FRONT SIGHT: A call to arms (training)

Project used to change image of gun ownership

Pahrump Valley View
Friday November 15, 2002

By 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, students got the chance most of them had been waiting for all day — the opportunity to fire an entire magazine from an Uzi submachine gun on fully automatic mode. Throughout the day, students shot two and three round bursts with each press of the trigger, but now they are ready to hold the trigger back for one full magazine.

"Range is clear! Firing drill! Load 'em up!" rangemaster Ed Winchester cried out loud enough so students in the submachine class could hear over headphones and earplugs.

The students clutching the Uzis quickly remembered all the drills they'd been taught all day. Pick up the weapon, bolt check, safety check, magazine check, and chamber check. Stand with feet at a 30-degree angle to the target, shoulders hunched over to prevent being thrown back when firing, staring through the rear sight and the front sight.

In an instant, it was over. The Uzi submachine gun, which can fire 600 rounds per minute, was empty of its 20 bullets loaded into the magazine. Then it was time to remember the "after action drill" — look to the left and right, as peripheral vision is often inactive from the stress of a shooting incident, count 1,001, 1,002 to see if the attacker is down and out of the fight, then scan the scene with the gun slowly and methodically.

Many of the students standing on the firing line had smiles on their faces afterward. Their targets were loaded with holes, mostly in the thoracic cavity, where they were aiming, but then they stood at a firing line only 10 meters away, about 12 yards.

"Oh, it was great. I loved it," said Brooke Buchanon of Las Vegas, one of eight women who signed up for the course. "It was wonderful. I'm coming back definitely for a handgun course."

Dr. Ignatius Piazza, a retired chiropractor from California who founded the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute in 1996, believes once people get to try out the firearms at his state-of-the-art shooting ranges, they'll want to try more courses, perhaps even buy a membership or at least be less inclined to advocate gun control.

Piazza said the submachine course normally costs $500, but is offered free. That offer, however, expires at the end of this year. The last course dates in 2002 are Dec. 14 and Dec.15. He said 20,000 people have taken the course in the last three years.

"The reason it’s the last year for the free sub-gun courses is because starting in 2003, we're going to start marketing it heavily through the Las Vegas tourist industry," Piazza said.

Piazza said 2003 will be when Front Sight enters phase II, with a new martial arts academy including a rappelling center and a celebrity training range in which he hopes to attract Fortune 500 company executives, movie stars and the media. Piazza said they will be allowed to shoot free of charge, with the philosophy of "changing the opinion of the opinion leader."

He predicted, "Front Sight will be responsible for changing the image of gun ownership in this country." Piazza compared it to how the image leaders like Malcolm Forbes changed the image of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle from a vehicle used by the Hell’s Angels to one driven by yuppies.

"We have the first celebrities coming out here in January. You're going to see a huge change in the image of gun ownership," Piazza said.

"When these opinion leaders come out here, they're expecting to see Bubba and his militia buddies," Piazza said. "They see people like us and they're shocked. They'll look around and say, 'I guess it’s OK if these people own firearms.' "

Piazza said Front Sight can provide a free course because it’s creating lifetime students. "Once you experience the professionalism of this organization, you're going to want to come back," he said. "We look at today as an investment in you."

Piazza said not many Pahrump residents have taken training courses at Front Sight. But he added, "We provide that free to the Nye County Sheriff’s Department as a good neighbor policy."

Phase III will involve development of the 177 lots at Front Sight as a residential community surrounding the training ranges. A TV news announcer compared it to people building homes around a golf course, only they will be firing weapons in the various shooting ranges instead of hitting a golf ball.

"We have about 57 or 58 who have purchased the Platinum membership, which includes the one-acre home site," Piazza said.

The master-planned community also will include townhouses and condominiums that can be rented out, a commercial center, even a school with kindergarten through 12th grade. Students from California, who can't legally own some of the weapons they will use on the range, can store them in an armory at Front Sight, he said.

The individual shooting ranges are separated by berms. The paper targets are backed up by sand to absorb the bullets. There are plans to build a 400-yard underground training tunnel and a five-story SWAT tower.

"It’s about an $11 million phase. We're over $7 million into it right now," Piazza said. The paving of a road from the Tecopa Highway into Front Sight cost over $2 million, he said. The institute includes more than $500,000 in drain pipe to accommodate a 100-year flood and $250,000 worth of backfill with sand.

"What you're seeing is the foundation for a truly world class resort," Piazza told students. "We hope to have it built to resort standards, in Phase I, within 10 to 12 months."

"We're truly part of the solution to gun violence," Piazza said. "If law-abiding citizens are going to possess weapons, they should have some training."

Piazza said Front Sight hasn't taken any heat after the recent Washington, D.C.-area sniper attacks. Piazza said he was asked by investigators who the suspect might be. He correctly predicted it was a rouge police officer or disgruntled military person.

One question that arose from the audience: What about gang members training at the facility? Piazza said the students have to fill out an application, signed by a witness who’s known them for five years, stating they don't have a criminal record, mental illness or substance abuse problems.

"If we see gang-affiliated tattoos we're going to throw you out of here," Piazza said, adding that’s happened two or three times in five years.

Winchester, who is also the director of sales for a company that manufactures intelligence equipment, advised students to treat all weapons as if they're loaded. They're advised not to point the muzzle at anything they don't want to destroy and to keep the right hand as the firing hand with the index finger pointed above the trigger, which should only be handled when they've made the decision to shoot. The checks for any unspent rounds in the magazine and chamber are done with the left hand, while the right hand stays in a position to shoot.

What if a person is left-handed? Winchester was asked. "If you were in the Israeli army you'd now be right-handed," he joked.

Winchester said 99 percent of the scenes they see in Hollywood are wrong. Students prepared to shoot from various position, the ready position, with the gun tucked between the arms and ribs, a "high ready" with the muzzle pointed upward so the shooter could see over the end of the gun and a "field ready," for all-day carrying, with the gun carried by the side but pointed outwards.

The ideal shot would be a two- or three-shot burst to the thoracic cavity, more shots would create the possibility of innocent victims getting killed, he explained above the crackle of gunfire from the next shooting range over the berm. After practicing individual shots from the gun, students also practiced shooting at the cranial ocular cavity in the head, in case the suspect was wearing bulletproof armor.

The repeated shout echoed through the firing range. "The range is clear! Firing drill! Load 'em up!"

Piazza said with all the thousands of students firing weapons, there have been only two injuries, minor cuts on the neck. He said there is a staff of 12 medics on duty just in case.