RIGA - Even the most puritanical anti-gun activist secretly yearns, in his darkest heart, to lose his gun virginity. You can lose it at a high-class shooting range in America. But that means sitting through a safety video, hanging out in rooms decorated with Bush-Cheney paraphernalia, and probably shooting a target that looks a lot like Osama bin Laden. And man, are those bullets expensive.
Or you can lose it in Riga under the guidance of Karlis Celms of Insane Tours at Sautuve, a bomb shelter turned shooting range perched in Kipsala. "It's family-friendly activity," Celms tells a group, mostly British tourists with a few Americans thrown in for good measure.
That's all fine and good, until you get to the waiting room and see a slew of posters with scantily-clad hot chicks posing with guns. One wall is taken up by a large video hunting game, where you can shoot virtual wild game using electronic guns. So very Nintendo. The shop and counter inside is staffed by three people, including one woman who handed out a Xeroxed sheet of safety rules and proceeded to explain the merits and demerits of the various pistols stacked behind her in a display case.
Jennie Richardson, a 20-year-old American living in St. Petersburg, wanted one small silver pistol that looked classy and cute. "You don't want that pistol," said the woman. "It will only shoot for three-and-a-half meters." She found something a little better. The shooting range was quite "informal," to use a word from Celms. There were four tables, and about 20 meters in the distance, pieces of cardboard stuck together. "Everyone just use your common sense. Don't point the guns at people. Don't play around," he added. A middle-aged Russian man with glasses stood next to each member of the group as he or she shot a gun. He helped everyone hold their guns in place, and explained exactly how to aim. All things told, it was probably safer than the American way, in which you get tons of instructional materials but not much personal guidance.
Everyone wore earmuffs, but there seemed to be nothing all that threatening about the experience, other than the sound. The shells spilled out of our guns as naturally as rain. "There's a guy here whose job it is to sweep bullets," says Celms. "I love him." When it came my turn to shoot my AK-47, the kick felt relatively minor, compared to the power I was unleashing. When I looked at the target a few minutes later, I saw five straight shots right in the heart. I'm probably fit to join a firing squad. In the shop out front afterwards, we all took turns posing with our guns for photographs, more or less flouting that old NRA message, "Treat every gun like it's loaded."
I had a few words with the place's owner, a Russian with a shaved head and glasses who wore a black leather jacket and tight blue jeans. He was a former sailor. He asked that his name not be used. The bomb shelter was built in 1974, but the shooting range opened in 1998. On the day we were there, May 2, they were celebrating their eighth anniversary. "British tourists don't know anything about guns, so we have to choose guns for them. Scandinavians [many of whom have served in the army] know what they're doing." Some police and bank security dudes come by as well.
Celms was right, by the way. This was a family-friendly environment, in its own way. One of the girls in the group was celebrating her 32nd birthday that day. On our way out, a woman stopped her, wished her a happy birthday, and said that since it was the shooting range's birthday as well, she had a present: A small gold-colored necklace with a bullet.
More info: www.insanetours.com