Foreign tourists flock to Hawaii to shoot assault weapons

| Saturday, March 2, 2013, 8:51 p.m.

Tourists come to the United States to explore the beauty of the Grand Canyon, the frantic pace of New York City and the thrill of shooting assault weapons.

Gun culture in America is a hot tourist attraction, especially in Waikiki, Hawaii.

Along Kalakaua Avenue in the ritziest section of this tropical paradise, four shooting ranges cater to tourists who want to test weapons they've seen only in Hollywood movies.

The clubs offer a smorgasbord of firearms to would-be terminators: from small pistols to powerful “Dirty Harry” revolvers and AK-47 military assault rifles. The pops of gunfire fill the air amid fancy shops and restaurants near one of America's most beautiful beaches.

The Royal Hawaiian Shooting Club, one of the most popular gun clubs, draws up to 100 tourists a day.

“The club is designed to provide first-class entertainment for the entire family. We want everyone here to feel comfortable, even the ladies,” said Aiko Tanaka, the club's general manager.

Walking through the door is like entering a high-end beauty salon. Mood lighting saturates the entrance. An attractive young woman behind the counter greets customers. To the right is a comfortable waiting area and to the left, a wall filled with framed photos of Japanese celebrities holding their favorite guns.

Tourists from countries with the strictest gun laws, such as Japan, are the most attracted to Hawaii's gun clubs. Jeff Tarumi, a National Rifle Association-certified instructor at the Royal Hawaiian Shooting Club, estimates that more than 90 percent of his customers are Japanese tourists.

Shotguns are the only firearms citizens can own legally in Japan, and getting one requires a rigorous application process that deters most.

A potential shotgun owner in Japan must submit to a mental competency test and provide local police with the weapon's location within their home. Fewer than 1 percent of Japan's population owns a gun.

The death rate from gun-related violence is extremely low. In 2010, there were only 19 gun-related homicides in Japan.

In Hawaiian shooting clubs, Japanese tourists simply present identification, take a 15-minute gun safety class and make a payment, and then they can shoot whatever guns they like.

Most Japanese tourists said they liked shooting in American gun clubs, but they feel safer in their home country.

“I wouldn't feel comfortable traveling to the mainland U.S. because of the gun laws. Hawaii is OK,” said Yoko Sugahara of Ishikawa, Japan.

The gun debate is fresh on Tarumi's mind, too, but he doesn't believe banning assault rifles is the ticket to safety.

“A Glock handgun can shoot as fast as an assault rifle. An assault weapon is just a style of firearm. They're all the same,” Tarumi said. “If you want to stop speeding, is it fair to ban sports cars that do over 200 mph? It's the same thing as that. It makes no sense. A lot of people are screaming gun control, but if you ask me, it's more people control.”

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