Machine Gun America Is Exactly What It Sounds Like

Machine Gun America is a tourist attraction in Orlando, Fla. where visitors can fire guns. Machine Gun America

Machine Gun America (MGA) is the corner anchor of a strip mall in central Florida, near a flea market that targets Disney World tourists ("Visitors Flea Market") and Old Town, an amusement park that boasts of a ride called the Vomatron. Before Orlando's "first and only Automatic Adrenaline Attraction" opened in that space, it was occupied by an all-you-can-eat steak and seafood buffet whose 1.5-star Yelp rating made it one of the less attractive attractions on U.S. Highway 192.

The route is classic Americana, a mix of roadside kitsch and chain restaurants like Chili's, punctuated with discount ticket stands and the occasional helipad. This stretch is home to "the world's largest orange," a giant, dome-shaped citrus store formally named Eli's Orange World. Nearby sits a wizard-shaped gift shop named Magic Castle Gift Kingdom. Go a little farther and you'll hit Medieval Times's brick turrets. The Magic Kingdom itself is a mere seven miles away.

MGA has received some bad press since opening in December, just four months after a 9-year-old in Nevada killed her shooting instructor with an Uzi. "What could possibly go wrong?" snarked a 2014 Daily Mail headline. "Assault rifle theme park 'Machine Gun America' where children as young as 13 fire military-grade weapons in zombie-themed training simulators to open in Orlando." A Miami Herald op-ed chided: "What kind of society romanticizes killing?... What message are we passing on to our teenagers when we equate gunplay and violence with a spin in the Gravitron?" The Orlando Sentinel's Beth Kassab said, "Something doesn't seem right about pulling over on U.S. Highway 192—across from the carnival games and bumper cars of Old Town and next to a Denny's—plunking down some cash and picking up an automatic weapon without any real training."

On the sunny February afternoon that I visit MGA, a gaggle of staffers greets prospective shooters at the door. The interior is clean and spacious, the color scheme is neutral, save for bright red chairs and a cobalt accent wall. With package prices that range from $99 to $399, MGA's visitors can shoot everything from a Cimarron Revolver to the Rambo-esque RPD belt-fed machine gun. Kids as young as 13 can participate, as long as they have a guardian present. A politely enthusiastic salesman approaches and asks, without an inkling of irony, which experience I want. MGA is big on experiences. There's a zombie-themed "Walking Dread" package, which includes an AK-47 and Raging Bull Revolver. There's "Big Screen Legends," which features Scarface'sM16 and Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum; and "Automatic Divas," which comes with a submachine gun, a machine gun and a semiautomatic pistol, and promises to "unleash your inner femme fatale."

I go for the $189 "Special Ops" experience. A major addition to my shooting résumé (which to date mostly consists of BB guns and .22 rifles at Jewish summer camp), Special Ops includes rounds with a Glock 17, a Mossberg shotgun, and an M4 and MP5 machine gun. Wes Doss, MGA's director of safety and training, later tells me that it's one of the range's most popular packages. "I think a lot of that's driven by the really popular online games," he says.

The experience comes with two targets. They're out of the traditional black that day, so a salesman gives me pink "Shoot for a Cure" targets intended to raise breast cancer awareness (as only firing bullets at a chest really can?) Other options for my target include an Osama bin Laden, a Jason Statham look-alike with nipple rings and a T-shirt target whose white lettering reads, "I Shot at Machine Gun America" over a red bull's-eye.

Doss says the T-shirt is probably one of the most popular targets. "You can shoot up the shirt and wear it, and, depending on what a good shot you are, you either have shot a complete hole in the front or you can just frame it for your office."

A short credit card preauthorization and liability waiver later, a staffer hands me a pair of protective earmuffs and safety glasses. The range safety officer then leads me into the shooting gallery, which looks a lot like the practice ranges one sees in police movies. According to Doss, the attraction is popular with families, conventioneers and law enforcement agents, as well as couples on dates. On this particular afternoon, it was quiet. Doss says adults make up almost all of MGA's patrons; percentage-wise, he quantifies it in the "high 90s."

My experience kicks off with a Glock 17, and the officer assigned to me explains how to hold it with both hands. My right, the trigger hand, goes around the pistol first; the left goes on the other side of the gun so that my fingers are slightly overlapping. I line up the front and back sights, per his instructions. Then I pull the trigger. The gun fires with a pop, and a small hole appears in my target's chest. Twenty rounds later, I've finished my first semiautomatic magazines. Throughout, my assigned safety officer is never more than six inches away from me.

Next up is the Mossberg. I position the butt of the gun near my armpit, do some pumping and ka-pow! The recoil smarts against my chest and, despite the earmuffs, the shot is loud. I take one more shot and then beg off: I need to retain some hearing for the machine guns.

"One of the most widely used submachine guns in the world," according to the MGA, the MP5 is also what the theme park calls "a staple in the Special Operations community." The M4, a similar gun, is used frequently by U.S. Army soldiers. The machine guns have less recoil than the Mossberg but aren't more pleasant to shoot. They spit bullets so quickly that I can't help closing my eyes for a split second while firing. As always, my instructor sticks close by. I switch to the Statham target for the M4. I don't hit either of his nipple rings.

Post-experience, I wonder if people are needlessly freaking out over a tourist trap, or are they right to worry about the trivialization of guns? Shooting at MGA was sometimes uncomfortable, yes, but also positive, enlightening even. I write often about violence, much of it gun-related. Learning about firearms firsthand seems not only appropriate but necessary. "It's natural for people to have an aversion to different types of businesses being in different types of communities," Doss says of MGA's haters. Meanwhile, he adds, "some of the businesses that they aren't concerned about—the liquor stores, some of the adult businesses—I find a whole lot more disturbing than a gun range."