee dispatched by Battlefield Vegas picked me up from my hotel. My driver, A.J., was dressed in combat fatigues and had served in the Army in the Middle East. All of the Battlefield Vegas instructing staff are ex-military, and all of them wear uniforms that make them look like they’re still in the military. A.J. told me that it was a “no-brainer” for him to start working around firearms once he was out of the Army.

On the ride over to the range, I asked him about the kinds of people CES brought to Battlefield Vegas.

“A lot of the CES business is foreign, from places like China or India, where you may not ever get to fire the kind of guns we have. The rest of the year, the foreigners are mostly from the U.K., Australia or Canada,” he answered.

“People who use firearms, we’re wary of stuff that might fail, like if you get the ‘blue screen of death’ at the wrong moment.”

I followed up by asking him whether he had heard President Obama’s speech that morning, and what his thoughts were on the executive orders the president made.

A.J. declined to comment on the record about the straight-up politics of gun control, but said that he was somewhat skeptical of “smart gun” technology that prevents non-owners from initiating the firing mechanism.

“People who use firearms, we’re wary of stuff that might fail, like if you get the ‘blue screen of death’ at the wrong moment,” he said.

 A view of Circus Circus Las Vegas from Battlefield Vegas
A view of Circus Circus Las Vegas from Battlefield Vegas
Noah Kulwin / Re/code

As we pulled up to Battlefield Vegas, a bunch of giant, retired pieces of military equipment came into view. There were at least a half-dozen vehicles within spitting distance of where our Humvee parked, and there were helicopters, armored personnel carriers and other giant carcasses strewn about for visitors to examine and, well, play with.

The Battlefield Vegas range is in a low-slung building that sits catercorner from the Circus Circus hotel and casino, which looks like it has seen better days, although A.J. was quick to recommend its steakhouse. There are signs of guns and assault rifles everywhere you look and ashtrays stacked next to the front doors for groups of visitors from abroad, like the CES-badged group I walked past as I entered.

It is hard to describe the kind of shit you can buy inside Battlefield Vegas, because there is simply an overwhelming amount of shit.

The inside of Battlefield Vegas has the lighting and feel of an interstate rest stop, as there are foreign tourists, American tourists and pouting family members milling about.

It is hard to describe the kind of shit you can buy inside Battlefield Vegas, because there is simply an overwhelming amount of shit hanging from the walls, sitting on shelves and inside glass cases. To begin with, there are guns of just about every shape and size all over the place. Hanging on the wall are all the different guns you can shoot, dressed up in very obvious, “Call of Duty”-like fashion.

 Guns, mannequin heads and beef jerky
Guns, mannequin heads and beef jerky
Noah Kulwin / Re/code

There are sweatshirts with a Starbucks logo that isn’t a Starbucks logo and is instead the Starbucks woman brandishing two pistols, reading “I <3 Guns and Coffee.” I spotted some beef jerky packages hanging on a wall, thoughtfully placed to the right of some assault rifles.

After waiting in a short line composed entirely of CES attendees, I went up to the counter to pick which gun I was going to shoot. A helpful clerk pointed me toward some of the package deals, like the “Seal Team Six Experience,” “Heavy Strike Package” or the “Hamburger Hill Experience.”

“No muskets,” said my editor. So I picked an AK-47.

Before selecting a package, I called my editors to review our budget. I was told not to break the bank or to pick something that looked like Colonial soldier cosplay (“No muskets”), so I picked an AK-47, because it seemed photogenic and it was a $45 expense that I could get away with.

While I signed for my purchase, I asked whether companies ever booked Battlefield Vegas for corporate events. The clerk told me that one firm whose name she couldn’t remember hosted an after-hours, 200-person event. She then handed me a buzzer, like the kind at a high-end chain restaurant, and told me that an instructor would be with me shortly.

Less than two minutes later I was standing across a counter from my instructor, a heavyset guy in combat fatigues named Stan. Stan got the gun and took me to the range. Once we were there, as the couple next to me Snapchatted each other firing at targets, Stan handed me the gun (“This is one that all of our enemies use”) and I fired at the paper target hanging downrange.

I had fired shotguns and assault rifles before and felt a familiar shoulder ache as I squeezed the trigger. The light pain passes quickly, but my discomfort does not.

Noah Kulwin / Re/code

As Stan and I left the range, maybe ten minutes later, I asked him if he had heard about what President Obama said earlier in the day, and whether he’d ever use something like a “smart gun.”

“Well, those executive orders are about enforcing rules and laws that are already in play, like background checks and all that,” he said. “But gun tech like that? Where you have to chop a guy’s hand off to use his gun or something? I mean, I know it’s available, but is it financially feasible? That’s another story. You know, though, I don’t think we should coddle people who break our laws, no matter their race — black or white.”

Before I left, I talked with Carlos Munoz, one of the higher-ups at Battlefield Vegas. He took me to the range’s vault, which includes AK-47s with Hello Kitty prints and pink Colt M4s that were colored like they were raising awareness for breast cancer. He said that the debate over gun control and “smart guns” didn’t really pertain to FFL (federal firearm licensed) dealers like Battlefield Vegas, and that “some of these debates are more geared toward civilians.”

Roy de Guzman, the range staffer who drove me back to my hotel, thinks a bit differently about gun laws and technology. A self-described “child of the world” with Filipino roots, Roy spent almost two decades as an arms instructor in the Air Force before taking what he says is “a retired military guy’s dream job” at Battlefield.

“The whole Second Amendment has been twisted from what that parable was supposed to be, for the era when it was written.”

“Smart guns are a long time from now, but they’re a great concept,” he told me. “If the [federal government] money is spent right, and also on things like mental health and enforcing the current laws — those could be big changes.”

“You see, I’m on the line. I’m very pro-Second Amendment, but I’m also for regulations that would prevent mass shootings. We’re the only country with Aurora, San Bernardino, Columbine, Santa Barbara and so on,” he continued. “The whole Second Amendment has been twisted from what that parable was supposed to be, for the era when it was written.”

De Guzman is probably the exact brand of politically conscious, responsible gun owner President Obama was appealing to in his remarks earlier this month, the kinds of people he needs to beat back what de Guzman called the “mistruths” of the National Rifle Association and firearm industry lobbying. Though most of the American public wants stricter gun control laws, or perhaps just enforcing the ones we have on the books, the Republican majority in Congress means that political change will likely be slow going.

 An AK-47 with a Hello Kitty print
An AK-47 with a Hello Kitty print
Noah Kulwin / Re/code

This, at its core, is the appeal of “smart guns.” Investing in technological innovation is a very easy way to duck messy political problems, whether it’s education or criminal justice reform.

In the pages of the Los Angeles Times (which has covered this technology more thoroughly over the last few years than any other national publication), Ars Technica founder Jon Stokes points out that the preventive software in “smart guns” could likely be hacked or “jailbroken” like software in any other industry. Additionally, gun owners and many firearm dealers don’t want the technology because they fear it will open a door for the government to more tightly regulate the industry.

When a Rockville, Md., gun store owner said he would begin selling Armatix iP1 smart handguns in 2014, the volume of death threats he received from gun enthusiasts unexcited about the new technology prompted him to change his mind.

“We think the market should decide,” the National Sports Shooting Foundation’s top lawyer told the Washington Post.

The last thing A.J. told me before I got out of his Humvee and headed into the range was that even though things didn’t look that way right now, “smart guns” may be the future, regardless.

“If we never got used to technology, we’d still be using wheellocks. Innovation has got to keep happening.”

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.