Florida -- Gun Culture Makes The U.S. A Trigger Point For Foreign Tourists With Firearms Fantasies

ORLANDO, Fla. - After a morning at Walt Disney World, Ibrahim Dueb, a Saudi tourist, drives straight out International Drive and parks his car between Universal Studios Florida and the Wet N' Wild water park. He enters neither.

Instead, he walks past the Continental Plaza Hotel and into another one of this city's popular tourist attractions: the Shooting Sports gun range.

"Please," he says to a counterman who presents a list of safety instructions translated into Arabic, "I want to shoot Clint Eastwood's gun."

A .44-caliber Magnum in hand, Dueb represents a new kind of customer actively courted by America's gun ranges: foreigners.

Inspired by screen glimpses of Hollywood gunplay and frustrated by laws that limit their ability to shoot in their own countries, visitors from Europe to Japan have become a part of the landscape at shooting galleries along both coasts, from tourist-drenched Florida to more obscure spots such as Select-Fire in Glen Burnie, Md.

"It's become an important part of the business," says Eileen Rieg, owner of an Orlando gun shop, which has advertised in tourist magazines. "Of course, you have to be prepared to train them. Sometimes, I wish I could shoot every Hollywood producer. Movies teach a lot of myths about how guns work."

Gun marketplace

The presence of the gun-seeking tourists exposes a key myth about the gun industry - that America is a net exporter of firearms. In fact, the reverse is true: Gun imports far outstrip exports. And with U.S. exports hamstrung by strict gun-control laws in other industrialized countries, the deficit is widening.

More than 2 million guns enter America legally each year - compared with 747,138 in 1978, government trade figures show.

According to industry estimates, foreign imports represent somewhere between a third and a half of all guns sold in the U.S. market.

Gun manufacturers in Japan, where handguns are illegal, export nearly all of what they make - 80 percent of it to the United States.

"We are singular in the world culture in our tolerance of guns," says Tom Diaz, a senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center in Washington, and author of "Making a Killing," a new book criticizing the gun industry.

"The United States has become a kind of underdeveloped moral Third World, a place where the rest of the world can indulge its gun lust.

"What the tourists you're meeting don't take back with them is our country's incredible level of gun-related death. Maybe we should give them tours of our trauma centers."

In the months since American cities began their well-publicized legal assault against the gun industry - and especially since the recent deadly violence at Columbine High School in Colorado - Diaz and other gun-control advocates have seized on this trend as evidence that U.S. firearms makers have escaped the kind of regulation other countries find essential.

The debate

But defenders of gun rights see the same trend as a fresh example of the advantages of the Second Amendment, and of the damage that American hunters and sportsmen could suffer if the country were to adopt European-style gun laws.

"One thing that's great about America is the freedom to choose," said Jack Adkins, vice president of the American Shooting Sports Council, in an interview earlier this year.

"If laws become too tight, you could hurt the shooting sports, which are an important part of the country's history and culture."

With gun sales falling in the 1990s and recent surveys showing less interest in hunting, foreign tourists have never been more vital to the shooting industry.

With cooperation from large ranges, Japanese and British tour companies offer trips to California and Florida that incorporate shooting excursions.

In 1997, the gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson opened the National Firearms Training Center, with three indoor gun ranges and a Gap-style novelty store, to accommodate tourists.

Shooting experiences

Some law enforcement agencies will cater to gun enthusiasts from overseas. The North Pole Police Department, in Alaska, is famous for the shooting experiences it provides to visitors from its sister city of Itadori, Japan.

"We provide a taste of American freedom," says Sean Burke, a Police Violence Policy Center, Washington, D.C.

Department firearms instructor, during a telephone interview from North Pole, 12 miles southeast of Fairbanks. "We hear the Japanese say all the time that they can't own or touch a gun in Japan. When they pick up a shotgun here, you can just see their excitement."

In Orlando, visitors to Shooting Sports can express their joy in the six different languages for which the range offers written instructions. As many as 90 percent of customers are foreigners.

In one afternoon, visitors from Britain, Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Korea and Japan entered the bright red, white and blue building with the neon "Shoot a Machine Gun" sign.

Open 13 hours a day, seven days a week, Shooting Sports is set up for tourists. On Interstate 4, the range's billboard stands alongside giant ads for Universal Studios. In the range parking lot, spaces are marked for tour buses.

Inside, visitors encounter a bright, airy range with bulletproof windows. The guns sit under glass cases, like diamond rings in a jewelry store. For a shooter with no equipment or experience, the average cost of a visit is about $35.

Playing it cool

Despite its popularity, Shooting Sports has decidedly cool relations with the local tourism industry. After it opened five years ago, city officials - worried about Orlando's image - passed an ordinance to prevent other ranges from opening along International Drive, the main tourist drag.

Still smarting from that slap, the range's owners refuse media inquiries, on advice from lawyers and the National Rifle Association.

But the customers are effusive. Dueb, the Saudi government official on his second vacation to Florida, says his male friends asked him if he was going to go shooting. On the second day of the vacation, his wife agreed, accompanying him to Shooting Sports.

After presenting a passport, Dueb spent an hour on the range. "Guns are very popular in Saudi, but it's very difficult and expensive, and there's no easy place to shoot," he says, still smiling from his time on the range.

"There is no place like America."