March 07, 1999
Like guns? Live here!
Developer seeks firearms fans who have 'no political agenda'
By Stacy J. Willis
LAS VEGAS SUN
Live on Second Amendment Drive.
Learn to shoot handguns from a moving vehicle. Or fire submachine guns at desert targets.
Spend your afternoons barreling through underground tunnels or rappeling from canyon walls, shooting at video bad guys or deliberating about the legal nuances of the term "deadly force."
Welcome to Front Sight, Nev., also known as Shooter's Disneyland, the Bellagio of Firearms Training, the Pebble Beach of Responsible Gun Ownership.
Located on 550 acres of desert land 40 minutes west of Las Vegas and scheduled to open in October, Front Sight will be a gated community of 177 1-acre custom-home lots.
But instead of 18 rolling green fairways, the development will cradle 13 shooting ranges and computer simulators that allow gun enthusiasts to "shoot a computer video screen that shows actual self-defense situations (they) might be faced with in real life."
"The same way that some people will die to live at Summerlin or at Legacy Golf Course, there are a large number of Americans who would like to live near the range and shoot instead of play golf," David Dwyer, the project engineer, said. "People are expressing interest in it already."
Along with the 780,000 square feet of shooting ranges, the development will be equipped with a 7,200-square-foot gunsmith facility and armory, a monument to the Minutemen, 700 yards of underground storm drainage tunnels for subterranean rescue training, a SWAT tower, a rappeling wall, a gymnasium and an airport.
"This is strictly high end. The model we're basing this on is a high-end golf resort," said Ignatius Piazza, a 39-year-old former California chiropractor who is developing the multimillion-dollar site.
"We are in no way, shape or form associated with any militia or extremists," he said. "Many of our clients are law enforcement."
The community is expected to be its own town and receive its own ZIP code. Lots are not for sale; instead, they are included as one of the benefits of the highest level of membership in Front Sight Training Institute -- the platinum level, which costs $200,000. Twenty-five such memberships have already been vouched for, Piazza said.
"We are selling different use programs that provide different benefits," Piazza said. The lowest level, the copper level, costs $6,000 and enables the member to attend a number of firearms courses and use the pro shop and gunsmith facility, Piazza said.
Additionally, the general public may pay to attend training on a fee-per-class basis without a membership. The development is located 10 miles east of Pahrump, buttressed on all sides by Bureau of Land Management property. Pahrump has thus far welcomed its construction, according to Donna Lamb, the Pahrump Regional Planning Commission secretary who toured the site.
"We were impressed with the magnitude of the project. And it seems pretty safe out there in the desert," Lamb said. Tom Riley, a member of the Pahrump County Planning Commission, said that Piazza is scheduled to address the commission March 17 about the progress of the development.
"They still have some bureaucratic hoops to jump through but, basically, everything is on track," Riley said. "It's the perfect place for this kind of thing," Dwyer said. "People in Nevada are pro-development and pro-state's rights and we're rebels here. It's the Wild West."
Rich and armed
They are well-educated, well-funded and well-armed.
And, they say, they are misunderstood.
"In some circles, if I say something at the dinner table about cleaning my shotgun, I'm not going to be real popular," said Mike Meacher, a country-club development investor who lives in Southern California. "But I have no white supremacist tattoos. If every time you think of firearms you think of an insurgent militarist, you've missed the point."
Meacher is among the 25 gun enthusiasts who have purchased a lot-inclusive platinum membership in Front Sight.
"I view this as a vacation home," Meacher said. "These are not a bunch of rednecks. These are doctors and attorneys and software guys, and some retired guys who just like the community." Piazza said there will be no political ideology taught at the training facility, no anti-government rallies, no securing the perimeter and waiting for the Messiah.
On his website are links to dozens of other firearms sites, Second Amendment activist groups and sporting-accessory sites, as well as quotes such as the suggested rifle inscription, "Be not afraid of any man, no matter what his size. When danger threatens, call on me, and I will equalize."
"I have never belonged to any militia group. I do belong to the NRA, of course," Piazza said. "But that's not what this is about. This is a world-class facility with no political agenda."
Ten of the 25 reserved lots in Front Sight belong to one Las Vegas man, whom Piazza declined to identify.
Another belongs to Bill Laird, a retired Navy nuclear engineer who lives in California but plans to move permanently to Front Sight.
"I think it's a pretty exciting idea," Laird said. "I'm planning on running a home health business and investing in Las Vegas real estate. I think it will be nice to live near like-minded people. I am a pilot, I like to fly, and I will like to be around people who pilot their own crafts and people who like to shoot. I think it's a new and innovative idea."
Meacher, who financed more than a dozen golf country clubs in the West such as the San Luis Obispo Country Club and Carmel Mountain Ranch in California, says that Piazza has found an underserved niche market: wealthy firearms enthusiasts.
"If you do the demographics to decide whether it's a good idea to put that kind of money in a development, you'll find that it's an underserved area," Meacher said.
"People will pay $200,000 to become a member of a golf country club like Troon (in Scottsdale, Ariz.), then buy a $250,000 chunk of land to live across from the golf course.
"But the firearms facilities, with a few exceptions, are all rudimentary and remote. And look at the membership of the National Rifle Association. There are millions of gun enthusiasts, and many are at the absolute other end from 'Bubba.'
