Will they let us in without a gun? That’s my biggest concern as we drive to the new Clark County Shooting Park at the northern end of Decatur. I ask my cohort whether we can borrow her brother’s pistol; but shortly the talk turns to how her mother got shot in the foot once in a family gun-handling accident—“blood spurted straight up!” I decide we’ll go gunless.
Turns out yes, you’re welcome to go gunless. You can take a picnic. You can take a properly leashed dog. It’s a public park for the stouter-in-faith than I. There are RVs and sooner or later there’ll be camping. There’s a snack bar to be run by the Blind Industries of Nevada. “Safe, fun, affordable, family-oriented, world class, public recreational shooting facility” says the county’s informational material about the new 178-acre, $61 million range, the first such public park in Southern Nevada.
We pass the archery and shotgun ranges and pull in at the rifle-pistol combo range next to a sports car with Nevada plates reading “SNIPR.” The sky is crackling like Gettysburg circa 1863—pop-pop, pop-pop-pop—and I flinch and repeatedly deny my instinct to stop, drop and roll, or call 911. I think of soldiers in Iraq. Of Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. The reality-fiction lines are all crossed, per our era. As we take the parking lot, a family of four disembarks from a monster SUV with weaponry enough to subdue a hostile tribe; the little boy is a foot shorter than both of the rifles he carries and the whole family wears crisp cammies; one imagines their patriotism/attack-themed Christmas morning days earlier.
So we man-up and follow them on in, and by “in” I mean several steps up the sidewalk, where we find ourselves standing a few feet from more than 50 of our neighbors armed to the gills and firing away at paper targets set against a dirt berm. I don’t know why I expected someone to frisk us on the way in, or ask for ID or ask if we’d been drinking or were transporting fresh produce—days earlier I’d gotten a sterner park-ranger greeting on my way into the Rocky Mountain National Park scenic drive. But here we just walk up, fingers in our ears, stand next to a family eating Burger King on a picnic table behind the firing squad, and watch the Second Amendment in action.
I tell you this because if you haven’t seen it, it’s something to behold: a bunch of your fellow citizens triggering away for sport and trusting one another not to screw up. Shoulder-to-shoulder, with no bullet-proof glass in between anybody, a Sunday afternoon American exhortation. It’s a bit like the trust deal we make when we’re driving, with obvious exceptions such as the role of necessity in the activity. I’m barely finished absorbing the imminent danger all around me when the range master speaks from a stand with a microphone and calmly advises shooters to cease fire, take their ammo out and place the empty weapons on the tables in each of the 60 side-by-side shooting points. Then, he says, it’s okay retrieve the targets. And just like that, a dozen or so people—apparently totally confident in their complete-stranger neighbor’s ability to follow rules, disarm weapons, not fiddle or freak, etc.—do so. They walk across the dirt in front of several dozen pointing muzzles. They walk in front of the guy working a mullet, “Liberty Forever” T-shirt and checkered VANS standing by his Ruger. They walk in front of the woman fake-laugh-flirting over her .22, the nose-picking child behind the Winchester. I’m standing behind the shooters and muzzles, on edge, waiting. People get their targets and go back. There are no casualties, save my disbelief. “Do I got time to take this out there?” asks a gentleman about his fresh target late in the break. “Hurry,” says the range master.
It’s not that I think the guns will freakishly fire mystery bullets by themselves; it’s that instinctively, statistically, reasonably, there’s always a moron in a crowd. In fact, during this five- or 10-minute break, the range master thrice has to verbally censure shooters—one is handling his weapon, the other two are standing beyond the yellow line (nearer their weapons), against the rules. “Away from the table, please,” he says. But that’s the nature of people, isn’t it?
As is, I suppose, the decision to take what risks you must to make your stay bearable, while not encroaching upon, nor killing, your neighbors. Fragile balance, that. But sickly heartwarming.
We leave under a hail of gunfire through a crowd of smiling families. I drive 80 miles per hour in and out of traffic all the way home, prattling in disbelief about the open-air shooters.
The next day I call the park director, Don Turner, who assures me the park, though understaffed for the unexpected 2,000 or so visitors last weekend, is safer than your average street corner. “If it wasn’t safe we wouldn’t do it.” If something or someone goes wrong (I am reminded of a guy at the park who yelled at the driver of a massive red pick-up truck parked on the sidewalk: “They put sidewalks in for people to walk on, not for you to park your fucking truck on!”), county employees will handle it. And if they can’t, they’ll get help from the volunteer safety officers, or they’ll call Metro, he says. It’s surely safer than the illegal open-desert shooting that this park was meant to curtail.
What’s more, he explains, the park was designed with the input of shooting experts, and—less important to me when I hear gunfire—environmental experts: Some 5,000 plants here were re-harvested, water is double-filtered and much attention has been given to dust control. Plus—the good news goes on and on—the once-strident concern of neighbors has been somewhat assuaged by time and buffer zones.
So really, at $7 a day, tossing the kids in the car and heading to the public shooting park—which is only open on weekends “until the kinks are worked out” and a grand opening is held later this month—is a fine, multifaceted expression of freedom. Right? As is the right to be astonished by it.