Home on the Range

San Francisco Chronicle #1

Home on the range
Nevada firing range owner aims to build luxury desert community for well-to-do, gun-toting set

Marshall Wilson, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, June 24, 2001

Front Sight, Nev. — On a hard-baked patch of Nevada desert, a Valhalla is taking shape for people who believe gun control is being able to hit your target.

It’s called Front Sight.

Its founder, the elegantly named Ignatius Piazza, promises Front Sight will become a "Pebble Beach for gun enthusiasts" - a luxury golf course-style community complete with homes, a supermarket, community center and gourmet restaurant.

Instead of golf courses and driving ranges, the 550-acre gated community will feature 22 shooting ranges, where residents will be able to pull the triggers of fully automatic Uzis, scale a five-story SWAT tower, practice live- fire drills from a car - and take the kids to school and shop for groceries, all before lunch.

And if that doesn't raise eyebrows among gun control advocates, the community’s private K-12 school surely will - the teachers will be armed, as Piazza explains, to reduce the risk of campus shootings.

"Front Sight will be the safest community in America," boasts Piazza, a tanned and muscular 41-year-old Santa Cruz County resident who keeps a .40- caliber Glock strapped to his hip when he’s in the desert. "There will be no crime at Front Sight."

Today, Front Sight, located 50 minutes west of Las Vegas, consists only of a dozen thriving shooting ranges carved into the desert floor along with some cargo containers the size of freight cars and a temporary, air-conditioned hut where firearms training classes are held.

In about four years, if Piazza’s vision is realized, 177 homes and 350 condominiums will line "Second Amendment Drive," "Sense of Duty Way" and similarly named streets. Less than a mile away will be a pro shop stocked with weapons, a martial arts gym, a defensive-driving track, a rappelling course, a landing strip and the gun ranges.

Piazza insists his $40 million resort - a veritable Disneyland for the lock- and-load set, as he calls it - is not for "gun nuts" living on society’s fringe.

His target, he says, is affluent, fun-loving and responsible gun owners who are repelled by ever-more restrictive gun laws in states like California, which recently cracked down on privately owned assault weapons.

"I thought if we did something that would be on a resort-quality standard, so that people would want to come to it … because it’s a beautiful place, it’s an enjoyable place … people would flock to it," said Piazza.

So far, Piazza has sold nearly 50 "Platinum" memberships for up to $350,000 apiece. That buys a one-acre lot where a home will eventually be built and lifetime use of the ranges, firearms courses and other amenities. With each sale, an African safari and an Uzi are thrown in to sweeten the deal.

"We're not selling dirt in the desert," Piazza said. "We're selling exclusive membership in the world’s first and only gun resort."

Front Sight - named for the nub on the barrel of a gun used for aiming - has stirred little if any controversy here, where there are few gun laws and red lights flash from legal brothels just over the next hill.

"This is Nevada, and the majority of the citizens are armed," said Nye County Sheriff Wade Lieseke, whose jurisdiction includes Front Sight and whose deputies train there as well. "This is a free state."

Or as Nye County Manager Jerry McKnight put it, "Have you been there? You could fire a mortar out there and not hit anything."

But outside Nevada, Piazza’s version of the American dream is drawing the attention of anti-gun forces.

"If all the machine-gun aficionadas and the survivalists want to get together and live in a little town, maybe the rest of us will be safer," said Luis Tolley, western director for Handgun Control Inc.

Doug Stone, spokesman for the California Department of Education, is aghast at Piazza’s plans to allow firearms at Front Sight’s private school.

"His idea of having teachers carry Saturday Night Specials or M-16s on campus as a means to safety makes as much sense as encouraging students to smoke for greater health," he said.

Critics just don't get it, says Piazza, a former chiropractor who commutes to Front Sight from his home in Aptos.

"This is not about building a compound for gun nuts or a bunch of people running around in camouflage talking about overthrowing the government," he said.

His firearms classes, he noted, draw people from California to Georgia.

"These are all rational, reasonable people, business owners, law-abiding citizens and law enforcement all here for the same reason," Piazza said. "They want to become more proficient with a firearm so that should they ever need to defend themselves, they have the ability. There’s nothing wrong with that."

Piazza also argues that Front Sight’s private school will be the safest in America.

"Teachers will be trained to carry a concealed weapon, so potential attackers will not know which teachers are armed and which are not," he said, pointing out that an El Cajon police officer assigned to Granite Hills High ended a school shooting in March by wounding an 18-year-old student who opened fire.

Front Sight has no affiliation with any gun rights organizations, Piazza says. "Front Sight is privately owned and operated. I own it," he says. "We have no affiliation with the National Rifle Association or any other group."

The project is being built in three phases over five years, with the ranges and training facilities coming first, followed by the airstrip and martial arts gym. Construction of the residential portion is scheduled to begin in 2½ to three years.

It will all be paid for, Piazza says, with cash flow generated from the sale of lifetime memberships — ranging from $9,500 for weapons training courses to the $350,000 Platinum package — and classes paid for by nonmembers. The classes are not cheap. Courses range from $500 for a two-day "defensive handgun" class to $1,500 for a four-day "handgun combat master prep" course.

So far, about 20,000 gun enthusiasts have passed through Front Sight’s training classes since it opened in 1999. In many cases, they were drawn in by a free one-day class in which students are allowed to fire a fully automatic submachine gun, a weapon that is perfectly legal at federally licensed facilities like Front Sight.

It is in the free class that Piazza begins to lure potential buyers.

Before they get to fire a shot, each student must sit through a marketing pitch for the resort and a presentation on how Front Sight "is the solution to gun violence."

It sold Bill Haag, a 50-year-old retired chemical engineer who recently moved to Reno from Danville. "I bought a lot and this is probably where I'll settle down," he said.

Haag, toting a shotgun while taking a "skill-builder" class one recent weekend, said he is attracted by the quality of the classes and the people at Front Sight.

"It’s fun," he said. "The kind of people that come out here are the kind of people I like to hang around with - people who are not afraid to challenge themselves when it comes to learning vital skills of survival in modern-day society."

Raymond Lee, a 45-year-old surgical nurse who lives in San Francisco’s Sunset District, was quite taken by the staff when he took a recent class at Front Sight. He signed up to become a part-time instructor.

Anti-gun people who expect to find a bunch of terrorists running around the desert will be disappointed, according to Lee.

"The nut cases can't afford it, and they don't want the instructors to come down on them and show them their flaws," he said.

Piazza has no doubt that Front Sight will succeed. A vast market of mainstream gun owners who believe liberals and government are stripping them of their rights will pay big money to be a part of Front Sight, he said.

"Gun control drives people to us. We don't want to see more gun control …

I will tell you that when you pass stupid laws in California, people come to Nevada, he said.

But what if someone snaps when the neighborhood kids tear up their prized rose bushes?

Says Piazza: "If one person decided to commit an act of violence, they may get off one shot. But then they would immediately be stopped by those around them who are armed and trained and who are willing to stop them.

"That’s as safe as you can get."

E-mail Marshall Wilson at [email protected].