"There are active hunters who will pay $100,000 to go on a safari and shoot a trophy animal. There is all kinds of shooting. There is clay skeet shooting, and precision bench rest shooting -- which is more of an engineering, meteorological thing -- it's a science of precision to shoot at a tiny target 500 yards away. The thing is, there is big demand and very limited supply of high-end facilities."
Meacher said there are two other "OK" firearms training facilities in the West, Thunder Ranch in Arizona and Gunsite in Texas.
"They're OK, but they're remote. If you look at the draw of Las Vegas, you'll understand that there is nothing else like this. Las Vegas is a destination resort. There is a tremendous tourism draw already, and there's a lot of reasons why if Joe is a shooter and Mary and the kids are not, Joe can come to Front Sight while Mary and the kids enjoy the Strip, the same way the golf resorts pull golfers onto the course."
Roots of a gun town
Piazza, a native Californian, developed his avid interest in guns after "a group of anti-socials drove through (his) quiet neighborhood and blasted away at everything that represented the fruits of a decent work ethic" in 1988.
"During this random drive-by shooting spree, I was struck by a sudden and frightening realization: Although I owned firearms and shot them regularly at the range, I was never taught the skills required to use a gun when it is needed most -- to defend one's life," Piazza wrote in a company brochure.
He took a number of firearms courses at other facilities and then opened the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute at a former military base near Bakersfield, Calif., in 1996.
"We have had a 300 percent growth in our student base each year," Piazza said.
His student base is now about 3,000 members, according to Meacher. Two years ago he decided to expand, and he looked across the state line because "Nevada allows private citizens to train with submachine guns, but California doesn't.
"But the real reason I chose Las Vegas is that Las Vegas is a destination resort that just happens to have a number of additional benefits: Nevada has an appealing tax structure, and private citizens can have Class 3 weapons, such as submachine guns."
The first phase of construction at Front Sight will cost Piazza $10 million. He plans to develop a second and third phase somewhere down the line, and expects platinum memberships to be in higher demand by then -- going for $500,000 each, he said. "There is only one Las Vegas and only one Front Sight, Nevada, and there is a limited supply for this demand."
Piazza declined to discuss Front Sight's finances in detail, but said that the money is generated by dedicated student participation.
"We have some very minimal investors," he said. "Nobody with large deep pockets is funding this project. If somebody stepped up, I'd look at them very cautiously to make sure they didn't have an agenda."
Front Sight held two seminars in Las Vegas and a free submachine-gun training course on the site near Pahrump to pump up interest in the gun club and to get locals to pre-purchase courses.
Courses that are open to the public range from the Defensive Handgun course, which costs $500, to the Handgun Master Prep course, which costs $1,200.
The institute's funding base began with the "First Family" membership program, which cost $5,000 per initial member.
Piazza said he purchases Front Sight's weapons from manufacturers, at costs reaching $6,000 per high-end submachine gun. He declined to say how many weapons Front Sight owns.
Russ Young, a salesman at Cashman Cadillac in Las Vegas, took the submachine-gun course and pre-purchased handgun training.
"It was very exciting. I would never own a submachine gun. I only went because it happened to fall on one of my days off, and I wanted to see how knowledgeable the instructors were for other training," Young, who owns a handgun, said.
'Not like on TV'
"I was very impressed. There were probably 150 or 200 people at the submachine gun course, and we all went home dead tired. ... It's not like on TV. You shoot a submachine gun in very short bursts because if you hold the trigger down, it will get away from you."
Currently, submachine-gun seminars are offered free to students in other classes as part of a "student appreciation" promotion. The use of submachine guns and ammunition also are provided free.
"It's a very professional, well-run organization, and most of our trainers are former law-enforcement members," Piazza said.
"This is better training than most people get -- even law enforcement and military."
In fact, he said, the Front Sight facilities are expected to be used by law enforcement and military for training.
"The Navy Seals are interested," he said, but he declined to provide a contact name with the Navy.
Training goes well beyond simple shooting and safety techniques -- venturing into the moral and legal discussion of the consequences of using "deadly force."
Paul Hantke, a writer for American Survival magazine, took the Defensive Handgun course in Bakersfield and reviewed it for the magazine in June, calling it the "most thorough" such course he had taken.
"We even held a mock jury trial amongst ourselves that clearly demonstrated how fragile the position of one who has used deadly force can become if they cannot demonstrate an unavoidable and immediate threat that caused reasonable fear of death or injury to themselves or the innocent," Hantke wrote.
"Day Four addressed ... facing the criminal and civil liability after using deadly force. ... Topics included what to do immediately after the shooting, what to expect when the police arrive, should you give a statement, choosing an attorney, and all the inevitable hassles and personal jeopardy that follow the use of deadly force."
In Combat Hanguns magazine, writer Dan Handscome commended Front Sight for its professionalism and detailed his experiences: "The afternoon consisted of multiple target reaction drills, shooting from a vehicle, both stationary and in motion, and 'hunting' (the instructor) in the shooting house. ... The last exercise involved the student being 'hit' with a stun gun to simulate being shot."
"Your radical people aren't going to be involved in this," Dwyer said.
"The people who are the militants, the crazies up in Idaho who make $20,000 a year or less -- we are not involved with them. It has national, high-end draw."
All contents copyright 1999 Las Vegas SUN, Inc.