STEVE LABADESSA -- USA TODAY
Tourists come to the U.S. to explore the beauty of the Grand Canyon, the grandeur of the U.S. Capitol, and the skyscrapers of New York City. Increasingly, they're also coming to shoot assault weapons.
Gun culture in America is a hot tourist attraction. What's ground zero for gun tourism? Beautiful 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 pop of gunfire fills the air amid fancy shops and restaurants near one of America's most beautiful beach communities.
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," says 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 from the club.
There's even a picture of basketball star Shaquille O'Neal. Guests choose from a series of packages ranging from $60 to $300, depending on what type and how many guns they want to shoot.
An instructor is assigned to each group and stays with them as a safety guide. Most shooters start with small-caliber guns that have minimum kickback and then progress to more powerful firearms that provide a bigger bang.
Makino Daisuke, of Chiba Prefecture, Japan, said he was scared when he came in, but wanted to try it. "At first, shooting the small guns felt like a video game, but then the Magnum (the recoil) was brutal."
Tourists from countries with the strictest gun laws, such as Japan, are the most attracted to Hawaii's gun clubs. Jeff Tarumi, an NRA certified instructor at the Royal Hawaiian Shooting Club, estimates that over 90% 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 nearly everyone.
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. As a result, fewer than 1% of Japan's population owns a gun and the death rate from gun-related violence is extremely low.
In 2010 there were only 19 gun-related homicides in Japan. Compare that with the U.S., where 47% of Americans own a gun, according to a 2011 Gallup poll, and 8,583 Americans were killed in gun-related homicides, according to the FBI's 2011 crime report.
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.
The current gun debate in the U.S. isn't lost on the Japanese. Most say they enjoy the experience of shooting in American gun clubs, but they feel safer in their home country, where gun laws are stricter. "I wouldn't feel comfortable traveling to the mainland U.S. because of the gun laws, Hawaii is OK," says 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. 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," says Tarumi.
Jeff Tarumi shows how to hold and where to safely place your trigger finger prior to shooting.(Photo: Steve LaBadessa, For USA TODAY)
To accommodate Asian tourists, most of the clubs have bilingual instructors. "Everyone at our club speaks Japanese. For safety reasons, we have to make sure our guests know what to do before they enter the range," says Tanaka.
Across the street from the Royal Hawaiian Shooting Club, on the same block as the Oakley and Chanel shops, is the Waikiki Gun Club. It's a more rustic version of the Royal Hawaiian range. Prices are more affordable and start at $15. They even offer coupons. "We have the longest indoor shooting range in the state of Hawaii, 20 yards," boasts Alex Shu of the Waikiki Gun Club.
The Waikiki club claims a more varied clientele than the Royal Hawaiian, with tourist coming from over 50 countries, including Japan, the U.K., Canada, Thailand and South Korea.
"Chinese tourists are the newest shooters at the club," says Shu. The Waikiki club emphasizes military-style weapons, and many of their clients are Iraqi War veterans. They offer the largest sized ammunition of any shooting club in Waikiki, up to .50-caliber, and customers even shoot at a life-size photo of Osama bin Laden.
The clubs are busiest around lunch and dinner, though most are open late. After the surfers have packed up their boards, and the nearby Tiffany's has locked up its jewels for the night, you can still stop by the Waikiki Gun Club and fire off an AK-47. The club stays open till 11:30 p.m