For two days we learn how to kill.
Collectively, we blow through 30,000 rounds of ammo and learn trigger control, how to correct gun malfunctions and how to change magazines during a gunfight. My classmates—senior citizens, wholesome-looking families and young couples—roam the grounds with holsters on their hips, looking more like friendly middle-American cowboys than Hollywood-ized thugs, crazed rednecks or highly trained killing machines.
This two-day defensive handgun training course, held at Front Sight Firearms Training Institute 45 minutes outside of Las Vegas, is the dream of Front Sight’s founder, Ignatius Piazza. Piazza started the facility in Bakersfield, California, in 1996 to provide defensive gun training for civilians and to change the preconceived image of gun owners. Two years later, he moved the training institute to a patch of empty desert in Pahrump.
Piazza promises that students will leave the Front Sight course with “self-defense firearms training skills that surpass 99 percent of the gun-owning population.” The Front Sight website reminds visitors that an attack on them or their family is not an if, but a when.
Piazza’s own now-famous “when” came during a drive-by shooting. Though he was a self-proclaimed gun-enthusiast and owned guns, he didn’t really know how to use them when it came time to defend himself. So he created Front Sight, where students arrive from all over the country every week, paying more than $1,000 apiece to learn from highly trained instructors, including some with military backgrounds. Some students bring their own weapons; others rent, lining up outside kiosks for their guns and ammo.
“They don’t want to be victims,” Dennis Bradley, Front Sight’s director of development, tells me. Comparing his towering stature to mine, he asks how I would defend myself if someone his size attacked. I quietly wonder if we aren’t already victims, arming ourselves to survive in contemporary America.
Handguns at the ready, we listen to every command from the instructor talking into a megaphone behind us. We work in pairs, coaching each other, ensuring muzzles are facing forward and that we’re tackling the steps properly. Line coaches walk among us on this bland landscape, correcting our errant ways and providing advice.
The Gun Issue
When I ask my fellow students if the clumsiness of my gun handling makes them nervous, they shake their heads. They assume that I’m a gun owner and say they’re happy I’m taking the course. If I’m to be wandering the communities of America with a firearm, at least I should know how to handle it.
This, it seems, is what these 550 desert acres are all about. The sparse shooting ranges, separated by banks of gravel, come with paper targets neatly lined up at one end and rows of chairs under shade shelters at the other.
Front Sight never became home to a well-armed and trained residential community as Piazza had hoped, but it has grown into a destination for thousands of gun owners, who make the pilgrimage every year to attend its courses. Some have been shooting guns all their lives. Others are first-timers. Many are return students, they say, because they enjoy the experience and want to continue their education.
There are rifle and shotgun skill-building courses and two- and four-day Uzi and M-16 classes, all held outdoors on tidy ranges. The site includes an obstacle course and zip line and situational training where students in mock houses can face off against fake intruders. The only requirement for attending is passing a background check.
When the shooting stops, we converge indoors for lunch and lectures by well-versed storytellers who talk about the ramifications of using deadly force and the different states of mental awareness. We’re given scenarios and told that developing a “combat mind-set” means realizing the world can be a violent place. Lectures are summed up with memorable statements:
“There is nothing wrong with winning. There’s a great deal wrong with losing.”
“Never die with bullets in your gun.”
“It’s only worth shooting for if it’s worth dying for.”
Mostly, we’re told that even the most defensive and justifiable shooting can come with hellish legal and life consequences. Still, when one of the lecturers asks who would be willing to kill someone, nearly everybody raises a hand.
The newcomers, like myself, stand out on the ranges and even in the restrooms, where our guns fall from the holsters attached to our belts. Anonymous laughter comes from other stalls. “You’re not the first one,” a voice says, “believe me.”
I have no intention of owning a gun, but I’m here learning anyway. I have no choice if I want to see the Front Sight facility. Taking the course is a requirement for media interested in writing about the institute.
Though Piazza pens blogs on his website about politics, “psych drugs” and guns not being the cause of violence—using such headlines as “even the black community now seeing the light”—none of this is brought up during the classes. Nor is the anti-Obama rhetoric on Front Sight’s Facebook page, or the vague allegations made about Front Sight’s connections to Scientology.
Gun owners are paying a lot of money for their courses in this highly regarded and controlled environment, and nobody wants to waste time. Though friendships are made, this is not about shooting the breeze during routine target practice. There’s simply too much to take in.
Listening to our instructor count behind us, we collectively move through the steps of drawing guns from our holsters: support hand on the belly while right hand grabs the gun; pull it straight up from the holster; aim it forward at your side; move it into position while meeting it with the support hand.
The instructor yells “prressss,” elongating the word so we don’t anticipate the shot and alter the gun’s aim. We fire away.