May 15, 1999, Saturday
National Desk

Pahrump Journal; A 'Sun City' for Gun Enthusiasts?


The sun was hot as Hades, but that hardly mattered to the 50 students gathered in the desert for Ignatius Piazza's free submachine gun training class.

They came from as close as Pahrump, a half hour's drive west, on the California border, and as far as New England, lured to this vast sand pit for one day so that Mr. Piazza could pitch them his plans for the first resort community in the world for gun enthusiasts.

And in this crowd, mostly members of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, the plans went over like shade and a breeze. The 550 acres that will become the village of Front Sight are bare but for a few tents and one makeshift shooting range. But Mr. Piazza, a 39-year-old former chiropractor from Santa Cruz County, Calif., has grand visions -- and a scale model to match.

He says that by the fall, this baked land a 50-minute drive west of Las Vegas will hold 12 shooting ranges, an armory, video simulators, tunnels, defensive driving courses, a SWAT tower and a landing strip. If construction moves right along, by next year, Front Sight (named for the part of a gun you focus on to hit a target) will be an incorporated village, gated and deeded for people who can recite the Second Amendment as though it were the Pledge of Allegiance.

Officials in the two counties Front Sight straddles, Clark and Nye, have given the $25 million project their blessings, and no one is writing angry letters to the local papers or organizing to stop it.

The firearms classes, which began in January, have drawn 2,000 students from across the country.

"This is not about building a Waco compound for gun nuts," he said, as he pointed out the proposed celebrity training building and jet pad on the scale model. "The people who take our classes are honest, law-abiding citizens. What we're giving them is similar to what you'd find in a high-end golf resort like Pebble Beach."

Front Sight will be set up much like a golf resort. People who choose to live here -- 25 of the 177 one-acre lots have been reserved -- will do so by buying a platinum membership in Front Sight for $200,000. Other memberships would include the use of one of 350 townhouse condominiums, or classes in everything from "practical rifle" to "tactical shotgun" to "defensive handgun."

"It's visionary," said Mr. Piazza, a small, muscular man with a thick mustache who was wearing black fatigues, combat boots and a Glock .40-caliber pistol on his belt. "I can honestly say that we offer training that exceeds that of law enforcement officials. I have law enforcement officers you can talk to who will tell you that."

The 48 men and 2 women taking his free submachine gun training class here certainly seemed happy with it. The class was divided in half, and while one group took its turn shooting at human silhouettes, the other sat in folding chairs under a white tent, marveling at the instruction and the Front Sight village to be.

Several said they wanted to move here, if only to get away from an anti-gun society.

"Look," said David Nathanson, a volunteer with a crisis response team for the Los Angeles Police Department, "none of these guys here will ever shoot this kind of gun. What we share is the belief that an armed society is a safe society."

Mr. Piazza opened his first Front Sight Firearms Training Institute in Bakersfield, Calif., in 1996, though without the residences, and on a much more modest scale. He said the dream of an upscale institute, which he is financing through the profits of the Bakersfield institute and minor investors, began 10 years ago when he took his first handgun lessons after a drive-by shooting in his middle-class neighborhood in Aptos, Calif.

His philosophy, he said, is that the more skills a citizen has with a gun, the less likely he or she will use it unnecessarily.

"You talk to the people taking this class," he said, "and you see that none of them are crazy gun nuts, though they might have some strong views on the Second Amendment."

Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, a national group, advocates the abolition of gun control. And several students in the group, like Frank Baker, a maintenance worker from Lafayette County, Mo., were members of several gun-rights groups.

"I'm a recruiter for the N.R.A.," Mr. Baker said, handing out a business card that read "Frank Baker: Defender of the Second Amendment."

"The shootings in Littleton, Colorado would have happened with something else, like gasoline, if the gunmen hadn't had guns," he said, waiting for his turn to shoot. "Until you take the meanness out of the human spirit, there's going to be violence."

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